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Document Friday: False Warning of a “Nuclear Missile Attack on the United States”

March 2, 2012

...Cozy spot to command a nuclear war.

Yesterday the “FOIA Yoda” Bill Burr posted an awesome Electronic Briefing Book on the 3 AM Phone Call, centered around what must have been a terrifying call that President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, received on 9 November 1979.  He was told that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the combined U.S.–Canada military command, was reporting a Soviet missile attack.

Here’s how former Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA, Robert Gates, described the even in his book, From the Shadows:  

“As he recounted it to me, Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by [military assistant William] Odom, who told him that some 250 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President’s decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes …. Thus he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that … 2,200 missiles had been launched—it was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system.”

Three following pages were also fully redacted.

Here is a document that the Department of Defense declassified, entitled “Memorandum for the President, Subject: False Missile Alert” about a slew of nuclear malfunctions that had occurred around the Brzezinski wake up call.  As you can see, the reviewers at the DoD were less forthcoming than Mr. Gates.  Of course, its silly–and disappointing– for agencies to censor information that has widely been reported (including by the agency’s former director); I’m confident that these overzealous redactions will be overturned on appeal.  It’s also vexing  to ponder the DoD’s assertion that information about errors that DoD made that could have led to nuclear war (31 years ago) must remain secret from the public to protect US national security today.  Trust us, we’ll keep you safe.

On the other hand, the Department of State has been extremely forthcoming on releasing documents on these “malfunction” incidents.  (Check out the whole collection.)  Here is a great one that recounts’ Brezhnev’s reaction to hearing that “US Technical systems gave a signal of a nuclear missile attack on the United States.”

Soviets sounding reasonable?

To me, Brezhnev’s concerns certainly seem valid.  But as Dr. Burr writes, Pentagon officials considered the letter a polemical ploy by the Soviet Union and drafted a harsh, “gratuitously snotty” message in return that criticized the “inaccurate and unacceptable” assertions about the danger of accidental nuclear war that Brezhnev made.

Considering that mistaken reports of nuclear attacks could lead to an actual nuclear holocaust, I think the DoD probably should have taken the advice of one State Departmental official, and engaged in serious conversation about nuclear safeguards rather replying with a response reminiscent of “kindergarten stuff.”

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    March 2, 2012 5:16 pm

    How about a nice game of chess?

  2. March 2, 2012 8:41 pm

    “…reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour.”

    But be sure to launch a counter-attack to make sure they’ll all be dead, too, otherwise how could we rest in peace?

    • March 3, 2012 8:13 pm

      So you wished he DID launch against incomplete intel?

      • Amanda permalink
        March 3, 2012 9:36 pm

        I think the idea behind that comment is.. instead of just one entire country dying, a second has to too in retaliation. Silly.

  3. March 4, 2012 10:00 pm

    This is spooky. I just found this article in the National Security Archive, and having been on duty in missile warning for this event, I find it frustrating to read yet another account that does not at all look like what I experienced.

    I landed here by linking from one blogroll to the next in a curious manner, starting with the Nuclear Vault at the NS Archive. I keep blinking at the date of this post. Uncanny.

    For some reason, most people in the mental health fields think that being deeply disturbed about spending time on alert as an instrument of mutually assured destruction is either “grandiose” or “evidence” that one is predisposed to being disturbed.

    The difference between being intimately involved with human extinction as an “issue” and being involved in human extinction as a fact is profound.

    Personally, the idea, alone, that I, at the age of 18 had a role to play in the destruction of the human race should be especially bothersome to a person who can’t not believe that I have some endogenous “disorder”.

  4. Mary Popp permalink
    March 28, 2012 12:10 am

    As someone who has live with one of those mental health professionals for 21+ years I can say with some certainty that one should not put too much stock in the beliefs or opinions of mental health people. I have had numerous long term friendships with mental health personnel and am myself a trained mental health provider. Pay us all no attention. We know not what we speak of :)

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