The USS Pueblo: “The cost of this deployment to the nation in terms of the amount of cryptologic material compromised was enormous.”
Last week’s episode of AMC’s Mad Men featured a passing reference to the USS Pueblo, an American SIGINT ship captured by North Korean forces on January 23, 1968, and the only commissioned US Navy ship still in foreign possession. While the reference was short, the dramatic, real-life account of the Pueblo was an intelligence breach of enormous proportions, and, followed by the downing of a US reconnaissance EC-121 plane over the Sea of Japan in 1969 by a North Korean MiG-17, encouraged the Nixon Administration to develop contingency plans that would allow the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Pyongyang.
On January 8, 1968, the Pueblo sailed from Sasebo, Japan, to its position off the North Korean coast with the mission to “draw emissions from North Korean communications.” At 12 PM on January 23, a day after North Korea attempted to assassinate South Korean President Pak Chong-hui, the Pueblo was approached by a North Korean vessel challenging its nationality. At 1:28 the Pueblo reported that the Koreans intended to fire on them, at 2:10 the crew requested “some help,” and at 2:25 reported they had “been directed to come to a stop. Destruction incompleted. Some publications will be compromised.” An epic understatement according to the 1992 National Security Agency report of the incident declassified in 2012, which claims that there was a massive amount of classified material and cipher equipment confiscated by the North Koreans and likely passed on to the Soviet Union and China.
The full extent of the classified information and equipment on board may have been unknown to President Johnson and his advisors at the time, who, during a lunch meeting on January 29, were more concerned with how the Pueblo’s capture would affect their position in Vietnam. Johnson was especially sensitive to concerns that any action against North Korea would detract from troop levels in Vietnam, arguing, “[t]here is no need to call up the reserves for Vietnam. In fact, General Westmoreland would rather go without the reserves in Vietnam. ..Of course we could call up the reserves at anytime without Korea if we wanted.”
On January 30, the same day the Tet Offensive began, the President was pushed by House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, the man LBJ accused of spending “too much time playing football without a helmet,” to be more critical of the events that lead to the Pueblo’s capture. Ford claimed he would have gotten rid of all the intelligence equipment on board, even if it meant sinking the vessel himself. Johnson, for his part, admitted he would have requested help earlier. Though, the president conceded that “[p]robably the luckiest thing that happened to us was that we did not send people in there and have another Bay of Pigs. Darkness was approaching. Snow was falling.”
The blistering NSA account of the intelligence lost with the Pueblo contradicts the president’s claim.
On December 23, 1968, the US wrote (and quickly rescinded) an apology for spying, and without any military action being taken, the crew of the USS Pueblo was released. The Pueblo Crisis spurred the Nixon administration to develop contingency plans for Pyongyang’s aggression that included “a long list of nearly 25 military options, ranging from evacuation of U.S. personnel in a crisis to limited nuclear strikes using kiloton-range nuclear weapons that involved possible casualties in the thousands.”
 The amount of intelligence compromised as a result of the Pueblo incident was magnified by the discovery of the Walker Sky network, which operated within the US Navy and passed high-level ciphers to the Soviets from 1967 through the mid-1980s, meaning that the Soviets were receiving US ciphers by the time they possibly had access to the USS Pueblo decoding equipment. See page 157 of the NSA report for more.
When Wikileaks “Scoops” NARA on Their Own Publicly Available Documents, It’s Time for Agencies to Fully Embrace Effectively Digitizing All-Things FOIA
On Monday, Wikileaks “released” the “Kissinger Cables,” (also called the Public Library of US Diplomacy or PlusD) a fascinating collection of 1.7 million U.S. diplomatic correspondences from the mid-1970s. The cables are easily sifted through thanks to the sleek, high-powered search function Wikileaks built for their “release,” making the collection all the more appealing to document hounds. As a result, documents that would likely have fallen through the cracks if not for the interest generated by all-things Wikileaks are receiving much deserved attention and are producing some very important revelations.
