U.S. tight­ens se­cu­rity on in­spec­tions

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Burns

WASH­ING­TON» 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 short­com­ings in the nu­clear force, in­clud­ing oc­ca­sional poor per­for­mance, se­cu­rity lapses and flawed train­ing, driven in part by un­der- spend­ing and weak lead­er­ship. The over­all re­sults of such in­spec­tions, mi­nus se­cu­rity-sen­si­tive de­tails, used to be avail­able.

They pro­vided the ini­tial ba­sis for As­so­ci­ated Press re­port­ing in 2013-14 on mis­steps by the Air Force nu­clear mis­sile corps.

The AP doc­u­mented se­cu­rity lapses, lead­er­ship and train­ing fail­ures, mo­rale prob­lems and other is­sues, prompt­ing the Pen­tagon un­der De­fense Sec­re­tary Chuck Hagel to or­der an in-depth study by an in­de­pen­dent group. The re­view, pub­lished in Novem­ber 2014, found deeply rooted prob­lems and rec­om­mended reme­dies still in the works. In par­al­lel, Hagel or­dered what he called an in­ter­nal re­view of the nu­clear prob­lems. Its find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tion are se­cret.

With­out com­ment­ing on the de­ci­sion to clas­sify in­spec­tion grades, Hagel said in an email that ex­ces­sive gov­ern­ment se­crecy is dan­ger­ous. “Trust and con­fi­dence of the peo­ple is the coin of the realm for lead­ers and na­tions,” Hagel wrote. “That re­quires an open­ness even on sen­si­tive is­sues. Cer­tain specifics must al­ways stay clas­si­fied for na­tional se­cu­rity rea­sons but should be clas­si­fied only when ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary. When you close down in­for­ma­tion chan­nels and stop the flow of in­for­ma­tion you in­vite ques­tions, dis­trust and in­ves­ti­ga­tions.”

Of the re­views con­ducted in 2014, the se­cret re­port is the one that con­tains the rec­om­men­da­tion to fur­ther re­strict re­lease of in­spec­tion re­sults, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Joseph W. Kirschbaum, di­rec­tor of de­fense ca­pa­bil­i­ties and man­age­ment at the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, the con­gres­sional watch­dog.

In ef­fect, the Pen­tagon used the cover of clas­si­fi­ca­tion to ob­scure its de­ci­sion to make nu­clear in­spec­tion re­sults se­cret.

The added layer of se­crecy did not come to light un­til an Air Force per­son­nel of­fice posted on its web­site on June 14 a no­tice that the “grade,” or over­all re­sult, of a nu­clear in­spec­tion could no longer be men­tioned in any per­son­nel doc­u­ments such as en­listed and of­fi­cer per­for­mance re­ports, ci­ta­tions or award nom­i­na­tions.

The change is even broader, how­ever. It pro­hibits any men­tion of in­spec­tion re­sults in any un­clas­si­fied De­fense Depart­ment doc­u­ment.

The new rule started go­ing into ef­fect in March, af­fect­ing the Navy, which op­er­ates the bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­ma­rine seg­ment of the nu­clear force, and the Air Force, which op­er­ates land-based nu­clear mis­siles and nu­clear bombers.

The Pen­tagon made the change by rewrit­ing an “in­struc­tion” is­sued by the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s of­fice. The re­vi­sion isn’t pub­licly avail­able.

Hicks, the Joint Chiefs spokesman, said the in­struc­tion is not clas­si­fied but is au­tho­rized for “lim­ited” dis­tri­bu­tion, keep­ing it from re­lease. An AP re­quest for a copy was de­nied.

Asked why the in­struc­tion was re­vised, Hicks said the 2014 Pen­tagon re­view rec­om­mended that the Air Force “adopt the Navy’s pol­icy” on clas­si­fi­ca­tion of nu­clear in­spec­tion re­sults.

The Pen­tagon has never as­serted that re­port­ing on in­spec­tion re­sults has com­pro­mised nu­clear se­cu­rity.

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