Secrecy News

“Fact of” Nuclear Weapons on Okinawa Declassified

Updated below

The Department of Defense revealed this week that “The fact that U.S. nuclear weapons were deployed on Okinawa prior to Okinawa’s reversion to Japan on May 15, 1972” has been declassified.

While this is indeed news concerning classification policy, it does not represent new information about Okinawa.

According to an existing Wikipedia entry, “Between 1954 and 1972, 19 different types of nuclear weapons were deployed in Okinawa, but with fewer than around 1,000 warheads at any one time” (citing research by Robert S. Norris, William M. Arkin and William Burr that was published in 1999 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). As often seems to be the case, declassification here followed disclosure, not the other way around.

If there is any revelation in the new DoD announcement, it is that this half-century-old historical information was still considered classified until now. As such, it has been an ongoing obstacle to the public release of records concerning the history of Okinawa and US-Japan relations.

Because this information had been classified as “Formerly Restricted Data” under the Atomic Energy Act rather than by executive order, its declassification required the concurrence of the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and (in this case) the Department of State. Any one of those agencies had the power to veto the decision to declassify, or to stymie it by simply refusing to participate.

Instead, the information was declassified as a result of a new procedure adopted by the Obama Administration to coordinate the review of nuclear weapons-related historical material that is no longer sensitive but that has remained classified under the Atomic Energy Act by default. The new procedure had been recommended by a 2012 report from the Public Interest Declassification Board, and was adopted by the White House-led Classification Reform Committee.

Also newly declassified and affirmed this week was “The fact that prior to the reversion of Okinawa to Japan that the U.S. Government conducted internal discussion, and discussions with Japanese government officials regarding the possible re-introduction of nuclear weapons onto Okinawa in the event of an emergency or crisis situation.”

Such individual declassification actions could go on indefinitely, since there are innumerable other “facts” whose continued classification cannot reasonably be justified by current circumstances. A more systemic effort to recalibrate national security classification policy government-wide is to be performed over the coming year.

Update: The National Security Archive posted the first officially declassified document on nuclear weapons in Okinawa, which was released in response to its request. See Nuclear Weapons on Okinawa Declassified, February 19, 2016.