GAO Report Challenges Nuclear Weapons Spending Spree

The General Accounting Office concludes that NNSA lacks the basis for justifying multi-billion dollar modernization projects such as the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

By Hans M. Kristensen

At a time when the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is asking Congress to authorize billions of dollars to modernize what it calls its “aging” nuclear infrastructure for maintaining and producing nuclear weapons, a new report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) concludes that “NNSA does not have accurate, reliable, or complete data on the condition and replacement value of its almost 3,000 weapons activities facilities.”

The new budget request to be released today is expected to request billions of dollars to modernize the nuclear weapons complex.

In a blunt statement that appears to challenge the administration’s request for more money to build new nuclear weapons factories, the GAO report points out that “NNSA has not estimated total costs for the largest projects it is conducting—the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. DOE regulations do not require a total cost estimate until the initial design phase is complete, but without reliable cost and schedule data NNSA does not have a sound basis to justify decisions and planned budget increases.”

[Addition: The GAO report unfortunately makes the same mistake that the news media makes all the time when describing the New START treaty. According to the report, “As part of this plan and arms control treaties, the United States has agreed to reduce the size of its strategic nuclear weapon stockpile from a maximum of 2,200 to 1,550 weapons.” But the United States has not agreed to reduce its strategic nuclear weapon “stockpile” to 1,550 weapons. The limit it has agreed to is to deploy no more than 1,550 strategic warheads on operational launchers (essentially all ballistic missiles because bomber weapons are not counted even if they were loaded on the aircraft). Several thousand reserve but fully intact strategic warheads as well as nonstrategic warheads are not limited by New START. The new treaty is important for many reason, but the difference is actually important. The U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile currently contains approximately 5,000 nuclear warheads.]

See also this blog about the Obama administration nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship management plan.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

CIA Reports No Progress in Classification Review

The Central Intelligence Agency has taken no action to carry out the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, a mandatory effort to eliminate obsolete or unnecessary classification practices.

The Fundamental Review is a systematic attempt to combat overclassification by subjecting thousands of current classification instructions to critical scrutiny and revision.  It was required in President Obama’s December 2009 executive order 13526 (section 1.9), which came into effect in June 2010.  “These reviews can be extremely important in changing the habits and the practices of classifiers throughout government,” said William H. Leary of the National Security Staff last year.  But that will be true only if the required reviews are actually implemented.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request for CIA records on its implementation of the review process thus far, CIA reported last week (pdf) that “We did not locate any records responsive to your request.”

This does not necessarily imply that the CIA is being insubordinate or that the Fundamental Review will not eventually be performed there, an Administration official said, noting that agencies were given two years — until June 2012 — to complete the Review process.  The CIA’s latest statement “means only that they have not done anything to date,” the official said.  “There are  a ton of things that agencies have to do that did not come with a two-year implementation window.”

Nevertheless, it is not very encouraging to see that the CIA, which is one of the government’s most prolific classifiers, evidently does not consider the Fundamental Review to be a matter of urgency and a high priority.  Its lethargy is in contrast with the energetic response of the Department of Energy, which developed a detailed workplan last November to implement the Review.  (See “A Bumpy Start for Fundamental Classification Review,” Secrecy News, January 18, 2011.)  The Department of Homeland Security began its Fundamental Review even earlier, in July, according to internal DHS correspondence (pdf) also released under FOIA.

Reducing government reliance on secrecy is an appropriate response to current technological and political realities, according to a report released by the American Bar Association (ABA) Standing Committee on Law and National Security (“No More Secrets: National Security Strategies for a Transparent World,” January 2011).  It would also reduce the nation’s growing susceptibility to unauthorized disclosures, and would therefore enhance national security.  “The report recommends that the government operate with fewer secrets to gain a significant advantage over those who ‘continue to cling to traditional notions of indefinite information monopoly’.”

The ABA report did not present an actionable plan that agencies could adopt to reduce the number of national security secrets they keep.  But that is what the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review was intended to provide.  The Review’s success — or its failure — will determine, for better or worse, the feasibility of reversing the growth of national security secrecy.

