Cold War Missiles Target of Blackout
Monday, August 21, 2006
The Bush administration has begun designating as secret some information that the government long provided even to its enemy the former Soviet Union: the numbers of strategic weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.
The Pentagon and the Department of Energy are treating as national security secrets the historical totals of Minuteman, Titan II and other missiles, blacking out the information on previously public documents, according to a new report by the National Security Archive. The archive is a nonprofit research library housed at George Washington University.
"It would be difficult to find more dramatic examples of unjustifiable secrecy than these decisions to classify the numbers of U.S. strategic weapons," wrote William Burr, a senior analyst at the archive who compiled the report. " . . . The Pentagon is now trying to keep secret numbers of strategic weapons that have never been classified before."
The report comes at a time when the Bush administration's penchant for government secrecy has troubled researchers and bred controversy over agency efforts to withhold even seemingly innocuous information. The National Archives was embroiled in scandal during the spring when it was disclosed that the agency had for years kept secret a reclassification program under which the CIA, the Air Force and other agencies removed thousands of records from public shelves.
One month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft instructed federal agencies to be more mindful of national security when deciding whether to publicly release documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Last year, in a study of FOIA requests at 22 agencies from 2000 to 2004, the nonpartisan Coalition of Journalists for Open Government found that agencies cited reasons to withhold unclassified information 22 percent more often than before Ashcroft's directive.
The administration's affinity for secrecy also was exemplified in its legal battle to withhold the names of oil company executives and others who attended meetings in 2001 of a White House task force that helped draft a national energy policy. More recently, President Bush has made clear his administration's willingness to prosecute individuals it believes unlawfully possess classified material.
Maj. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said officials strive to properly apply rules governing what should be classified and are researching why the missile information cited in the archive report was blacked out. The report was released Friday.
"The Department of Defense takes the responsibility of classifying information seriously," Ryder said. "This includes classifying information at the lowest level possible."
Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a part of the Energy Department, said the Pentagon excised the missile numbers. Under a 1998 law, Wilkes's agency focuses on scrubbing declassified documents for sensitive U.S. nuclear weapons information that, in the wrong hands, could be used to harm Americans, he said.
"It's not our call to do missile data," Wilkes said. "There's no question that current classified nuclear weapons data was out there that we had to take back," he added. "And in today's environment, where there is a great deal of concern about rogue nations or terrorist groups getting access to nuclear weapons, this makes a lot of sense."
Archive officials say the Pentagon was using guidelines developed by the Energy Department in blacking out the missile data.
During the Cold War, the United States devoted substantial manpower and money to counting Soviet missiles, experts said. At the same time, U.S. officials sometimes were quite open about the number of American missiles, using the data to illustrate the deterrent power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and to make the case for more defense spending. Indeed, such numbers were routinely disclosed in annual reports to Capitol Hill by secretaries of defense dating to at least the 1960s, according to Burr.
In a 1971 appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, for instance, Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird offered a chart showing, among other things, that the United States had 30 strategic bomber squadrons, 54 Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles and 1,000 Minuteman missiles.
Those numbers, made public on March 9, 1971, are redacted in a copy of the chart obtained by the archive's researchers in January as part of a declassified government history of the U.S. air and missile defense system, according to archive officials.
"It's yet another example of silly secrecy," said Thomas Blanton, the archive's director.
In another case, Burr cited two declassified copies of a 75-page memo on military policy issues that Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara sent to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, one obtained from the National Archives in 1999 and the other from the Pentagon this year.
In the 2006 copy, Pentagon reviewers blacked out numbers that were left untouched in the earlier version, including the number of ballistic missile launchers and the number of heavy bombers the United States expected to have in 1965, 1967 and 1970. (Comparative numbers for the Soviet Union were left alone.)
Burr also compared two copies of a memo that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote for President Gerald R. Ford for a 1974 National Security Council meeting on arms control negotiations.
One copy, obtained from the NSC through a Freedom of Information Act request in 1999, has visible references to "200 older B-52 bombers" and 240 Trident missiles, among other weapons data. In the second copy, released by the Gerald R. Ford Library in May 2006, such information is blacked out -- as is similar data for the Soviet Union.
Experts say there is no national security reason for the administration to keep such historical information under wraps -- especially when it has been publicly available for years.
Robert S. Norris, a senior research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said U.S. officials handed more detailed accounts of the U.S. nuclear arsenal over to the Soviets as part of the two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) and the two Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.
"Is that now going to be reclassified?" asked Norris. "I would say that the horse is out of the barn and they are only making themselves look ridiculous. At someone's direction, declassification reviewers have gotten carried away and are applying the rather vague and open-ended guidelines to the point of absurdity."
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said the report illustrates how arbitrary the classification system is.
"Information is classified not because it's sensitive, but because somebody says it is classified," he said. "Several years into the 21st century, we still haven't figured out how to do classification policy right, and the government is still botching the matter."