NRO Declassifies Secret Spy Satellite History

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the National Reconnaissance Office declassified and released thousands of pages of historical records documenting the development and operation of its GAMBIT and HEXAGON satellite programs.  At first glance, many of the documents appear to be interesting and substantial additions to the historical record on the subject.  (The associated satellite imagery does not yet seem to be available.)

For more than a decade, the most detailed illustrations of the KH-9 HEXAGON available to the public were a series of widely replicated line drawings prepared by Charles P. Vick in the 1990s (when he was at the Federation of American Scientists, as a matter of fact).  Now that the KH-9 has been formally declassified and put on public display, as it was last Saturday, it is possible to appreciate what a remarkably perceptive job Mr. Vick did in portraying the satellite’s structure and operation.

For other accounts of the NRO anniversary releases see “KH-9 Hexagon Spy Satellite Makes a Rare Public Outing” by Keith Cowing, September 17, and “Big Black Throws a Party” by Dwayne Day, The Space Review, September 19.

Produce to Reduce: The Hedge Gamble

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By Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young

Note: This is the fourth of four posts analyzing the FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, each jointly produced by the Federation of American Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists. See previous posts: 1, 2, 3.

The FY2012 SSMP repeats the promise made in numerous previous government documents and official statements: construction of new factories with greater warhead production capability might enable retirement of some “hedge” warheads after the “responsive complex” has come online in the early-2020s and thereby reduce the overall size of the stockpile.

Today, the United States has approximately 2,150 operational warheads and another 2,850 in the hedge, for a stockpile total of 5,000. The FY2011 SSMP stated (Annex D, p. 2) that the planned production complex would be able to support a stockpile of 3,000-3,500 warheads, a level 1,500-2,000 warheads below today’s stockpile. However, it did not provide a timetable or strategy for any such reductions.

The FY2012 SSMP does, however, place conditions on further reductions. The report states that the number of nuclear weapons in the nation’s stockpile “may be reduced…if planned LEPs are completed successfully, the future infrastructure of the NNSA enterprise is achieved, and geopolitical stability permits” (emphasis added). The first two items on this list will not be accomplished for at least twenty years, but the plan shows that production of “hedge” warheads will continue even after that.

Specifically, the FY2012 SSNP states that this new production capacity is required “regardless of the size of stockpile” and shows that NNSA now plans to produce W78 hedge warheads during the 2021-2024 W78 LEP and even “continue production of additional hedge warheads” through 2035.

NNSA Plans Production of More Hedge Warheads
Despite a promise that construction of new warhead production facilities will permit a reduction of the “hedge” of non-deployed warheads in the stockpile, the FY2012 SSMP shows that the new facilities will be used to produce “additional hedge warheads.” The key phrase is enlarged above. Click on image to see the original.

The chart hints that hedge warhead production might also be part of the other warhead LEPs in the NNSA plan. The reason for the additional W78 hedge production in 2025-2035 is not stated. Right now, there are approximately 600 W78s in the stockpile, of which 350 are in the hedge. Are they planning to increase the latter number? Or is that simply continuing production of the “common or adaptable” warhead that would be actually used in the W88 LEP later on? Have other LEPs not been performed on warheads in the hedge, but they will here? The answer is a mystery.

Yet the use of new warhead production facilities to produce additional hedge warheads undermines the administration’s message that the new facilities are needed to allow a reduction of the stockpile. It suggests that even with a new “responsive” warhead production complex, the future stockpile will still include a sizeable hedge of reserve warheads.

Additionally, although the SSMP states that these facilities are needed to “maintain a safe, secure, and reliable arsenal over the long term,” these facilities will not be operational until most of the currently planned Life Extension Programs are either completed or well underway. That makes the plan to use the new facilities to produce additional hedge warheads particularly problematic.

About the authors: Nickolas Roth is Policy Fellow for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Hans M. Kristensen is the Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, and Stephen Young is a Senior Analyst at Union of Concerned Scientists.

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.

