Soviet Chemical Weapons and Redaction Realities

Recently the staff of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) posted a new declassified document on our website.  The document, posted in two parts due to its file size, is posted at and

It is a report by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), dated July 31, 1984, entitled, “Soviet Doctrine for Chemical Warfare Against NATO (U).”  This is an excellent example to explain why and how the ISCAP redacts information from documents it decides upon.

Picture yourself as a CIA analyst in the Office of Soviet Analysis in 1984.  You have been assigned to help prepare a report that will assist war planners in the military departments, policymakers at the National Security Council, and other US Government customers of intelligence to understand how the Soviet Union might use chemical weapons against members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The raw material you have access to includes the full range of intelligence sources and methods:

  • Human sources. These might include Soviet or Warsaw Pact soldiers who defected to the West over the previous 40 years since the end of World War II. It is no secret that defectors are debriefed by Western intelligence agencies, and that those agencies gather information about their adversaries from other human sources. How those agencies handle human sources and the dissemination of the intelligence they provide remains tightly controlled. Human lives, as well as the ability to recruit new sources, are at stake.
  • Satellite and overhead imagery.  The US Government has been taking pictures of Russia and its allies for decades with reconnaissance aircraft and satellites. The technical capabilities and mission timing of satellites, in particular, can remain classified for a long period of time.
  • Communications intelligence. The US tried to intercept the communications of the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. How we did this, what the results of that targeting might have been, and discussions of any gaps in our targeting can remain classified for a long period of time.
  • Open sources. Even the Soviet Union issued public statements on military tactics and strategy and participated in international meetings on security issues. The Intelligence Community would use these sources as well. Details about how we analyzed these open sources, however, sometimes remain classified.

Your report is wide-ranging, bringing together everything the CIA knows about Soviet chemical weapons planning against NATO. You discuss what you know, and perhaps more importantly, what you don’t know. You cite your sources within the limits of the classification level and access restrictions of the document.  You portion-mark each paragraph, which allows your readers to know the classification level of each element in case others need to extract information for use elsewhere.  

In 1991 this report, according to the person who requested it for declassification, was referenced in the nomination hearings for Robert Gates to be the Director of Central Intelligence. In 2021 the ISCAP declassified this document in part and released a redacted version. 

What remains redacted?  In short, the ISCAP redacts information that harms the national security of the United States and its citizens. The members redact information that would reveal the sources of intelligence–both human and technical–and certain details of intelligence analysis that would give our adversaries insight into how the CIA does its business and compromise our national security. However, the ISCAP’s redactions are precise. Much information is declassified and released: details of Soviet tactics; changes in doctrine; and discussion of what the Soviets knew about the American chemical weapons programs.  What is redacted are details of how the CIA knew about the Soviet doctrine.  Declassified and released is the fact that the CIA had access to classified Soviet documents on chemical weapons.  Redacted is how the CIA got those documents.  It does not matter whether the source of that intelligence is alive, dead, human, or technical.  What matters is whether the release of that source will harm our national security and damage the CIA’s ability to do its work.

Readers of the posted versions of this document will see two types of redactions.  The first type is for classified national security information exempted from declassification at 25 years because it reveals information concerning intelligence sources and methods.  This is listed and categorized in the redacted portion as “25X1” with the “25X” meaning it is exempted from declassification at 25 years and the “1” meaning the reason (or the category) for the redaction is to protect intelligence sources and methods.  There are nine categories for exemption specified in section 3.3(b) of Executive Order 13526. There are additional declassification categories for milestones at 50 and 75 years but the threshold for exempting information at those milestones is higher.  The ISCAP oversees agency requests for exemptions from automatic declassification, and approves, every five years, agency requests for this authority.  This document is 37 years old.  When it reaches 50 years old, any redactions must be made under even more strict approval guidelines the ISCAP has established for 50X exemptions.

The reader will also see many redactions called “CIA Statute.” This is information protected under the statutory authority of the Central Intelligence Act of 1949, 50 USC 3507.  This information is not redacted because it is classified. The Congress enacted this legislation to protect certain kinds of CIA information. It covers classification and dissemination markings, organizational information, names of CIA personnel, and other administrative portions.

In all these redactions, remember that the US Government does not redact information to keep it secret from the American people.  It redacts that information to keep it from our adversaries who, if it is disclosed, can use it against us.  As an archivist with over 25 years experience working with classified records, I have seen and redacted countless records during this time–including the past 15 years supporting the ISCAP.  What I’ve learned is that, however imperfect our declassification system may be, that principle stands. It supports our democracy and our understanding of our history and it aids transparency.

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