New FAS Podcast: “A Nuclear-Free Mirage? Obstacles to President Obama’s Goal of a Nuclear Weapons Free World”


Listen above to a special edition of FAS Podcast “A Conversation with an Expert,” featuring Dr. Robert Standish Norris, Senior Fellow for Nuclear Policy at FAS (interviewed by Charles Blair, Director of FAS’ Terrorism Analysis Project). In the second installment of this series, Dr. Norris discusses obstacles to the implementation of the Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). After twenty years since the end of the Cold War, how far down the path are we toward a nuclear weapons free world? Despite President Obama’s goal of eventual nuclear disarmament, Dr. Norris explains why the latest effort to alter the role of nuclear weapons—a necessity if we seek to eliminate them—is likely to falter.

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A Nuclear-Free Mirage? Obstacles to President Obama’s Goal of a Nuclear Weapons Free World

FAS published a new Issue Brief, “A Nuclear-Free Mirage? Obstacles to President Obama’s Goal of a Nuclear Weapons Free World.” Dr. Robert Standish Norris, Senior Fellow for Nuclear Policy at FAS was interviewed by Charles Blair, Director of FAS’s Terrorism Analysis Project, about the obstacles to the implementation of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). After twenty years since the end of the Cold War, how far down the path are we toward a nuclear weapons free world? Despite President Obama’s goal of eventual nuclear disarmament, Dr. Norris explains why the latest effort to alter the role of nuclear weapons—a necessity if we seek to eliminate them—is likely to falter. Listen to the FAS Podcast here.

Almost two decades have passed since the United States seriously considered reducing the role of its nuclear weapons. The earlier effort—the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review—failed to narrow the broad array of missions assigned to U.S. nuclear forces. Thus, despite significant decreases in the numbers of nuclear weapons, the end of the Cold War precipitated no net downsizing of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure; indeed its collective budget continues to exceed Cold War spending levels. However, President Obama’s 2009 Prague speech harkened back to the halcyon early days of the Post-Cold War world; the President promised to “take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.”[1]  One year later, In April 2010, the Obama Administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), formally articulating a strategy toward a “world free of nuclear weapons.”

Today’s interview with Robert Norris explores the 2010 NPR. Specifically, it addresses how the NPR seeks to achieve President Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapon free world. Unfortunately, Dr. Norris concludes that the NPR is “not up to the task of bringing about this goal.” Why? Dr. Norris argues that a sine qua non to lower levels of nuclear weapons and their eventual elimination is an immediate reduction in their missions. Dr. Norris argues that today “there is only one job left for nuclear weapons: to deter the use of nuclear weapons.”[2] As the NPR goes through its implementation process, Dr. Norris explains, opposition to the types of changes envisioned by the President Obama mount.  “It has to do with constituencies and bureaucracies and careers and budgets and a whole host of things that were the driving forces behind the arms race to begin with,” Dr. Norris explains, adding that, “many of those things are still in place, still operative, [and] resistant to radical kinds of changes.

Alarmingly, listeners should be mindful that these obstacles to President Obama’s vision toward a nuclear weapons free world have gone largely unreported by the media and unexplored by most policy-based non-profit think-tanks. In this regard, FAS stands virtually alone in its exploration of the implementation of the 2010 NPR and its increasingly ephemeral vision of a world free from nuclear weapons.

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

[1] Remark by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic, April 5, 2009. Available at:

[2] Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Ivan Oelrich, From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons. Federation of American Scientists, Occasional Paper 7. April 2009, p. 1. Available at:

Global Recession Spurs Competition in Arms Sales

Led by the United States, arms-exporting nations are competing ever more intensely to win lucrative sales contracts in a shrinking global marketplace, according to a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service.

“Worldwide weapons sales declined generally in 2010 in response to the constraints created by the tenuous state of the global economy,” the report said.  The value of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations declined from $49.8 billion in 2009 to over $30.7 billion in 2010.  At the same time, however, the value of all arms deliveries to developing nations was nearly $21.9 billion, which is “the highest total in these deliveries values since 2006.”  See “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2003-2010” by Richard F. Grimmett, Congressional Research Service, September 22, 2011.

Yet “as new arms sales have become more difficult to conclude since the global recession began, competition among sellers has become increasingly intense,” the report said.

“A number of weapons-exporting nations are focusing not only on the clients with whom they have held historic competitive advantages, due to well-established military-support relationships, but also on potential new clients in countries and regions where they have not been traditional arms suppliers.”

Meanwhile, “[D]eveloping nations have been leveraging their attractiveness as clients by demanding greater cost offsetting elements in their arms contracts, as well as transfer of more advanced technology and provisions for domestic production options,” the report said.

The United States dominates the global arms market both in sales agreements and in deliveries, according to the CRS report, which was first reported in the New York Times on September 24.

The annual CRS reports prepared by Mr. Grimmett are authoritative compilations of official data on arms transfers, based on privileged access by CRS to government records.  As such, they may have enduring reference value for researchers in the field (despite the fact that the reports do not include clandestine or covert transfers).   A collection of all CRS annual reports on conventional arms transfers dating back to 1982 is available on the Federation of American Scientists website here.  Additional background is available from the FAS Arms Sales Monitoring Project.

Brennan Center on “Curbing Needless Secrecy”

The Brennan Center for Justice will sponsor a panel discussion October 5 at the National Press Club in Washington DC on overclassification and “Curbing Needless Secrecy” to accompany the release of a new report on the subject.  Participants include former Rep. Christopher Shays, former ISOO director J. William Leonard, former NRO director and chair of the Public Interest Declassification Board Martin C. Faga, and Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center.

