“Sensitive but Unclassified”: Secrecy and the Counterterrorist State
The power of the secret in contemporary American society is difficult to overestimate. Under the U.S. war on terror (inaugurated during George W. Bush’s administration in 2001), the logics and policy goals of the national security state — including the rationale for preemptive war, the terms of “extraordinary rendition” and the “detainee,” and the surveillance of U.S. citizens — have all been formally designated as “secrets” under a discourse of imminent threat. However, the “newness” of the war on terror masks the deep structure of this security logic and the profound mutation in the nature of the state produced by the advent of the atomic bomb and the accompanying expansion of state secrecy devoted to protecting it. Indeed, the invention of the national security state after World War II transformed America into a new kind of secret society, one in which state power rests to an unprecedented degree precisely on the ability of officials to manage the public/secret divide through the mobilization of threat. This “secrecy/threat matrix” marks all state secrets as equivalents of the atomic secret, making revelation a matter not just of politics but of the life or death of the nation-state. The Cold War arms race — founded on the minute-to- minute possibility of nuclear war — installed the secrecy/threat matrix as the grounds for a new species of politics in the United States. I argue that the transformation of the United States from a countercommunist to a counterterrorist state formation has reconstituted and amplified this secrecy/threat matrix, revealing some curious new deployments of the state secret, as well as aspects of its essential form.
Locating the "Secret "
Consider a recent exchange I had with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) over reproduction access to an image from the U.S. nuclear program archives. I was looking for a version of a photograph illustrating the casing and nonnuclear parts of a modern thermonuclear weapon. In public hearings I attended in Los Alamos several versions of the image I had in mind were used to illustrate the challenges of the DOE’s science-based stockpile stewardship (SBSS) — a more than $70 billion effort to maintain the Cold War nuclear arsenal without conducting underground nuclear tests. Under the terms of SBSS, the U.S. weapons laboratories have built a variety of new experimental test facilities as well as supercomputers designed to maintain nuclear expertise well into the twenty-first century. Using these new systems, the U.S. weapons laboratories also began designing the first new nuclear warhead in a generation in 2002, as part of the expanding U.S. military project known as the war on terror. It is a little-publicized fact that even as the Bush administration waged preemptive war to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq in 2003, it remained committed to expanding a state-of- the- art U.S. nuclear arsenal ( Medalia 2007:17).1 The photograph in question — concerning a nuclear device known as the B-61 — was used by Los Alamos weapons scientists and DOE officials in the 1990s to document the difficulty of dealing with aging weapons parts ( Masco 2004). Under the SBSS program, each of the roughly six thousand components in a U.S. nuclear weapon has a specific surveillance and remanufacturing program devoted to it, and the photographic illustration of those parts was a central means of articulating for a variety of public and official audiences the difficulty of maintaining the bomb without conducting underground nuclear detonations. This photograph was therefore a key part of the public campaign to produce a new nuclear complex, and justify the expense of SBSS, at the end of the Cold War.
Along these lines, I asked a variety of agencies within the federal government for the photograph, forwarding a low-resolution copy that I had scanned from SBSS publicity materials. Usually quite helpful and forthcoming with media requests, their reactions were at times curious, funny, and ultimately revealing: a Los Alamos representative said that while the laboratory designed the nuclear device known as the B-61, the image could not be found in its media archives. He speculated first that it might be an Air Force image and then suggested that the photograph would be more likely the purview of Sandia National Laboratory, which is involved in engineering the casing and nonnuclear components for U.S. nuclear weapons. However, Sandia did not respond to any of my media requests. Pantex, which is charged with dismantling U.S. nuclear devices, also could not locate the image and referred me to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which produced a similar image of a Livermore-designed nuclear device, known as the B-83. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory referred me to the DOE in Washington, where my request for the image was gently but promptly refused. Pushing a bit further, I inquired about why the image, or one like it, was not available to a scholarly project and received the following e-mail: “In regards to the B-61 picture, after September 11, 2001, a review was conducted of our visuals library. As a result some images are not being released due to security concerns.” For many readers, this undoubtedly would seem to be a logical outcome. After all, images of nuclear weapons are historically the quintessential “state secret” — the very reason for having an elaborate system of classification and information control in the United States (see Masco 2002). But what is the actual status of this photograph?
Here, we might consult one of the most widely distributed DOE publications of the post – Cold War period, Closing the Circle on the Splitting of the Atom ( DOE 1994; see fig. 1). One will find in the publication the image in question, as well as the following caption ( DOE 1994: 20): “An example of a completed nuclear weapon and its component parts. At top, an intact B-61 nuclear bomb. At bottom, the assemblies and subassemblies that comprise this weapon. Dozens of facilities across the country engage in different processes and contribute specific parts to the production of nuclear weapons.”
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I am very grateful to the American Council of Learned Societies for a Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship, which supported work on this essay. For readings and critical commentary, my most sincere thanks to Corrine Kratz, Elizabeth Davis, Joe Dumit, Paul Edwards, Gabrielle Hecht, Sarah Lochlann Jain, Ivan Karp, Jake Kosek, Premesh Lalu, Jonathan Metzl, Michelle Murphy, Diane Nelson, David Nugent, Jackie Orr, Elizabeth Roberts, Amy Stambach, and Miriam Ticktin. Special thanks to Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar for superb editorial care, and, as always, I am grateful to Shawn Smith for her critical engagement.
- In 1992 the United States voluntarily entered into a moratorium on underground nuclear testing and stopped new nuclear weapons design work at the U.S. national laboratories. The Bush administration pulled out of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and then focused on expanding the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in its security policy, including new targets and new weapons systems. In fall of 2006, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratory won the first design competition for a new nuclear weapon since the 1980s.