An Ambivalent White House Report on Open Government

The White House reiterated its support for open government in a new report issued Friday afternoon.  But curiously, the 33-page document on “The Obama Administration’s Commitment to Open Government” (pdf) downplays or overlooks many of the Administration’s principal achievements  in reducing inappropriate secrecy.  At the same time, it fails to acknowledge the major defects of the openness program to date.  And so it presents a muddled picture of the state of open government, while providing a poor guide to future policy.

“At the President’s direction, federal agencies have promoted greater transparency, participation, and collaboration through a number of major initiatives,” the new report says. “The results of those efforts are measurable, and they are substantial. Agencies have disclosed more information in response to FOIA requests; developed and begun to implement comprehensive Open Government plans; made thousands of government data sets publically available; promoted partnerships and leveraged private innovation to improve citizens’ lives; increased federal spending transparency; and declassified information and limited the proliferation of classified information.”

Most of that is true, in varying degrees.  (However, there is no evidence that the proliferation of classified information has in fact been limited; the opposite is the case.)

And yet despite the abundance of itemized detail in the new report, it misses or misrepresents crucial aspects of what has been accomplished and what has not.

Particularly within the domain of national security secrecy, the report leaves out the Obama Administration’s boldest departures from past secrecy policies, suggesting that the White House itself is ambivalent or perhaps remorseful about them.  For example, the report does not mention these groundbreaking measures:

In April 2009, the President broke with prior policy and declassified four Office of Legal Counsel opinions on interrogation and torture that had been tightly held by the previous Administration.  (“OLC Torture Memos Declassified,” Secrecy News, April 17, 2009).  This act finally exposed the purported legal basis for some of the government’s most controversial actions of recent years, and for a while it seemed to promise a new attitude toward the use of secrecy.

In May 2010, the Obama Administration declassified the current size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal for the first time ever.  (“Size of Nuclear Stockpile to be Disclosed,” May 3, 2010).  This is a category of information the disclosure of which had been sought without success for more than half a century, and its release created the potential for greater transparency and accountability in nuclear weapons policy.

In May 2011, the President personally ordered the declassification of an excerpt of a 1968 edition of the President’s Daily Brief — over the objections of intelligence agencies.  (“Obama Declassifies Portion of 1968 President’s Daily Brief,” June 3, 2011).  This act alone lent new substance to the otherwise rhetorical statement that “no information may remain classified indefinitely” and prompted a revision of entrenched prejudices concerning secret intelligence records.

For the first time ever, the Administration this year declassified and disclosed the size of the intelligence budget request for the coming year.  (“A New Milestone in Intelligence Budget Disclosure,” February 15, 2011).  In 1998, the Director of Central Intelligence declared under penalty of perjury that disclosure of such information would cause damage to national security.  But in the Obama Administration, that Cold War perspective has finally been abandoned even by the most senior intelligence officials.

These are among the most important changes in national security secrecy that have been accomplished in the Obama Administration.  So it is puzzling and disturbing that in its own “review of the progress the Administration has made” in promoting greater openness, the new report does not mention any of them.  For whatever reason, the White House does not seem to want to take “credit” for these actions, or to remind readers of them.

If the report minimizes the most positive achievements of secrecy reform to date, it also declines to acknowledge the serious failures of the President’s openness initiative.

Thus, it does not mention that during the first full year of the Obama Administration, the number of new national security secrets (or “original classification decisions”) actually increased by 22.6 percent, according to the latest annual report of the Information Security Oversight Office.  (“Transforming Classification, or Not,” May 18, 2011).  Because it does not include such significant adverse data, the White House report more closely approximates a public relations exercise than a candid account of the current status of openness.

The report alludes to new requirements in the President’s 2009 executive order 13256 that dictate “clarified, and stricter, standards for classifying information.”  But it does not mention that the Department of Defense, the largest classifying agency, failed to meet the President’s deadline for issuing implementing guidance for the new executive order.  The upshot is that many of those new requirements are not being fulfilled in practice, more than a year after the President’s order came into effect.  (“Secrecy Reform Stymied by the Pentagon,” February 24, 2011).  By not admitting such problems, the report also misses the opportunity to identify solutions to them.

