Posts Tagged ‘Congress’


Archives Week: Day 1, Legislative Archives

Monday, December 19th, 2011

This week is an Archives Week! Which means I'll be spending the whole week in an archive, doing research, with the aim of posting something amusing for you, dear reader, each and every day of the week. This might seem ambitious, but the best part about working on nuclear history is that each and every archival box contains something so surreal it would knock Dali's socks off. No doubt every giant bureaucracy produces its Kafkaesque moments, but mixing them with the potential to wipe out entire nations makes them into something sublime.

I'm camping out all week in the Legislative Archives, which are housed in the downtown DC National Archives building. Veteran researchers know that the downtown National Archives are not where most of the research records are kept (most were moved, some time back, to the Archives II facility in College Park). But the Legislative Archives are one of the exceptions, so I get to spend the week in the same building that the tourists all go to when they want to see original copies of the Constitution.

I'll be looking primarily at the records of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). The JCAE was created in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to serve as the Congressional oversight committee for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). What this means, in a nutshell, is that the JCAE was a group of Senators and Representatives who spent most of their time being very unhappy with the AEC, with the ability to make life difficult for the AEC. They were immensely powerful, as Congressional committees go, and, because of the national security implications, incredibly secretive. They were also, on the whole, neither scientists, professional bureaucrats, or military men, so they often provided a, shall we say, "unique" take on the major nuclear issues of the day.

The LIFE archive's caption for this photo is amusingly bad: "The whole entire room listening to David E. Lilienthal (bald man at table on R) testify." Poor Lilienthal, he never caught a break... this is Lilienthal appearing in front of the JCAE during the "incredible mismanagement" hearings of 1949.

So keep an eye on this spot, and you're sure to be rewarded with some amusing archival finds, just in time for the holidays!

Incidentally — so today's post isn't just a total bore — I tried to come up with some quantitative data on how secret the JCAE really was. (Though the heavy presence of graphs might indeed make it even more of a bore...)

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Origins of the Nuclear Black Budget

Monday, December 5th, 2011

How much does the nuclear complex cost the American taxpayer? In a post last Thursday, Mia Steinle and Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight wrote about the fact that the exact cost of the U.S. nuclear complex remains an unknown figure to taxpayers. ("Taxpayers Left in the Dark When it Comes to Nuclear Weapons Spending," POGO, December 1, 2011.) They describe a debate between the Obama administration and groups trying to come up with realistic estimates for the numbers:

So, how much does the U.S. spend on nuclear weapons? The only way to know for sure—and the only way for Congress to make informed decisions about funding—is for the administration to be more transparent about its nuclear spending, and to make a complete, detailed budget available to the public that includes operations, tactical nukes and other costs borne by the taxpayer. We also need a GAO audit of that budget, because right now, the one thing we do know is that we do not know enough.

There's a way in which billions and billions just seem like lots of numbers with zeros attached to them, though the difference between "$700 billion over ten years" (one estimate) and "$200 billion" (official estimate) is pretty large. Half a trillion is quite a lot of zeros.

What accounts for the disagreement? Interestingly, classification and secrecy appear to play a very small role. While all sides acknowledge that there are some classified programs that aren't being listed, it seems to me that everybody is more or less in agreement that most of the expenditures are more or less in the open. The question is not so much a matter of what's being paid for, but how much everything will eventually cost, and whose figures you trust on that point.

So that's interesting to me. The old debate on the price of the nuclear complex was based on classification and inconsistent record keeping. The new debate is a question of how much these large technical systems are actually going to cost and how many factors over budget they will be — POGO claims that a DoD project costing six times its initial estimate is not unusual.

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