It’s time for the annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit featuring speeches by luminaries including Senator Jon Kyl and Representative Michael Turner, which means it is also time for a damaging (and false) leak about the Obama Administration’s nuclear policy!

The Associated Press’s Robert Burns — what? Eli Lake was busy? — reports that “the Obama administration is weighing options for sharp new cuts to the U.S. nuclear force, including a reduction of up to 80 percent in the number of deployed weapons …”

The story is misleading, at best, and most likely false. Let me explain.

First, let’s examine the key claims and sourcing. Here is the key graf:

No final decision has been made, but the administration is considering at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons cutting to around 1,000 to 1,100, 700 to 800, or 300 to 400, according to a former government official and a congressional staffer. Both spoke on condition of anonymity in order to reveal internal administration deliberations.

Now, words like “considering,” “weighing,” and “deliberations” do not describe specific events in bureaucratic life. White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor, responding to the leak, provided a more direct description of the process:

As part of the NPR Implementation study, DOD used a range of policy criteria to develop options for the Presidential guidance that will be used to develop force structure, force postures and stockpile requirements. The implementation study is still underway and the Department of Defense has not yet presented the study to the President.

Burns claims that these three options are “under consideration at the White House.”  Since the study is not completed, that indicates the terms of reference must have made specific reference to the notion of 300 warheads. Indeed, that is what Hill sources are telling reporters.  An anonymous Congressional staffer told Bill Gertz that  ”no president in the past ever told the Pentagon to conduct a review based on specific numbers of warheads.”  For all I know, the anonymous Congressional staffer is the same person — but the meaning is clear, even if Burns writes carelessly.  What is alleged is that the Obama Administration directed the White House to provide a 300 option.  I am pretty sure that is not true.

My understanding, which is also hearsay, is different.  I believe the terms of reference for the study do not, in fact, direct the Pentagon to study a 300 warhead option.  Presidential Policy Decision-11, according to Representative Turner, is the document that establishes the terms of reference for the 90-day Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study. (Just for comparison, here is an unclassified version of the terms of reference for the NPR itself which probably derived from Presidential Study Directive 4; the TOR for the Implementation Study are presumably similar.)

Having asked around, I am reasonably confident that PPD-11 does not contain the 300 number.  Burns cites two sources — a “former government official” and a “congressional staffer,” which may explain his mistake.  I know that the White House has not made available a copy of terms of reference to members of Congress or their staff members.  So, the source on the Hill is simply repeating hearsay about its contents, possibly an Administration briefing. For direct knowledge, we are left with our disgruntled former official.  Burns does not claim to have seen the document himself.

There is a simple way to resolve all this, of course, which is to declassify the terms of reference.  Representative Turner is complaining about not having a copy of the terms of reference, which actually I think is a reasonable request.  I don’t see why the Administration couldn’t release an unclassified version like they did for the NPR.  The deliberations, of course, need to remain confidential.  But the terms of reference could be shared.  (The White House better have written them on the assumption they would leak!)

The timing of this leak is suggestive: Senator Kyl and Representative Turner are giving speeches this week.  One or both of them will certainly make reference to the reports that Obama plans to unilaterally disarm the United States — without, of course, mentioning that someone on their payroll probably planted the story in the first place.  Turner already has the story posted on his website.

Leaks like this harm a Presidency in two ways.  Obviously, the leak inflicts a political cost, but it also threatens the integrity of the interagency process — if internal deliberations are leaked to the press, participants may no longer speak frankly to the President, nor will the President  feel comfortable in seeking their advice and counsel.

This same thing, by the way, happened to President-elect Jimmy Carter after his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The Chiefs welcomed Carter to Washington, with help from the late Bob Novak. The canonical version of the story appears in Thomas Powers’ article “Choosing a Strategy for World War III”, but I can’t find my copy right now.  Here is how I summarized the episode in my piece on minimum deterrence:

For example, when a newly inaugurated Jimmy Carter asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a study of a minimum deterrent posture based on 200–250 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the request was leaked to conservative journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak who raised the issue of the nuclear umbrella and modestly warned that the proposal would “presage the end of democratic Western Europe.”

The Department of Defense ended up doing the study anyway.  Harold Brown, Carter’s Secretary of Defense, forwarded the now declassified study to the President, noting that senior officials ”believe it is unproductive to give serious attention to such levels, even as goals.”

Harold Brown’s advice was probably sensible for late 1970s, but today it makes sense to think about much lower force levels — especially if sequestration forces drastic budget cuts.  If the Pentagon concludes that the possibility of severe deterioration in the budgetary situation makes 300 look like a plausible outcome, I want the President to know that.  And, if 300 is possible with very significant investments in conventional strike and missile defense, I bet some conservatives would be interested in such an outcome.

My best guess about what happened, by the way, is far less dramatic than any of this.  I would bet the White House issued very general terms of reference that asked fundamental questions about the goals for US nuclear weapons policy as outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review.  The Pentagon has a preferred option that is probably around 1000 deployed strategic warheads, give or take a hundred or so.  Obama will be able to tell it is the preferred option, because there will be lots of little dark and light green boxes next to it on the memo.  But to make the preferred option stand out, there must be at least two unpalatable options: a status quo scenario and a budget-driven low scenario like 300 scarred with little yellow and red boxes.  The President will then pick the middle option, because that is what Presidents always do with memos.

***

One closing note: Burns writes that “The notion of a 300-weapon arsenal is featured prominently in a paper written for the Pentagon by a RAND National Defense Project Institute analyst last October, in the early stages of the administration’s review of nuclear requirements.”

The actual paper, however, is about establishing a decision-making framework; the force levels are purely illustrative. The author, Paul Davis, clearly states that he made ”evaluations separately for at least two very different and longstanding strategic perspectives.”  In other words, 300 weapons was explicitly a straw-person — usuing two very different cases to illustrate how the method distinguishes between two postures.  It is more than a little misleading to imply that the 300 warhead option as outlined in the paper offers some insight into the course of the NPR Implementation Study.  It’s a little nitpick, but it shows that Burns is not a careful reporter even when he has the relevant document at his disposal.