Sometimes it is claimed that we should leave nuclear matters to “those who know better” because classified information allows the experts to make better decisions. While I don’t have direct experience with classified information related to nuclear weapons, a very similar argument – later proven to be false – was made repeatedly with respect to my work in cryptography.
My cryptographic research was all done without benefit of classified information since it was intended to protect unclassified but sensitive information, such as your medical records, credit card transactions, and confidential business plans. While I was repeatedly enticed to work in the classified domain, I resisted that temptation because it would hamper my ability to publish and make my work available for public use. During that period, I can’t count the number of times I was told, “If you knew what we knew, you’d think differently.”
In 1994, Congress directed the National Research Council to undertake a study of national cryptographic policy and, as a well-known privacy advocate and contributor to the field, I was asked to serve on the committee. Because I was retiring from Stanford and active cryptographic research, I decided I now could accept a clearance, see what “they” knew, and decide whether it really would change my perspective. Our committee included former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti and former Deputy Director of the National Security Agency Ann Caracristi (representing law enforcement and national security interests respectively), yet we unanimously concluded:
The conduct of the debate regarding national cryptography policy has been complicated because a number of participants have often invoked classified information that cannot be made public. However, the cleared members of the National Research Council’s Committee to Study National Cryptography Policy (13 of the 16 committee members) concluded that the debate over national cryptography policy can be carried out in a reasonable manner on an unclassified basis. … After receiving a number of classified briefings on material relevant to the subject of this study, the fully cleared members of the committee (13 out of the total of 16) agree that these details, while necessarily important to policy makers who need to decide tomorrow what to do in a specific case, are not particularly relevant to the larger issues of why policy has the shape and texture that it does today nor to the general outline of how technology will and policy should evolve in the future. [emphasis in original]
There is further evidence that classified knowledge would not contradict the common sense that tells us that putting 20,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of fallible human beings is too risky: Adm. Bobby Inman (USN, Retired) is a former Director of Naval Intelligence, former Director of the National Security Agency, and former Deputy Director of the CIA. He certainly had access to all relevant classified information, yet has signed the statement of support for bringing risk analysis to bear on nuclear deterrence. That statement says in part:
Russia and the United States each have thousands of nuclear weapons, whereas a few hundred would more than deter any rational actor and no number will deter an irrational one. Either side could therefore reduce its nuclear arsenal with little to no loss in national security, even if the other side did not immediately reciprocate. In light of the growing specter of nuclear terrorism, a reduced nuclear arsenal could even enhance national security by lessening the chance for theft or illicit sale of a weapon.
The home page of our related web site starts off with a short story about “the man in the TNT vest,” which is another way to see that common sense trumps expert gobbeldy gook. If you ever start to get confused by megatons, calculated ambiguity, or other details of nuclear deterrence, go back and re-read that story. It cuts through the fog and illuminates the need for change.
What You Can Do
If you agree that society’s complacency about nuclear weapons is unwarranted, please share this blog post with friends and read the home page of our related web site. At the end, it lists four simple, but effective actions you can take.