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