At CIA, Climate Change is a Secret

Updated below

When the Central Intelligence Agency established a Center on Climate Change and National Security in 2009, it drew fierce opposition from congressional Republicans who disputed the need for an intelligence initiative on this topic.  But now there is a different, and possibly better, reason to doubt the value of the Center:  It has adopted an extreme view of classification policy which holds that everything the Center does is a national security secret.

Last week, the CIA categorically denied (pdf) a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of any Center studies or reports concerning the impacts of global warming.

“We completed a thorough search for records responsive to your request and located material that we determined is currently and properly classified and must be denied in its entirety…,” wrote CIA’s Susan Viscuso to requester Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence historian affiliated with the National Security Archive.

With some effort, one can imagine records related to climate change that would be properly classified.  Such records might, for example, include information that was derived from classified collection methods or sources that could be compromised by their disclosure.  Or perhaps such records might present analysis reflecting imminent threats to national security that would be exacerbated rather than corrected by publicizing them.

But that’s not what CIA said.  Rather, it said that all of the Center’s work is classified and there is not even a single study, or a single passage in a single study, that could be released without damage to national security.  That’s a familiar song, and it became tiresome long ago.

But in this case, it is more than an annoyance.  The CIA response indicates a fundamental lack of discernment that calls into question the integrity of the Center on Climate Change, if not the Agency as a whole.  If the CIA really thinks (or pretends to think) that every document produced by the Center constitutes a potential threat to national security, who can expect the Center to say anything intelligent or useful about climate change?  Security robots cannot help us navigate the environmental challenges ahead.  Better to allocate the scarce resources to others who can.

Meanwhile, access by scientists to classified military intelligence data on the environment has actually been improving lately, reports Geoff Brumfiel in the latest edition of Nature (“Military surveillance data: Shared intelligence,” 21 September 2011, sub. req’d).  Among other things, the Clinton-Gore era group of cleared scientists known as MEDEA (Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis) was reconvened in 2008 at congressional request.

A Federation of American Scientists proposal to expand public access to unclassified open source intelligence products (“Open Up Open Source Intelligence,” Secrecy News, August 24) did not find favor with the White House.  Nothing like it was included in the new U.S. National Action Plan (pdf) for the Open Government Partnership, which mostly elaborates and restates previous commitments.

Update: The National Intelligence Council has published a collection of commissioned papers on “The Impact of Climate Change to 2030” which do not, however, “reflect official U.S. Government positions.”

Updated CRS Reports on Secrecy

Reports on secrecy-related topics from the Congressional Research Service that are newly updated (but otherwise not new) include these (all pdf).

Criminal Prohibitions on the Publication of Classified Defense Information, September 8, 2011

Protection of Classified Information by Congress: Practices and Proposals, August 31, 2011

The State Secrets Privilege: Preventing the Disclosure of Sensitive National Security Information During Civil Litigation, August 16, 2011

Newly updated CRS reports on other topics include these.

Intelligence Issues for Congress, September 14, 2011

The Palestinians: Background and U.S. Relations, August 30, 2011

U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians, August 29, 2011


New Nuclear Notebook: British Nuclear Forces 2011

The British Cold War stockpile was bigger than previously thought but will be the smallest of the five original nuclear weapons states by the mid-2020s.     Click image for bigger version

By Hans M. Kristensen

Britain’s disclosure last year of the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile shows, when combined with official information released earlier, that its Cold War nuclear stockpile was bigger than previously thought – more than 500 nuclear warheads in the 1970s.

Since then, Britain has reduced its stockpile by more than half to approximately 225 warheads and has decided to reduce it further to 180 warheads by the mid-2020s, a reduction of two-thirds compared with the Cold War level.

Modernization and continuous deployment at sea continues, however, and current plans might ironically lead to an increase in the number of warheads carried on each operational missile.

This and more is described in our latest Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

See also: Previous British Nuclear Notebook from 2005

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.

Number of Security Clearances Soars

The number of persons who held security clearances for access to classified information last year exceeded 4.2 million — far more than previously estimated — according to a new intelligence community report to Congress (pdf).

The report, which was required by the FY2010 intelligence authorization act, provides the first precise tally of clearances held by federal employees and contractors that has ever been produced.  The total figure as of last October 1 was 4,266,091 cleared persons. See “Report on Security Clearance Determinations for Fiscal Year 2010,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, September 2011.

In 2009, the Government Accountability Office had told Congress that about 2.4 million people held clearances “excluding some of those with clearances who work in areas of national intelligence.”  (“More Than 2.4 Million Hold Security Clearances,” Secrecy News, July 29, 2009).  But even with a generous allowance for hundreds of thousands of additional intelligence personnel, that estimate somehow missed more than a million clearances.

Likewise, one of the many startling findings in the 2010 Washington Post series (and 2011 book) “Top Secret America” by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, was that “An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.”

But remarkably, that too was a significant underestimate, according to the new report.  In actual fact, as of October 2010 there were 1,419,051 federal employees and contractors holding Top Secret clearances.

As high as the newly determined total number of clearances is, it may not be the highest number ever.  In the last decade of the cold war, a comparable or greater number of persons seems to have had security clearances.  In those years the size of the uniformed military was much larger than today, and a large fraction of its members were routinely granted clearances.  Thus, as of 1983, there were approximately 4.2 million clearances, according to 1985 testimony (pdf) from the GAO.  But that was an estimate, not a measurement, and the actual number might have been higher (or lower).  By 1993, the post-cold war number had declined to around 3.2 million clearances, according to another GAO report (pdf) from 1995.

The unexpectedly large number of security clearances today can presumably be attributed to several related factors:  the surge in military and intelligence spending over the past decade, increased government reliance on cleared contractors, and intensive classification activity that continues today.