William M. Arkin has been working in the field of national security for almost 50 years, as an Army intelligence analyst, activist, academic, author, journalist, and consultant. He has authored or coauthored more than a dozen books, two of them (Top Secret America and Nuclear Battlefields) national best sellers. He is the recipient of numerous journalism awards and his articles have appeared on the front pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Arkin has appeared on television, radio, and podcasts coutless times, including NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS News 60 Minutes, ABC’s 20/20, Dateline and in multiple long-form Frontline and History Channel programs.
Arkin is currently Senior Editor for Intelligence at Newsweek magazine, and he has written numerous cover stories. He also writes “The Secrets Machine” on Substack with Mark Ambinder, currently on hiatus during the Ukraine War. He was author of three books published in 2021:The Generals Have No Clothes: The Untold Story of Our Endless Wars (Simon & Schuster, April 2021), History in One Act; A Novel of 9/11 (Featherproof Books, June 2021), and On That Day: The Definitive Timeline of 9/11 (PublicAffairs, August 2021). He also wrote the “Road to September 11” series for Newsweek, commemorating the 20th anniversary, and the “Road to January 6” series (also for Newsweek) at the one-year anniversary of the erstwhile insurrection.
- An interview with Arkin about why he wrote History in One Act, 2020.
- A Q&A with Arkin at the University of Denver, April 2019.
- Arkin’s IMDB Page
- Appearances on BookTV and C-SPAN
- Appearances on Democracy Now
Over decades, Arkin’s investigative work has resulted in numerous firsts — He was first to reveal the locations of nuclear weapons worldwide in the early 1980’s, first to bring attention to nuclear weapons at sea and visits by nuclear armed ships to foreign ports, first to write about continuity of government plans of the U.S. government, first to write about the civilian effects of cluster bombs and the bombing of electrical power in warfare, first to bring to light Pentagon plans to develop microwave and acoustic weapons and blinding lasers, the first military analyst to visit Iraq after Desert Storm in 1991, first to reveal the domestic spying “Talon” program of the Pentagon, first to reveal the vociferous anti-Muslim views of then counter-terrorism czar Gen. William Boykin, first to reveal the web of codenames that make up government secrecy, first to write about the growth of “Top Secret America” after 9/11, first to write about the U.S. deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons on Trident missiles, and first to reveal the extensive “signature reduction” programs of the military.
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. This included the “Nuclear Weapons Databook” series, the “Fog of War” and “Top Secret America” projects for the Washington Post, and the “Road to” series for Newsweek.
Arkin’s career has been unique, working for and consulting for groups as diverse as Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch; as well as the U.S. Air Force and the United Nations Office of the Secretary-General. He has also written for publications as diverse at The Nation Magazine; Defense Daily and Military Times. Arkin was one of the few regular on-air NBC News military analysts who was not a retired general or admiral, and as writer, teacher, and consultant, has brought a “civilian” perspective to contemporary military affairs.
Arkin’s career started with Army intelligence in Cold War Berlin, where he served from 1974-1978, focused primarily on Soviet military forces. He rose to be senior intelligence analyst for the Berlin military occupation authorities and served under civilian cover as part of a number of clandestine human and technical intelligence collection efforts. After he left the Army, he decided to write books and work in the public interest. He first worked at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC in 1981, and was fired from his job in the first year of the Reagan administration after he wrote about the locations of U.S. nuclear weapons in West Germany.
He then moved to the Institute for Policy Studies, where he continued to specialize on nuclear weapons, and there, also investigated the locations of nuclear weapons as well as the nature and growth of the nuclear weapons infrastructure. 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 Nuclear Battlefields: Global Links in the Arms Race (with Richard W. Fieldhouse) (Ballinger/Harper & Row, 1985). The book revealed where all nuclear weapons were worldwide and was a news sensation from the front pages of The New York Times to news 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 was one of the conceivers of the ground-breaking Nuclear Weapons Databook series for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), ultimately a five-volume encyclopedia that challenged secrecy during the waning years of the Cold War. The Reagan Administration initially sought to prevent the first volume (on U.S. nuclear weapons) from publication. Arkin’s 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. From 1985-2002, Arkin also wrote the Washington Report and “The Last Word” column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and coauthored (with Robert S. Norris, and later with Hans Kristensen) the “Nuclear Notebook”, which started in 1987 and continues to this day.
During this time period, Arkin also authored or coauthored:
- 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)
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 …”
Arkin left the Institute for Policy Studies at the end of the 1980’s and was one of the founders of Greenpeace’s “Nuclear Free Seas” campaign. He conceived of and led the research for the campaign, which uniquely combined direct action on the high seas with high quality information. The research and direct action proved so successful at dogging nuclear armed ships and submarines visiting foreign ports that the foreign policy 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. At Greenpeace, Arkin edited (with Joshua Handler and Hans Kristensen) the highly regarded “Neptune Papers” series about nuclear weapons at sea.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Arkin headed Greenpeace International’s war response team, co-authoring On Impact — Modern Warfare and the Environment: A Case of the Gulf War. It was the first comprehensive study of the civilian and environmental effects of the war. In 1991, Arkin visited Iraq to evaluate civilian damage as part of the so-called “Harvard Study Team”, the first private military specialist to visit the country. There he conducted a methodical on-the-ground bomb damage assessment. When he returned, he briefed the results of his investigations to Pentagon and intelligence community 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 most inciteful he’d ever received.
