Why The Key Able Archer 83 Report Should Be Released Under UK FOIA
A British report entitled “The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War Against NATO” was the first comprehensive report that warned that a November 1983 nuclear release exercise called Able Archer 83 could have spooked the Soviets into a preemptive nuclear attack against the West. Within weeks, a First Tier British tribunal on Information Rights will decide if this key 32-year-old report will be released to the public or will remain censored by the Cabinet Office for the foreseeable future.
As has been widely reported, the British FOIA law is under attack. MP Chris Grayling has alleged that journalists “misuse” the Freedom of Information Act to create stories. (Here are 103 stories that journalists utilized the British FOIA to write, presumably “correctly.”) More threateningly, a British government commission has been created “to consider new restrictions to the [Freedom of Information] Act.” According to The Guardian, the five-member commission is composed of “Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, who is already on the record calling for the act to be rewritten; Lord Carlile of Berriew, who accused the Guardian of ‘a criminal act’ when it published stories using National Security Agency material leaked by Edward Snowden; Lord Howard, whose gardening expenses were criticised after being exposed following FoI requests; and Dame Patricia Hodgson, the deputy chair of Ofcom, which has criticised the act for its ‘chilling effect’ on government.”
But even without the law’s pending wing-clipping, the British Cabinet Office (the office responsible for supporting the Prime Minister) is arguing that a 32-year-old report of an historic event of immense public interest should be withheld –without even being reviewed– forever.
The report, entitled “The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War Against NATO” and written in early 1984, describes an “unprecedented Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83,” a realistic NATO nuclear release drill. After the British warned the United States of this danger, US intelligence reported “a high level of Soviet military activity, with new deployments of weapons and strike forces.” CIA Director William Casey warned President Ronald Reagan and other cabinet officials of the “dimension of genuineness” and “high military costs” of the Soviet actions.
The United States’ comprehensive, all source intelligence report on the War Scare, entitled “The Soviet ‘War Scare'” was finally declassified last month, after a twelve-year fight by the National Security Archive. It concluded that the West “may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger;” that President Reagan was “given assessments of Soviet attitudes and actions that understated the risks to the United States;” and that the report’s authors hoped their report would prompt “renewed interest, vigorous dialogue, and rigorous analyses of the [War Scare].”
So what is the British Cabinet Office so afraid of?
It’s not at all clear. At first, the Cabinet Office cited three exemptions (23 – information supplied by some security bodies, 24 – “national security,” and 27 – “international relations” ) to prevent the historic report’s release. Months later, the Cabinet Office stated that it had turned course, and would review the document to determine if “some of the disputed information could be disclosed.” But then the Cabinet Office reversed itself again, declaring –without reviewing the document as it had previously pledged– that the entire document was categorically exempted under exemption 23; for some undeclared reason, the Office abandoned its use of exemptions 24 and 27.
The British Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, nominated in 2009 and charged to oversee the Freedom of Information Act, has rubber-stamped the Cabinet Office’s claims –without reading the 32-year-old document for himself.
This means that the last best chance for the release of “The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War Against NATO” is the First-tier Tribunal for Information Rights.
Here is the Archive’s complete argument to the tribunal, which:
*includes an overview of the plethora of documents already released about the incident, including British Ministry of Defense documents, documents about the US role, such as the officially released photographs of the spy who helped reveal the danger, Oleg Gordievsky, meeting with President Reagan, and the declassified US “TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON” comprehensive report of the danger, which in all likelihood discloses the majority of secrets in the JIC report that the Cabinet Office is foolishly attempting to protect;
*presents a timeline showing that the Cabinet Office repeatedly missed the deadlines set by the tribunal, and made promises to review the document for a partial release –which it reneged upon;
*and makes the technically important argument that much in “The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War Against NATO” is derived from ministries –including Defence and Foreign Affairs– which are not categorically exempt from the British FOIA. In fact, the Joint Intelligence Committee –which produced the report in question– has already produced one official history, and is working on its second. The JIC has also released other reports of much more recent and sensitive topics, including UK intelligence on the Assad Regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. There is no reason why this report from 1984, cannot be reviewed, redacted if necessary, and released to the public.
And as we were going to press, we learned that the issue of the unnecessary secrecy still surrounding the 1983 War Scare has now reached Parliament. (We were alerted by Peter Burt of the Nuclear Information Service, which has done more than any other organization for the release of British documents on Able Archer 83.) On November 10, Paul Flynn representing Newport West asked two questions. The answers he received on November 17 were disappointing.
Q1: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, whether the Government has been provided with a copy of the US President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report of 15 February 1990, entitled The Soviet ‘War Scare’, by the US administration.
A1 (Penny Mordaunt): The document referred to by the hon. Member is available in redacted version over the internet. This Department has no record of receiving a copy from the United States administration.
Q2: To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office, if he will place in the Library a copy of the 1984 Joint Intelligence Committee paper JIC(84)(N)45, entitled Soviet Union: concern about a surprise NATO attack.
A2: (Mr Oliver Letwin): It would not be appropriate to release this report on grounds of National Security.
That the US did not share its comprehensive PFIAB report with the British, despite it being based largely on information shared by the British is a bit of a revelation. (Though, it was classified “NOFORN.”)
That a representative for the Cabinet Office would simply claim “National Security” to reject the request of a Member of Parliament to release a 32-year-0ld historically important document to the public exposes the callous, poor judgement of the Cabinet Office.
Despite the Cabinet Office’s refusal to release the record, the fact that a Member of Parliament has requested a copy of the document does demonstrate to the Tribunal that there is a large public interest in the record, and that the Tribunal should consider its release.
The National Security Archive is hopeful that the Tribunal will force an actual review of the document and release the portions which will not harm the national security of the United Kingdom (likely the majority). But we are also extremely disappointed that it has come to this. The British Cabinet Office and Information Commissioner of the nation that created the vaunted “Twenty Year Rule” should not be arguing to withhold a key 32-year-old historic document about one of the most important nuclear episodes in our history without a review.
It’s sadly ironic that the government which first alerted the US to the potential nuclear danger of Able Archer 83 is now leading in its concealment.