General Leonard H. Perroots who Deescalated Risk of Nuclear War During Able Archer 83 Has Died; DIA Cannot Find His Letter Warning of Danger
Air Force lieutenant general and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Leonard H. Perroots has died. I first learned of Perroots while reading the declassified President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board’s report on Able Archer 83 and the 1983 War Scare. According to this report, Able Archer 83 so closely represented a nuclear launch that the USSR began readying its nuclear forces for a possible first strike, and the United States “may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”
The PFIAB report (which the National Security Archive fought for 12 years to declassify) revealed that the danger of Able Archer 83 ebbed after Perroots, then a young air force officer, made the “fortuitous, if ill-informed  decision” … “out of instinct, not informed guidance” to do “nothing in the face of evidence that parts of the Soviet armed forces were moving to an unusual level of alert” during the exercise. By not responding to Soviet escalation in kind, Perroots essentially ended the two Super Powers’ nuclear anteing during the War Scare –and, as it turned out, the entire Cold War.
After Able Archer 83, Perroots rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the Director of the DIA. Years later, he still had deep qualms about the lack of attention given to the risk of nuclear war present during Able Archer 83. Central Intelligence Agency estimates on the War Scare initially downplayed the danger; and when the Agency analysts finally reversed course in 1988, acknowledging the potential danger during Able Archer 83, these findings were buried in a –still classified(!)– “annex of a tightly held assessment not authored for policymakers.”**
In addition to his role during Able Archer 83, Perroots must also be credited for the public’s eventual knowledge of this danger. Before Perroots retired from the DIA in 1989, he sent a final letter stating his disquiet over the lack of treatment given to the War Scare. He sent it to the director of the CIA William Webster and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Webster gave the letter little thought. The PFIAB revved into action, interviewing more than 75 U.S. and British officials and reviewing hundreds of all-source intelligence documents. The PFIAB’s 94-page report –spurred by Perroots and now largely available to the public— is the definitive account of Able Archer 83 and the 1983 War Scare. The PFIAB agreed with Perroots’s concerns; it reported to the President that it was “deeply disturbed by the U.S. handling of the war scare, both at the time and since.”
While researching the War Scare, I had tried to speak with General Perroots, but was unfortunately not able to due to his health issues. Adding even greater tragedy to his death was that on the same day he died, I received a letter from the DIA stating that it could not find its copy of Perroot’s letter about his role during Able Archer 83 and his view of the danger. The DIA informed me that “Historical records were maintained by individual directorates which often resulted in the loss and destruction of records.”** The death of Perroots coupled with the probable “loss or destruction” of his crucial account of Able Archer 83 has reminded this historian of the fleeting fragility of the past we try to document.
**The report is entitled “Special Program Intelligence Nuclear Missile Attack.” The CIA has withheld the relevant portions. The National Security Archive, of course, is appealing.
***There may yet be other copies of this record at other agencies which can be found, including at the US National Archive, possibly in the PFIAB’s working files, or at the Central Intelligence Agency. Disturbingly, the CIA has claimed that Perroots’s letter must be classified in full and no portion of it can be released to the public without harming US National Security, despite the plethora of information about the War Scare now available to the public.