RESEARCH DOCUMENT : The “Launch on Warning” Nuclear Strategy and Its Insider Critics

The “Launch on Warning” Nuclear Strategy and Its Insider Critics

Published: Jun 11, 2019

Briefing Book #674

Edited by William Burr

Update for Briefing Book #43 originally posted in April 2001

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

Policy Adopted in 1970s, Still in Effect Today Despite Danger of False Alerts

Top Defense Official in 1978 Called It “Dangerous, Wrong, and Ineffective”

Reagan Directive Called for Leaving Soviet Planners “with Strong Uncertainty” about U.S. Response to Warning

Washington, D.C., June 11, 2019 – “Launch-on-warning,” a feature of U.S. nuclear warfighting strategy since the late 1970s, has frequently faced intensive criticism because of the high risk of accidental launches and uncontrollable outcomes, including massive casualties, according to recently declassified records posted today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive.

Yet, successive presidential administrations have stood by a prompt-launch approach. The new documents, obtained through archival research and declassification requests, are combined here with an earlier National Security Archive e-book to further illuminate high-level thinking about a key aspect of nuclear war planning the public rarely hears about.

Two newly declassified highlights in the posting are White House adviser William Odom’s critique of launch-under-attack and President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Decision Directive 13, which provided criteria for nuclear war planning, including launch-on-warning as a way to keep Moscow "uncertain."

In the fall of 1979, as the Carter administration was revamping U.S. nuclear strategy, Lt. Colonel William Odom, an official on the White House national security staff, raised doubts about the recent inclusion of a launch-under-attack option in the nuclear war plan, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). In a memorandum published today by the National Security Archive, Odom argued against rapid launching of Minuteman missiles in response to electronic warnings because warning systems were “just not good enough to let us know that our ICBMs are under attack.” Moreover, according to Odom, not enough thought had been given to the launch-under-attack targets: they would strike “empty Soviet silos.” Further, if the U.S. launched a follow-up nuclear attack, the nuclear explosions and radiation effects caused by a launch-under-attack strike could destroy incoming U.S. missiles through “fratricide.” Launch-under-attack as a SIOP option, Odom advised, should be cancelled.

Odom’s advice was disregarded but since then, presidents, presidential candidates, former officials, and defense policy experts have questioned the U.S.’s reliance on a high-alert, instant reaction posture for Minuteman missiles that provide a launch-on-warning capability. When he was a presidential candidate George W. Bush declared that “keeping so many weapons on high alert may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch.” His successor, Barack Obama, highly aware of the danger of nuclear weapons, explicitly called for reducing the role of launch-under-attack in U.S. nuclear planning. Yet, neither president changed the quick-reaction/launch-on-warning posture, perhaps to avoid a conflict with the Pentagon.

Today’s publication updates a National Security Web posting from April 2001, “Launch on Warning: The Development of U.S. Capabilities, 1959-1979.” The original documents are included in addition to more recently declassified items, , not only the Odom memorandum cited above, but records on policy development during the Carter and Reagan administrations when launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack postures were incorporated into the SIOP and official “nuclear weapons employment policy.”

Among the new documents are:

  • Excerpts from a 1968 Strategic Air Command history suggesting that a “a fire on warning doctrine was the best military answer” to the possible threat of strikes by Soviet submarine-launched missiles on U.S. ICBM sites to prevent successful launches of the missiles.
  • A Project RAND report from 1975 that stated that once the President had made a launch decision, Minuteman ICBMs would reach high altitudes in “about seven minutes.”
  • A Carter administration critique of launch-under-attack included the observation that “the President could decide to retaliate in a few minutes [but] he shouldn’t, as a matter of policy, have to do so.”
  • The Carter administration Defense Department’s support for launch-under-attack as a measure “designed to strengthen deterrence.”
  • The Reagan administration’s National Security Decision Directive 13 that stipulated that it was U.S. policy not “to rely on” launch-on-warning in an “irrevocable manner.” With launch-on-warning not strictly prohibited, the U.S. “must leave Soviet planners with strong uncertainty as to how we might actually respond.”

During the Carter administration and the years that followed, defense officials along with journalists, political scientists, and policy analysts debated the risks of launch-under-attack/on warning. Science adviser Richard Garwin saw it as a method to strengthen deterrence, while future Reagan administration official Fred C. Iklé decried it in the Washington Post. During the early 1980s, deeply critical assessments emerged sporadically as a result of hints that launch-on-warning or launch-on-attack had become embedded in Pentagon policy. The pros and cons attracted less attention, however, as a new détente emerged during Reagan’s second term.[1]

The end of the Cold War brought many changes, but not in the hair trigger alert status of the Minuteman ICBM force. Bruce G. Blair, a former Minuteman launch officer who was at the Office of Technology Assessment and the Brookings Institution during the 1980s and 1990s, emerged as the most persistent and well-informed critic/analyst of launch-on-warning. Drawing on his personal experience and wealth of knowledge, Blair has written major studies of command-and-control vulnerabilities and accidental nuclear war, especially the danger of the U.S.’s hair-trigger alert posture for Minutemen ICBMs and the risk of an accidental launch because of a warning system failure. One of his studies for the Office of Technology Assessment, addressing command and control problems and launch-on-warning, was so highly classified by the Pentagon that it has proven impossible to locate, at least so far.[2]

The risks that Blair and others associated with launch-on-warning were the logical consequence of U.S. nuclear war plans. As soon as the Soviet Union and then China began to develop a nuclear weapons complex, U.S. military planners defined the most crucial installations slated for rapid destruction as "time urgent" high-value targets; they included air defense, nuclear command centers, and missile and air bases. A capability to strike those targets as rapidly as possible, once warning information became available, became an enduring high priority for war planners.

The potential threat posed by Soviet nuclear forces prompted U.S. military commanders and intelligence agencies to look for signs that the Soviet leadership might be readying them for use in a surprise attack. If Washington received "strategic warning" of an impending Soviet attack, top commanders wanted the option of a preemptive strike (sometimes called taking the “initiative”) against Soviet strategic and command and control targets. Consistent with this, the first SIOP, approved by President Dwight Eisenhower in the fall of 1960, included choices for preemptive and retaliatory nuclear strikes.[3]

When the U.S. Air Force began to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles during the late 1950s, they envisaged a strategic force that could be launched within minutes to deliver enormously destructive nuclear weapons. The "Minuteman" ICBM embodied that idea. While the possibility of rapid launch ICBMs supported ideas of preemptive attacks, preemption assumed strategic warning, specifically, intelligence indicating an imminent attack by an adversary, such as dispersal of nuclear forces and other signs of alerting and readiness activities. Whether such warning signs would be detected or properly interpreted is another matter.

If information became available that an attack was on the way – tactical warning intelligence – White House science advisers and Pentagon planners were reluctant to accept a strategy based on launching a retaliatory blow after absorbing a Soviet first strike. According to White House science adviser and MIT professor Jerome Wiesner, once electronic sensors could detect the launch phase of a Soviet ICBM attack, they could provide the "[warning] time necessary to ready our missiles so that they can be fired before they are destroyed."[4] What Wiesner was pointing to was the possibility of a launch-on-warning capability, a prospect that other U.S. government officials were beginning to recognize during the early 1960s.

Not all defense planners accepted the logic of launch-on-warning and some were skeptical of preemption. Apparently, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had strong objections to launch-on-warning, which he held long after he had left the Pentagon.[5] For some top officials, the development of Soviet ICBMs raised doubts about preemption. During a grim briefing by the National Security Council’s Net Evaluation Subcommittee (NESC) President Kennedy made one of his last documented statements about nuclear strategy. Analyzing the consequences of U.S. and Soviet preemptive nuclear attacks on their respective societies, the NESC study introduced U.S. casualty figures—30 million–that were higher than Kennedy had heard before. With the devastating U.S. losses from Moscow’s response to a preemptive strike, Kennedy observed that preemption was "not possible for us."[6] Despite Kennedy’s misgivings, a preemptive strategic option remains embedded in the SIOP and nuclear war plans to this day.[7]

The deployment of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) in the early 1960s provided a rudimentary capability for launch-on-warning by giving command authorities fifteen minutes’ tactical warning of a missile attack. Also, in the works during the 1960s and deployed in the early 1970s was a satellite-based electronic warning system originally known as the Missile Defense Alert System (MIDAS) but later camouflaged behind the designation, Defense Support Program (DSP).[8]

With the deployment of DSP satellites, the possibility of launch-on-warning became increasingly imbedded in policy discussion, arms control negotiations, and in the training of Minuteman launch officers. Bruce Blair recalls that he “practiced LOW a hundred times during my Minuteman days 1972-74, which coincided with the U.S. DSP program becoming operational.” Although some officials looked favorably at the prospects of launch-on-warning, others saw great risk. One veteran official, Paul Nitze, warned that launch-on-warning would be "inexcusably dangerous" during a "time of intense crisis." What worried Nitze and others in particular was the danger of a false alarm, which was not a hypothetical problem. During the Cold War and after, both the United States and Russia received mistaken warnings of strategic attack, including the famous NORAD false warning incident on 9 November 1979.

