France’s Nuclear Victims (and Correct Number of Weapons)

From Tanguy et Laverdure, Menace sur Mururoa, 1996.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The news media reports that the French government has decided to “pay compensation to those suffering illnesses linked to radiation” from the French nuclear tests conducted in Northern Africa and the South Pacific between 1960 and 1996. This being the same state that for decades denied any health effects from the tests.

Many of the news reports quote FAS estimating the French nuclear arsenal at 348 warheads in 2008. For the record, our latest estimate made in July 2008 is about 300 warheads.

Additional Resources: French Nuclear Forces 2008 (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 2008) | Status of World Nuclear Forces (FAS web site)

Declass Board Tells Obama Openness is “At Risk”

In a new letter to President Obama, the Public Interest Declassification Board warned that reliable public access to government information, the very foundation of representative democracy, may be in jeopardy.

Although “our Board was heartened by your early statements and actions on openness in Government,” wrote Board acting chairman Martin Faga to the President on March 6, “we have to sound a note of alarm about how well the Government is doing in this area.”

“In fact, we have concluded that this fundamental principle of self-government” — that is, citizen access to information about Government — “is at risk and, without decisive action, the situation is likely to worsen.”

The Public Interest Declassification Board was established by Congress in 2000 to advise the president on declassification policy and practice.  Board members are appointed by the White House and Congress.

Mr. Faga, a former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, identified several structural and procedural factors that he said impede declassification, including inadequate resources, coordination and leadership, as well as poor management of digital records.  “Future historians may find that the paper records of early American history provide a more reliable historical account than the inchoate mass of digital communications of the current era.”

Although the Board’s mission focuses on declassification of historical records, the Board has also taken an interest in classification policy and has called for a revision to the executive order on classification.

“Serious attention to the classification process itself is needed to ensure that it supports declassification and to address the particularly challenging and long-standing issue of over-classification,” the Board’s letter said.

A presidential directive initiating a revision of the executive order on classification policy is believed to be imminent.

NARA Seeks New Ideas for Presidential Libraries

The National Archives and Records Administration is soliciting public input on new ways to reduce the costs of Presidential libraries while improving public access to the records they hold.

“NARA seeks the comments and suggestions of interested organizations and individuals for cost effective ways of modifying the present system for archiving and providing public access to Presidential records,” Acting Archivist Adrienne C. Thomas wrote in a March 24 notice.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee is seeking an update on the status of White House email, including the installation of improved information technology systems to ensure the preservation and retention of Presidential email.

“What policies and procedures are in place to ensure that official e-mails subject to the Presidential Records Act are captured and preserved by government information technology systems?” asked Rep. Edolphus Towns in a February 27, 2009 letter (pdf) to White House Counsel Gregory Craig.

A Test of the New FOIA Policy

In a test of the new, more forthcoming Freedom of Information Act guidelines that were announced by Attorney General Eric Holder on March 19, the Federation of American Scientists has asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to reconsider its refusal to disclose the budget total for the National Intelligence Program for fiscal year 2006.

The new FOIA policy is intended to reverse entrenched secrecy practices and to encourage appropriate release of information.

“By restoring the presumption of disclosure that is at the heart of the Freedom of Information Act, we are making a critical change that will restore the public’s ability to access information in a timely manner,” said Attorney General Holder last week.  The new guidelines (pdf) “strongly encourage agencies to make discretionary disclosures of information” and indicate that the Justice Department will not defend FOIA denials in court unless disclosure would damage a protected government interest.

That all sounds promising, but it remains to be demonstrated in practice.

Adding to several other pending FOIA cases that will test the practical meaning of the newly declared policy, we have asked the ODNI to reverse its recent denial of the 2006 budget total.  Although the 2007 and 2008 budget figures have been formally declassified, the 2006 figure remains classified.

This ODNI practice of classifying obsolete budget information while releasing current budget information is “stupid,” said Steven Garfinkel, the former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, at a March 16 conference sponsored by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at the Washington College of Law.

It also appears to be at odds with the views of the DNI himself.  In response to a pre-hearing question (pdf; question 35C) at his confirmation to be DNI, Adm. Dennis C. Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee:  “I believe the annual disclosure of the aggregate intelligence appropriation, as required by law, should continue. It has not, to my knowledge, caused harm to the national security, and provides important information to the American public.”

Given these developments, we suggested in a FOIA request (pdf) to ODNI today, “it seems questionable either that the Justice Department would defend the continued denial under FOIA of the 2006 intelligence budget total, or that the DNI would supply a sworn declaration to a federal court to try to justify the withholding of this information.”

USAF Org Chart Departs from Phone Directory Secrecy

The United States Air Force has published a detailed organizational chart of its headquarters (pdf) including the names and telephone numbers of key personnel.

