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Unlocking the Nuclear Vault

November 4, 2009

Since the National Security Archive’s founding, we have been researching and requesting the declassification of US government records about nuclear crises, nuclear proliferation, and the role of nuclear weapons. The overwhelming importance of the problem of nuclear weapons, an existential threat during most of the Cold War and since, make this subject an enduring focus for the Archive.  One of our earliest projects was on the Cuban Missile Crisis; during the 1990s, other projects on Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy and US Nuclear History followed. By the late 1990s, with the possibilities for document distribution made available by the World Wide Web, the Archive began routinely posting document collections (or “electronic briefing books”) on various nuclear policy issues, including war planning, command and control, nuclear proliferation, and (now with a recent collection on the US Navy and finite deterrence) internal government debates on US nuclear postures, ranging from deep cuts to nuclear abolition. The creation of the Nuclear Vault in 2007 made it possible for the Archive to make the briefing books more readily accessible by consolidating them in one portal.

Research at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) system has been a major source of documents for the Nuclear Vault, but persistent FOIA and mandatory review requesting has been crucial for making some of the most significant postings possible. For example, Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) histories and records of presidential decisions on advance authorization on the use of nuclear weapons only became available through mandatory review requests and appeals. The Archive’s lawsuit against the US Air Force for its negligent handling of FOIA requests yielded invaluable material, such as agency histories of the Taiwan Strait crises and the Air Force’s ballistic missile program.

Nuclear Vault users can read documents that are especially illuminating, but the “ones that get away” also take time and effort. The Nuclear Vault has already published examples of excessive nuclear secrecy at the Pentagon (see the 2003 electronic briefing book, Dubious Secrets), but these are only the tip of the iceberg. The Pentagon’s FOIA review process keeps rolling along, and examples of disproportionate secrecy never fail to appear. For example, a few weeks ago, in response to a 1999 FOIA appeal, I received a Joint Chief of Staff report from 1963 that I originally identified from a withdrawal sheet in State Department records at the National Archives. The document that the Defense Department released is so heavily redacted that even the subject is excised (the general topic is US military policy toward China, possibly involving nuclear issues). What the Pentagon actually “declassified” is so meaningless that the document may as well have been denied in its entirety, but this version counts as a partial release for the Defense Department’s statistical reporting. While US-China relations have involved some sensitive military policy issues over the years, I question whether declassifying the subject of this decades-old report could do any harm to national security now.

Also recently, in final response to another FOIA appeal, the Pentagon released another excised document directly involving nuclear weapons policy toward China. This document, a 1971 report to the State Department, is part of the Defense Department’s response to a Nixon White House national security study memorandum (NSSM), number 69 on “US Nuclear Policy in Asia,” signed by national security adviser Henry Kissinger on 14 July 1969. Kissinger called for a study to examine US strategic capability against China, US theater nuclear capability in the Pacific, US nuclear assurances, and the impact of various policy options on nuclear proliferation. NSSM 69 has been declassified for years, yet when the Defense Department released the document it excised the word “China” from the document as if it was a deep secret that Washington had once been engaged in a bitter Cold War with that country and that nuclear options had been on the table for crisis situations. Although Nixon and Kissinger were privately seeking a rapprochement with Beijing, they also wanted to know what the military realities were if a crisis emerged. As sensitive as this document may have been in 1971, it is unlikely that releasing the word “China” would damage national security.

I hope that President Obama signs a new executive order on classification that lives up to the critique of government secrecy that animated his 2008 campaign. If we’re lucky, the White House’s review of secrecy policy might produce more reasonable standards for declassification review of historical records. But even a very good executive order may not be enough to transform the secrecy culture that is so entrenched at some quarters of the Pentagon. Therefore, challenging and publicizing dubious secrets such as these is likely to keep the Archive’s nuclear project busy for the foreseeable future.

5 Comments
  1. compaz permalink
    January 11, 2011 10:20 pm

    hello , sorry for my silly question, i’m kinda feel like the new dude that don’t find the way to the bathroom .By the way, after spending some time with the national archive site .. and looping around it( i can’t find the yellow button anymore), i ask u some tips for resarch documents.

    i’m in particullary serching for ” memorandum grooves ” of the 30 october 1943 made by james bryant conant.declassified in 1974.

    and as well i’m serching document refering to “percy william bridgman ” as well for “james bryant conant” , “john Deutch”and “edward Teller”.

    thank for any answer.

  2. compaz permalink
    February 2, 2011 2:15 pm

    Well.. maybe i was a too much vague on my previus comment,so now on i’m going to be more direct….maybe too much.

    Was used a third atomic bomb( a bunker buster in particulary) of 5 kilotons by U.S. near Bassora on 27 gebruary 1991(during operation desert storm) ?

    i’m asking this according the testimony of a veteran war named Jim Brown.Here the video where he state this to an italian reporter that worker even in US:

    http://www.rainews24.it/ran24/rainews24_2007/inchieste/08102008_bomba/video_ENG.asp

    and here there are some verification of this affermation by the giornalist, like the sismological activity,and letters submitted and riceved by dep. of state .

    So i was searching docs that support or deny that, but i have fuond nothing int this specific topic.

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