When it was first published in 2001, this collection demonstrated the limits of the declassified record. Few documents from military organizations, such as the Defense Department and the Strategic Air Command, had been declassified, although both played critically important roles in making launch-on-warning a capability. Since then, however, significant defense-related records have become available that illuminate the development of the launch-on-warning posture and the technological developments that underlay it. Exactly when strategic planners believed that a capability was actually at hand remains classified and it is likely, as Bruce Blair has suggested, that it was an evolutionary process.[9]

In 1970, Caltech President and former Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown, and a member of the SALT I delegation, found launch-on-warning tactically useful: it could make a Soviet attack on U.S. Minuteman fields "a relatively risky and unattractive" proposition. Seeing launch-on-warning as a potential deterrent, when Brown became secretary of defense under President Jimmy Carter, he supported including a variant – launch-under-attack – in the SIOP. Initially, the option that Brown and others supported was an ICBM-only attack, but SAC later convinced him that achieving SIOP objectives required a larger-scale attack involving bombers and SLBMs – the entire triad.[10] Documents from the late 1970s and early 1980s that have recently become available shed light on the internal discussion of launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack and their significant role in the development of nuclear strategy.

Launch-under-attack is often used interchangeably with launch-on-warning. During the Cold War, the Joint Chiefs of Staff defined them identically: as a launch of forces between the detection of an attack and the arrival of the first warhead. According to Bruce Blair, pre-delegation instructions gave specific meaning to launch-under-attack because top military commanders with nuclear missions would have to delay action until confirmation of an attack was available, although they would not have waited for evidence of massive destruction. Under such circumstances, SAC defined the delayed reaction as a launch-under-attack.[11] In any event, the point of both launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack was to ensure that ICBMs would be launched rapidly enough to destroy time urgent targets specified in war plans.

Soviet nuclear strategy is largely undocumented and no definitive information is available on the role of launch-on-warning in Soviet policy. Available information, however, suggests that by the late 1960s and early 1970s, defense planners considered preemptive, retaliatory, and launch-on-warning options. Preemption had low feasibility because defense officials believed that U.S. nuclear forces were too widely dispersed to be destroyed by a first blow. Soviet defense officials saw launch after ride-out (“otvetnyy udar”) as an option by giving policymakers time for deciding on how to retaliate. Initially, top officials did not see launch-on-warning as a possibility because early warning systems were not effective enough to warrant a quick launch. By the early 1980s, however, launch-under-attack had greater plausibility because Moscow had acquired some capability, mainly by hardening some ICBMs, such as the SS-18. against the effects of nuclear detonations. With improvements in warning systems, Blair has argued, launch-on-warning became central to the Soviet and post-Soviet strategic posture. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s October 2018 statements at the Valdai Discussion Club strongly suggest that Russia has a “counter-strike on warning” posture.[12]


Document 01

Memorandum, Robert A. Fearey, U.S. Department of State Office of European Regional Affairs (RA), to Lane Timmons, Office Chief, RA, "Macmillan Letter." 19 May 1958, Top Secret


Source: National Archives, Department of State Records, Record Group 59 (hereinafter RG 59), Decimal Files, 1955-59, 611.61/5-1958 (also available on Digital National Security Archive, U.S. Nuclear History I, 1958-5-19

This brief memo unambiguously conveys the notion that in the missile age, even civilian officials would take it for granted that launch-on-warning of attack would be possible and necessary. In late April 1958, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan proposed that President Eisenhower agree to Anglo-American talks for a "fully agreed and understood procedure" for making decisions to launch nuclear retaliation against a Soviet attack. With the U.S.’s major nuclear deployments in the United Kingdom and the close nature of Anglo-American relations, Macmillan sought U.S. agreement on consultations before making the most fundamental military decision of them all. British leaders had been pressing Washington for agreements on consultation since the November 1950 Korean War crisis but U.S. leaders, anxious to preserve freedom of action, would agree to only the most general commitments.[13]

In commentary on the problem of consultation, State Department official Robert Fearey broke down the issue into "four possible cases": The first scenario amounted to "launch under attack": when nuclear bombs and missiles are raining on British and U.S. territory, consultations would not be necessary or possible because of the urgent necessity to launch a retaliatory strike. "Launch-on-warning" characterizes the second scenario: with electronic sensors detecting a Soviet bomber-missile attack "there might be time" for consultations on whether warning information was accurate and whether missiles or bombers should be launched in retaliation. Only if the Soviets launched a non-nuclear attack or if Western intelligence had advance warning of a Soviet nuclear strike would there be time for consultations on nuclear weapons use. Although the Eisenhower administration accepted the importance of consultations between president and prime minister, in the June 1958 Murphy-Dean agreement, it reaffirmed the initial understanding that decisions to launch bombers or missiles had to be made "in the light of the circumstances at the time." In other words, consultation might not always be possible.

Document 02

Report by Jerome Wiesner, President’s Science Advisory Committee, "Warning and Defense in the Missile Age," 3 June 1959, memorandum from Goodpaster attached dated 11 June 1959, Top Secret.


Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Anne Whitman File, Dwight D. Eisenhower Diaries, box 42, Staff Notes June 1-15 1959 (2); also available on DNSA, U.S. Nuclear History I, 1955-68.

The possibility and desirability of a launch-on-warning capability for the United States was a premise of a briefing given on 3 June 59 to President Eisenhower by MIT professor Jerome Wiesner, then a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) (He became White House science adviser for President Kennedy in 1961). While doubtful of the value of anti-ballistic missile systems, Wiesner saw advantage in an infra-red warning capability that would permit missile launch after receipt of a warning but his presentation did not approve MIDAS. Skeptical that MIDAS could overcome technical obstacles, the science advisers were far more interested in using high-altitude U-2 aircraft as a platform for an infra-red detection system.[14]

Document 03

Memorandum, Gerard C. Smith, Director, U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff to Foy Kohler, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, 22 June 1960, with enclosure, Top Secret


Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Policy Planning Staff Records, 1957-61, box 20, file: Owen, H. Chron (also available in DNSA, U.S. Nuclear History, 1955-68.

While Wiesner endorsed a launch-on-warning capability, other civilians had their doubts. The reference to launch-on-warning in this document appears in the context of the late 1950s-early 60s debate over the creation of a medium-range missile force for NATO that would enable non-nuclear powers like West Germany to participate in decisions on nuclear weapons use. In this memorandum, Policy Planning Staff director Gerard C. Smith cited a briefing by Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Lauris Norstad where the latter argued that the NATO missile force had to be "ready to react two to five minutes after warning." Smith interpreted that statement as support for "fir[ing] after warning of impending attack and before Soviet missiles had landed." What troubled him was that it was inconsistent with Norstad’s emphasis on the importance of a survivable missile force. Perhaps worried about the possibility of inaccurate warning, Smith questioned the need for "instant reaction."

Document 04

U.S. National Security Council Planning Board, "U.S. Policy on Continental Defense," 14 July 1960


Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Records of Department of State Participation in the Operations Coordinating Board and the National Security Council, 1947-196, Box 94, "NSC 5802 Memoranda," also available on DNSA, U.S. Nuclear History I, 1955-68.

Reservations about launch-on-warning appear in this analysis of the problem of defense against bomber and missile attack. Written during the period of the "missile gap" controversy, when actual Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capabilities were in doubt and worst-case analyses were routine, this study by the NSC Planning Board predicted that Soviet missiles would "constitute a great threat" to U.S. cities by the end of 1960. Question 3 (page 11) was especially apposite to the launch-on-warning problem: "should the United States revise … its doctrine on response to attack and on response to warning of attack, in the light of decreased reaction time and in view of the increasing U.S. emphasis on retaliatory ballistic missile forces?"

The analysts were confident that the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line would provide sufficient warning of a bomber attack and "adequate time" for decisions and action, such as putting Strategic Air Command bombers in the air. A new warning system–the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System [BMEWs]–was in the works that could give U.S. authorities fifteen minutes to respond to an incoming ICBM attack (although the proposed MIDAS system would be able to provide more time), hardly enough time for decisionmakers to assess the situation, make a decision, and transmit it to commanders. Until BMEWs was available, only the Bomb Alarm System, then being deployed, could give definitive information on nuclear detonations.

According to the authors note, an important advantage of strategic bombers was that they could be recalled. By contrast, an unrecallable ICBM nuclear force made launch-on-warning of doubtful value: it was "questionable whether U.S. response doctrine will permit the launch of `irrecallable’ ballistic missiles solely on the basis of information received from a warning system." The analysts doubted that BMEWs and any follow-on systems could provide "high confidence high early warning" and judged it "essential" to avoid launching unrecallable missiles based on a false warning (see paragraph 43).