What makes this of more than passing interest is that it represents a departure from the post-9/11 Pentagon practice of withholding the names and phone numbers of Pentagon officials from publication in the Department of Defense telephone directory.  Prior to 9/11, Pentagon phone directories were made available for sale to anyone who wanted them.  I used to get a copy once or twice a year at the Government Printing Office (GPO) Bookstore on North Capitol Street for the use of the Federation of American Scientists.

Then, in a move that heralded a massive withdrawal of government information from the public domain, the document suddenly ceased to be available.  “The DOD Telephone Directory since September 11, 2001 is marked ‘For Official Use Only’ and is no longer sold by GPO,” according to a notice formerly posted on the GPO web site.

A bowdlerized version of the Pentagon phone book was later published for public use, with the names of Pentagon officials deleted.  Thus, “The listing for secretary of defense includes only ‘Hon. …’ for the Honorable Robert M. Gates,” reported Bill Gertz of the Washington Times on September 7, 2007.

The Air Force has abandoned such a policy, and its new org chart provides the names and the phone numbers of its headquarters staff without restriction.  Access to the complete, unexpurgated Pentagon telephone directory, however, remains limited to those with a .mil address and a “Common Access Card” that is issued to DoD employees and contractors.

Why does DoD withhold its telephone directory when other agencies with national security responsibilities such as the Department of State and the Department of Energy openly publish their telephone directories on their websites?

One answer is “OPSEC,” or “operations security,” meaning the concealment of unclassified indicators to frustrate foreign intelligence collectors.  But that rationale could apply equally to Energy and State, which do not embrace it.  Besides, the Pentagon itself survived the Cold War without such an extreme secrecy policy.

Another answer is that unlike other agencies, “We were attacked,” as one Pentagon employee told Secrecy News, citing the September 11 terrorist strike on the Pentagon.  That is a conversation stopper but not much of an explanation, since there is no known reason to believe that the Pentagon telephone directory was used by the 9/11 terrorists.

The Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody

Last year the Senate Armed Services Committee held two hearings on the detention and interrogation of suspected enemy combatants held by U.S. forces, probing into the origins of military interrogation policy and documenting some of the key decisions that were made.

“Today’s hearing,” said Committee Chair Sen. Carl Levin, “will explore how it came about that the techniques called survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training, which are used to teach American soldiers to resist abusive interrogations by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were turned on their head and sanctioned by Department of Defense (DOD) officials for use offensively against detainees. Those techniques included use of stress positions, … use of dogs, and hooding during interrogation.”

The record of those hearings has recently been published, supplemented by detailed questions and answers for the record and documents obtained by the Committee (in the PDF version).

See “The Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody,” hearings before the Senated Armed Services Committee, June 17 and September 25, 2008.

Nuclear R&D in Nine Nations, and More from CRS

The organization and management of nuclear weapons research in nine countries — the United States, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom — are examined in a new report from the Congressional Research Service obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Nuclear Weapons R&D Organizations in Nine Nations” (pdf), March 16, 2009.

Other noteworthy new CRS reports that have not been made readily available to the public include the following (all pdf).

“Cuba: Issues for the 111th Congress,” updated March 18, 2009.

“The Constitutionality of Federal Contracting Programs for Minority-Owned and Other Small Businesses,” March 16, 2009.

“Ongoing Government Assistance for American International Group (AIG),” March 16, 2009.

OSC Views Leadership of Russian Armed Forces

Senior military leaders of the Russian Federation were profiled last December by the Russian publication “Rossiyskoye Voyennoye Obozreniye” and the resulting compilation was recently translated by the DNI Open Source Center (OSC).  The personal and professional backgrounds of some two dozen military leaders are summarized and accompanied by photographs, some of which are quite striking.

The OSC translation has not been approved for public release, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Russia: Biographies, Photos of RF Armed Forces Leadership,” Rossiyskoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 29, 2008, via the Open Source Center.

Researchers Worldwide Rally to Help Scientist Exposed to Ebola

SciecneInsider has the details surrounding an Ebola researcher who pricked her finger with a needle during an experiment last week. Virologists around the world are collaborating to try to save their colleagues life. An exposure to Ebola from a needle stick does not often lead to infection with the deadly illness, but a group of scientists immediately got together to discuss a long list of experimental vaccines and treatments that could possibly prevent infection or slow progression of the disease. As a result, the exposed researcher was given a vaccine that has previously been shown to provide protection in monkeys who had been exposed to Ebola. The incubation period of Ebola is typically between 4 and 21 days, and it has only been 6 days since the needle stick incident. Thus far there is no indication that the researcher has contracted an Ebola infection, but virologists are anxiously following her case.