I made a pitch for rigorous implementation of the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review in the current issue of Nature Medicine.  See “Review of classification rules represents an opportunity, even for medicine,” February 2011 (sub. req’d).  See also “ISOO Spurs Agencies to Perform Classification Review,” Secrecy News, February 2, 2011.

CRS Questions the Open Government Initiative

The Congressional Research Service took a decidedly skeptical view of the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative in a recently updated report (pdf).  The report called into question not only the implementation of the Administration’s transparency policy but also its underlying rationale.

“Arguably, releasing previously unavailable datasets to the public increases transparency,” the report granted.  “The new datasets offer the public more information than was previously available, making the particular issue area more transparent.  But this type of transparency does not give Congress or the public much insight into how the federal government itself operates or executes policies,” the CRS report said.

Thus, “the dataset on child safety seats released by the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NTHSA), for example, increases public knowledge of child safety seats and may inform a consumer’s future purchases, but it does not affect the general transparency of NHTSA’s operations.”

But even bona fide transparency may not be altogether positive, the CRS report suggested.  “Increased transparency and mandatory public participation requirements can slow down government operations by elongating the deliberative process.  Increased participation may increase trust in the federal government while concurrently reducing the speed of government action.  Additionally, increased government transparency may prompt security and privacy concerns.”

In lieu of any conclusion, the CRS report equivocated that “Congress can decide whether to codify any of the new Obama Administration transparency policies.  On the other hand, Congress can decide whether to enact a law prohibiting the implementation of any of the open government policies.  Congress could also leave these policy decisions up to the executive branch.”

The bulk of the CRS report was written last year, but it was updated last month.  See “The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative: Issues for Congress,” January 28, 2011.

Last week, the Obama Administration withdrew a pending proposal to enhance federal contract transparency. “Incredibly, today’s decision would seem to place the Obama Administration in opposition [to] subsequent transparency legislation co-sponsored by then-Senator Obama,” wrote Scott Amey of the Project on Government Oversight.

Office of Director of National Intelligence to be Downsized

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) will be “reduced in its size and budget,” DNI James R. Clapper Jr. told the House Intelligence Committee last week (pdf).

“We, I think, all understand that we’re going to be in for some belt-tightening. And given, you know, the funding that we have been given over the last 10 years since 9/11, that’s probably appropriate,” DNI Clapper said on February 10.

“Shortly after I became DNI, exactly six months ago today, I began a thorough review of the organization. I examined the intelligence reform law, other statutes and executive orders, and the activities that they direct the DNI to execute,” he said.

“Upon review, I decided to reduce or eliminate functions not required by law or executive order that are not core missions of the DNI. I also identified elements that should transfer out of the ODNI to another agency who would serve as the executive agent on my behalf and carry out these services of [common] concern on behalf of the ODNI. In other words, we don’t need to do everything on the DNI staff itself.”

“Based on this efficiencies review, the Office of the DNI is being reduced in size and budget,” DNI Clapper said.  The details of the reduction remain to be spelled out.

See, relatedly, these updated Congressional Research Service reports on intelligence (all pdf).

“Director of National Intelligence Statutory Authorities: Status and Proposals,” January 12, 2011.

“Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Acquisition: Issues for Congress,” January 20, 2011.

“Intelligence Authorization Legislation: Status and Challenges,” January 20, 2011.

“Satellite Surveillance: Domestic Issues,” January 13, 2011.

“The National Intelligence Council: Issues and Options for Congress,” January 10, 2011.

“Intelligence Estimates: How Useful to Congress?”, January 6, 2011.

Nuclear Research Highlighted by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Nuclear Notebooks Robert Norris and I publish in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are now the most frequently read articles in the magazine, according to their latest announcement.

The highlight of the announcement is Senator John Kerry’s use of our estimate of Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the New START treaty on December 19, 2010.

The Bulletin announcement states that all current and previous Nuclear Notebooks are now freely available online. Issues back to 1999 are here. You’ll have to scroll down to the end of each table of content to find the Notebook in each issue. Earlier versions are available on Google Books.

In the past, Norris and I have urged the publisher of the Notebooks to make them freely available to the public to ensure that this important resource on the status of the world’s nuclear arsenals is available for the debate about the future of nuclear weapons.

