from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2013, Issue No. 60
July 1, 2013

Secrecy News Blog:


In May 2010, the Department of Defense disclosed that the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal consisted of 5,113 warheads (as of September 30, 2009).

This was a disclosure of great significance, the Pentagon explained: "Increasing the transparency of global nuclear stockpiles is important to non-proliferation efforts, and to pursuing follow-on reductions after the ratification and entry into force of the New START Treaty," the Department of Defense said then.

The disclosure was also an unprecedented breakthrough in secrecy reform. Never before had the U.S. government revealed the current size of its nuclear arsenal. The Obama Administration's promise to be "the most transparent Administration ever" is often viewed ironically in view of the perceived prevalence of overclassification. But when it comes to nuclear stockpile secrecy (and at least a few other important topics), that promise was fulfilled quite literally.

For all of those reasons, it was dispiriting to learn that the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal today is once again classified.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Federation of American Scientists for a copy of records indicating the current size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, the Pentagon said that the requested information was exempt from disclosure because it is classified under the Atomic Energy Act.

We have appealed the denial, citing the arguments made by a "Senior Defense Official" at a Pentagon press briefing in 2010 to justify the Department's declassification of the stockpile size through September 2009.

"The objective is to show through our transparency a model that we hope that others will follow. And we think it's going to have benefits for both nonproliferation and for our future work in arms control," the Senior Defense Official said then.

We have also asked the Department of Energy to initiate its own declassification of the stockpile size, invoking a federal regulation (10 C.F.R. 1045.20) which allows members of the public to propose declassification of information classified under the Atomic Energy Act.

According to an unofficial estimate by Hans Kristensen and Robert S. Norris of the Federation of American Scientists, the current number of warheads in the U.S. arsenal is approximately 4,650.


Recent disclosures of NSA collection of records of US telephone and email traffic have some unfortunate parallels and precedents in the early history of the Agency that were thought to have been repudiated forever.

"After World War II, the National Security Agency (NSA) established and directed three programs that deliberately targeted American citizens' private communications," wrote Army signals intelligence officer Major Dave Owen in a paper published late last year in an Army intelligence journal.

The three programs were Project SHAMROCK (1945 to 1975), which collected telegraph communications; Project MINARET (1960 to 1973), which functioned as a watch list for terms, names and references of interest; and Drug Watch Lists (1970 to 1973), which focused on communications of individuals and organizations believed to be associated with illegal drug traffic. Information about these programs first became public in the 1970s upon investigation by the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the Church Committee.

A capsule summary of the three programs was presented by Major Owen in "A Review of Intelligence Oversight Failure: NSA Programs that Affected Americans," Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, October-December 2012:

Major Owen writes that the work of the Church Committee "led to legal restrictions on the NSA's foreign intelligence authorities, as well as robust intelligence oversight processes to ensure that NSA continued to adhere to these legal restrictions."

But then he makes an assertion that, in light of recent revelations, can only be viewed as disingenuous or uninformed:

"These [oversight] processes have formed and continuously reinforce an NSA culture that is extremely adverse to any issue that may be construed as collecting on American citizens."

Major Owen admits vaguely that "this culture has shifted slightly over the last decade." But what reader would have imagined that it could possibly extend to the collection of call records and email metadata generated by nearly every American citizen?

"In our view, the bulk collection and aggregation of Americans' phone records has a significant impact on Americans' privacy," wrote Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and numerous Senate colleagues in a June 27 letter to the Director of National Intelligence.

The secret bulk collection of American communication records was, among other things, a colossal error in classification judgment as well as a historic failure of intelligence oversight.

If a fair account of these intelligence collection programs "had been told to the American public at the time when Congress was debating what the scope of surveillance powers should be, it might well be that we would have less public distrust of the government, and maybe even Snowden wouldn't have done what he did," said Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies at a forum held at the Newseum on June 26.

"The American people shouldn't be treated as idiots," she said.


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

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