The Pentagon has thrown a cloak of secrecy over assessments of the safety and security of its nuclear weapons operations, a part of the military with a history of periodic inspection failures and bouts of low morale.
Overall results of routine inspections at nuclear weapons bases, such as a “pass-fail” grade, had previously been publicly available. They are now off-limits. The change goes beyond the standard practice of withholding detailed information on the inspections.
The stated reason for the change is to prevent adversaries from learning too much about U.S. nuclear weapons vulnerabilities. Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the added layer of secrecy was deemed necessary.
“We are comfortable with the secrecy,” Hicks said Monday, adding that it helps ensure that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. will maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear stockpile.”
Critics question the lockdown of information.
“The whole thing smells bad,” said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists. “They’re acting like they have something to hide, and it’s not national security secrets.”
“I think the new policy fails to distinguish between protecting valid secrets and shielding incompetence,” he added. “Clearly, nuclear weapons technology secrets should be protected. But negligence or misconduct in handling nuclear weapons should not be insulated from public accountability.”
The decision to conceal results from inspections of how nuclear weapons are operated, maintained and guarded follows a secret recommendation generated by in-depth Pentagon reviews of problems with the weapons, workers and facilities making up the nation’s nuclear force.
But the problems that prompted the reviews three years ago weren’t created by releasing inspection results. The problems were actual shortcomings in the nuclear force, including occasional poor performance, security lapses and flawed training, driven in part by underspending and weak leadership.
The overall results of such inspections, minus security-sensitive details, used to be publicly available.
They provided the initial basis for Associated Press reporting in 2013-2014 on missteps by the Air Force nuclear missile corps.