Classified and Public: B-53 Bomb Yield Declassified

The explosive yield of the B-53 thermonuclear bomb, once the highest-yield nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, was 9 Megatons. “Effective 20 November, 2014, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy jointly declassified the fact that the yield of the B53/W53 Y1 was 9 megatons,” according to a notice posted on a DoD website last week.

This is less of a breakthrough in declassification policy than might be supposed, since the 9 Megaton yield for the B-53 bomb has been publicly reported for decades, including on this 1997 web page.

But it seems that this information had not been officially disclosed before. Now that it has been, it can be publicly acknowledged by government employees without penalty and it no longer need be painstakingly redacted from historical documents as they are processed for declassification.

The problem of nuclear weapons information that is both formally classified and readily available to the public has long been a challenge for the Department of Energy.

Last September, DOE updated its longstanding “GEN 16” policy which dictates a “no comment” response to classified information in public settings.

The newly revised no-comment policy “recognizes that it is possible to have incidental contact online” with a classified document and that “merely reading the document online does not constitute a comment.” See Classification Bulletin GEN-16, Revision 2, No Comment Policy on Classified Information in the Open Literature, September 23, 2014.

A DOE training package gives guidance on how to respond, and how not to respond, to public references to information that is classified, in accordance with the GEN-16 policy. The following exchange is offered as an example of what NOT to say:

Joe: “Can you believe there were weapons in X country?” [when that fact is classified]

DOE: “I thought everyone knew that”

Instead, suggested alternative DOE responses are: “I never really thought about it,” or “DOE doesn’t confirm or deny the presence of weapons in most countries.”

Another example of what NOT to say:

Joe: “Is it true you’re holding up publication of Jim’s book on his work in nuclear weapons development because of classification concerns?”

DOE: “It’s taking a long time to review, not just because there is a lot of classified information about thermonuclear weapons, but also because it’s boring.”

One should also not disconfirm the status or validity of published nuclear-related information, DOE advises. Thus, one should not say, “I hope terrorists read that article, because the [nuclear weapon] design was a joke.”

See DOE briefing on Classification Bulletin GEN-16, Revision 2, Classification Training Institute, October 2014.

Declassification of Nuclear Warhead Build Rate Sought

The Federation of American Scientists this week petitioned the Department of Energy to declassify the annual rate at which the United States built new nuclear weapons throughout the cold war.

“The proposed declassification would enrich public understanding of the historical development of the U.S. stockpile. Disclosure of the actual build rate per year would add a dimension to the cold war historical narrative and bolster transparency in nuclear policy,” the FAS request said.

Total annual build rates have previously been declassified for the years 1945 through 1961.

The last completely new nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal was assembled on July 31, 1990, according to Stephen I. Schwartz of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Sen. Markey to DoE: What About the James Doyle Case?

Senator Edward J. Markey asked the Secretary of Energy this week to expedite the investigation of the firing of James Doyle from Los Alamos National Laboratory, which occurred after Doyle published an analysis critical of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

“I write to urge you in the strongest possible terms to quickly conclude your investigation into the recent termination of Dr. James E. Doyle, a nuclear security and non-proliferation specialist who had been employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for 17 years,” Sen. Markey wrote.

“Dr. Doyle was terminated after an article he published crticizing the deterrence value of nuclear weapons was retroactively classified. At best, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) classification procedures are too vague to be uniformly applied. At worst, it appears that these classification procedures were used to silence and retaliate against those who express dissenting opinions,” he wrote.

The Doyle case generated significant controversy among his colleagues and others concerned with nuclear security policy.

In response to public concerns, the Department of Energy said it had initiated an Inspector General review of the case. But there has been no known follow-up to date.

Transcript of 1954 Oppenheimer Hearing Declassified in Full

The transcript of the momentous 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing that led the AEC to revoke the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had led the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic bomb, has now been declassified in full by the Department of Energy.

“The Department of Energy has re-reviewed the original transcript and is making available to the public, for the first time, the full text of the transcript in its original form,” according to a notice posted on Friday.

The Oppenheimer hearing was a watershed event that signaled a crisis in the nuclear weapons bureaucracy and a fracturing of the early post-war national security consensus. Asked for his opinion of the proceedings at the time, Oppenheimer told an Associated Press reporter (cited by Philip Stern) that “People will study the record of this case and reach their own conclusions. I think there is something to be learned from it.”

And so there is. But what?

“No document better explains the America of the cold war — its fears and resentments, its anxieties and dilemmas,” according to Richard Polenberg, who produced an abridged edition of the hearing transcript in 2002 based on the redacted original. “The Oppenheimer hearing also serves as a reminder of the fragility of individual rights and of how easily they may be lost.”

It further represented a breakdown in relations between scientists and the U.S. government and within the scientific community itself.

“The Oppenheimer hearing claims our attention not only because it was unjust but because it undermined respect for independent scientific thinking at a time when such thinking was desperately needed,” wrote historian Priscilla J. McMillan.

First published in redacted form by the Government Printing Office in 1954, the Oppenheimer hearing became a GPO best-seller and went on to inform countless historical studies.

The transcript has attracted intense scholarly attention even to some of its finer details. At one point (Volume II, p. 281), for example, Oppenheimer is quoted as saying “I think you can’t make an anomalous rise twice.” What he actually said, according to author Philip M. Stern, was “I think you can’t make an omelet rise twice.”

The Department of Energy has previously declassified some portions of the Oppenheimer transcript in response to FOIA requests. But this is said to be the first release of the entire unredacted text. It is part of a continuing series of DOE declassifications of historical records of documents of particular historic value and public interest.

The newly declassified portions are helpfully consolidated and cross-referenced in a separate volume entitled “Record of Deletions.”

At first glance, it is not clear that the new disclosures will substantially revise or add to previous understandings of the Oppenheimer hearing. But their release does finally remove a blemish of secrecy from this historic case.

Energy Dept to Review Classification Standards for Clarity

The Department of Energy will review its classification standards to improve their clarity and to eliminate possible ambiguities, the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration told the Federation of American Scientists this week.

The issue arose in response to the case of James Doyle, a Los Alamos political scientist who published an article on nuclear weapons policy that was initially cleared for publication, but then was said to contain classified information. Doyle’s employment at Los Alamos was later terminated in what was perceived by some to be an act of retaliation. (See Nuclear weapons lab employee fired after publishing scathing critique of the arms race by Douglas Birch, Center for Public Integrity, July 31, 2014.)

“It should not be possible for two reviewers to reach opposing conclusions as to whether a manuscript contains classified information or not,” wrote FAS President Charles D. Ferguson in an August 21 letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “But that is apparently what happened” in the Doyle case.

“Accordingly, we urge you to direct that the relevant classification guidance be reviewed and clarified to eliminate all potential ambiguity of the sort that was on display here,” the FAS letter said.

“That is a worthwhile and welcome suggestion,” replied NNSA Administrator Frank G. Klotz on September 15, “and we will undertake such a review as well.”

“The Department of Energy fully subscribes to the principle and importance of academic freedom at our laboratories, and will not tolerate retaliation against nor dismissal of employees or contractors based on the opinions they express in scholarly publications and presentations.”

“Without commenting on the particulars of Mr. Doyle’s case, I have asked the Department’s Inspector General to examine whether Mr. Doyle’s termination resulted in whole or in part from the publication of an article he authored,” Gen. Klotz wrote.

(See related stories in The Daily Beast, Albuquerque Journal.)