Document 05

Letter from Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara to Senator John Stennis, Chairman, Preparedness Investing Subcommittee, Senate Armed Services Committee, enclosing study commenting on "requirements" for warning and detection systems, 3 November 1961, Secret


Source: National Archives, Record Group 200, Papers of Robert S. McNamara, box 113, Reading File Nov. 1961 (also available in on DNSA, U.S. Nuclear History I, 1955-68

Interested in the status of U.S. warning and detection capabilities, Senator Stennis (D-Ms) sent McNamara a list of eight "requirements" to which McNamara responded with detailed information describing deployed and proposed systems. In the course of this assessment of various deployed and proposed systems–DEW Line, BMEWS, MIDAS, etc.–McNamara responded on page 17 to Stennis’s request for information on whether a fifteen-minute warning time "would be sufficient for the warning to be transmitted, the command to be given and communicated, and our weapons actually launched before enemy missiles or bombs impact in our territory" (see page 17). McNamara confidently observed that fifteen minutes would be enough to assess warning intelligence, convene an emergency conference of the president and other National Command Authorities, and transmit an execution order to commanders, as well as launch "all SAC alert aircraft and Atlas E ICBMs and one third of the Atlas D ICBMs.[15]

Document 06

Letter from General Bernard Schriever, Commander, U.S. Air Force Systems Command, to Secretary of the Air Force Eugene M. Zuckert, Subject: DOD Program Change (4.4.040) on MIDAS (239A), 13 August 1962, Secret


Source: Library of Congress, Papers of General Curtis LeMay, Box 141, AFSC (AF Systems Command) 1962

McNamara may have been ambivalent about a launch-on-warning posture; according to one account, at one point during the Kennedy administration he stated that he strongly opposed it. Meeting with McNamara, General Bernard Schriever, then commander of Air Force Systems Command, cited a launch-on-warning capability to justify MIDAS. A witness to the meeting later recalled that McNamara was "furious" and told Schriever that "as long as he was secretary of Defense and Jack Kennedy was President, the United States would never launch on warning, even if that required a force of 10,000 Minuteman ICBMs [to assure the survivability of enough forces to retaliate]."[16]

To Schriever’s dismay, in early August 1962, McNamara ruled against Air Force plans to deploy MIDAS satellites; from McNamara’s perspective, MIDAS was too costly, it duplicated other warning systems, and the hardening of missile silos reduced the importance of early warning.[17] As this document shows, Schriever was firmly convinced that maximum warning information and he lobbied the Secretary of the Air Force to urge McNamara to reconsider. Despite Schriever’s efforts, however, it took several years before more senior officials were convinced that MIDAS could work and to approve a development plan.

Document 07

Letter from Secretary of the Air Force Eugene M. Zuckert to President Kennedy, 26 October 1962


Source: Library of Congress, Papers of Curtis M. LeMay, box 153, 19-3 White House 1962 (also available on DNSA, U.S. Nuclear History I, 1955-68.

A capability for nearly instantaneous launch of strategic missiles, an important technical condition for launch-on-warning, came into play during the fall of 1962. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Strategic Air Command began to deploy nuclear-armed Minuteman I missiles in silos located near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Secretary of the Air Force Zuckert reported to President Kennedy that the deployment was occurring under "unusual safety conditions" so that it would take hours to launch the missiles. Zuckert’s confidence in safety procedures on the ground was misplaced; the missiles could actually be launched immediately, foreshadowing their normal alert status.[18] He also informed Kennedy that once the Minutemen in the first complex had been deployed in their "normal alert status," all "twenty missiles will be able to be launched in thirty seconds."

Document 08

Secretary of the Air Force Eugene M. Zuckert to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, "Air Force Proposed Changes to the Tentative Force Guidance," 29 August 1964, Top Secret [excerpts]


Source: National Archives, Record Group 200, Robert S. McNamara Papers, box 42, Defense Projects and Operations (also available on DNSA, U.S. Nuclear History I, 1955-68.

This memorandum elucidated the counterforce, or "damage limiting", assignment of the Minuteman ICBM force. Its chief targets were the 600 "time-urgent" Soviet bomber bases and missile sites, among others, that had to be destroyed before they could endanger U.S. allies or U.S. territory. The problem of "known failure"–that some percentage of ICBMs would fail to reach their target–made it necessary to assign an average of 1.67 missiles to assure that one "on-launch reliable" Minuteman hit its target. With U.S. reconnaissance satellites expected to locate more "time-urgent targets," Secretary of the Air Force Zuckert sought Robert McNamara’s approval for a total force of 1200 Minutemen missiles to strike them. McNamara, however, had decided that 1000 Minutemen was "enough"; moreover, a new technology then still on the drawing-boards–multiple-independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs)–would make it possible to strike more targets with the same number of ICBMs.[19]

Document 09 NEW

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Analysis [Alain Enthoven] to Secretary of Defense, "Recycle of’ DPM Strategic Offensive and Defensive Forces," 23 June 1967, Top Secret


Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Alain Ethoven Papers, box 5, Summary Memos and Comments, 1967

A reference to "launch-on-warning" by McNamara aide Alain Enthoven suggests that the concept was certainly in the air and not even an unusual one during the Johnson administration (whatever McNamara thought about it). Enthoven’s paper was part of the Draft Presidential Memoranda (DPM) process that McNamara inaugurated to convey his policy views and budget recommendations to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Typically, the DPMs would produce comments and reclamas (requests for reconsideration) from the various armed services. In this one, Enthoven subjected Air Force and Joint Chiefs of Staff views on deterrence, "damage limiting," and other matters to detailed critical analysis. Noting that the Air Force believed that the U.S. had inadequate means to deter large-scale nuclear attack, Enthoven argued that U.S. nuclear forces gave the Soviet Union "a great deal to worry about", including "launch-on-warning tactics, … Soviet fatalities due to long-term fall-out, epidemics, or secondary effects (e.g., starvation) because of bottle-necks in their economy."

Document 10 NEW

History & Research Division, Headquarters, Strategic Air Command, History of Strategic Air Command January-June 1968 Historical Study No. 112, February 1969, Top Secret, Excerpt


During 1968, SAC planners considered the possibility of "fire on warning" because they were wondering about the possibility and the impact of a Soviet "pindown" attack, whereby the Soviets would launch SLBMs at Minuteman sites and detonate the warheads in the air to stop the American missiles from launching. For the planners, "a fire on warning doctrine was the best military answer to the pindown threat," but it was "politically unacceptable," probably because it reduced presidential control over the decision-making process. Nevertheless, the planners anticipated that political objections might diminish and that the availability of new warning systems and more "streamlined national command authority procedures" might make fire on warning more generally acceptable. A "minimum reaction posture" for ICBMs would be also be necessary, presumably by reducing the time needed to launch them. Changes in safety rules and crew checklists would also be necessary to assure quick launch.

Document 11

Lawrence Lynn, U.S. National Security Council Staff, to Henry Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, "Talking Paper on ‘Firing on Warning’ Issue," 1 May 1969, Top Secret


Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files (hereinafter Nixon NSF), box 840, Sentinel ABM System Vol. II, 4/1/69; also published in DNSA, U.S. Nuclear History II, 1969-1976.

Discussions of launch-on-warning also surfaced in Congress and the White House early in the Nixon administration. Lawrence Lynn, an NSC defense analyst, prepared a briefing paper for national security adviser Henry Kissinger’s use in discussion with "prominent news columnists." Apparently, leading opponents of Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABMs), including Sen. Albert Gore Sr. (D-TN) had suggested a "launch-on-warning" option as a method for preserving the ICBM force from attack. The White House, however, wanted to shoot down "firing on warning" as "dangerous and irresponsible" because early warning sensors had such a high rate of false reports. Thus, the "possibility of a disastrous mistakes" would be a "very real one." Drawing on classified information, Lynn reported that existing warning systems, BMEWs and Over-the-Horizon Radar (OTH)[20], had significant false reports rate; for example, 50 percent of initial OTH reports were false. Lynn demonstrated, however, why some would find launch-on-warning to be workable: the "new early warning satellite [647 project] may produce one false alarm per year."

Document 12

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, NSC Staff, to Henry Kissinger, "Message’ to You From Arbatov," 22 September 1969, Secret


Source: Nixon NSF, box 710, USSR Vol V. 10/69, also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976.

References to launch-on-warning emerged during a conversation at an Institute for Strategic Studies meeting, between Georgy Arbatov, a Soviet American specialist who headed the Institute of USA and Canada Studies, and Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a European and Soviet affairs specialist, who had joined Kissinger’s NSC Staff from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Reflecting the problems in U.S.-Soviet relations during the period, the conversation turned to strategic nuclear issues, including U.S. uncertainties about the SS-9, the Soviet ICBM that appeared to threaten U.S. Minuteman silos. To Sonnenfeldt’s surprise, Arbatov observed that there was little to "worry" over because "neither side would wait if it received warning of an attack but instead … would simply empty out its silos by launching a counter-strike at once." Sonnenfeldt objected, noting the danger to "strategic stability" of a launch-on-warning posture. Sonnenfeldt also questioned whether Arbatov’s statement reflected "existing doctrine."

