National Security

Published — December 24, 2018

The Center for Public Integrity’s top stories in national security this year

A view inside a conveyer alley where contained handling takes place. The gloveboxes are designed for preparing uranium and plutonium carbide compounds.


From Russian interference to drones with artificial intelligence, the role of technology and its evolution was prominent in our coverage of national security this year.

In addition to the Pentagon’s preparation of a cyber attack in the event of Russian interference in the midterm election, the Center weighed in with analyses of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Moscow. 

More of this year’s top stories in national security: 

Plutonium is missing, but the government says nothing

Two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory drove to San Antonio, Texas, in March 2017 with a sensitive mission: to retrieve dangerous nuclear materials from a nonprofit research lab there.

To ensure they got the right items, the specialists from Idaho brought radiation detectors and small samples of dangerous materials to calibrate them: specifically, a plastic-covered disk of plutonium, a material that can be used to fuel nuclear weapons, and another of cesium, a highly radioactive isotope that could potentially be used in a so-called “dirty” radioactive bomb.

Their task, according to documents and interviews, was to ensure that the radioactive materials did not fall into the wrong hands on the way back to Idaho, where the government maintains a stockpile of nuclear explosive materials for the military and others.

But when they stopped at a Marriott hotel just off Highway 410, in a high-crime neighborhood filled with temp agencies and ranch homes, they left those sensors on the back seat of their rented Ford Expedition. When they awoke the next morning, the window had been smashed and the special valises holding these sensors and nuclear materials had vanished.

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The Pentagon has prepared a cyber attack against Russia

Voting machines
In this Feb. 27, 2012 file photo, voters cast their ballots on voting machines in Chicago, Illinois. (M. Spencer Green / AP)

Ahead of the midterm elections, the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon quietly agreed on the outlines of an offensive cyber attack that the United States would unleash if Russia electronically interfered. 

In preparation for its potential use, U.S. military hackers were given the go-ahead to gain access to Russian cyber systems that they felt it was needed to let the plan unfold quickly, the officials said.

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Manafort’s guilty plea goes to the heart of the Russian intelligence operation in 2016

Paul Manafort arrives at federal court, Friday, June 15, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Center is publishing analyses of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential links with Russia, written by a former news reporter and former U.S. intelligence officer. Her take on Paul Manafort’s guilty plea:

The charges Manafort pleaded guilty to concern his influence-peddling on behalf of Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of Regions in Washington and elsewhere, which all occurred years before Manafort joined the Trump campaign. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said, “This had absolutely nothing to do with the President or his victorious 2016 Presidential campaign. It is totally unrelated.”

In fact, Manafort’s guilty plea unmistakably brings us closer to the heart of the issue of cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia.

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Trump administration’s planned nuclear upgrade is being undermined by cost overruns

Consolidating the management of two critical sites where nuclear weapons are assembled would yield huge taxpayer savings, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) promised in 2013 — as much as $3.27 billion over a decade.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in savings were to be spent on the modernization of the nuclear weapons production complex, and billions of dollars were to revert to the public treasury. The government was so pleased with the promised benefits that in 2015, it gave one of the department’s highest awards to the 14 sharp-eyed officials who processed the single-contract paperwork.

But four years after the consolidated contract was won by Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS) LLC, a group of corporations led by Bechtel National Inc., there’s not much to celebrate, government documents and reports show.

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The world may soon be awash in advanced, lethal drones

A United Arab Emirates drone, similar to the most advanced U.S. drones and known as the United 40, has been sold to Russia and offered to other customers. By Vitaly V. Kuzmin, CC BY-SA 4.0

U.S. military forces face a growing threat from sophisticated and often deadly drones, due to the broad proliferation of related weapons and surveillance technologies that until recently have largely been in the hands of friendly countries, according to a new report prepared for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The global spread of these technologies was supposed to be controlled by a system of export controls created by the West to block the spread of advanced missiles, but that system has failed to obstruct the development of drones that have potent surveillance and destructive power by potential American adversaries, the report says.

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Chairman of nuclear weapons oversight agency steps down amid internal turmoil

The chairman of a federal oversight agency responsible for safety at nuclear weapons facilities stepped down in February amid turmoil over both his management and his recommendation to President Trump that the agency be abolished.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is a tiny institution by federal standards, but has played a key role in tightening safety practices at nuclear weapons research and production facilities in Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, among others.

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The United States has spent at least $2.8 trillion on counterterrorism since 9/11

The United States has spent a lot of money on counterterrorism since the 9/11 attacks. But nobody has been keeping good track of just how much, until this year. 

A bipartisan group of national security and budget experts convened by the Stimson Center estimated in a new report on May 16 that the cumulative tally is at least $2.8 trillion, and that the annual spending rate — while less than it used to be — still amounts to about 15 percent of the nation’s discretionary budget.

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Pentagon official says America must join an arms race in weaponry with artificial intelligence

Aerospace engineer Mike Griffin says he is taking the threat of drone swarms — including those that could be driven by artificial intelligence — seriously. So is his employer, the U.S. Department of Defense, as are top officials in the Air Force.

The threat is no longer theoretical. During an April 9 Washington, D.C., conference on the future of war sponsored by the nonprofit think-tank New America, Griffin, a former space program director who in February became the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, noted that a small swarm of drones in January attacked a Russian air base in Syria.

“Certainly human-directed weapons systems can deal with one or two or a few drones if they see them coming, but can they deal with 103?” Griffin asked. “If they can deal with 103, which I doubt, can they deal with 1,000?”

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Trump administration accelerates military study of artificial intelligence

The Trump administration is keenly interested in using artificial intelligence to help the military perform some of its key tasks more effectively and cheaply, according to the Defense Department’s second most senior official.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing aircraft executive, said artificial intelligence or AI — the use of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence — could aid the department, for example, in making better use of the voluminous intelligence data it collects.

He also said AI could enhance military logistics, the task of supplying the right parts and gear to soldiers and maintenance crews at the right time. And it could facilitate wiser decision-making about providing health care for service members, producing future cost savings.

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Key sites proposed for nuclear bomb production are plagued by safety problems

Internal government reports indicated serious and persistent safety issues plagued both of the candidate sites where plutonium parts for the next generation of nuclear weapons were to be made.

Some experts expressed concerns about the safety records of either choice: Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where plutonium parts have historically been assembled, and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where other nuclear materials for America’s bombs have been made since in the 1950s.

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UPDATE: Los Alamos would lose some future bomb production under new Trump administration plan

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