Nor does the term “state secrets privilege” appear in the new report, although the Administration’s use of the privilege has been an impenetrable barrier to the resolution of many festering disputes on torture, rendition and surveillance.  Can one even speak of open government when individuals who have been victims of torture like Maher Arar and Khaled el-Masri are barred by secrecy from presenting evidence in a court of law or seeking some other lawful remedy?

The White House report demonstrates that the Obama Administration not only wants to be perceived as open, but that it actually has a commitment to open government.  In addition to the precedent-setting breakthroughs noted above, many of the openness initiatives discussed in the report, such as the access to agency information provided through the website, are commendable and worthwhile.

But the report also shows that the Administration’s commitment lacks clarity, consistency, and self-confidence.  This makes it harder to build on the most notable and successful achievements of the past few years.

On Tuesday, September 20, President Obama will participate in the launch of the Open Government Partnership, a multi-national effort to foster open government practices around the world.

NRO Observes 50th Anniversary with Declassification

The National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that develops and operates U.S. intelligence satellites, is observing the 50th anniversary of its establishment in 1961 with a burst of declassification activity.

Tomorrow, September 17, the newly declassified KH-9 HEXAGON satellite will go on public display — for one day only — in the parking lot of the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum.

The KH-9 HEXAGON was a photographic reconnaissance satellite that was first launched in 1971 and ceased operation in the mid-1980s.  At sixty feet long and ten feet in diameter, it is said to be the largest intelligence satellite ever launched by the U.S.

The GAMBIT satellite is also to be unveiled at a Saturday evening reception.  In addition, “almost all” of the voluminous historical intelligence imagery captured by the KH-9 is expected to be released.

“The National Reconnaissance Office is a hybrid organization consisting of some 3,000 personnel that is jointly staffed by members of the Armed Services, the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense civilians,” noted Rep. C.W. Bill Young yesterday. “Headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia, the National Reconnaissance Office launches from Cape Canaveral, FL and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, while maintaining ground station operations in Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Australia.”

After a series of expensive missteps in recent years, the National Reconnaissance Office now seems to be performing with growing consistency and reliability, having successfully launched six satellites in seven months over the past year.  (“NRO Has ‘Most Aggressive’ Launch Record in 25 Years,” Secrecy News, August 25, 2011).

It may be no coincidence that the NRO is the only intelligence agency whose expenditures are capable of being independently audited. For the last two years, the agency’s financial statements have been reviewed by an outside auditor.  And for the second time this year (pdf), the agency’s financial statements were found to “present fairly the financial position and the results of the organization’s operations in accordance with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles.”

By contrast, other U.S. intelligence agencies are not and cannot be audited.  They simply do not generate the type of data that would enable an independent reviewer to verify the integrity of agency expenditures.

It will not be feasible to audit the other large intelligence agencies for several more years, said Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper last Tuesday.  “Right now our stated objective, I think, is to be fully auditable by 2016,” he told a joint hearing of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Rising Economic Powers, and More from CRS

For those who may not have been paying attention, “A small group of developing countries are transforming the global economic landscape,” the Congressional Research Service observed in a report last month.  “Led by China, India, and Brazil, these rising economic powers pose varied challenges and opportunities for U.S. economic interests and leadership of the global economy.”  See “Rising Economic Powers and the Global Economy: Trends and Issues for Congress” (pdf), August 22, 2011.

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

“Cost-Benefit and Other Analysis Requirements in the Rulemaking Process,” August 30, 2011

“Climate Change: Conceptual Approaches and Policy Tools,” August 29, 2011

“Financing Recovery After a Catastrophic Earthquake or Nuclear Power Incident,” August 25, 2011

“Addressing the Long-Run Budget Deficit: A Comparison of Approaches,” August 25, 2011

“Homeland Security Department: FY2012 Appropriations,” September 2, 2011

“Congressional Primer on Major Disasters and Emergencies,” August 31, 2011

First International VBC Conference: Video Available

Please click on the image above to view the VBC conference video

The First Virtual Biosecurity Center international conference, 1 September 2011, can be accessed here. This conference explored the role of web-based networks in promoting global biosecurity, and provided an opportunity for experts from around the world to identify best practices and partnerships, and determine the feasibility of linking existing networks for global communication. For more information please visit the Virtual Biosecurity Center home page and the Video.