Document 13

U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), Public Affairs Bureau, "The ‘Launch on Warning’ Question in the First Phase of SALT," 21 December 1973, Secret


Source: ACDA FOIA release to National Security Archive; also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976.

Some months after the Arbatov-Sonnenfeldt discussion, during the spring of 1970, the problem of launch-on-warning received more attention during the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), summarized in this ACDA report. During an April 1970 discussion of a possible ban on multiple reentry vehicles, chief Soviet negotiator Vladimir Semenov raised the problem of launch-on-warning when he noted that new warning systems would enable governments to launch missiles and to empty silos before "the enemy [strikes] a blow at them." A few weeks later, Gerard Smith, the head of the U.S. SALT delegation, showed his concern about launch-on-warning when he asked whether governments should plan to fire missiles "solely on the possibly fallible reading of signals from … early-warning systems." Such a posture would be "very dangerous and would increase the risks of unwanted war." The discussion did not go much further, although it became evident that General Ogarkov, the top military official on the Soviet SALT delegation, was resentful that Smith had taken the discussion further and told U.S. General Royal Allison that "as a military man, [he] should know the answer" to Smith’s question, suggesting later that U.S. military manuals assumed a launch-on-warning posture.

Smith wanted to influence the discussion further. While acknowledging that Soviet uncertainty about a U.S. launch-on-warning posture could have "some deterrent value" and even some provide some "bargaining leverage" in the SALT talks, on balance Smith believed there would be more "risk and danger" if the Soviets had a "mistaken view" of U.S. policy. Thus, on 19 May, he cited a slightly equivocal statement of "hope" by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird that "that kind of strategy would never be adopted by any Administration or by any Congress."

Document 14

Memorandum from Seymour Weiss, State Department Policy Planning Council, to Undersecretary of State John Irwin and Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs U. A. Johnson, "Luncheon Conversation October 2 with Paul Nitze on SALT," 7 October 1970, Top Secret/Nodis/Sensitive


Source: RG 59, Policy Planning Council Miscellaneous Records, 1959-72, box 299, SALT 1970 October 1-13; also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976.

The apparent growing vulnerability to a surprise attack of U.S. land-based ICBMs worried the hawkish Cold War veteran Paul H. Nitze, the author of NSC-68 and a former Deputy Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy and a member of the U.S. SALT delegation. During a conversation with a like-minded State Department official Seymour Weiss, Nitze worried that even with a SALT agreement, Moscow might be in a position to install multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on the SS-9 ICBMs, thus giving Moscow a "first strike capability against US land-based missiles." Nitze saw several alternatives to address this vulnerability: 1) developing a first strike capability, 2) a launch-on-warning doctrine, or 3) abandoning land-based missiles and "move entirely to sea" by relying on submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Nitze argued that launch-on-warning was "always contrary to US strategic policy" and would be "inexcusably dangerous" during a "time of intense crisis." Nevertheless, he acknowledged that Washington could "be forced" into a launch-on-warning posture if Minuteman vulnerability "seems at least theoretically possible."

Document 15

Meeting of the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament [GAC], Thursday, January 21, 1971, "ICBM Survivability," Top Secret, excised copy, excerpt


Source: Donation from ACDA; also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976.

While Paul Nitze and Gerard Smith were alert to the risks, a launch-on-warning posture was already embedded in U.S. nuclear planning. Bruce Blair, who was a Minuteman launch officer at the time, recalls that he "was postured for LOW [launch-on-warning] during the early 1970s, and the whole force and command system were geared to this timing", that is, to rapid response.[21]

This excerpt from a meeting of the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament [GAC], a group of prominent civilian experts on arms control and nuclear forces, shows that military officials showed little doubt about the value of launch-on-warning. Focusing on the possible vulnerability of the U.S. Minuteman force to an attack by Soviet ICBMs, GAC heard testimony on, and discussed, Soviet ICBM forces, plans for hardening missile silos, and the possible role of anti-ballistic missile defenses. Toward the end of the session, one of the Committee members, Kermit Gordon, then president of the Brookings Institution, asked whether there was a "plausible scenario" for a simultaneous Soviet first strike against U.S. Minuteman and bomber forces.

The discussion that Gordon’s query prompted was less than straightforward but a launch-on-warning option flowed from the discussion of different scenario in which the Soviets targeted ICBMs and SLBMs on Minuteman silos and bomber bases respectively. According to Caltech President (and future Secretary of Defense) Harold Brown, once the Soviets launched their ICBMs, they would risk a [U.S.] "launch on warning." Commander James Martin then observed that "there’s about 20 minutes in there when the President might decide to launch on warning."

Document 16

Memorandum from Leonard Weiss, Deputy Director for Functional Research, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to Leon Sloss, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, Office of International Security Policy and Planning, "Your Memorandum on `Launch-on-Warning," 29 January 1971, enclosing memorandum from Frank H. Perez, Office of Strategic and General Research, to Leonard Weiss, "Thoughts on Launch-on-Warning," 29 January 1971, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1970-1973, Def 12 USSR; also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976

Prepared only a few days after the GAC discussion, this significant document shows that State Department intelligence officials recognized that a capability for launch-on-warning existed. They gave it relatively uncritical support, although one of the officials, Frank Perez, observed that he was "not advocating [its] adoption."

Both Perez and his superior officer, Leonard Weiss, constructed the discussion of launch-on-warning around the logic of deterrence: because the Soviets could detect a U.S. capability to get the Minutemen "off the ground in time," that could deter them from the "possibility of undertaking a first strike." Even if Moscow struck first, launch-on-warning would enable the United States to inflict "intolerable damage" on the Soviet Union.

According to Perez, a launch-on-warning capability would depend on the availability of "unambiguous warning," which could be provided by systems that were becoming available. The 440-L Over-the-Horizon system and the 647 early warning satellite, also known as the Defense Support Program, could detect mass missile launches.[22] Perimeter Acquisition Radars (PAR), a type of phased array radar, could provide "absolute certainty as to the size of the attack and … where [it] originated and to where it was directed," for example, whether Minuteman fields were a target.

While Perez was overoptimistic about the extent to which new warning systems like PAR could quickly provide actionable information, he believed that they would give a President a choice other than "rid[ing] out the attack and then respond[ing] with what residual [forces] remained." Instead, the president could "respond to a Soviet attack based on his assessment of the situation." For example, in response to a Soviet attack, Perez suggested that escalation and mass civilian casualties could be avoided with a controlled response of some 200-300 Minutemen against high-value Soviet military targets away from urban-industrial centers. Whether an attack by 250 Minuteman could actually limit escalation looks questionable in retrospect.

Document 17

Memorandum to the Secretary [William P. Rogers] Through S/S [Executive Secretary] From the Undersecretary [John Irwin], "DPRC Meeting of [sic] Survivability, March 17 – Information Memorandum," prepared by Leon Sloss, Office of Politico-Military Affairs, 18 March 1971, Secret.


Source: RG 59, Records of Undersecretary of State John Irwin, 1969-73, box 5, SALT Jan-June 1971; also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976

One of the problems that generated interest in a launch-on-warning capability was the alleged vulnerability of the U.S. Minuteman force to Soviet attack. This summary of a meeting of the National Security Council’s Defense Program Review Committee [DPRC], chaired by national security adviser Henry Kissinger, suggests interagency agreement that the Soviets had the wherewithal to destroy Minutemen but differences over when the threat would materialize. Taking the most cautious, "worst case" approach, the Defense Department estimated a threat by the mid-1970s. The "intelligence community", presumably the CIA, however, did not see a vulnerability problem at least until later in the decade depending on when the Soviets could deploy accurate MIRVs on the SS-9.

As some argued at the time, a "vulnerable" Minuteman force might not be a serious liability when more survivable U.S. SLBMs could threaten Soviet cities. Nevertheless, for some on the DPRC, the vulnerability problem posed important political questions, for example, "how would US political leadership react in a crisis if a significant portion of US force was considered vulnerable"? One possible implication was that if national authorities saw a danger of a Soviet preemptive move against U.S. missile silos, they might raise alert levels for possible recourse to launching Minutemen on warning. Raising alert levels, of course, could increase anxiety levels at the Kremlin heightening the risks of nuclear war. Only future declassification releases, however, may elucidate the DPRC’s later discussions of the broader implications of the survivability problem.

Document 18

K. Wayne Smith, National Security Council Staff, to Henry Kissinger, "Harold Brown on SALT," 10 May 1971, Top Secret, enclosing letter from Brown to Kissinger, 3 May 1971, Secret.


