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A mushroom cloud rises July 25, 1946, above Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands following an atomic test blast, part of the U.S. military’s “Operation Crossroads.” The dark spots in foreground are ships that were placed near the blast site to test what an atom bomb would do to a fleet of warships. (AP)

Behind doors that can be opened only by spins of a combination lock or an electronic scan of fingerprints or eyeballs, Defense Department officials periodically work out the details of America’s plans to drop nuclear explosives on aggressive enemies.

Not many outsiders get to peer in, particularly those dispatched from another branch of government, like Congress. But twice in the past 20 years, a few analysts at the Government Accountability Office have been allowed to get a rough sense from closed-door Pentagon briefings — not from actual documents — of the conditions and manner in which the United States could detonate its nuclear bombs.

The resulting reports to Congress have been highly classified, so they don’t offer much to a broader audience. An unclassified version, released July 31, says virtually nothing about what’s actually in the U.S. nuclear war plan. It is, in fact, even shorter and less detailed than its sketchy 1991 predecessor.

“To prepare this unclassified version,” said the agency, “we removed classified details such as references to stockpile quantities and operational requirements, information about potential adversaries, target categories, and the number and types of targets; and specific information related to the nuclear weapons targeting process.”

Nonetheless, the report makes a few general points worth noting, even if they seem familiar to those who already pay close attention to nuclear weapons policy.

Little has changed in U.S. objectives or in the targeting process over the past two decades — a period in which the political map of Eastern Europe was redrawn, NATO was expanded and wars erupted in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. “The fundamental objectives of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy have remained largely consistent since 1991, even as the threat environment and the size of the nuclear weapons stockpile has changed,” the GAO report states.

The war plan’s structure is different now, of course. That’s because the U.S. arsenal is smaller and “the number of targets” has changed to “cover a wider spectrum of scenarios and potential adversaries,” as the GAO report vaguely states. But the GAO report adds that the arsenal still includes a “hedge stockpile” — no, that’s not a bunch of evergreens in your backyard — that can be yanked into use if the military suddenly somehow runs short of nuclear explosives.

No one has said precisely how this might happen, since the United States has about 5,000 nuclear warheads now, including around 2,300 that are deployed with U.S. forces and around 2,700 held in reserve, according to independent estimates. Even the use of 300 warheads would be catastrophic “on anybody’s territory,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until last year and knows the details of the war plans.

White House officials say President Obama has been reviewing new recommendations for precisely targeting U.S. nuclear forces. But defense officials told the GAO that as of this spring, the presidential guidance governing those forces was written by President George W. Bush in 2002.

The last time the White House instructions were translated by the Secretary of Defense into a document with “country-specific planning scenarios and objectives” — a document with a Star Wars-like title: “Guidance for the Employment of the Force, Annex B” — was in May 2008, under then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.

The GAO report makes no reference to what Cartwright has depicted as a problem that U.S. officials have wrestled with as they tried to adapt a nuclear arsenal created for use against the Soviet Union to a more complex set of targets. The problem, he said, is that due to orbital mechanics, warhead-carrying missiles that must reach “any place else in the world” besides Russia — such as North Korea, a perennial favorite in lists of U.S. enemies — must first fly over Russia.

“That means that any time you contemplate using the ICBM [inter-continental ballistic missile] system” located at existing U.S. bases, “you run the risk of the Russians misinterpreting and retaliating,” Cartwright told a Sen. Appropriations subcommittee hearing on July 25. “It’s a very difficult scenario” that officials played out “I don’t know how many times” during his five-year tenure, which ended in Aug. 2011, he added.

At the hearing, Cartwright cited this “malpositioning of the basing” of nuclear-tipped ICBM’s as a reason to scrap them, an idea the Obama administration has not embraced. Keith Payne, a deputy assistant secretary of defense under George W. Bush who testified alongside Cartwright, said “there’s no disagreement between General Cartwright and myself on the horrible mechanics involved” in missile flight trajectories, but stressed that there are nonetheless other advantages to ICBMs that warrant keeping them as they are.

Obama is unlikely to address the targeting issue publicly in advance of the election, according to two former officials familiar with the White House discussions.

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R. Jeffrey Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington...