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William M. Arkin

Former NBC News Contributor

William M. Arkin has been working in the field of national security for over 40 years, as a military intelligence analyst, activist, author, journalist, academic and consultant to government. His award-winning reporting has appeared on the front pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. As an analyst and reporter for NBC News, Arkin has been one of the few regular on-air military analysts who was not a retired general or admiral, and as such he brought a “civilian” perspective to contemporary military affairs, helping both the public and the government better understand the Kosovo war, 9/11 and terrorism, the attacks on Afghanistan, the Iraq War, Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and the Trump era.  He has also been an expert or guest on NBC's Meet the Press and been a repeat guest on CBS News 60 Minutes, 20/20, Dateline and in long-form programs such as Frontline and the History Channel.

Arkin served in U.S. Army intelligence from 1974-1978.  After that he worked at a variety of non-profit think tanks and advocacy groups dealing with the military and nuclear weapons (the Center for Defense Information, the Institute for Policy Studies, Greenpeace International, Natural Resource Defense Council, Federation of American Scientists). He left Washington for good in 1994, continuing as a consultant to the NRDC and FAS, and doing new work for Human Rights Watch and the National Security Archive. He also became a consultant and adjunct professor for the U.S. Air Force. Though he had written many articles, in 1998, he turned journalism, invited by the Washingtonpost.com to write one of the first online columns.

Arkin's unique career started with Army intelligence in Cold War Berlin from 1974-1978 where he conducted both collection and analysis. After he left the Army, he decided to write books and work in the public interest. Since then he has worked as a military adviser to the most influential non-governmental human rights and environmental organizations, equally at ease heading Greenpeace International’s response to the first Gulf War in 1991 or being an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force’s premier strategy school. He is weirdly proud to say that he spent the night in Saddam General Hospital in 1991 after being injured by an unexploded cluster bomb in Iraq and that some of his fondest memories are picking through the rubble of Slobodan Milosevic’s Belgrade villa and Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s compound outside Kandahar in Afghanistan.  He is probably the only person alive who can say that he has written for The Nation magazine, Defense Daily and Marine Corps Gazette.  He has been both a columnist and reporter with The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, and has worked for Vice News and Gawker.  During the Cold War he was a long-time columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Arkin aslo coauthored (with Robert S. Norris) the "NRDC Nuclear Notebook" since 1987, later joined by Hans Kristensen.  And from 1999-2018, Arkin has been an on and off consultant and national security investigator for MSNBC and NBC News.

Over the course of his career, Arkin's specialty has been to conceive and implement large-scale and original data projects and public campaigns about the secret world. His 1980's research resulted in the first revelation ever of where all nuclear weapons in the world were located. That work culminated in the publication of the best-selling Nuclear Battlefields: Global Links in the Arms Race (with Richard W. Fieldhouse) (1985).  He was one of the conceivers of the ground-breaking Nuclear Weapons Databook series for NRDC, ultimately a five-volume encyclopedia that challenged secrecy during the Reagan years.  He conceived of and led the research for the Nuclear free Seas campaign of Greenpeace International, which combined activism and information to eliminate all tactical nuclear weapons from the U.S. Navy. He conceived off and published the first authoritative dictionary of U.S. secret programs in Codenames. And he conceived of and co-wrote Top Secret America for The Washington Post.

Arkin has authored or coauthored more than a dozen books. He is also the author or co-author of:

  • Research Guide to Current Military and Strategic Affairs (1981)
  • SIOP: The Secret US Plan for Nuclear War (with Peter Pringle) (1983)
  • Encyclopedia of the US Military (with Joshua Handler, Julia A. Morrissey, and Jacquelyn Walsh) (1990)
  • The US Military Online: A Directory for Internet Access to the Department of Defense (1997).

His most recent books are  Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (Little Brown, 2015) and American Coup: Martial Life and the Invisible Sabotage of the Constitution (Little Brown, 2013).  Arkin is also co-author as well of Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State (Little Brown), a New York Times and Washington Post best-selling non-fiction book based up a four-part 2010 series he worked on with Dana Priest.

Top Secret America was the result of a three-year investigation into the shadows of the enormous system of military, intelligence and corporate interests created in the decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  The series was accompanied by The Washington Post’s largest ever online presentation, earned the authors the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists award for Public Service, was a Goldsmith finalist for Investigative Reporting and Pulitzer award filnalist, as well as recipient of a half dozen other major journalism awards.  Top Secret America also won the 2012 Constitutional Commentary Award from the Constitution Project.

Arkin began his string of investigative successes in the early 1980’s with his ground-breaking research on the nuclear era, including his New York Times best-selling Nuclear Battlefields (Ballinger/Harper & Row).  That book, revelaing where all nuclear weapons were, was a news sensation from the front pages of The New York Times to media in Italy, Germany, and Japan. Release of the book even earned Arkin a mention in a monologue on the Johnny Carson show.  The Reagan Administration went as far as to seek to put Arkin in jail for revealing the locations of American (and Soviet) nuclear weapons around the world; those were the days.

Arkin’s then worked on the multi-volume Nuclear Weapons Databook series for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a set of references which the Reagan Administration also sought to prevent from publication.  His subsequent revelation of "mini-nuke" research efforts by the Pentagon in 1992 led to a 1994 Congressional ban and ultimately a pledge by the U.S. government not to develop new nuclear weapons.  His discovery of Top secret U.S. plans to secretly move nuclear weapons to a number of overseas locations shattered governments from Bermuda to Iceland to the Philippines. Foreign Affairs, the bible of the foreign policy establishment, commented about Arkin in 1997: “The author is well known (and in some government quarters, cordially detested) as an indefatigable researcher in military affairs, whose cunning and persistence have uncovered many secrets ...”

Working for the activist organization Greenpeace in its anti-nuclear hey-day, Arkin conceived a worldwide “Nuclear Free Seas” campaign, which combined research and direct action that proved so successful at dogging nuclear armed ships and submarines visiting foreign ports that the headache convinced the first Bush administration to remove tactical nuclear weapons altogether from naval vessels. The campaign is a prime example of the power of research and activism and still stands as one of the most successful anti-nuclear campaigns ever.

Arkin then led Greenpeace International’s research and action effort on the first Gulf War, being the first American military analyst to visit post-war Iraq in 1991, and the first to write about cluster bombs. He also observed and reported on civilian casualties and the cascading effects of the bombing of civilian infrastructure, particularly electrical power.  He went on to write about and brief government and intelligence audiences about the civilian effects of airpower. Gen. Charles A. (“Chuck”) Horner, the commander of coalition air forces during Desert Storm, said in a ten year anniversary interview in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings that the briefing Arkin gave him on the war and its civilian effects in Iraq was the best he’d ever received.

After the Gulf War, Arkin shifted his attention to the new era of conventional warfare.  His groundbreaking research on the effects of the use of cluster bombs in Iraq and Serbia formed the foundation for the international treaty that later banned their use. Arkin was a founding member of the Arms Project of Human Rights Watch and wrote their first comprehensive report on cluster bombs.  He then conducted the single most methodical assessment of the causes of civilian casualties after the Kosovo war (1999), a human rights report that was accepted as authoritative not just by the human rights community but also by both NATO and the United States government for its fairness.  Arkin has also visited war zones in the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Israel on behalf of governments, the United Nations and independent inquiries.  In 2008, the U.S. Air Force published his study Divining Victory for Whom? (caution pdf download), a methodical study of the conduct and effects of the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war.

Arkin’s pioneering methods and meticulous work on the effects of conflict led also to a close collaboration with the United States Air Force, where he became a consultant.  He was affiliated with the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies of the United States Air Force from 1992 to 2008 as lecturer and adjunct professor, and conceived and led the SAASS “Airpower Analyst” project to provide better tools for professional on-the-ground study.  In 2007, he was National Security and Human Rights Fellow in residence at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University where he worked on a project “Why Civilians Die.”  He has also been a consultant to the Air Force Research Institute working on the history and impact of airpower.

Arkin’s 2005 book Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World (Steerforth) was the product of years of research and was featured on the front page of The New York Times and in an Emmy-nominated History Channel documentary. His 2006 revelations of renewed domestic intelligence collection by the Pentagon provoked not only a change in policy to end the so-called “Talon” suspicious activity reporting program but also to the eventual closing of the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. Arkin's disclosures directly changed policy again and again (e.g., regarding deployments of nuclear weapons, the naval arms race, a Congressional ban on "mini-nukes" research).   As a consultant to Human Rights Watch, he works on the humanitarian implications of new weapons.  His work was central to the 1995 Defense Department reversal of its longstanding policy opposing a ban on laser blinding. And he was the first to write about cluster bombs and their civilian effects in Iraq, doing much of the initial research that led to the subsequent global ban.

A 2003 Washington Post profile of Arkin commented:  “... William Arkin seems to have mastered one of the great juggling acts of the multimedia age -- persuading news organizations, advocacy groups and the Pentagon, through sheer smarts and a bulldog personality, to take him on his own terms."  (Updated January 2019).