Source: Nixon NSF, box 808, Brown, Harold; also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976

As a member of the SALT delegation, Caltech President Harold Brown was a member of the SALT delegation would pass on his thinking to Henry Kissinger. For Brown, curbing the arms race by limiting ABMs was highly important, even more than limiting large Soviet ICBMs such as the SS-9. If the Soviets deployed MIRVs on the SS-9 they could pose a threat to U.S. Minuteman silos but, Brown believed, a launch on "unambiguous" warning capability, if not a doctrine, would make such an attack "a relatively risky and unattractive" proposition.

Attentive to the danger of false warning, Brown conceded that launch-on-warning was not a "sure tactic," but it could be "relatively easily … achieved during the mid-70s." Nevertheless, he did not necessarily support a launch-on-warning "doctrine," perhaps to give civilian authorities more flexibility in a crisis. Like Perez, Brown believed that Minutemen launched on warning could hit military targets, although he may have had Soviet bomber bases in mind.

In his comments, K. Wayne Smith, the NSC’s director for program analysis during the early 1970s, found value in Brown’s argument on the importance of controls over ABM radars, but questioned the merits of launch-on-warning. For Smith, it was a problematic deterrent, because of the danger that, during an international crisis, it could increase the risks of war by encouraging one side or the other to act precipitously.

Document 19 NEW

Aerospace Systems Analysis, McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company, Arms Control Implications of Strategic Offensive Weapons Systems, Volume IV, Technological Feasibility of Launch on Warning and Flyout Under Attack, Prepared for U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, ACDA ST/196, June 1971, Secret, Excised Copy


Source: U.S. National Archives, Record Group 383, Records of U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Bureau of Intelligence, Verification, and Information Management, 1968-81: box 1 of 1.

This report assessed the technical practicality of launch-on-warning (LOW) as a means to assure Minuteman survivability in the face of an apparent Soviet strategic threat. With satellite-based warning systems providing nearly 30 minutes of warning of a Soviet ICBM attack, the National Command Authorities (NC) could order "the Minuteman [to] be launched within that 30-minute interval" and "the accuracy of the Soviet ICBMs will be unimportant because the Minuteman silos will be empty."

Whether the command-and-control system could function within the 30-minute time limit, whether the warning signals were accurate, and whether the Soviets might be able to defeat LOW by using submarine-launched ballistic missiles to "pin-down" Minuteman ICBMs were problems that the McDonnell Douglas analysts reviewed. For example, on false warning, the analysts maintained that the "probability of a false alarm by any one of the warning systems is negligible; the probability that two warning systems measuring entirely different phenomena would report correlated false alarms at the same time is infinitesimal." (Future analysts were not so certain.) On "pin-down," the analysts believed that the Soviets would not have the capability for several years and that it was possible to make "pin-down" impractical, e.g., by making Minutemen more resistant to radiation ("hardening").

In retrospect, one of the most problematic elements of the McDonnell Douglas analysis are the facts presented about the time required to make, transmit, and implement a decision to launch Minuteman missiles. According to the analysts, once the NCA made a launch decision, "significant delays" would occur, of which "the most important and the most surprising" was the "11 minutes required by the launch control crew to receive, decode, authenticate and execute the launch command." The analysts observed that "at one time," six minutes was the time required, bur 11 minutes was the "interval" established by "Air Force doctrine to insure that no crew attempts to launch before all crews have completed their prelaunch functions." Another four minutes was required to decode messages and transmit the launch command.

Bruce Blair, who was a Minuteman launch officer in the early 1970s, finds that the McConnell Douglas analysts were mistaken; it would take three minutes to launch the Minuteman at the most. The eleven-minute time line may have been the standard during the late 1960s but not in the years that followed.[23]

Document 20

L. Wainstein et al., The Evolution of U.S. Strategic Command and Control and Warning, 1945-1972 Study S-467, Institute for Defense Analyses, June 1975, Top Secret


Source: FOIA request to Department of Defense; also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976

A launch-on-warning capability depended on warning information, quick-reaction nuclear forces, but also a command-and-control apparatus that could assess strategic intelligence, make appropriate decisions, and rapidly convey them to military commanders. Pages 345-347 from chapter XXVI of this Institute for Defense Analyses history describe the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites and their role in providing "usable warning time" as well as qualitatively better information so National Command Authorities would be better able to assess an attack and chose one of the SIOP options. Chapter XXX describes the central features of the National Military Command System as it stood during the early 1970s, including procedures for transmitting and implementing orders for the execution of the SIOP.

As important as the command-and control system was, confidence in its reliability was not high and reports on its failings were "continuous" during this period (and beyond). Thus, whether the NCA could properly assess warning information, much less make a decision to launch-on-warning and successfully transmit it to commanders in the field, would be problematic. For example, in 1970, even though the Defense System Program had already been successfully tested, the Blue Ribbon Defense Panel reported on the difficulty of providing warning information to the president: "it is possible that no President could be sure … that an attack was in progress or that retaliation was justified," unless confirmation of nuclear detonations was already available (p. 408).

Document 21 NEW

C.H. Builder, D. C. Kephart, A. Laupa, "The U.S. ICBM Force: Current Issues and Future Options," RAND Corporation, PR-1754-R, October 1975, Secret, excised copy


Source: FOIA release by U.S. Air Force

This report shows how Carl H. Builder and his RAND colleagues looked at launch-on-warning when they considered future roles for ICBMs. Strongly interested in identifying the possibility for special roles for the Minuteman force, e.g., for limited strategic operations or counterforce missions, the RAND analysts assumed that the value of ICBMs as a deterrent depended on their survivability when under attack. While they believed that worries about a preemptive counterforce attack were exaggerated, they saw no good choices for assuring Minuteman survivability.

Builder and his co-authors considered whether a "launch-under-attack-assessment" would be useful for giving the Minuteman force enough time to be used in a crisis. Highlighting "attack assessment" instead of "warning," their definition of attack assessment demanded more authoritative reliance than warning from DSP satellites. Moreover, for the decision-making process to be credible, two problems had to be solved. One was "the attack assessment thresholds for considering launch commitment," for example, weighing the consequences of launching or not. The other was the "level of confidence in assessment information for launch decision." Was it necessary to have "confirmed reports" that Soviet warheads had detonated on U.S. soil? Also necessary for credible launch under attack assessment" were targets other than (empty) missile silos.

According to the report, once the President had made a decision, Minutemen could reach high altitudes "seven minutes" after a president’s launch decision. Although the report mentioned possible vulnerabilities of ICBM silos to SLBM strikes, during this period Soviet SLBMs were not accurate enough to pose such a threat.

To support a launch-under-attack assessment, the authors drew on a logic similar to that employed by INR’s Frank Perez: "we believe that the technical capabilities to launch ICBMs on attack assessment should be developed for their deterrence value–so that no adversary would dare assume that the U.S. could not launch the force out from any attempted disarming attack." Nevertheless, the authors argued against openly declaring the policy; the idea of launch-on-warning was so controversial that "it would be rigorously opposed as both dangerous and unstable (an accident could theoretically precipitate a nuclear war)." They also argued that the survivability of U.S. ICBMs was not important enough to require a decision to launch-under-attack. Implicitly, the danger of nuclear war was too terrible to allow the "assurance of ICBM retaliatory capabilities [to] rest upon such an awesome commitment."

Document 22

Minutes, National Security Council Meeting, "SALT (and Angola)", 22 December 1975, Top Secret, excised copy, published in edited form, without the launch on warning discussion, in U.S. State Department, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XXIII SALT 1972-1980


Source: Gerald R. Ford Library, National Security Council Meetings Files, Box 2 1975-12-22; also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976.

During a briefing by Director of Central Intelligence William Colby on Soviet forces, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, JCS Chairman George Brown, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (in his first incarnation in that role), and their colleagues discussed the possibility and problems of launch-on-warning (see pages 8-9). Looking at a worst-case scenario–a Soviet ICBM attack on U.S. Minuteman silos–Kissinger argued that it would be highly difficult for Soviet leaders to accomplish such an attack. Not only could the United States respond by launching SLBMs and bombers, it could also launch ICBMs on warning with the Minuteman force alone producing 80 million Soviet casualties. When ACDA Director Fred Ikle mentioned the dangers of a launch-on-warning posture–"accident prone" and "dangerous"-Kissinger suggested that it was already an available option by noting that command-and-control arrangements could be fixed to ensure that missiles were never launched without "presidential authority." Ikle remained a critic of launch-on-warning.[24]

Kissinger and top Pentagon officials were more interested in preserving the ambiguity of the U.S. posture so that the Soviets could not know with any certainty whether the United States had a "launch on warning policy." To complicate Soviet planning, US policymakers wanted to keep Moscow guessing. Further, as National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft suggested, it was "not to our disadvantage if we appear irrational to the Soviets in this regard." The implication was that U.S. ambiguity or even irrationality could encourage Soviet diplomatic caution.[25]

Document 23 NEW

Memorandum from Wallace D. Henderson, Director, Indications and Warning, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, to [Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert] Ellsworth, [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Programs and Resources Thomas] Latimer, and [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Warning Morton] Goulder, "Minuteman Launch on Warning Demonstration," 30 January 1976, with cover memorandum, Top Secret, Excised copy


Source: MDR Request to Defense Department; also published in DNSA, Nuclear History II, 1969-1976.

