FAS Roundup: October 29, 2012

Syria’s chemical weapons, plea in Kiriakou case, Cuban Missile Crisis order of battle and much more.


Up for Debate: Syria’s Chemical Weapons

A 2011 unclassified report to Congress said Syria’s chemical weapons “can be delivered by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.” The U.S. has monitored closely these stockpiles as the Syrian civil war continues. However, recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitted that stockpiles have been moved without U.S. knowledge. Some have called for military intervention to secure those stockpiles, which threaten the Syrian people, the U.S., or its allies. Others argue that a military intervention would worsen the situation, leading potentially to the use of those chemical weapons.

In a new edition of the FAS online debate series “Up for Debate,” Mr. Doug Bandow of The CATO Institute and Mr. Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation debate  the risks and benefits of a U.S. military intervention to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

Read the debate here.

From the Blogs

  • Kiriakou Pleads Guilty in Leak Case: On October 23, former CIA officer John Kiriakou pled guilty to one count of disclosure of information identifying a covert agent, a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Under the terms of a plea agreement, the parties agreed that a prison term of 30 months would be “the appropriate sentence in this case.”  Other charges against him, including several counts under the Espionage Act, were dismissed. Steven Aftergood writes that by foregoing a trial, Mr. Kiriakou loses an opportunity to try and persuade a jury that his motives were benign, and that the harm to national security resulting from his disclosure was negligible and insignificant.
  • Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board Invite Public Input: The long-dormant Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) announced that it will hold its first public meeting next week and it invited members of the public to provide input to help shape the Board’s near-term agenda. The PCLOB was created in response to a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that “there should be a board within the executive branch to oversee… the commitment the government makes to defend our civil liberties.”
  • Duck and Cover- Two Bits on the Risk from Nuclear Attacks: Dr. Y reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and current nuclear threats to the United States and the impact of mass fires (what used to be called a firestorm) from a nuclear attack in a new post on the ScienceWonk Blog.
  • An Updated Catalog of Army Weapon Systems: Secrecy News has obtained a copy of the 2013 edition of the U.S. Army’s annual Weapon Systems Handbook, which is filled with updated information on dozens of weapon systems, the military contractors who produce them, and the foreign countries that purchase them.
  • “Negative Reciprocity” Emerges in the Security Clearance System: In the world of security clearances for access to classified information, the term “reciprocity” is used to indicate that one executive branch agency should ordinarily recognize and accept a security clearance that has been granted by another executive branch agency. So possessing a clearance from one agency should simplify the process of access approval at another agency.  But the opposite is not supposed to be true.  If an agency refuses for some reason to recognize the clearance granted by another agency, that refusal is not supposed to incur loss of clearance in the original agency.
  • Intelligence Imagery Set to be Disclosed in 2013: Intelligence community officials say that a massive quantity of historical intelligence satellite imagery from the KH-9 HEXAGON program is being declassified and will be made public in a series of releases that are scheduled over the coming year. In January 2011, DNI James R. Clapper formally declared that the KH-9 HEXAGON program was obsolete, and that declassification review of all program imagery should therefore commence.  KH-9 HEXAGON was operational from 1971 to 1984.
  • Cuban Missile Crisis- Nuclear Order of Battle: At the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States had some 3,500 nuclear weapons ready to use on command, while the Soviet Union had perhaps 300-500. The Cuban Missile Crisis order of battle of useable weapons represented only a small portion of the total inventories of nuclear warheads the United States and Russia possessed at the time. Illustrating its enormous numerical nuclear superiority, the U.S. nuclear stockpile in 1962 included more than 25,500 warheads (mostly for battlefield weapons). The Soviet Union had about 3,350.
  • Court Orders FBI to Release Withheld Information: As often happens, the Federal Bureau of Investigation invoked national security a few years ago to justify withholding certain information from a Freedom of Information Act requester named Deirdre McKiernan Hetzler. But as rarely happens, a court last month critically assessed the FBI national security claim and ordered the Bureau to release some of the withheld information. Ms. Hetzler, acting pro se (i.e. without an attorney), had requested records concerning her deceased father, who had once been the subject of an FBI investigation.  The FBI provided her with some records but withheld others, stating that they remained classified in order to protect an intelligence activity.
  • Historian Anna K. Nelson, RIP: Steven Aftergood remembers Professor Anna K. Nelson, a tenacious and effective advocate for improved public access to national security records who passed away last month. Among many other posts, she served as a presidentially-appointed member of the JFK Assassination Records Review Board, which was tasked to oversee the declassification of records concerning the assassination of President Kennedy.  Because of the perseverance of Dr. Nelson and her colleagues, that Board was uniquely productive in overcoming longstanding barriers to declassification, particularly those pertaining to intelligence agency records.