The only problem is, Wikileaks didn’t “release” the cables. They were released electronically by the National Archives and Records Administration in 2006. While the Wikileaks site is obviously more user-friendly (see graphic below), it is unfortunate that the original source of the documents has been misidentified, that Wikileaks was not more upfront in their origin, and that the hard work done by NARA staff has gone largely unrecognized. The documents were not, as Julian Assange claimed, “hidden in the borderline between secrecy and complexity;” they were clearly posted on the website of the National Archives. The National Security Archive and many other researchers have made frequent use of the cables since they were posted in 2006. Here’s just one example of a cable The National Security Archive posted about how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger issued a demarche to aides who wanted to “head off” a “series of international murders.”
As a frequent FOIA requester, it seems to me that Wikileaks’ portrayal of US declassifiers acting somehow sinisterly does a disservice to the National Archives and Department of State, two of the better FOIA agencies.
But, notwithstanding Wikileaks’s less than transparent branding (or rebranding) of these documents declassified by the US government, the fact remains that Wikileaks has sparked a far broader and greater interest in this history than NARA has been able to.
As an archivist, I believe that bringing important documents to light and making them easily searchable for public consumption is a good thing; for that, kudos to Wikileaks. But most importantly, as a FOIA and transparency advocate, I hope that the interested generated by Wikileaks’ “release” of these already-released documents will be a wake-up call to federal agencies like NARA, which has been dragging its feet releasing the next series of 1977-1980 Department of State cable collections despite President Obama’s orders to adopt a “presumption in favor of disclosure” and his instruction to declassify the 400-million page backlog of documents marooned at the Archives by December 2013. (Chances are slim NARA will meet that deadline).
If federal agencies do not take Obama’s FOIA memorandum to heart and release, package, and publicize their documents more effectively, there will be a growing space for Wikileaks and others to take credit for their hard work. Fully embracing the digital-age industry standard of conducting the FOIA and declassification business electronically, –which means posting easily searchable versions of all documents as they are released– will go a long way in preventing agencies from getting “scooped” on their own, public documents. Or worse, having them actually leaked.
Air Force Chief of Staff Said Bomber Conflagration in Morocco Involved Nukes–“One of Those Things”
Legislation from 1950s Holds Up Declassification of Obsolete Secrets, Despite Calls for Reform
The Cold War ended several decades ago, but the U.S. government continues to keep secrets from that era under lock and key. Some secrets remain valid, but some of the secrecy serves no useful purpose. One pointless secret concerns a January 1958 nuclear weapons accident that took place at a U.S. Air Force base in Morocco. A recent U.S. Air Force declassification decision about the accident reminds us about the enduring unnecessary secrecy. The Air Force exempted the location of the accident, citing the Atomic Energy Act to justify the secrecy notwithstanding the departure of nuclear weapons and the U.S Air Force from Morocco nearly fifty years ago. Recognizing that such secrecy is obsolete, the presidentially appointed Public Interest Declassification Advisory Board has made useful recommendations that could correct it.
For many years during the Cold War, the U.S. government deployed nuclear weapons around the world, on land and sea, from Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean, from Western Europe to East Asia. Some weapons were for battlefield purposes, others were deployed on aircraft carriers or at overseas air bases so that nuclear bombs would be closer to their targets in the former Soviet Union. In 1951 the French government granted access to territory in Morocco, one of its colonies, for U.S. air bases. At four Moroccan bases, the U.S. Strategic Air Command deployed B-36, then B-47, bombers and by 1954 was storing entire nuclear weapons (unbeknownst to the French). This basic information, disclosed in an Institute for Defense Analyses history (see pages 31, 33, and 76), has been in the public record for decades. After Morocco became independent in 1956, local nationalistic pressures made it a matter of time before all foreign military organizations had to depart, and by the fall of 1963 SAC had closed its bases.
On 31 January 1958, a B-47 bomber on ground alert, loaded with a nuclear weapon, caught on fire on the runway at the U.S. air base at Sidi Slimane. The fire destroyed the bomber and left a hole on the runway, but there were no casualties. That the entire base had to be evacuated and the area around it was put on “alert” reached the readers of The New York Times on 2 February 1958 in a small story headlined “H-Bomb Danger Denied: Burning of B-47 at U.S. Base in Morocco Causes Stir.”