Wallace Henderson’s memorandum gave general support to an Air Force program to demonstrate launch-on-warning by launching a Minuteman from Vandenberg Air Force Base in response to warning information from a Defense Support Program satellite. The point would be to "add credibility" to Defense Department statements that the U.S. had a "capability" for launch-on-warning while also mitigating concerns about "the low survivability of Minuteman in the face of mounting Soviet ICBM throw weight and accuracy." Henderson acknowledged a "negative" – that a demonstration "could revive emotional responses in Congress to discussion of "Launch on Warning."

According to the cover memorandum, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Ellsworth cancelled the plans, perhaps concluding that a demonstration was too controversial.

Document 24 NEW

William E. Odom to Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Soviet Launch-on-Warning Capability," 23 January 1978, with [State Department] Bureau of Intelligence and Research paper attached, "Soviet Launch-on-Warning Capability," 22 January 1978, Top Secret, excised copy


Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, National Security Files, NLC-6-79-4-20-3

Odom brought to Brzezinski’s attention an INR report on recent intelligence that the Soviets had acquired a "fast reaction" ICBM launch capability that made launch-on-warning feasible. According to the report, the quick-launch feature encouraged the Soviets to see their ICBMs as their "prime retaliatory force." Odom observed that the INR report represented an "upgrading" of an intelligence estimate that had been made a year earlier. "The least comforting implication is the [limited] readiness warning time we might have."

Document 25 NEW

Zbigniew Brzezinski to President Carter, "Information Items," 24 January 1978, Top Secret


Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, National Security Files, NLC-1-5-2-29-2

In this report to President Carter, the declassification reviewers released an important tidbit that was excised from the INR paper (see Document 22): "According to State, recently acquired evidence indicates that as much as 70 percent of the current Soviet ICBM force could be ready to launch in about three minutes, even from a normal readiness posture." Before, only a small portion of the ICBM force was at "the highest level of preparedness with gyroscopes continuously running." Brzezinski reported that the new information was "consistent with the USSR’s continuing efforts to improve its early warning capabilities."

U.S. intelligence information may well have been correct. According to Pavel Podvig, an expert on Soviet nuclear forces, ICBMs could be launched in 2.5 to 3 minutes after having withstood a nuclear strike, with 90 seconds needed for a pause, after the strike, and 60 seconds for the ‘launch cycle." However, the Soviets may not have deployed ICBMs with spinning gyroscopes until the early 1980s.[26]

Document 26 NEW

Memorandum from Russell Murray, Assistant Secretary of Defense (Program Analysts & Evaluation) to Secretary of Defense, “Interim Report on the PD-18 Study Modernization of the ICBM Force — ACTION MEMORANDUM,” 26 June 1978, with “Introduction and Summary,” “Paper # 2 Launch-Under-Attack,” and “Paper #3 “The Strategic Options Matrix,” attached, Top Secret, excised copy


Source: (Program Analysts & Evaluation) to Secretary of Defense, "Interim Report on the PD-18 Study Modernization of the ICBM Force — ACTION MEMORANDUM," 26 June 1978, with "Introduction and Summary," "Paper # 2 Launch-Under-Attack," and "Paper #3 "The Strategic Options Matrix," attached, Top Secret, excised copy MDR request to Defense Department

During 1977-1978 the Carter administration launched a major review of nuclear strategy and forces, not only so the president would have alternatives to the massive strike options in the SIOP but also to strengthen deterrence and to mitigate the perceived vulnerability of the ICBM force. One of the studies of ICBM modernization reviewed the feasibility of a launch-under-attack option. Apparently finding that the U.S. had an "operational" launch-on-warning capability, the study found advantages and disadvantages in LUA. The key advantage was that a "credible LUA capability may enhance deterrence," by producing "great uncertainty" in the minds of Soviet leaders about the possibility of a first strike against the U.S.

If deterrence failed, the study questioned the value of "LUA as a tactic to maintain an effective ICBM force." The conclusion was that an "operational LUA capability is not a viable alternative for modernizing the ICBM force." The short amount of time was one consideration; another problem raised constitutional questions: "confidence in this tactic would require a system for transferring authority to a properly briefed and survivable figure quickly in the event communications with the President failed." The need for expert knowledge was another problem: "The President and his potential successors would have to be thoroughly familiar with the attack assessment systems and be prepared to make a decision in very little time." And such a requirement was wrong: "the President could decide to retaliate in a few minutes [but] he shouldn’t, as a matter of policy, have to do so." The Defense analysts did not want to see the president forced into a decision (or "jammed" in a crisis.) [27]

Document 27 NEW

Memorandum from [Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Stanley R.] Resor to [Deputy Secretary of Defense Charles] Duncan, enclosing memorandum by Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe, "Launch on Warning," 18 October 1978, Top Secret, excised copy


Source: MDR request to Defense Department, under appeal at ISCAP

This massively excised critique of launch-on-warning as "dangerous, wrong, and ineffective" may have been influenced by the criticism of launch-under-attack found in Document 22. Some of the content can be gleaned by reading between the lines. For example, the second-to-last paragraph might address the problem of forcing the president to make a quick decision in a crisis.

Document 28 NEW

U.S. Department of Defense, "Nuclear Targeting Policy Review: Summary of Major Findings and Recommendations," circa November 1978, Top Secret, Excised copy


Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Zbigniew Brzezinski Collection, Subject File, box 35, Presidential Directive 59- 9/78-4/79

This synopsis of the Carter administration’s targeting study, directed by Defense Department official Leon Sloss, reiterated some objections to LUA, such as the risk of accidental war and the danger of forcing the president to "make a ‘use or lose’ choice if there are other options available." It also included a telling criticism of the role of ICBM deployments in targeting policy: "the set of targets for our ICBM force is not in itself planned to meet any specific objective." Moreover, then-current ICBM targeting would kill so many people that it would "likely invite retaliation against US urban/industrial assets." To reduce the escalatory risks, the study recommended a specialized launch-under-attack option using ICBMs only that would target a "broad set of nuclear and non-nuclear targets and command and control," while trying to "minimize collateral damage to population consistent with achievement of the attack objective." Whether attacking a "broad set" of targets would produce fewer fatalities looks doubtful in retrospect because many Soviet military-related targets were near population centers.

Document 29 NEW

Leon Sloss, Director, Nuclear Targeting Policy Review, to Director, Joint Staff et al., "Nuclear Targeting Policy Review," 13 December 1978, Top Secret, Excised copy


Source: MDR release by Defense Department

Secretary of Defense Harold Brown had reviewed this targeting review study and directed officials to begin implementing some of the recommendations promptly. One of the recommendations, on page 9, concerned launch-under-attack. Along the lines of the targeting review study, the recommendation found that "LUA cannot be a substitute for measures to reduce ICBM vulnerability; rather it is an interim measure designed to strengthen deterrence." While an ICBM-only, launch-under-attack option was to be ready for implementation during 1981-1982, it was not to be incorporated into war plans "until it adequately supports the building blocks that are developed to support SIOP planning," (with each block representing a discrete option interrelated with others).

Document 30 NEW

William E. Odom, National Security Council Staff, to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Launch from Under Attack," 8 October 1979, Top Secret


Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Brzezinski Collection, Subject File, box 42, Missile Warning Incidents 11/79-8/80

To Odom’s dismay, the latest version of the SIOP included what he termed an "unwise" launch-under-attack option. First, the U.S.’s tactical warning system was "just not good enough to let us know that our ICBMs are under attack" (although a few weeks later, the famous NORAD false alert incident demonstrated the importance of the DSP and other warning systems for disconfirming mistaken information about Soviet incoming missiles). Second, "little thought has been given to. the rationale of the target set." The SIOP launch-under-attack option "is targeted at empty Soviet silos and some conventional military targets," (in striking contrast to the "broad set" of targets recommended by the nuclear targeting review). That could provoke a "major Soviet response." Odom also argued that "if the LUA is executed and a few minutes later there is a decision to execute one of the MAOs [Major Attack Option] large numbers of our RVs would be destroyed through fratricide." That is, the blasts and radiation caused by the LUA strikes on Soviet targets would damage incoming U.S. reentry vehicles, "fratricide."

Odom recommended that Zbigniew Brzezinski ask Secretary of Defense Brown to revoke the LUA option from the SIOP, but it appears unlikely that the memo went any further than his boss’s desk.