After the first Gulf War, Arkin shifted his attention full time to the new era of conventional warfare and airpower. His groundbreaking research on the effects of the use of cluster bombs in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia 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 Lebanon, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Israel on behalf of governments, the United Nations and in independent inquiries.
Arkin served as military advisor to a United Nations fact-finding mission in Israel and Lebanon in 2006 and from that assessment, he wrote Divining Victory: Airpower in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, which was published by the U.S. Air Force.
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 initially invited to speak at the Air Force’s new School of Advanced Airpower Studies and then began a long collaboration with the School. From 1992 to 2008, he served as lecturer and adjunct professor, and conceived of and led the SAAS “Airpower Analyst” project to provide better tools for professional on-the-ground study. In 2007, Arkin was also 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.”
Arkin is weirdly proud to say that he spent the night in Saddam General Hospital in 1991 after being injured by an unexploded American cluster bomb and that some of his fondest memories are picking through the rubble of Slobodan Milosevic’s Belgrade villa and Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s residential compound outside Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Arkin left Washington for good in 1993 (moving to Vermont), continuing as a consultant to the NRDC and the Federation of American Scientists on nuclear weapons, doing work for Human Rights Watch and collaborating with the National Security Archive. In 1998, he turned to mainstream journalism for the first time, invited by the new Washingtonpost.com to write one of its first online columns (called “DOT.MIL”) (1998-2001). During this time, he also wrote about the growth of the internet as a research tool, authoring The US Military Online: A Directory for Internet Access to the Department of Defense (first edition, 1997) as well as a number of monographs on national security research in the internet age.
After 9/11, he became a Sunday opinion columnist for the The Los Angeles Times, often writing columns that would make front-page news. In 2002, he obtained a copy of the classified Nuclear Posture Review of the Bush administration, that revealed plans to begin targeting numberous new countries with nuclear weapons. That year, he also revealed the compartmented war plan for Iraq (codenamed Polo Step), provoking one of the largest Pentagon leak investigations in modern history.
In 2004, the brilliant editors at the Los Angeles Times decided that John Kerry would be elected president and that he would end all of America’s wars, the paper no longer needing a military columnist.
A Washington Post profile of Arkin at this time 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.”
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 returned to The Washington Post online and wrote the “Early Warning” column until 2008, when in collaboration with the incomparable Dana Priest, he began work on Top Secret America, an almost 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 four-part June 2010 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 a Pulitzer Prize nominee, as well as recipient of a half dozen other major journalism awards. Arkin then co-authored 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. Top Secret America also won the 2012 Constitutional Commentary Award from the Constitution Project.
Based upon the work done on Top Secret America, Arkin then went on to write American Coup: How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution (Little Brown, 2013) and Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (Little Brown, 2015). He worked as a consultant for The New York Times in 2013-2014 on a project seeking to exploit resumes and job announcements associated with the Top Secret industry. He moved to New York City in 2015 and worked for Gawker and Vice News before starting full time as a national security consultant to NBC News.
Arkin was an on and off consultant and national security investigator for MSNBC and NBC News since 1999, serving as an on-air analyst during the Kosovo War, during 9/11 and through the second Gulf War. He coauthored the NBC book Operation Iraqi Freedom: 22 Historic Days in Words and Pictures (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2003). Then he was invited to join the news investigative unit as a reporter. There he worked closely with Cynthia McFadden and reported a number of exclusive and news breaking stories relating to Russian interference in the 2016 elections and the Obama administration’s covert responses.
After the election of Donald Trump, Arkin found it increasingly difficult to get anything on the air that wasn’t about the new president’s supposed wrongdoings. In January 2019, he decided to leave NBC and penned a 2,200 word memo to his colleagues expressing displeasure with coverage of the “Trump circus,” while neglecting the perpetual wars that the United States was fighting. “In our day-to-day whirlwind and hostage status as prisoners of Donald Trump, I think — like everyone else does — that we miss so much,” he wrote. Simon & Schuster invited him to expand on his letter and write an essay on ending perpetual war, that essay becoming the book The Generals Have No Clothes: The Untold Story of Our Endless Wars (2021).
Arkin began writing for the Guardian (UK) but soon left, realizing that while the paper wanted his opinion, they really only wanted commentary that agreed with their own views. He joined Newsweek and has written numerous exclusives, including the first report relating to the deployment of a new low-yield Trident missile warhead and war plans against Iran. At the end of the Trump administration, he wrote articles (before the January 6th insurrection) that Pentagon fear of the president invoking martial law was imperiling protection of the U.S. Capitol.
(Updated in June 2022)