The Notebooks are very popular. As of January 4, 2011, our Notebook on Chinese nuclear forces from November 2010 was listed as the most read article on the Bulletin’s web site, and 11 of the 50 most read articles were Notebooks.

Good estimates on nuclear arsenals don’t come easy or cheep but require time-consuming and persistent research. We’re grateful for the generous support we have received to do this work over the years from foundations including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, and the Ploughshares Fund.

Air Force Rescinds New Guidance on WikiLeaks

Secrecy News reported Monday on strange new guidance from the Air Force Materiel Command declaring that Air Force employees and even their family members could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for accessing the WikiLeaks web site. On Monday night that new guidance was abruptly withdrawn.

Lt. Col. Richard L. Johnson of Air Force Headquarters released this statement:

“Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) recently published an internal news story that discussed the implications of downloading presumed classified information from WikiLeaks. The release was not previously coordinated with Headquarters Air Force and has been removed from the AFMC website. The Air Force has provided guidance to military members and employees to avoid downloading what could be classified information into Air Force unclassified networks and reminded them that publication of information does not itself constitute declassification of such information. The Air Force guidance did not address family members who are not Air Force members or employees. The Air Force defers to the Department of Justice in all non-military matters related to WikiLeaks.”

A copy of the withdrawn release is archived here.  See also “US air force backtracks over WikiLeaks ban” by Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, February 8,  and “No espionage charges for airmen on Wikileaks” by Scott Fontaine, Air Force Times, February 8.

Der Spiegel on “Staatsfeind WikiLeaks”

“Aftergood is too close to the center of power,” said Julian Assange.  “He is not an independent fighter for freedom of information.”

The passing criticism of me (I’m also “jealous”) was the first thing that caught my eye in the new book “Staatsfeind WikiLeaks” by Der Spiegel reporters Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark.  But the book itself is quite a bit more interesting and perceptive than that.

The authors, who are neither fans nor opponents of WikiLeaks, go out of their way to gather new information about the origins and development of the project.  They seek out contrasting perspectives and bring them to bear in interesting and challenging ways.  Of course, the story is unfinished.

“WikiLeaks is an organization in transition, with a dialectical relation to the mass media.  WikiLeaks has changed journalism, but journalism has also changed WikiLeaks,” they write.

See the Spiegel website on “Staatsfeind WikiLeaks” here.  An English-language excerpt, published last month, is here.

Administering Classification Policy at ODNI

At the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “The original classification of information is rarely necessary,” according to an October 2010 ODNI Instruction.  But that’s because most relevant information is already classified.  There is not much need for new classification activity.

Several recent ODNI Instructions that govern the administration of the classification and declassification programs within the Office were released this week under the Freedom of Information Act (all pdf):

“Classification of ODNI Information,” ODNI Instruction 80.12, October 25, 2010.

“Original Classification Authority Delegation,” ODNI Instruction 80.16, October 21, 2010.

“ODNI Director, Information Management,” ODNI Instruction 10.20, May 18, 2009.

“Particular care should be exercised to avoid both over and under classifying ODNI information,” the Instructions say.

CIA Assesses Flooding in North Korea

CIA analysts studied data on major floods due to rainfall in North Korea since 1996 in order to devise a framework for evaluating the significance of such floods and their likely consequences for North Korean agriculture.

The analysts identified four principal variables:  the intensity of the rainfall, the location of the rainfall, the time of year, and damage to non-agricultural infrastructure.

“Rainfall intensity and geography of flooding appear to be key variables with the most impact,” their report (pdf) said. “Critical periods in the agricultural growth cycle — for sowing, growing, and harvesting — and the scope and severity of infrastructure damage are compounding variables that can magnify the impact of major floods in key food producing areas.”

All four elements were present in 1996 and 2007, when flooding produced the most severe agricultural impact.  But using the methodology described, analysts judge that the cumulative impact of two instances of heavy rain in 2010 “has been relatively low.”

A copy of the CIA report was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “North Korea: Assessing the Impact of Flooding on Agricultural Output,” CIA Open Source Works, December 15, 2010.