  • On October 24, Dr. Robert Standish Norris, Senior Fellow for Nuclear Policy, spoke on a panel at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis and the nuclear order of battle. Presentation slides can be viewed here. 


FAS in the News

A Lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fifty Years Later

Courtesy of Monica Amarelo, FAS Director of Communications

Fifty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, many assume that we have moved away from the prospect of a nuclear war. But that’s not the case, claims Dr. Martin Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University and a nuclear security expert. On October 18, 2012, at a briefing hosted by the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC, Hellman discussed his paper, “Fifty Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis: Time to Stop Bluffing at Nuclear Poker,” which was published by FAS and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Hellman argued that the U.S. took considerable risks during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we continue to learn how close those risks brought us to a nuclear war.  On October 27, 1962, U.S. destroyers forced a Soviet submarine to surface near the quarantine line. Now, we know that the submarine carried a nuclear torpedo. Also, the U.S. considered invading Cuba. Yet, decision makers did not know that the Soviet Union had placed battlefield nuclear weapons in Cuba to deter, among other things, an invasion. What we should have learned, said Hellman citing Robert Kennedy, is “the importance of placing ourselves in another person’s shoes.”

However, the record shows that we have not followed this lesson. Hellman argued that the U.S. has not thought through certain foreign policy decisions with regard to America’s stated top priority: nonproliferation.

On December 26, 1979, one day after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that Afghanistan resistance included Pakistan’s exemption from America’s nonproliferation policy. Shortly thereafter, Pakistan developed a nuclear weapons capability. In 2003, President George H. W. Bush promised former Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi an “open path” to relations with the U.S. in exchange for giving up Libya’s weapons of mass destruction. During the Obama administration, NATO and the U.S. overthrew Gaddafi. Hellman argued that this sent a signal to North Korea that it made the right decision to maintain its nuclear program. Examples such as these, Hellman stated, indicate that the U.S. did not learn the lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some policymakers have shifted focus to missile defense. Hellman pointed out that this, too, must follow Kennedy’s lesson.

Hellman stated that the missile defense system in Eastern Europe bears an uncanny resemblance to the set-up in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President John F. Kennedy had placed nuclear-armed American missiles in Turkey in the spring of 1962. If we had taken Russia’s perspective into account, Hellman argued, we would have realized that it made sense for Russia to “hop the line” and stick missiles in Cuba. In the end, it didn’t matter if it was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Russia or a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) from Cuba.

Today, do our Eastern European allies unnecessarily provoke Russia while sitting beneath the U.S. defense umbrella? Hellman recommended that the U.S. “warn allies that our security agreements don’t cover them if they poke the Russian bear.” The same situation, Hellman explained, applies to the “Chinese dragon” and the Senkaku Islands. Hellman asked if the U.S. wanted to risk our homeland’s existence over these islands.

The problem, he argued, is that the United States has unquestioned conventional superiority. China and Russia don’t have the conventional forces to win a war with the U.S., and to save face, the conflict will likely escalate to include nuclear weapons. “Any war with China or Russia runs an unacceptably high risk of going nuclear,” said Hellman.

The conventional wisdom is that nuclear deterrence works. But, what happens if it doesn’t? Hellman said that, “If it doesn’t work perfectly, then it fails, and we’re dead. Can it work perfectly forever? That doesn’t seem reasonable.” At best, Hellman predicted that nuclear deterrence will work for only 1000 years.

Hellman reached this limit through a preliminary study using quantitative risk analysis. He called for Congress to fund a study to use quantitative risk analysis on the possibilities for failures in nuclear deterrence. The goal is to bring greater objectivity and move beyond the current debate. Risk analysis recommends an end state, Hellman explained, and he proposed that the end state be a “state of acceptable risk.” What is acceptable risk? That’s the first question to be answered by this research group.

This end state might not be the goal known as “Global Zero.” Hellman argued that we do not know if we can reach Global Zero, but it seems sensible to keep it as “the vision.” Then, we can see what options are available.

On this issue of nuclear policy, Hellman remarked that there is “bipartisan idiocy and bipartisan sanity.” However, both sides have a vested interest in making sure a nuclear weapon is not launched against the United States. Progress on this issue requires only “a couple of representatives to get this into an appropriations bill,” not a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Today, U.S. policy on deterrence is to appear “irrational and vindictive” regarding threats to our interests. Hellman stated that this was a dangerous policy, especially when it involves nuclear weapons. One product of a study using quantitative risk analysis would be to rethink America’s nuclear force posture with, hopefully Hellman added, less reliance on the first use of nuclear weapons.