The B-47 fire was a classic nuclear accident in the “Broken Arrow” category and basic facts about it have been known for years. In response to journalistic queries and subsequent pressure from nuclear weapons researcher Robert S. Norris, then working with the Center for Defense Information, the Defense Department released, and later updated, reports on nuclear weapons accidents from 1950 to 1980. The CDI published the Pentagon report with more information to put it in context.
The Defense Department cited the incident on 31 January 1958 noting that the B-47 was making a simulated takeoff when one of the wheels failed and a fuel tank ruptured when the plane hit the surface. The conventional explosives on the weapons did not detonate but the meltdown of the bomb’s plutonium pit caused contamination in the area around the fire and on one of the fireman’s clothing. The burning of a nuclear weapon made the accident a “Broken Arrow” (the highest category short of an accidental nuclear explosion). The Defense Department did not identify the location but Norris correctly surmised that the incident took place at Sidi Slimane.
(For more information on nuclear accidents, read Unredacted’s analysis of an Air Force document entitled, ““Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons,” which reports that there were at least 32 “accidents involving nuclear weapons” before 1980.)
During President Bill Clinton’s massive release of the archival backlog in the late 1990s, some documents on the 1958 accident became available in State Department records at the National Archives (see documents A and B). The documents shed light on the State Department reactions to the accident, which included telling King Mohammed what happened but no public confirmation of the nukes and that evacuating the base might have been an overreaction. Other documents remained classified in a State Department file on “Aircraft Carrying Nuclear Weapons: a. Accidents 1958 and 1960.” Nearly 20 years after the National Security Archive filed a FOIA request for the documents, a delay which in itself is a scandal, the Headquarters of the Air Force Global Strike Command withheld five pages of documents in their entirety. According to the Strike Command, releasing the documents would reveal information on “military plans, weapons systems, or operations.” Surmising that the documents related to the B-47 accident in Morocco, the Archive appealed the decision noting that public record information on it had been available for years.
In February 2013, the Global Strike Command granted the appeal in part by releasing the substance of the documents (see C, D, and E) which provided detail on how Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas White communicated the news of the accident to the State Department (a crash involving “one of those things”), the Air Force’s proposed press release which the State Department rejected (see document A), and the clean-up at the accident site. Nevertheless, citing the Atomic Energy Act (unmentioned in the first denial) the Strike Command withheld the particulars of the accident’s location. Even though it had occurred decades ago and U.S. military presence in Morocco ended in 1963, under the Atomic Energy Act, U.S. government agencies routinely treat information about the locations of nuclear weapons, even if they have been overtaken by events, as “formerly restricted data” concerning the military utilization of nuclear weapons,[i] which is extremely difficult to declassify.
This requirement has hampered the release of considerable information about the historical locations of U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery system, whether it concerned the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Canada (which ended decades ago) or Jupiter missiles in Turkey (whose withdrawal was an element of the Cuban missile crisis settlement). Even though President George H. W. Bush ordered the withdrawal of thousands of nuclear weapons from overseas in 1991 leaving only a few hundred weapons in NATO Europe, the Atomic Energy Act is an important element of the secrecy which has prevented official U.S. disclosure of the historical country locations of these weapons.
A recent report by the Public Interest Declassification Board includes a number of useful proposals that could lead to a more rational declassification system. . Drawing upon earlier PIDB recommendations one of them directly addresses the problem of “formerly restricted data”. Acknowledging that “historical FRD information … is often obsolete and no longer has any military or operational value” and that “existing processes” have gotten nowhere, PIDB suggested a way out. FRD could be converted into “national security information” or where appropriate into restricted data. If information on the historical locations could be treated as NSI, it would allow the State Department or the Defense Department or other agencies to declassify it on a case-by-case basis.
PIDB did not spell out what it would take to carry this out, but it would probably require a presidential decision. The president could instruct the departments of Defense and Energy, with the assistance of the National Security Staff, to reach an agreement on ways and means to implement to convert FRD into NSI and the general parameters for any declassification. Once an understanding is reached, it could be codified through an executive order. Unless this is done, the Air Force and other agencies will continue to redact obsolete information about Cold War nuclear deployments.
