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Secrecy & Government Bulletin

Issue Number 83
March 2000

Nuclear Secrets and "the Global Strategic Balance"

The secret formula that is so potent it could alter the fate of the planet is a popular motif in juvenile fiction and cold war thrillers. It was already a cliché decades ago. In a 1974 album, the satirical ensemble Firesign Theater warned of a certain secret that was "so powerful it could only be used for good-- or evil." The title of that album, Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, itself refers to an "untold" Sherlock Holmes story "for which," Holmes once said, "the world is not yet prepared." But this innocent literary device of the awful super-secret is now turning up in weightier contexts, where its use has serious consequences.

Thus, Dr. Stephen Younger, the assistant director for nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory, claimed that the classified nuclear weapons codes that were improperly downloaded by scientist Wen Ho Lee could jeopardize nothing less than the "global strategic balance."

At a December hearing on whether Lee should be granted bail, Dr. Younger told the court that "These codes and their associated databases and the input file, combined with someone that knew how to use them, could, in my opinion, in the wrong hands, change the global strategic balance."

"They enable the possessor to design the only objects that could result in the military defeat of America's conventional forces," Younger continued. "They represent the gravest possible security risk... to the supreme national interest."

No risk could be more grave than "the gravest possible security risk." But could it really be true that Wen Ho Lee held the "global strategic balance" in his hands?

"Dr. Younger greatly exaggerates," said Sidney Drell, the eminent Stanford physicist and member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. "The global strategic balance depends on many more, and more fundamental, factors than how a nation designs its nuclear weapons. Among them are a nation's values, economic strength, and political stability."

"Obviously U.S. weapons codes and data bases would be of considerable value to a nation seeking to build a modern arsenal, and should be carefully protected," Dr. Drell told S&GB. "However, nuclear weapons are much more than codes and data bases, and to build advanced models requires formidable and sophisticated engineering and manufacturing skills."

In other words, even if one assumes that China obtained all these codes and data bases, this would not change the global strategic balance. Speculatively, one could imagine a secret systemic vulnerability in nuclear weapons that, if exposed, would negate the U.S. nuclear deterrent. That could indeed perturb the global strategic balance. But despite decades of searching for a defense against nuclear missiles, no such systemic vulnerability has ever been found.

The difference between saying weapons codes should be carefully protected, which no one disputes, and saying that they could change the "global strategic balance" might seem like merely a matter of emphasis. But it is more than that.

To begin with, Younger's extravagant claims, which went effectively unanswered in court, help to explain not only why Lee's bail was denied, but also why it is that he is held in largely solitary confinement, and why he is restrained by wrist and leg shackles when his family is allowed to visit for an hour once a week, as reported in the Los Angeles Times (2/18/99).

(Lately, two leading scientific organizations, the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have each sent a letter to Attorney General Reno to protest the conditions of Lee's incarceration as inhumane, as reported in the New York Times, 3/7/00.)

If Lee were the only one who was the victim of this kind of threat inflation, that would be bad enough. But the notion of the nuclear super-secret, which has been uncritically accepted by some in Congress and the media, is now casting a larger shadow on national policy.

On February 24, for example, Senator Arlen Specter quoted Dr. Younger's remarks approvingly to help justify a new bill that would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Specter's bill (S. 2089), framed as a response to the purported failures of the Wen Ho Lee investigation, would encourage government surveillance of potential espionage suspects by expanding the definition of "probable cause." Under the bill's provisions, the fact that the FBI had previously investigated someone would make it easier to win authorization for surveillance at some later date. This loosened criterion is necessary, Senator Specter argued, because the Justice Department found that there was insufficient probable cause to seek surveillance of Wen Ho Lee based solely on his current activities -- despite the supposed fact that, as Specter pointed out, citing Younger, Lee threatened to upset the "global strategic balance."

Evaluating Nuclear Secrets

The underlying question here concerns the proper evaluation of nuclear secrets: What exactly is the role of nuclear weapons design information in nuclear proliferation? How does secret information rank in importance relative to other ingredients of a nuclear weapon, such as access to fissionable material and the requisite engineering infrastructure?

The secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project initially seemed to suggest that secrecy was an essential attribute of the Bomb. This in turn led to the view that if our enemies obtained nuclear weapons, they must have stolen "the secret" from us. (This view was only reinforced by the reality of atomic espionage.) Conversely, it seemed to follow that if only nuclear secrecy could be preserved with sufficient vigilance, non-proliferation would be guaranteed.

But from the beginning, those who knew the most about nuclear weapons took a different view. Scientists, including politically conservative scientists, tended to agree with Leo Szilard that half of the secrets of the atomic bomb had been disclosed when the bomb was used. The great chemist Harold Urey said that "When the bomb exploded, the most important fact was known. From that point on, any foreign country could move with confidence [to develop its own bomb]." Likewise, General Leslie R. Groves told Congress in October 1945, "The big secret" about the atomic bomb "was the fact that the thing went off. That told more to the world and to the physicists and the scientists of the world than any other thing that could be told to them."

"The big secret" about the hydrogen bomb, as described by Howard Morland, was published in 1979 in The Progressive after the government issued a prior restraint injunction on national security grounds, and then withdrew it six months later following a landmark legal proceeding.

In a recent essay, Morland expressed "disappointment" at the Chinese espionage scandal: "I thought I had revealed all the interesting H-bomb secrets some twenty years ago," he wrote.

While there are still numerous secret details surrounding nuclear weapons design, manufacturing, and testing, these remaining secrets do not constitute a decisive barrier to nuclear proliferation. "Access to classified information is not necessary for a potential proliferator to construct a nuclear weapon," a National Research Council report stated in 1995.

And while the types of data and codes downloaded by Wen Ho Lee -- some of which are available in unclassified formats -- might be useful in development of late generation nuclear weapons, and therefore should be "carefully protected," they are neither necessary nor sufficient to effect a change in the "global strategic balance."

Accounting for Nuclear Hyperbole

It is self-evident that information that could facilitate nuclear proliferation should be protected with due diligence. But why is there a predisposition among some officials, journalists, and policy analysts to exaggerate the significance of nuclear secrets or the consequences of their disclosure? Several possible reasons suggest themselves.

Naivete. Although most government secrets are as banal as other official records, there is a tendency to view them with a certain spontaneous reverence, and to accord them greater weight than they deserve.

Commenting on the well-publicized security violations committed by former Director of Central Intelligence John M. Deutch, a New York Times editorial stated on February 2 that "any mishandling of classified national security information is a serious matter." But that would be true only in an idealized classification system.

In the real world, as the Times certainly knows, government agencies classify information and fail to declassify it for many reasons, of which national security is only one. Others include the desire to shield vulnerable or questionable programs from public controversy; the semi-conscious hoarding of information that characterizes all bureaucracies; the desire to gain advantage in intramural disputes with other agencies; and the inherited habits of cold war secrecy. In the case of the intelligence budget total, an argument can be made that "mishandling" of classified information (i.e., publication) is dictated by the Constitution.

(To the Times' credit, it promptly published two letters objecting to its comment about classified information, though it was peripheral to the main thrust of the editorial.)

Ideological compulsion. The enthusiasm with which some partisans "lament" the supposed loss of precious nuclear secrets betrays an ideological agenda.

Among the most energetic of these partisans is Washington Times columnist Frank Gaffney, who as early as 1993 compared the Department of Energy Openness Initiative to the attack on Pearl Harbor. With characteristic excess, he described Hazel O'Leary's declassification program as "arguably, the most devastating single attack on the underpinnings of the U.S. national security structure since Japan's lightning strike on the 7th Fleet 52 years ago."

Last year, Gaffney told the New York Times that "It would be nothing short of miraculous if the openness has not seriously damaged U.S. interests." But Gaffney provided no evidence of either damage or miracles. Nor did he address the damage to U.S. interests resulting from nuclear secrecy, illustrated most recently by the disclosures of contamination at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. That's not his department.

For those who are truly committed to ideological warfare, any complaint will serve -- too much openness, stolen secrets, whatever -- and the "worse" it is, the better.

