For the first time in years, the Department of Defense has denied a request to declassify the current size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
“After careful consideration. . . it was determined that the requested information cannot be declassified at this time,” wrote Andrew P. Weston-Dawkes of the Department of Energy in a letter conveying the DoD decision not to disclose the number of warheads in the U.S. arsenal at the end of Fiscal Year 2018 or the number that had been dismantled.
The Federation of American Scientists had sought declassification of the latest stockpile figures in an October 1, 2018 petition. It is this request that was denied.
Because the current size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile constitutes so-called “Formerly Restricted Data,” which is a classification category under the Atomic Energy Act, its declassification requires the concurrence of both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. In this case, DOE did not object to declassification but DOD did.
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The size of the current stockpile was first declassified in 2010. It was one of a number of breakthroughs in open government that were achieved in the Obama Administration. (Until that time, only the size of the historic stockpile through 1961 had been officially disclosed, which was done in 1993.)
“Increasing the transparency of our nuclear weapons stockpile, and our dismantlement, as well, is important to both our nonproliferation efforts and to the efforts we have under way to pursue arms control that will follow the new START treaty,” said a Pentagon official at a May 2010 press briefing on the decision to release the information.
In truth, the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile was not such a big secret even when it was classified. Before the 2009 total of 5,113 warheads was declassified in 2010, Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of FAS had estimated it at 5,200 warheads. Likewise, while the 2013 total turned out to be 4,804 warheads, their prior open source estimate was not too far off at 4,650 warheads.
But even if it is partly a formality, classifying stockpile information means that officials cannot publicly discuss it or be effectively questioned in public about it.
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But why now? Why is the Pentagon reverting to the pre-Obama practice of keeping the total stockpile number and the number of dismantled weapons classified? Why could the FY 2017 total (3,822 warheads) be disclosed, while the FY 2018 total cannot?
No reason was provided in the latest denial letter, and none of the decision makers was available to explain the rationale behind it.
But another official said the problem was that one of the main purposes of the move to declassify the stockpile total — namely, to set an example of disclosure that other countries would follow — had not been reciprocated as hoped.
“Stockpile declassification has not led to greater openness by Russia,” the official said.
“Anyway, it’s not a bilateral world anymore,” he said. And so DoD would also be looking for greater transparency from China than has been realized up to now.
Have new U.S. nuclear weapons programs played a role in incentivizing greater secrecy? “I doubt it,” this official said. “If anything, it’s the reverse. The US government has a motive to make it clear where it’s headed.”
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“I think we should have more communication with Russia,” said U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the retiring Supreme Allied Commander Europe. “It would ensure that we understand each other and why we are doing what we’re doing.”
But for now, that’s not the direction in which things are moving, and not only with respect to stockpile secrecy. See “US-Russia chill stirs worry about stumbling into conflict” by Robert Burns, Associated Press, April 14.