Alex Wellerstein pulls back the curtain on nuclear secrecy via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Susan D’Agostino | April 26, 2021

Historian Alex Wellerstein has thought about nuclear secrecy for a long time. He began writing his book, Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, when George W. Bush was president. He continued writing through the Obama and Trump administrations and released it during Biden’s first 100 days. Even so, the result seems current. US nuclear secrecy is a timeless topic, and Restricted Data informs the present as much as the past.

Restricted data” is a legal term relating to information about nuclear weapons, fissile material, and nuclear energy in the United States. The idea: The existential threat to humanity posed by the bomb is so singular that attempts to keep it secret require a special legal construction. But nuclear secrecy is more than legalese. It is “a bundle of many different ideas, desires, fears, hopes, activities, and institutional relationships that have changed over time, at times dramatically,” Wellerstein writes.

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Susan D’Agostino: Did your lack of a clearance hinder your research?

Alex Wellerstein: You get real used to looking at deleted spots when you do any kind of work around nuclear weapons. And you get really used to your Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests being denied. With nukes there’s always going to be stuff deleted. But I was able to get some previously classified information through FOIA. There’s so much documentation out there that the problem was never not having access. I was drowning in paperwork for most of this book.

There are two reasons things might be still secret. One is it contains information that some classification guide out there says shouldn’t be released. And it’s going to be the judgment of whoever’s redacting it not to release it, based on the guide. Occasionally the things I want to know and the things that the censor cares about are the same, and then I have to work around that edge.

The other reason that it might be still classified is because nobody has taken the time to declassify it. This is a backlog problem. Only some small fraction of classified records have been reviewed for release. When I’m filing a FOIA request, I’m not expecting them to give me anything that would still be secret by any definition, but I’m expecting them to give me some things that nobody has bothered to request before and the agencies haven’t processed before. So, I did sometimes find new things this way.

Susan D’Agostino: In the case where the information you requested remained classified, how did you work around that edge?

Alex Wellerstein: Occasionally, they screw up the redaction, which gives you a glimpse behind the curtain. In one case, they sent me two different versions of the same classification guide in response to my FOIA request. But two different people reviewed these two identical versions, and they each redacted slightly differently. And if I combined their two versions, I sometimes had the full thing.

You learn that most of what they’re redacting is really boring. It’s not that they’re redacting, “Oh, we did some terrible thing.” It’s that they’re redacting that the size of this nozzle is 0.5 millimeters, and some other guy redacts the thing that says, “the size of this nozzle could also be 0.6 millimeters.” When you combine them together, you get the full story. But it’s usually not all that interesting a story.

I tried to understand how secrecy functions from the perspective of the person within the system—as opposed to how it looks on the outside, where it can look arbitrary, capricious, and foolish. On the inside, they’re given this impossible task of interpreting guidelines and then marking things up with absolute perfection. Their task is extremely technical. You can see the logic behind that, but it’s easy to say, “I don’t think the sum total of all of these tiny redactions is going to have much of an effect on proliferation one way or the other.”

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In the ’90s, when they were trying to open things up, they brought those classification officials into a much wider conversation. They didn’t just have them talk with university scientists but with people who lived around production plants that might be polluting the environment or people downwind of nuclear testing. They had them talk with historians who do research on these topics and struggle to tell certain stories. If you could widen the perspective of the people within the classification system, it wouldn’t produce radical change overnight, but there might be more options. They could give slightly more information without giving away any secrets. They could say, “we really believe this could impact our nuclear proliferation or nuclear terrorism priorities.” People on the outside of these systems might not buy that, but they might feel like it was less arbitrary. It feels incredibly arbitrary when all you can get is, “no—national security.”

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