By George Friedman
An article appeared on EurActiv.com yesterday, claiming that the United States was moving nuclear weapons it had stored in Turkey to Romania. The report cited two anonymous sources. The story obviously had significance. It indicated that the breakdown in U.S.-Turkish relations had reached a new level. It indicated that the Romanian and U.S. governments were colluding to take highly significant actions without informing the Romanian public. It also indicated that there had been a massive breakdown in U.S. security, because the location of nuclear weapons should be the most secure secret.
If true, it was a major story. Clearly, by journalistic standards, it was well beyond the threshold required for publication. There were two sources, who I will assume were seemingly good sources. They obviously required anonymity, because to tell this they had to be breaking someone’s rules on secrecy. And the story was obviously important to the European public who the journalists serve.
The problem with the story, to begin with, is that it assumes both sources had access to the deepest secrets of the United States and were prepared to provide EurActiv with this secret. The location of U.S. nuclear weapons is extremely classified for a simple reason. If any enemies knew the location of the nuclear weapons, they could destroy them with conventional weapons. If the U.S. is moving these weapons, secrecy is necessary to protect against terrorists stealing them. The United States therefore holds location and movement information very tightly. Sometimes, I would suspect, they give false information on location so that any accurate leak would be mixed in with false ones. I don’t know this, but that’s what I would do if I were the U.S. government.
There is a great deal to be found on the internet about locations. And then there is pure guesswork, starting with the obvious (there are nuclear weapons stored at U.S. nuclear submarine bases) and ranging to what might be called “cafeteria gossip.” U.S. bases have cafeterias where people will meet and gossip, overwhelmingly over things they know little about, or about their pay or upcoming leave or something of this nature. That cafeteria gossip makes its way to Washington, to reporters and think tanks, and is reported. Since I have no way of knowing what’s true, I can’t judge what is false, but as a citizen I would be appalled by the implied security breach if what I heard from cafeteria gossip in Washington were accurate.
It is altogether possible that the United States had tactical nuclear weapons in Turkey, although I’m not sure what we would do with them. Sometimes they are a symbol of mutual trust between two nations. Putting them at Incirlik air base would be quite a sign of trust, since it is under Turkish command. I could understand the basing more clearly than I could understand the mission. Nuking the Islamic State is not practical. You do not destroy a light infantry force with nukes, especially when you don’t know which way the wind blows. And you do not hit the Russians with nukes, as they will hit back. But still, Turkey and the U.S. have been allied for a long time, so maybe they had nukes there.
Now the U.S.-Turkish relationship has deteriorated. The Turks want Fethullah Gülen extradited from the United States. The U.S. wants the Turks to help out with IS. But for all the hollering, neither side has truly broken the relationship. The U.S. does not want to lose its relationship and Turkey has gone to the line, but not over it. And we should all remember how the Turks turned on the Russians and then made up with them. Turkish foreign policy is, shall we say, dynamic. If there are nukes in Turkey, pulling them out right now might not be the ideal signal. The U.S. is trying to move calmly through the storm and Vice President Joe Biden is going to Turkey next week.
As for moving nukes to Romania, there is again the nasty question of what use they could serve. The United States is not going into a nuclear exchange with Russia, no matter what happens in Ukraine. Also I assume that U.S. nuclear weapons require secure storage that allows for maintenance and servicing. That would probably take a while to construct. And then there would have to be a base security comparable to Incirlik. I don’t know the security levels at Romanian bases, but the U.S. is extreme on this subject. Plus, the last thing the U.S. wants is a political upheaval in Romania over weapons that fit only into fantasy scenarios. Romania fits into real world issues. You don’t upset real world interests for fantasy modeling. The United States needs Romania as an ally, not as a nuclear base.
Given all this, I strongly doubt that this is a valid story, although I understand why it was published. However, from the standpoint of intelligence analysis and geopolitics it doesn’t stand up. Had there been a massive leak, it would have been followed by arrests. I doubt we will see any arrests. I also doubt that two people with security clearances high enough to know nuclear weapon movements would separately give the media this information. One perhaps, but two simultaneously, facing 30 years in prison at Leavenworth, is unlikely.
When we step back, neither the United States nor Turkey would be particularly embarrassed – beyond the fact of a leak from the U.S. Department of Defense. The country that would be most affected by this is Romania. Its citizens are somewhat ambivalent on the relationship with the United States. Many would be appalled at the thought of Romania becoming a nuclear target. And they would respond by attacking Romania’s pro-American government for putting them in secret danger. And of course the United States would come under attack.
It took two sources to get the story published. The question then is, who would go to the trouble to set it up? The main beneficiary would be Russia. Russia dislikes the U.S.-Romanian relationship intensely and also hopes to alienate Turkey from the United States. Who else loves to kick off hunts for leaks in Pentagon? Do I know it was the Russians? No. I don’t even have one source. But that’s why I am in favor of intelligence as a methodology. It allows me to identify likely answers in a world where sources are by definition unreliable, but logical analysis can clarify.
Russia practices disinformation, as does the United States and most countries. It is the common currency of humanity. At its most effective it is invisible. At other times it can only be sensed. But it is always there. In this case, neither of the two sources had to be working for the Russians. There are probably many degrees of separation between Russia and the sources. It would be impossible to trace the information back.
This is not a big story. But I write about it to remind people of journalism’s vulnerability to disinformation. At least some of what you read about a company’s new product is planted there by the public relations department, and disinformation is just the PR of the nation-state. Sometimes, as in the fall of the Soviet Union, there was no source who knew the story. Sometimes 10 sources are all wrong or lying. In the case of this story, it runs into the problem of compounded unlikelihood. For it to be true, then a lot of common sense has to be false. Can happen. Doesn’t often.