[i]. “Restricted data” generally concerns the design of nuclear weapons and technologies for producing fissile materials, while “formerly restricted data” is a special category created after World War II when policymakers realized that military personnel needed access to nuclear weapons information so that they could make plans and arrangements for military use. FRD includes information such as weapons yields, stockpiles, and the locations of the weapons.
Today the National Security Archive is posting a collection of documents that seek to provide some historical context for the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula, now entering its second week. In response primarily to new UN economic sanctions placed on Pyongyang for its continued nuclear weapons program, the young and relatively inexperienced Kim Jong Un has dialed up the rhetoric of invective against the United States and South Korea. He has also taken concrete steps to demonstrate his seriousness, declaring the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War null and void, declared the Korean peninsula in a state of war, closed the Kaesong inter-Korean industrial complex, warned other governments to evacuate their embassies in Pyongyang due to the threat of war, announced it is restarting nuclear processing facilities to support production of nuclear weapons, and moved missiles to its east coast for an anticipated new test, possibly timed to coincide with the anniversary of his grandfather’s birthday.
As always, the dilemma is to determine how much of North Korea’s rhetoric to take seriously, how far they are willing to go in stoking tensions, and what are their ultimate goals? These and similar questions confronted the U.S. in the early 1990s, as Washington and its allies dealt with a crisis over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions that led the U.S. to consider, however briefly, possible military action to take out Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities. The situation then, as now, was further complicated by the death of Kim Il Sung in the summer of 1994 even as the Agreed Framework to end the nuclear crisis was brokered by former president Jimmy Carter. As the documents posted today demonstrate, there are notable recurring patterns in these periodic episodes of deliberately heightened tensions: Pyongyang’s need to be taken seriously, the desire for the United States to deal directly with North Korea on an agreement to bring peace to the peninsula, a related desire to secure economic and financial assistance from the West, and the conviction that only its acceptance as a nuclear state will bring true security to a regime that at times seems unwilling to be reassured. Likewise, following the death of Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il faced a protracted period before his leadership position was consolidated, and as one of the documents posted today suggest, Kim Jong Un has likely faced his own challenges in working to consolidate his position, especially with the military. Finally, a key factor in how the current crisis plays out will be the role played by China, a question that is addressed by a DIA analysis of Bejing’s possible reactions to different contingencies on the Korea peninsula in1994, ranging from new sanctions to all-out war, included with today’s posting.
It is hoped that these documents, which likely have their counterparts in reports being made to President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry today, provide an appreciation of the many unknowns and hard-to-predict contingencies that have perennially surrounded efforts to understand and deal rationally with the Hermit Kingdom. Also, they provide something of a benchmark for what in the past was seen as “normal” for North Korea, and thus a marker against which Kim Jung Un’s rhetoric and actions may be compared.
This post can also be found on ForeignPolicy.com.
By Tom Blanton, Svetlana Savranskaya
If there was one instance in which a foreign policy I pursued met with unambiguous failure, it was my policy on German reunification.
– Margaret Thatcher
The late prime minister of Great Britain published her memoirs in 1993, under the title Downing Street Years, full of scores settled (almost as much with her own Conservatives, who spurned her at the end, as with the Laborites she fought her whole career) and few admissions of doubt or defeat.
Except for her effort to prevent German reunification — her “unambiguous failure.”
The most remarkable documents on the Thatcher campaign against unification come from former top Gorbachev aide Anatoly Chernyaev, who was the designated notetaker at the British prime minister’s meeting with the Soviet general secretary on September 23, 1989 in the Kremlin. A translation of his handwritten notes is presented here in extended form for the first time. Chernyaev also wrote several diary entries analyzing Thatcher’s motivations.
