Nuclear Secrecy: In Defense of Reform

05.26.21 | 5 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

One of the stranger features of nuclear weapons secrecy is the government’s ability to reach out and classify nuclear weapons-related information that has been privately generated without government involvement. This happened most recently in 2001.

The roots of this constitutionally questionable policy are investigated in Restricted Data, a book by science historian Alex Wellerstein that sheds new light on the origins and development of nuclear secrecy.

One might suppose that nuclear secrecy is merely incidental to the larger history of nuclear weapons, but Wellerstein demonstrates that the subject is rich and dynamic and consequential enough to merit a history of its own.

He traces nuclear secrecy back to the Manhattan Project (or shortly before) when the most basic questions were first posed: what is a nuclear secret? what is the role of “information” in creating nuclear weapons? what can secrecy accomplish and what are its hazards? when and how are secrets to be disclosed?

Answers to such questions naturally varied. The basic idea of the atomic bomb did not actually involve any secrets, according to physicist Hans Bethe. But when it came to the hydrogen bomb, he said, “this time we have a real secret to protect.”

Wellerstein is not just an accomplished historian who has done his archival homework, he is also a lively storyteller. And he leavens his narrative with surprising observations and insights. We learn, for example, that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn read a copy of the official Smyth Report on the atomic bomb while on his way to the Gulag. Elsewhere Wellerstein writes that declassification can be a way of reinforcing classification: “the release of some information [is] used to uphold the importance of not releasing other information. . . . disclosure could be a form of control as well.”

Challenges to nuclear secrecy quickly came from many directions: Soviet spies, recalcitrant scientists, careless bureaucrats, and eventually “anti-secrecy” activists.

Wellerstein devotes a particularly engaging chapter to the “anti-secrecy” efforts of Howard Morland, the late Chuck Hansen, and Bill Arkin who all, for their own diverse reasons, defied or circumvented secrecy controls.

He gives less focused attention to more conventional attempts to reform and reduce nuclear secrecy, which he seems to consider less significant than the antagonistic efforts to discover classified matters.

Maybe because I was present on the periphery of the Openness Initiative led by Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary in 1993-97, I found Wellerstein’s treatment of it to be somewhat cursory and understated. From my perspective, the O’Leary Openness Initiative represented the single biggest discontinuity in the history of nuclear secrecy since the 1945 Smyth Report that first described the production of the atomic bomb.

Within a fairly short period of time, O’Leary declassified and disclosed (as Wellerstein notes) a complete list of nuclear explosive tests and their yields; inventories of highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium; most of the previously classified research on inertial confinement fusion; and a wealth of other historical and contemporary nuclear weapons-related information that had been sought by researchers and advocates. The final report of a year-long Fundamental Classification Policy Review launched by O’Leary and intended to reboot classification policy somehow did not make it into Wellerstein’s notes or bibliography. A copy is here.

Outside critics of secrecy who join the government will often adapt themselves to the status quo, Wellerstein writes. They find that secrecy is “sticky” and hard to dislodge. Yet O’Leary dislodged it repeatedly.

The date of her 1993 Openness press conference — it was December 7 — remains fresh in memory because a Washington Times columnist called it “the most devastating single attack on the underpinnings of the U.S. national security structure since Japan’s lightning strike” on Pearl Harbor. That can’t have been pleasant for her. But O’Leary came back and did it again with more declassified disclosures a few months later. And then again.

So one lesson for secrecy reform that emerges from the O’Leary Openness Initiative is that it matters who is in charge. Given a choice between an opportunity to wordsmith a classification policy regulation or to select an agency head who is committed to open government, it is clear what the right move would be. Good policy statements can be ignored or subverted. Good leaders will often get the job of reform done.

A second lesson here is that “nuclear secrecy” is not an undifferentiated mass of information and that not all nuclear secrets are equally important or equally in demand.

O’Leary’s use of the management jargon of “stakeholders” reflected the reality that different groups had different interests in reducing nuclear secrecy and that different secrets were sought by each. Environmentalists wanted environmental information. Laser fusion scientists wanted fusion technology. Arms controllers wanted stockpile data. Historians wanted other things. And so on. Interestingly, there was also plenty of stuff that no one wanted. There is a good deal of classified technical data that has little or no policy relevance or historical significance — or that everyone agrees is properly withheld.

It can be difficult to think clearly about nuclear secrecy and to set aside what one wishes were true in order to acknowledge what actually appears to be the case. As startling and unprecedented as O’Leary’s disclosures were, the lasting impact of the Openness Initiative was limited, as Wellerstein assesses. Her disclosures were not reversed (they couldn’t be), but her successors resembled her predecessors more than they resembled her. What’s worse is that mere “facts” like those that she released seem to have less traction on the political process than ever before.

Wellerstein does an outstanding job of explaining how we got where we are today, and his analysis will help inform where we might realistically hope to go in the future. Restricted Data is bound to be the definitive work on the history of nuclear secrecy.

*    *    *

Last month marked 30 years since the classified Pentagon nuclear rocket program codenamed Timberwind was disclosed without authorization. See “Secret Nuclear-Powered Rocket Being Developed for ‘Star Wars'” by William J. Broad, New York Times, April 3, 1991.

In those days before the world wide web and the proliferation of online news and opinion, the story’s appearance on the front page of the New York Times (“above the fold”) commanded wide attention and soon led to formal declassification of the program followed by its termination.

*    *    *

There is no shortage of secrets remaining at the Department of Energy, according to one recent account. See “If You Want To Hide A Classified Program, Try The Department Of Energy” by Brett Tingley, The Drive: The Warzone, May 13.