Countdown to Declassification: Finding Answers to the Able Archer 83 Nuclear War Scare
Recently, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a piece I wrote in which I attempted to convey the link between the danger of the 1983 Able Archer nuclear war scare (read the 1,000-plus page set of annotated documents here), and how the “US classification system creates crippling and utterly unnecessary obstacles to a clearer public understanding of historical events, including the potential danger of nuclear miscalculation that occurred during Able Archer 83.”
The withholding of information about close brushes with nuclear war is more difficult to justify in the United States, ostensibly a representative democracy then fighting a Cold War against totalitarian communism to preserve its citizens’ democratic way of life, relative freedom, and open society. Were these values expressed when events suggesting that there had been a real risk of accidental nuclear war were concealed from the public through the classification system?
Indeed, immediately after the first Special National Intelligence Estimate on Able Archer 83 was produced, the US government sanitized all mention of the possibility that the Soviets viewed it as a possible first strike vehicle from reports to its NATO allies. Part of the reason for this sanitization was to protect the MI6 source inside the KGB, Gordievsky. But clearly, some US policy makers also did not want to tell their NATO allies that Able Archer 83 may have increased the risk of nuclear war, because doing so might have caused some of those allies to reconsider decisions to deploy nuclear-armed US cruise and Pershing II missiles on their territory.
In the early 1980s, the decision to conceal the risks created by Able Archer 83 may have seemed necessary to US national security. One can at least understand the belief that the forward-basing of US nuclear missiles was amore important concern than abstract notions of open government. The continued classification of significant documents related to Able Archer 83, 30 years after the fact, is much harder to defend. Documents that deal with this exercise –including the most comprehensive report ever written about it– contain information of interest not only to scholars of the Cold War, but also to all concerned about the danger of nuclear weapons. If, as some within the US intelligence community have claimed, there was an increased danger of nuclear war through miscalculation in 1983, the documents detailing the danger of Able Archer 83 could help avert current and future nuclear standoffs and reduce the probability of accidental war. Furthermore, revelations about the risk and possibility
of nuclear miscalculation complicate the argument that nuclear deterrence has gifted humanity with a “long peace” and undermine the contention that the danger of worldwide nuclear war ended with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Now, the Soviet SS-20s and American Pershing IIs have been removed and retired, the Cold War has ended, and the Soviet Union no longer exists. After the fact, a fuller picture of the dangers of Able Archer 83 has emerged. But due to failures of the US declassification system, honest and malicious, the most important documents about this potentially dangerous nuclear episode remain unavailable to the public, locked in secure facilities, under the rubric that their release “reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” when, in fact, their declassification could help protect the United States and the rest of the world from the gravest of all security threats: nuclear war.