First Unclassified Nuclear Posture Review Released

04.08.10 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In what may be the Obama Administration’s single most significant reduction in national security secrecy to date, the Department of Defense this week published the first unclassified Nuclear Posture Review.

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) defines U.S. nuclear weapons policy, strategy and force structure.  As such, it is one of the most important national security policy documents in government.  Two previous Reviews conducted by the Clinton and Bush Administrations in 1994 and 2001 were classified and were not meant to be made public.

When portions of the Bush NPR nevertheless leaked in 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld furiously condemned the release.  “Whoever leaked it violated federal criminal law,” he said.  “It seems that there are some people who simply have a compulsion to seem important, so they take classified information which can damage U.S. national security and give it to people who aren’t cleared for it,” he added.  Even after the Bush NPR report leaked, another official said, “the last administration then found it difficult ever to talk about the results of the review, because it was talking about a leaked classified document.”

But this week, in a tangible sign of changing national security secrecy standards, Defense Secretary Robert Gates held a press conference to release the latest NPR document (pdf) himself.

“The report of the Nuclear Posture Review will exist only in unclassified form,” a Pentagon official said at a background briefing on April 6. “There will not be a classified Nuclear Posture Review from which we have redacted a lot of information and then just put forward an unclassified variant. This reflected a decision early in the process…. And in an effort to be fully transparent in our choices and the thinking behind them, we did not want to leave big open questions about what might be left unsaid because it’s in the classified domain.”

This is not the end of nuclear weapons secrecy, by any means.  For one thing, the exact size and composition of the U.S. nuclear arsenal remain classified (wrongly, we would say).  Also, “you know there are classified implementation processes, guidance processes,” the unnamed Pentagon briefer said. “So it’s not that it’s free of classified aspects, but the [NPR] report as such and all of the policy findings and recommendations and all of the logic behind them will be presented at the unclassified level.”

Incongruously, even the Obama Presidential Study Directive that initiated the latest NPR process a year ago remains classified and unavailable.  But with the release of the final Report, that seems like a mere bureaucratic absurdity of little consequence.

The public release of the NPR report does not guarantee a superior policy outcome.  But it does eliminate a longstanding hurdle to informed debate on nuclear weapons policy, and it permits the interested public to focus its attention on the substance of the policy, not on a tiresome pursuit of undisclosed records.

In December 1993, Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary undertook her Openness Initiative, releasing all kinds of previously secret records on nuclear weapons tests, historical production of nuclear materials, and many other important topics.  Borrowing a slogan from an old cigarette ad, a DOE spokesman at the time said that the Department’s new secrecy policy was to “classify less, and enjoy it more.”

In this instance, at least, the Obama Administration seems to be following the same joyful path.

The White House yesterday announced the release of dozens of executive branch agency Open Government Plans, which are supposed to guide the implementation of the President’s Open Government Directive.  Several of the Plans deal, directly or indirectly, with declassification of national security information and records.