In retrospect, reunification seems almost over-determined, but that is not at all how it looked at the time. Thatcher’s opposition echoed in Washington, with the Bush administration’s emphasis on stability and prudence. But the rapid collapse of the East German regime in the fall of 1989, the incompetence and ultimate resignation of the communist leaders in Berlin, the mobilization of East German public opinion, the lure of the West German deutschmark, and the adroit maneuvering of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl all culminated in the victory of pro-unification forces in East Germany’s March 1990 elections — and the October 1990 deal dissolving the country.
In her memoirs, Thatcher described the September 1989 meeting relatively accurately, but not at all vividly or forcefully, certainly not in comparison to the practically verbatim Chernyaev notes. She wrote:
I explained to him [Gorbachev] that although NATO had traditionally made statements supporting Germany’s aspiration to be reunited, in practice we were rather apprehensive. Mr Gorbachev confirmed that the Soviet Union did not want German reunification either. This reinforced me in my resolve to slow up the already heady pace of developments. Of course I did not want East Germans to live under Communism, but it seemed to me that a truly democratic East Germany would soon emerge and the question of reunification was a separate one, on which the wishes and interests of Germany’s neighbours and other powers must be fully taken into account.
In Chernyaev’s far richer account, the two leaders talked as peers and with a great deal of mutual sympathy — after all, it had been Thatcher who pronounced Gorbachev a “man we can do business with” upon their first meeting back in 1984. Gorbachev told Thatcher about internal Soviet discussions, and why he did not believe in the Chinese model: “How can you reform both the economy and politics without democratizing society, without glasnost, which incorporates individuals into an active socio-political life?”
Thatcher responded, “I noted that you calmly accepted the results of the elections in Poland [June 1989, when Solidarity won 99 of 100 contested seats] and, in general, the processes in that country and in other East European counties. I understand your position in the following way: you are in favor of each country choosing its own road of development so long as the Warsaw Treaty is intact. I understand this position perfectly.”
At this point, according to Chernyaev’s notes, Thatcher asked that note-taking be discontinued, “I would like to say something in a very confidential manner.” Of course, Chernyaev complied, but immediately following the meeting, wrote down from memory what Thatcher had said:
Britain and Western Europe are not interested in the reunification of Germany. The words written in the NATO communiqué may sound different, but disregard them. We do not want the unification of Germany. It would lead to changes in the post-war borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the entire international situation and could lead to threats to our security. We are not interested in the destabilization of Eastern Europe or the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact either…. I can tell you that this is also the position of the U.S. president.
Amazing. Disregard NATO’s words. Keep the Warsaw Pact. Prevent a unified Germany. All very comforting to the Soviet leader. Later, at the Malta summit with Gorbachev, President George H.W. Bush would use a double negative to describe the U.S. position on unification, “We cannot be asked to disapprove of German reunification.”
Soon after the Thatcher meeting, however, Chernyaev wrote in his diary about what was really going on. On October 9, after hearing from French President Francois Mitterrand and others in Europe that “nobody wants a unified Germany,” Chernyaev remembered, “Thatcher, when she asked to go off the record during the conversation with M.S. [Gorbachev], expressed her views decisively against Germany’s reunification. But, she said this is not something she can openly say at home or in NATO. In short, they want to prevent this with our hands.”
In short, Thatcher failed to prevent German unification at least in part because she did not want to get her own hands dirty — leave that to the Soviets. Perhaps she was as surprised as anyone when Gorbachev stuck to his principles and let the empire go.
by Ariel Gould
Erin Siegal, Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, recently donated one bankers-size box of documents about US citizens’ adoptions of Guatemalan children and adoption fraud to the National Security Archive.
These documents are the result of over thirty FOIA requests Ms. Siegal filed with the Department of State, Customs and Border Patrol, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the CIA. The requests asked for information as far back as 1980 and cover a variety of topics, ranging from information on the Casa Quivira issue (in which 46 babies were seized from a Guatemalan adoption agency due to accusations of adoption fraud), to US embassy communications regarding Celebrate Children International (a US organization imputed to have acted in violation of conditions the Hague Convention set regarding the adoptability of children).