Document 31

U.S. Strategic Air Command, "Current US Strategic Targeting Doctrine," prepared by Colonels Kearl and Locke, 3 December 1979, Top Secret


Source: excised copy released on appeal by Air Combat Command

This study confirms that U.S. nuclear planners incorporated the Minuteman-only, launch-under-attack option into SIOP-5D, as of October 1 1979. In keeping with efforts during the 1970s to breakdown the SIOP into more discrete attack options, war planners initially conceived of LUA as a Selective Attack Option (SAO) because Minuteman missiles only would be committed to this option. During the 1980s, launch-under-attack was expanded to include bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, thus turning it into a Major Attack Option.[28]

As a sign that launch-on-warning was becoming routinized in operational planning but that a requirement for definitive information on detonations would not be integral to planning, the Joint Chiefs of Staff began to include "launch under attack" in their dictionary of military terms. The Chiefs explained it as "execution by National Command Authorities of Single Integrated Operational Plan Forces subsequent to tactical warning of strategic nuclear attack against the United States and prior to first impact."[29]

Document 32

William E. Odom, National Security Council Staff, to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, "M-B-B Luncheon Item: Targeting," 5 August 1980, with Presidential Directive 59, "Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy," 25 July 1980, Top Secret, excised copy


Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Brzezinski Collection, box 23, Meetings-Muskie/Brown 7/80-9/81. Initially published in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 390, Jimmy Carter’s Controversial Nuclear Targeting Directive PD-59 Declassified

Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Directive 59 on "Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy" sought a nuclear strategy that enhanced deterrence, but if deterrence should fail it sought to "terminate the war on acceptable terms that are as favorable as practical." While there was "no plausible definition" of victory in nuclear war, the U.S. had to be "capable of fighting successfully." PD 59 did not directly endorse launch-on warning – it was not U.S. "policy" – nor did it mention launch-under-attack Nevertheless, launch-on-warning was a capability that was to be available in the form of "pre-planned options" for attacks by "vulnerable" ICBMs. What senior officials had in mind was probably something like a Minuteman-only LUA option.

Document 33

Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Secretariat, Historical Division, Joint Chiefs of Staff Special Historical Study, A Historical Study of Strategic Connectivity, 1950-1981. July 1982, Top Secret


Source: FOIA appeal to the Department of Defense, Initially Published in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 403, Declassified Pentagon History Provides Hair-Raising Scenarios of U.S. Vulnerabilities to Nuclear Attack through 1970s, 19 November 2012

With launch-on-warning options available in PD 59, defense officials in the new Reagan administration analyzed the capabilities of U.S. command-control-communications systems for implementing various launch-under-attack scenarios. A mid-1981 report found that in light of C3 vulnerabilities the prospects for a successful launch-under-attack were poor, either during a surprise attack or if U.S. strategic forces were on high alert ("fully generated"). For example, in the second scenario, "no combination of systems and procedure was fast enough to complete the process of warning assessment, decision-making, and emergency action message dissemination in the time available (3.5 minutes) between the first submarine-launched ballistic missile breakwater and attacks on command, control, and communications systems." Thus, the probability was "extremely low" that command-control-and-communications systems would provide "assured execution" of a launch-under-attack option. Trying to solve this problem was an important motive behind the Reagan administration’s push for improvements in the C3 system during the years that followed,

Document 34 NEW

National Security Decision Directive 13, "Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy," 13 October 1981, Top Secret


Source: Release by Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, 2018

Following the logic of PD 59, Reagan’s NSDD 13 sought to enhance deterrence partly through a military posture that "makes Soviet assessments of war outcomes, under any contingency, so uncertain and dangerous as to remove any incentive for initiating attack." If, however, deterrence should fail, Reagan mandated "pre-planned options" and "immediate options" for attack. Like PD 59, NSDD 13 supported a capability to "wage war successfully," but implied the possibility of winning nuclear war by seeking to "deny the Soviet Union a military victory at any level of conflict." Moreover, like PD 59, NSDD 13 assumed that command-control-communications-intelligence (C3I) systems had to be "sufficiently survivable and enduring to support" U.S. target plans, although that was a nearly Sisyphean task.

In some contrast to Carter policy, which authorized launch-on-warning options, NSDD 13 stipulated that it was U.S. policy not "to rely on" launch-on-warning in an "irrevocable manner." That appeared to proscribe ICBM launch-on-warning, if not bomber launch, but it did not rule out launch-under-attack as incorporated in the SIOP. In any event, the point was to "leave Soviet planners with strong uncertainty as to how we might actually respond to such warning." Moreover, upon receipt of warning information, the U.S. "must be prepared to launch our recallable bomber forces upon warning that a Soviet nuclear attack has been initiated."[30]

Cutaway drawing of the Minuteman III launch site and control post. Air Force photo, n.d. (Source: National Archives, Still Pictures Division, Records of U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations (RG 342B), box 669, LGM 30G)

Drawing of Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) sites in Alaska, Greenland, and the United Kingdom. Excerpt from Office of the Historian, Headquarters, U.S. Strategic Air Command, History of Strategic Air Command FY 1974, Historical Study 142, Volume I, Narrative, 28 January 1974, Top Secret, Published on Digital National Security Archive

Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. “Aerial View of radomes at BMEWS site III at Flyingdale’s Moore, England, 6 August 1963.” [Quotation from caption on archival copy] Source: RG 342B, box 1519, Flyingdale’s Moor.

Drawing of Defense Support Program Satellite, including the infra-red telescope used to detect heat from missile launch plumes. Excerpt from Office of the Historian, Headquarters, U.S. Strategic Air Command, History of Strategic Air Command FY 1974, Historical Study 142, Volume I, Narrative, 28 January 1974, Top Secret, Published on Digital National Security Archive

Drawing of Defense Support Program System satellites deployed for collecting and transmitting data on missile launches and nuclear explosions. Excerpt from Office of the Historian, Headquarters, U.S. Strategic Air Command, History of Strategic Air Command FY 1974, Historical Study 142, Volume I, Narrative, 28 January 1974, Top Secret, Published on Digital National Security Archive.

Grand Forks AFB, 15 August 1970. “Launch control officer, seated at launch control panel, turns switch to start launching sequence. Testing operational readiness of Minuteman crews using Modified Operational Missiles (MOM’s)." U.S. Air Force photo. [Quotation from caption]. Source: RG 342B, box 912, Operational Readiness

“Overall view of the antenna and its power plant at the Pave Paws [Precision Acquisition Vehicle Entry Phased Array Warning System] radar site,” Beale Air Force Base, CA, September 1979 [Quotation from caption]. Deployed on the East and West Coasts, Alaska, and overseas, Pave Paws radars were used to detect launches of submarine launched ballistic missiles. They were later replaced by the Solid State Phased Array Radar System (SSPARS). US Air Force photo. Source: RG 342B, box 923, Beale AFB, CA.


[1]. Richard Garwin, “Launch Under Attack to Redress Minuteman Vulnerability?,” International Security 4 (1979/80): 117-139; Fred C. Iklé, "The Growing Risk of War by Accident,” Washington Post, 24 June 1980; Charles Mohr, “A Scary Debate Over ‘Launch Under Attack,’” New York Times, 18 July 1982; Hendrick Smith, “Colonel Stirs Question On MX-Firing Doctrine,” The New York Times, 8 April 1983; William Broad, “Pershings Stir Accidental War Fears,” New York Times, 12 December 1983; John Steinbrunner, “Launch Under Attack,” The Scientific American, 250 (1984): 33-41.

[2]. For Bruce Blair’s writings see, in particular, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1993), and Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1995). For the Office of Technology Assessment study, see Tim Carrington, “The Ultimate Secret: A Pentagon Report Its Author Can’t See – ‘Nuclear Decapitation’ Study Warns of Communication Being Destroyed in Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, 18 February 1986. See also Bruce Blair, The End of Nuclear Warfighting: Moving to a Deterrence-Only Posture: An Alternative U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, with Jessica Sleight and Emma Claire Foley (Princeton, N.J. and Washington, D.C.: Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, and Global Zero, 2019).

[3]. For accounts of early U.S. nuclear planning and the first SIOP, see Henry S. Rowen, "Formulating Strategic Doctrine," U.S. Commission on the Organization of the Government for the Conduct of Foreign Policy, Appendices, Vol. 4 (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1975), 217-34; David A. Rosenberg, "The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960," Steven E. Miller, editor, Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence: An International Security Reader (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984), 113-82; and Scott D. Sagan, "SIOP-62: the Nuclear War Plan Briefing to President Kennedy," International Security 12 (Summer 1987): 22-51.

[4]. Blair, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, 170; Jerome Wiesner, "Warning and Defense in the Missile Age," 3 June 1959 (see document 2, below).

[5]. Robert S. McNamara, “No Second Use -Until,” The New York Times, 2 February 1983. For McNamara, Blair, and others in the mid-1980s debate, see "Science and the Citizen," The Scientific American 255 (1986): 74-76.

[6]. U.S. State Department, FRUS 1961-1963, 8:499-502.

[7]. Blair, Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, 170.

[8]. For a valuable and comprehensive account of the history of MIDAS and DSP, see Jeffrey Richelson, America’s Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites and National Security (Lawrence, KS, University of Kansas Press, 1999).

[9]. Blair, Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, 168.

[10]. Ibid, 186-187.

