Before my trip to Spain, getting information in the U.S. had proven exasperating. I wasn’t alone. Many historians, especially those researching nuclear weapons, were frustrated as they tried to access documents during the Bush administration years. An August 2006 article in The Washington Post, for example, described how researchers at the National Security Archive, an independent research institute located at George Washington University, were surprised to find cold war statistics on the number of American nuclear weapons blacked out in documents they had obtained. This was curious because the numbers had been published in the past, and more detailed ones had been given to the Soviets during arms control talks. The DOE was known for its openness during the Clinton years, but after 9/11, the Bush administration initiated a massive reclassification campaign, squirreling away documents that had long been public. My research was caught up in the sweep.
Over the years of researching this book, I filed about thirty Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. As a freelance writer without the backing of a major news organization, I had no clout. But perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered if I did. While the law stipulates that organizations must respond to FOIA requests within twenty working days, most of my requests were ignored, delayed, or disappeared. Sandia National Laboratories, a DOE facility that helps manage America’s nuclear weapons, proved especially maddening. One FOIA request to Sandia yielded several videotapes—oral histories of scientists and engineers who had investigated Palomares. Two of the videos were so scrambled that they were impossible to watch. When I asked Sandia for clean copies, I was told they couldn’t be found. Another FOIA request to Sandia produced a list of unclassified documents relating to the accident. When I requested several of these documents, I was told they couldn’t be found. When I scheduled a meeting with a Sandia archivist during a research trip to Albuquerque, she didn’t show up, leaving me drumming my fingers in an empty conference room. Even people, it seems, go missing in the bowels of Sandia National Labs.
Sandia wasn’t the only obfuscator. The long arm of the DOE even reached far into the National Archives. Francis Smith, a gunner on the USS Albany, the Navy flagship during the ocean search for the fourth bomb, told me that his ship had switched the warheads on their Talos missiles from conventional to nuclear during the Palomares mission. As a lowly gunner’s mate, Smith didn’t know why his superiors had decided to change the warheads; but to me, the switch signified a significant uptick in the tension level, an important turning point in the narrative. When I went to the National Archives to confirm his story, I found that the deck logs of the Albany had been “pulled” by the DOE. Deck logs are the most benign of military documents, recording a ship’s position, the weather, the arrival of important guests, and occasional events. They are rarely classified.
When I asked an archivist why the deck logs had been pulled, he shrugged and said he didn’t know. Confused, I asked another archivist, who drew me aside and, in a hushed voice, told me that the DOE had pulled anything that mentioned nuclear weapons. I could get the deck logs, but would have to file a FOIA request. I did, and returned to the National Archives a couple of months later, excited to see the juicy details revealed in the Albany’s deck logs. Perhaps there had been an incident on the ship, maybe involving the Soviet trawler spying nearby. If the government had gone to the trouble to hide the documents, surely there must be some revelation there. At the archives, I eagerly paged through the logs. For the entire time the Albany was cruising off Palomares, I found two entries relating to nuclear weapons, both from March 29, 1966:
8:40 am: Commenced handling Talos missile warheads
10:15 am: Secured from handling Talos missile warheads