Of particular interest in the declassified documents is information on the extent of adoption fraud in Guatemala, what the United States knew about it, and the US’s attempts to combat the problem. According to Department of State cables dating back as far as 1987, adoption fraud in Guatemala had been a lucrative business for some time. Lawyers in the country turned huge profits arranging the international adoptions of kidnapped children, women were paid to masquerade as mothers abandoning their “children” so that the children could be put up for adoption, and by March 2010, 29,400 Guatemalan children had found their way into American homes. That meant that one in every one hundred babies born in Guatemala was growing up in the US, and the adoption industry in Guatemala had become a $100 million industry.
The documents also contain information on the involvement of US-based organizations in the problem. Certain US adoption agencies with operations or relationships in Guatemala became involved in the scandal, including International Adoption Resources, which was implicated in smuggling Guatemalan children out of the country, after three mothers came forward and attested to selling their children for 750 dollars apiece.
Some documents of note in the files include:
- A 9 August 2005 cable discussing a major Guatemalan newspaper’s critique of the adoption system in Guatemala, including the means of adoption fraud and abusing the system (see image)
- A 5 November 1996 cable discussing the increase in the number of cases using impostor mothers as a means of perpetrating adoption fraud
- Emails dating from March to May 2008 discussing fraud in DNA testing, including a prospective adoptive family’s insight on their case
- A 16 December 1991 cable discussing the role of Guatemalan attorneys in the adoption problem in Guatemala
- A 21 July 2004 cable discussing a Florida-based organization called Adoption Resources, Inc, which the Florida State’s Attorney concluded was “apparently working through an internationally-known child smuggler, [in an attempt] to process Guatemalan children for international adoption”
For more information on the documents or the story behind Erin Siegal’s investigation, you can read her book Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth and her published volume of more than 700 pages of US Embassy documents relating to adoptions in Guatemala: The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala: 1987–2010. Further information on this topic and Erin Seigal’s two publications are available on the Brandeis University website.
UPDATE: “The Heat from Destroying [The Torture Videos] is Nothing Compared to what it Would be if the Tapes Ever Got into the Public Domain” Plus, I Need that Promotion!!
UPDATE 27 March 2013. This morning the Washington Post reports that the as yet unnamed woman who “signed off on the 2005 decision to destroy video tapes of prisoners being subjected to treatment critics have called torture” has become acting chief of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, responsible for launching drone strikes and running spies overseas. The unnamed woman is described by the Post as “in her 50s” and a “home run from a diversity standpoint.” She has served “multiple tours in Moscow” and has held “top positions in London and New York.”
The Post also reports that the new acting director of the Clandestine Service and its former director Jose Rodriguez repeatedly sought permission to destroy the torture tapes, but were denied permission.
The two sent instructions to destroy the tapes anyway, infamously (and sadly, perhaps correctly) noting: “The heat from destroying [the torture videos] is nothing compared to what it would be if the tapes ever got into the public domain.” The order carried only two names: Rodriguez and the new acting director of the Clandestine Service.
The careers of both appear to be thriving. Rodriguez has published a widely promoted book justifying the agency’s actions. And said in an interview with 60 minutes, “We needed to get everybody in government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed.”
For more ruminations on the link between destroying documents and being held accountable for torture, see here.
UPDATE 10 November 2010: Federal prosecutor John Durham will not charge former CIA Director of Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez for authorizing the destruction of videotapes that recorded torture. The statute of limitations for the destruction of tapes expired this week. Durham may still bring charges against CIA agents and contractors who allegedly participated in the torture of detainees in secret “black sites.” Rodriguez’s attorney lauded the decision, stating, “Jose Rodriguez is an American hero, a true patriot who only wanted to protect his people and his country.”
In 2002 an alleged Al-Qaeda member Abu Zabaydah was transferred to a “black prison” in Thailand. There, the CIA waterboarded him 83 times in one month, kept him naked in his cell, subjected him to extreme cold, deprived him from sleep for days, and forced him to listen to extremely loud music. On 9 November 2005 the 92 videos of this “enhanced interrogation” were destroyed. One email shows that Jose Rodriguez Jr., the CIA’s Director of Clandestine Service justified the destruction by saying, “the heat from destroying [the torture videos] is nothing compared to what it would be if the tapes ever got into the public domain.” Read more…