NARA and Declassification

Statement of Robert S. Norris before the Public Interest Declassification Board

National Resources Defense Council before the Public Interest Declassification Board

July 22, 2010

By Robert S. Norris
Senior Research Associate
Natural Resources Defense Council

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Board, thank you for the invitation to share my thoughts with you about declassifying historically significant Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) information.

For the past thirty years my main professional interest has been to research and write about all aspects of the nuclear arsenals of those nations that possess nuclear weapons and some of the terminated programs that other nations have undertaken. With my colleagues our goal was to try and answer some basic, and at times sensitive, questions about nuclear weapons, questions that had not been covered in the literature up until that time. We wanted to know what the weapons looked like, how many there were, how they were made, and where they were located, matters at the core of FRD. I should add that I do not have, and have never had a security clearance. It would be the last thing in the world I would want. Through vigorous use of the Freedom of Information Act and close attention to primary documents such as Congressional hearings, government reports and historical archives we began to fill in the blanks and answer many of those questions. This eventually led to publication of five reference volumes known as the Nuclear Weapons Databook series. The first three were on United States nuclear weapons and the complex where they were developed, tested and produced, a fourth volume was about Soviet nuclear weapons and a fifth about British, French, and Chinese nuclear weapons. Through supplementary books, reports and a column entitled Nuclear Notebook in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that I have co-authored since 1987, my colleagues and I have tried to stay current with global developments.

As an example of how interesting and historically significant FRD information can benefit our understanding of post-World War II history let me recount one case. My most successful FOIA request was a Pentagon document entitled the History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons: July 1945 through September 1977. Though it took many years for it to make its way through numerous U.S. government departments and agencies eventually a sanitized version was released in 1999, and is now on the Department of Defense Website for all to use. It is filled with information and many interesting articles can begin here.

Appendix B of the History is a six-page listing of the deployment of nuclear weapons (by type) to countries and U.S. territories and though some names were blacked out because it was listed alphabetically it did not take long to have a full record of where U.S. nuclear weapons were deployed from 1945 to 1977. With my co-authors, William Burr and William M. Arkin, we made one mistake about one country (and came close to causing an international incident) and were stymied by another but eventually we compiled a full list and published it in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I have attached the two articles that drew upon this key document. I have had repeated contacts over the years from other scholars who use the article as a place to begin to examine the history of nuclear weapons in country A or B. I have also attached a paper I presented soon after receiving the History that summarizes some of what can be derived from the report and shows how FRD enhances our understanding of, in this instance, the scope and scale of U.S. nuclear weapons deployments to Europe.

As an aside it was never quite clear to me why certain nations were included in the Appendix and certain others blacked out. For example, the United Kingdom and West Germany were identified but six other NATO countries were not.

In May of this year the Pentagon released a Fact Sheet detailing the numbers of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile from 1962 to 2010. With the earlier release in June 1994 by Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary that listed annual numbers from 1945-1961 we now have an official record of the size of the U.S. stockpile over 65 years. That release also included the total megatonnage in the U.S. stockpile for the years 1945-94. Obviously this information is most useful for tracking the U.S. part of the nuclear arms race.

Estimating the size and composition of the U.S. nuclear stockpile has been one of our priority research goals over the years as journalists, scholars, and the public were curious to have approximate figures. We were pleased to see that our annual estimates were quite close to the official figures, generally just a percent or two off. As for 2010 our figure of 5100 was just 13 short of the official number of 5113. As a result of these two actions the U.S. government has already declassified a great deal of historically significant FRD information.

In addition to the FRD information officially released by the U.S. Government there are large amounts of more specific FRD information available at the National Security Archive Web site and in a recent book I co-authored (with Norman Polmar) The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons and Delivery Systems Since 1945 (US Naval Institute Press, 2010) among many other places. Some of it has been released piecemeal in declassification actions, through leaks in newspaper or magazine articles and in other ways. It has to do with:

  • Stockpile Quantities
  • Yields and Effects Storage and Deployment Locations (Foreign and Domestic,
  • Past and Present)

Though not officially declassified this body of knowledge exists and is used by journalists and scholars.

While there is a rich literature about the Cold War and post-war diplomatic history the often hidden role of nuclear weapons is sometimes missing. For example, the story of U.S. negotiations with each of the nations that hosted the weapons remains to be fully told. To take one case the history of U.S. nuclear weapons in Japan, always a sensitive issue, has scholarly interest and contemporary relevance. Much information has come to light but the full story remains to be told. There is a new biography of Edwin Reischauer (U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1961-66) that treats portions of this secret story and the Japanese government has recently released documents about contingency plans to re-introduce weapons back into Okinawa and elsewhere after their withdrawal in 1972.

What of the other nations? What do we know of how U.S. nuclear weapons were deployed to Canada, Morocco, the Philippines, Italy, or Taiwan, for example?

In short careful declassification of historically significant FRD would be welcome and enrich our understanding of U.S. foreign and military policy.

Many of the issues and recommendations described in the December 2007 report, Improving Declassification are being addressed and implemented. The establishment of a National Declassification Center and the Forum that met last month to present a prioritization plan are welcome signs of concrete efforts to solve long standing problems.

As to how to go about declassifying FRD Issue No. 13 of the 2007 Report has three recommendations that clarify its status and treatment.

1. Bring FRD into the classification system where it will be safeguarded and declassified like other “defense information.” The President could accomplish this by an amendment to Executive Order 12958.
2. Apply the 25-year limit to FRD that the President still considers sensitive.
3. Have an appropriately cleared representative to help mediate in cases where FRD remains outside the declassification system.
I fully support Dr. Burr’s more specific recommendations that have been presented today as well as Steven Aftergood’s article on reducing government secrecy in the Spring 2009 issue of the Yale Law & Policy Review.

You will be making your recommendations within the context of an administration that is committed to transparency. The Obama administration sees openness and transparency as an element in its larger national security strategy. A recent example is that the Nuclear Posture Review was made public and has no secret version, unlike past reviews. There is an important statement in the Pentagon’s Fact Sheet about the stockpile:"Increasing the transparency of global nuclear stockpiles is important to nonproliferation efforts, and to pursuing follow-on reductions after the ratification and entry into force of the New START Treaty that cover all nuclear weapons: deployed and non-deployed, strategic and non-strategic."

In conclusion, as someone who writes about all aspects of nuclear weapons I believe that the careful declassification of historically significant FRD can greatly contribute to a fuller history and greater understanding than would otherwise be the case.