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Defense Officials Seek Unprecedented Control over Historical Reports on Nuclear Weapons Stockpile

January 5, 2018

Last year, the National Archives and Records Administration approved an outrageous request by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).  According to the National Archives Request for Records Disposition Authority, DTRA can retain custody of its reports on the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile for 80 years or more after they were created. Under the disposition plan, the reports will be transferred to NARA in five-year blocs 80 years after the last year of the block. Thus, stockpile reports created in 1947 will not go to NARA until 2032. The reports created during 1957 will not transferred until 2042, and so on.   This ill-advised action is contrary to the public interest as well as to NARA’s mission and its organizational interests.

The reports, prepared since 1947, contain information on the “the quantity, location, and status of US Nuclear Weapons.”  In its responsibility to maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and its reliability (a task shared with the Department of Energy),  DTRA is the successor to a series of agencies. In chronological order, the agencies that led up to DTRA were the Armed Force Special Weapons Project, the Defense Atomic Support Agency, the Defense Nuclear Agency, and the Defense Special Weapons Agency. Also merged into DTRA in the late 1990s was the On-Site Inspection Agency, which had responsibility for verifying arms reduction agreements such as the 1987 INF Treaty.

It is likely that DTRA took the initiative in requesting 80 years (much less likely that NARA would have suggested it), but the 80 years that NARA granted is unwarranted and without precedent. (In recent years, NARA has been considering other inappropriate records schedules proposals – see here and here for more.)  For example, it far exceeds the 50 years given to the CIA to transfer its operational files, which are very likely more sensitive than the weapons inventory.  It is not clear whether the Information Security Oversight Office has given DTRA a declassification exemption for this collection of reports. If it has, DTRA has at least minimal support for its argument for 80 years, but that does not change the overall bad picture.  If, however, DTRA does not have an ISOO file series exemption, 80 years could be in breach of federal regulations.

DTRA may argue that because the reports are so sensitive that they are unlikely to be declassified, even those from the early Cold War.  After all, DTRA might argue, information about the numbers and types of weapons is classified under the category of formerly restricted data (FRD), which concerns military applications of nuclear energy (e.g., yields of weapons, stockpiles, tactics).  Yet, would there really be any risk from declassifying most details about the quantities, types, and locations of U.S. nuclear weapons as of 1947 or 1957?

Worth keeping in mind is that the small weapons stockpile of 1947 (mostly bombs) was profoundly different from the much larger stockpile of 1967 (a wide variety of bombs, artillery shells, missile warheads, anti-submarine weapons, etc.) or the much smaller one of 2017.  Moreover, the locations of weapons have greatly changed.  Today’s locations might be the same as those in 1997, but it would be surprising if they were the same as in 1967 or 1977, for example.  Despite DTRA’s assumptions about sensitivity, changed circumstances should make it possible to declassify the earlier data.

Further undercutting DTRA’s case, the U.S. government has already declassified significant information on the weapons stockpile. In May 2010, the Obama administration declassified aggregate stockpile numbers for the period from 1962 to 2009 (the numbers through 1961 were declassified during the Clinton administration).  The Defense Department subsequently declassified more stockpile numbers for the years from 2010 to 2015. That the numerical total has been declassified strongly suggests the declining sensitivity of information about the weapons stockpile.  Moreover, the Defense Department has declassified information about the overseas locations of nuclear weapons over the years (such as Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska), while declassified histories of SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe)  have included details about NATO countries that were the sites of U.S. nuclear deployments.

If, somehow, DTRA believes that the National Archives is not suited to provide the necessary security to store the nuclear stockpile reports it is mistaken.  NARA already stores and secures records that are probably far more sensitive than the weapons reports.  For years, the National Archives has had custody of sensitive records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the armed services, including military intelligence, the restricted data files of the Department of State, and the records of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB).  Some of those records necessarily include facts and figures about nuclear weapons stockpiles.  The preservation and protection of sensitive historical records is a routine part of NARA’s day to day operations.

More generally, it is NARA’s statutory responsibility, not that of the agencies such as DTRA, to take care of older records.  What would be the point of having a national archive if it did not hold historical records such as the nuclear stockpile reports?  Moreover, it seems risky to let DTRA keep those records for so many years.  We would not want some future historian to find out that the reports had been mislaid, trashed, or otherwise discarded, as is known to happen from time to time.  To ensure that these reports are preserved for the historical record while also being made available to researchers within a reasonable time period, DTRA should disclaim its original request for 80 years and begin an orderly process to accession the oldest reports to the National Archives.


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