from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
January 4, 2001


Officials of the Departments of Energy and Defense have proposed establishing a new classification category to provide enhanced protection for some of the nation's most sensitive nuclear weapons information.

The proposal is the culmination of the "higher fences" initiative that began during the tenure of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and which called for increasing security for the most sensitive information. The new proposal also responds to controversy over the adequacy of protection of classified nuclear information that arose following the loss of hard drives containing sensitive data at Los Alamos last year.

The new classification category -- dubbed Sigma 16 -- would apply generally to "design specifications that permit the reproduction ... of the complete nuclear assembly system..." and to documents that contain "an aggregation of design information ... that provides comprehensive insight into nuclear weapon capabilities, vulnerabilities, or design philosophies."

The proposal for the new classification category was presented in the "Report of the Joint Policy Group for the Protection of Nuclear Weapons Design and Use Control Information," dated December 1, 2000. A copy of the report was obtained by Secrecy News and is posted here:

Most or all of the affected information is already classified at the Secret Restricted Data level. DOE and DoD officials considered a proposal to upgrade the information to Top Secret RD, but rejected this option as too expensive and unwieldy.

Instead, they recommended creating a new classification category that would entail increased protection -- including, for example, more rigorous background investigations for access approval -- even though the information would remain at its present Secret RD classification level.

The new classification category, Sigma 16, represents an addition to the existing Sigma 1 through Sigma 15 classification scheme. These are subsets of classified nuclear weapons information (classified under the Atomic Energy Act) that are grouped by subject matter.

The definitions of each of the Sigma categories used by the Department of Energy may be found here:

In a separate move, DOE late last month approved the upgrading of 12 topics from Confidential Restricted Data to Secret Restricted Data.


The flip side of the "higher fences" initiative was the removal of controls on information which was no longer sensitive. But important steps to implement this part of the policy have been blocked by the Pentagon.

Energy Department proposals to declassify certain specific categories of information that characterize the history of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile have been consistently resisted by the Defense Department, whose concurrence is required for declassification. The Pentagon's resistance, in turn, has slowed or prevented the declassification of millions of documents that otherwise would have been released.

Senior DOE officials, who seem to have accepted both facets of the "higher fences" initiative in good faith, have been straightforward about their declassification objectives.

"I propose the declassification of total nuclear weapon stockpile quantities (past, present, and future) and subcategorization of those quantities by purpose, delivery system, and active/inactive status, but not by location, or specific weapon type," wrote Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, the director of DOE's Office of Security and Emergency Operations in a May 10, 2000 letter to the Pentagon. This DOE proposal has not been carried out.

See the DOE Fact Sheet on Proposed Declassification of the Number of Nuclear Warheads in the U.S. Stockpile, including the Habiger letter, here:

See the DOE Fact Sheet on Proposed Declassification of the Yields of Retired Nuclear Weapons here:

See the DOE Fact Sheet on Proposed Declassification of the Locations of Former Nuclear Weapons Storage Sites here:


John Pike, a mainstay of the Federation of American Scientists for the past 17 years, departed FAS last month to launch his own organization.

Among the least of his accomplishments, John has been an inspiration and an invaluable resource for the FAS Project on Government Secrecy. Fortunately, he is not going very far. His new web site, still in the initial phase of construction, may be found here:

A recent article entitled "John Pike: An Intelligence Sleuth in His Own Right" by Vernon Loeb in the Washington Post online may be found here:


The collection of open source information for intelligence purposes is the subject of a 1991 Chinese government handbook that has recently entered the public domain.

"Information collection is a science and a technology and we should put forth our best efforts to research information collection," said Qian Xuesen in July 1983, a remark quoted in the handbook.

(This is presumably the same Qian Xuesen, or Tsien Hsue-shen, who was deported from the U.S. in 1955 under suspicion of espionage and who went on to become the founder of China's missile program, as described in Iris Chang's book Thread of the Silkworm.)

"The words of Professor Qian Xuesen moved us deeply," the authors of the handbook write. They offer an unusually rigorous theory of intelligence collection, starting from the definition of information and proceeding to describe how, why, when, where and by whom information of intelligence value can best be collected.

Special attention is devoted to published U.S. sources, including documents generated by the Defense Department, NASA, DOE, and the Congress, as well as private and industry sources. Even experienced American information gatherers might learn a thing or two from the surprisingly detailed survey. ("Each year there are many numbers missing from AIAA conference paper preprints. Why is this?" Several explanations are offered.) But since it is a decade old, much of it is obsolete. And it does not address information collection on the internet.

The manual was reported in a December 26 article by Bill Gertz in the Washington Times. Mr. Gertz described it provocatively as a "spying handbook" and he said it shows that "China's government is engaged in large-scale science and technology spying."

But this is accurate only to the extent that subscribing to Aviation Week or purchasing documents from the National Technical Information Service is "spying." That is to say, not at all. Although openness has costs as well as benefits to U.S. national security, the suggestion that China should be condemned for systematically collecting information that the U.S. government publishes cannot be taken seriously.

On the other hand, the Chinese manual notes: "It is also necessary to stress that there is still 20 percent or less of our intelligence that must come through the collection of information using special means, such as reconnaissance satellites, electronic eavesdropping, and the activities of special agents (purchasing or stealing), etc."

The Chinese handbook, entitled "Sources and Techniques of Obtaining National Defense Science and Technology Intelligence," may be found here:

Another version of the handbook was published earlier by Mr. Gertz on his own website, which is located here:

The story of Qian Xuesen was recalled in a November 8 article by Peter Grier in the Christian Science Monitor entitled "The Forgotten ‘Spy' Case of a Rocket Scientist," which may be found here:


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