Hydrodynamic Tests: Not to Scale

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By Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young

Note: This is the third of four posts analyzing the FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, each jointly produced by the Federation of American Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists. See previous posts: 1, 2, 4.

Since the 1950s, the performance of U.S. nuclear warheads has been successfully validated using a wide range of simulation experiments, such as the compression of fissile material in hydrodynamic tests. And as the stockpile ages “and modernization design options become more complex,” the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP) states, “subcritical experiment that include special nuclear material will become more important” (emphasis added). (Special nuclear material refers to highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which are key components of a nuclear weapon.)

The SSMP and other documents describe an interest in a type of hydrodynamic test called a “scaled experiment,” which uses more special nuclear material and more closely resembles actual warhead designs. The public justification is to “improve confidence in predictive capabilities and help validate simulation codes,” but part of the reason is also that those codes will become less reliable if NNSA changes the warhead designs by adding new safety and security features during the Life Extension Programs. Continue reading

“A Conversation With An Expert”- Learning Technologies in Education

Listen above to a new edition of the FAS Podcast: “A Conversation With An Expert,” featuring Director of Learning Technologies Program at FAS, Dr. Melanie Stegman. Topics discussed include: history of the Learning Technologies Program at FAS, the benefits of using technology such as video games in education, and suggestions for tools teachers can use to enhance comprehension of STEM topics in curriculum.

Download the podcast here.

To read the podcast transcript, click here (PDF).

For more information on topics discussed in the podcast, please visit:

Immune Attack Website

Digital Promise

NISE Network



Military Takes “Proactive” Stance Against WMD Threats

The U.S. military says it is taking a more assertive stance against the proliferation or use of weapons of mass destruction.

Newly updated tactical military doctrine “represents a major shift from the former, passive defense nature against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to a broader, active, and preventive approach toward a wider range of CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear] threats and hazards,” according to a new manual (pdf) on CBRN Operations.

The new posture constitutes “a significant doctrinal shift from ‘reactive’ to ‘proactive’ military capabilities.  These actions are being performed at the tactical level, perhaps, now more than ever,” the unclassified manual said.  See “Multi-Service Doctrine for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Operations,” U.S. Army Field Manual 3-11, July 2011.

The manual states that in accordance with international law, “The United States will never use chemical weapons.” Likewise, “The United States will never use biological weapons.”

However, “The United States may use nuclear weapons to terminate a conflict or war at the lowest acceptable level of hostilities.”  (That stark statement is not new, and appeared in prior doctrine published in 2003.)

CRS Views Congressional Authority to Limit Military Operations

The authority of the President to use military force without congressional authorization and the ability of Congress to limit or regulate such use are discussed in a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service.

At issue are the scope and priority of basic constitutional terms, including the definition of the President’s role as commander in chief, the authority of Congress to declare war, and its ability to appropriate or to withhold funds for military operations.

No final answers can be provided.  However, “it is generally agreed that Congress cannot ‘direct campaigns,’ but that Congress can regulate the conduct of hostilities, at least to some degree, and that Congress can limit military operations without the risk of a presidential veto by refusing to appropriate funds,” the CRS report said.

“To date,… no court has invalidated a statute passed by Congress on the basis that it impinges the constitutional authority of the Commander in Chief, whether directly or indirectly through appropriations,” the report noted. “In contrast, presidential assertions of authority based on the Commander-in-Chief Clause, in excess of or contrary to congressional authority, have been struck down by the courts.”

The political, ideological or institutional obstacles to the independent exercise of constitutional authority by Congress, which may run even deeper than any legal constraints, are not addressed here.

A copy of the new report was obtained by Secrecy News. See “Congressional Authority to Limit Military Operations,” September 8, 2011.