Anti-China agitation. A subset of ideologically-based nuclear hyperbole is the obsession with China as an actual or potential adversary, an eventuality which in some circles seems to be half-feared and half-desired.

As described in a remarkable Washington Post story on February 22, there is a quiet campaign underway among conservative activists to promote a confrontational US stance towards China. While there are plenty of reasons to criticize and oppose Chinese policies, this largely unpublicized initiative proceeds from hardline ideological premises rather than a specific set of grievances. It may not be too much to call this effort -- described as "a loose alliance of members of Congress, congressional staff, think tank fellows, Republican political operatives, conservative journalists, lobbyists for Taiwan, former intelligence officers and a handful of academics" -- a conspiracy.

Last year's Cox Committee report, which painted a frightening picture of an ascendant China bristling with weapons based on stolen nuclear secrets, is entirely consistent with this scheme. "With the stolen U.S. technology, the PRC has leaped, in a handful of years, from 1950s-era strategic nuclear capabilities to the more modern thermonuclear weapons designs," the Committee warned, as if one could "leap" from capabilities to designs (vol. I, p.6).

It is noteworthy that Wen Ho Lee has been consistently portrayed as a probable spy for the People's Republic of China. (Although he is not charged with espionage, his indictment alleges an "intent to secure an advantage to a foreign nation.") But circumstantial evidence suggests that, if anything, he would have been more likely to share secrets with Taiwan. As reported in the Washington Post on December 31, Wen Ho Lee was born in Taiwan; he has been described as an active supporter of Taiwanese independence; he worked at a nuclear research facility in Taiwan; and he accessed a classified directory in the Los Alamos computer system during a visit to Taiwan in 1998 (though the files he downloaded were unclassified). But this version of events, based on court proceedings and on a declassified Senate Judiciary hearing transcript, found no resonance in the ideologically charged anti-PRC environment surrounding this case.

Low tolerance for ambiguity. Yet another source of nuclear hyperbole is the desire to impose clarity on an ambiguous reality, in which conflicting interests are at stake, by placing undue emphasis on the value of nuclear secrets.

If one supposes that the fate of the world depends on preserving certain nuclear secrets, then all conflicting interests recede and a clear policy agenda emerges. No security measure is too extreme or too expensive, no punishment for violations is too harsh, and no secondary consequences require consideration.

Unfortunately, this kind of clarity comes at the expense of sound policy. Last year, for example, Congress required the Department of Energy to perform a new review of previously declassified documents at the National Archives to search for inadvertent releases of classified nuclear weapons information. In a February 15 report, DOE told Congress that an audit of 52 million declassified pages had turned up a mere 40 pages that should not have been disclosed. This is such a minuscule declassification error rate that it would be surprising if the audit itself did not have at least as big an error rate, missing at least as many pages. (Previous audit activity, reported last year, found a more substantial 14,980 pages containing classified information which were inadvertently released, and prevented the release of an additional 22,500 pages that were inadvertently declassified.)

But congressional leaders have been unwilling to settle for risk management, and seem to have an unrealistic need for absolute risk avoidance. Thus, another misconceived piece of legislation imposed severe financial penalties for disclosure of "sensitive information" by DOE contractors. But DOE (unlike DoD) does not have the term "sensitive information" in its controlling statutes or regulations, as the DOE General Counsel observed in a January 5 memo, and so the new law has generated significant confusion.

"The result of this sloppy legislative process is a law whose meaning is unclear...," the Washington Post said in a February 13 editorial. "[It] doesn't protect secrets. It just breeds contempt for them."

Over time, all these forms of nuclear hyperbole may tend to weaken rather than enhance security. In a worrisome initial sign, Los Alamos National Laboratory reports that applications for post-doctoral positions and internships have fallen off sharply.

"The new security regulations and other changes enabled by the espionage scare that are being implemented at the nuclear weapons labs are dramatically decreasing the number of new recruits," one senior Los Alamos scientist told S&GB late last year. "These changes could well have the unintended consequence of destroying the very knowledge they are meant to secure."

Secrecy and Government Bulletin is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

The FAS Project on Government Secrecy is supported by grants from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund, and the HKH Foundation.

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