[11]. Ibid, 187; information from Bruce Blair, 14 May 2019.

[12]. Pavel Podvig, “Does Russia Have a Launch-on-Warning Posture? The Soviet Union Didn’t,” Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, 29 April 2019;

Blair, Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, 195-216; William Burr and Svetlana Savranskaya, eds., “Previously Classified Interviews with Former Soviet Officials Reveal U.S. Strategic Intelligence Failure Over Decades,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 285, 11 September 2009; “Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai Discussion Club, Full Transcript of the Plenary Session of the 15th Annual Meeting,” 18 October 2018.

See also Simon Saradzhyan, “Putin’s Remarks on Use of Nuclear Weapons Are Confusing, But Unlikely to Constitute a Shift in Nuclear Posture,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Russia Matters, 28 November 2018.

[13]. For background, see the major study by Stephen Twigge and Len Scott, Planning Armageddon: Britain, the United States, and the Command of Western Nuclear Forces, 1954-64 (Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), 36-37, 117-119.

[14]. For more details on PSAC thinking about MIDAS, see Richelson, America’s Space Sentinels, 12-13, 17

[15]. Jacob Neufeld, Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960 (Washington, D.C., Office of Air Force History, 1990), 213-14

[16]. Richelson, America’s Space Sentinels, p. 256, n. 37, citing an interview with Jack Ruina. If Schriever ever made an explicit case for launch-on-warning in writing it remains classified or unknown to this researcher

[17]. For McNamara’s decision and later developments, see Richelson, America’s Space Sentinels, 28-48.

[18]. According to Scott Sagan, "SAC and Air Force contractor personnel appear to have improvised their own safety procedures in a manner that seriously compromised Minuteman nuclear safety." See Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992), 81-91.

[19]. For McNamara’s decisions on the Minuteman force, see Stephen I. Schwartz et al., Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1998),185-86, and Desmond Ball, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

[20]. Known also as Forward Scatter Radar, Over-the-Horizon (OTH) radar used high-frequency radio transmitters and receivers that were placed on either side of the Soviet Union and China. It would bounce continuous signals between the ionosphere and the earth until the signal reached the correct receiver. The system would detect a missile launch when it disrupted the stream of signals.

[21]. Bruce Blair communication with editor, 22 February 2001.

[22]. For the deployment of the DSP satellites during the late 1960s and early 1970s, see Richelson, America’s Space Sentinels, 44-69.

[23]. Bruce Blair communication with the editor, 18 June 2019.

[24] Blair, Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, 342, note 40.

[25]. This resonates with a politico-military stratagem – the "Madman theory" – that has been associated with the Nixon administration: the notion that disproportionate threats and unpredictable irrationality could successfully coerce adversaries into compliance with U.S. goals. See William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998), 76-86.

[26]. E-mail from Pavel Podvig (editor of blog, Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces), 22 May 2019, drawing on his notes from the Vitalii Kataev papers (Hoover Institution Library and Archives, Stanford CA) and personal recollections.

[27]. For “jamming” the President in a crisis, see Bruce Blair, “Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority,” Arms Control Today, January-February 2018, at 8.

[28]. For decisions on LUA, see Blair, Logic of Accidental Nuclear Warfare, 186.

[29]. Ibid., 168. For the downgrading of information confirming nuclear detonations in U.S. strategic planning during the 1980s, see ibid, 192.

[30]. For launch-on-warning policy as it developed during the Reagan administration, see Lee Butler, Uncommon Cause: A Life at Odds with Convention, Volume II: The Transformative Years (Denver, Outskirts Press, 2016), 10-12. For launch-on-warning not ruled out, see Michael Getler, “Joint Chiefs Back Plan for 100 MX,” Washington Post, 22 April 1982.

RESEARCH DOCUMENT : Tiananmen Massacre 30th Anniversary

Tiananmen Massacre 30th Anniversary

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

Declassified Records Describe Attacks by Chinese Troops, Internal Official Debates, and U.S. Attempts to Keep U.S.-China Relations on Track

Today the National Security Archive publishes a special exhibit on the 30th anniversary of the massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, 4 June 1989. To mark an event that decisively shaped contemporary China, the National Security Archive is republishing three documentary E-books that appeared on previous anniversaries, in 1999, 2001, and 2014. The declassified documents demonstrate that U.S. embassy officials realized very quickly that the Chinese military had carried out a massacre ordered by top officials who feared the public expression of dissent could threaten Communist Party rule.

During the years after the massacre, National Security Archive fellow Jeffrey Richelson and analyst Michael Evans filed declassification requests to find out how U.S. government officials monitored the events and what they learned from intelligence sources, including eye witnesses. The requests, some of which took years for the agencies to process, yielded high-quality documents that shed light on the events, including the background, the armed attacks on the protestors, and the internal debates among top Chinese officials. They also document the mixed U.S. response to the massacre, on the one hand, sheltering a protestor, and on the other, trying to keep open lines of communication with Chinese authorities and to maintain flows of U.S. investment.

As part of an ongoing brutal crackdown of internal dissent, Chinese authorities have carried out a harsh policy of history suppression, forbidding on-line or other discussions of the events at Tiananmen Square. In light of that it is worth recalling what U.S. government officials learned at the time and how they assessed Beijing’s response to internal dissent.

Read our previous postings

June 3, 2014

Chinese Military Was Split over Bloody Suppression of 1989 Student Protests, DIA Reported

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 473

June 4, 2001

The U.S. "Tiananmen Papers"

New Documents Reveal U.S. Perceptions of 1989 Chinese Political Crisis

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 47

June 1, 1999

Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 16

RESEARCH DOCUMENT : Imminent Threat to Guatemala’s Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN)

Imminent Threat to Guatemala’s Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN)

Published: May 30, 2019

Update for Guatemala Police Archive under Threat posting

Edited by Kate Doyle

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

Morales Government Tightens Grip on Massive Human Rights Records Trove

Washington, D.C., May 30, 2019 – The National Security Archive joins our international and Guatemalan colleagues in calling for the protection of the Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN) of Guatemala, which faces new threats to its independence and to public access to its holdings.

In a press conference on Monday, May 27, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart signaled his intent to assert his agency’s control of the AHPN including the prospect of new restrictions on access to the archived police records and possible legal action against “foreign institutions” holding digitized copies of the documents. Degenhart made his statements as a crucial deadline approached to renew an agreement that for a decade has kept the archive under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The agreement now appears to be in jeopardy.

The hollowing out of the AHPN is taking place at a time when justice and human rights initiatives are broadly under siege in Guatemala and follows months of uncertainty for the celebrated human rights archive, which has been institutionally adrift since its long-time director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, was abruptly dismissed in August 2018.

Since its discovery in 2005, the AHPN has played a central role in Guatemala’s attempts to reckon with its bloody past. Its records of more than a century of the history of the former National Police have been relied upon by families of the disappeared, scholars, and prosecutors. The institution has become a model across Latin America and around the world for the rescue and preservation of vital historical records.

* * * * *

Historical Background and Current Threat to the AHPN

by Kate Doyle

In a press conference Monday, May 27, Interior Minister of Guatemala Enrique Degenhart signaled his intent to assert his agency’s control of the country’s Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN). He claimed that existing law required new restrictions on access to the archived police records and warned “foreign institutions” holding digitized copies of the documents that the government was considering legal action against them. Degenhart made his statements as a crucial deadline approached to renew an agreement that for a decade has kept the archive under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The agreement now appears to be in jeopardy.

The comments follow months of uncertainty for the celebrated human rights archive, which has been institutionally adrift since its long-time director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, was abruptly dismissed in August 2018. In the wake of Meoño’s departure, the Culture Ministry and the Guatemalan office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – responsible for administering international donations to the AHPN – instituted drastic cuts to the archive’s budget and personnel. The two agencies agreed to eliminate the position of director in favor of a “technical liaison” and hired a trained archivist with no human rights experience to fill it. They dismissed all but one member of the investigative staff dedicated to locating and analyzing police records containing information about illegal State terror campaigns during the 1970s and 80s.

The hollowing out of the Historical Archive of the National Police is taking place at a time when justice and human rights initiatives are broadly under siege in Guatemala. The attacks come from every branch of government. In January 2019, President Jimmy Morales ordered the closing of CICIG, the UN-sponsored commission that for over a decade helped prosecute cases of corruption and organized crime. Congress has offered several versions of an amnesty bill aimed at releasing from prison scores of former Army, police, and paramilitary members found guilty of grave human rights crimes and crimes against humanity. Although none of the bills has passed yet, they hang like Damocles’ sword over victims of human rights crimes and their families. And in March a judge issued an arrest warrant for former Attorney General Thelma Aldana – known during her term in office for major anti-corruption and human rights prosecutions – accusing her of embezzlement and other crimes. Aldana has categorically denied the charges but the move quashed her hopes to compete as a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for June 16.

Since its discovery in 2005, the Historical Archive of the National Police has played a key role in Guatemala’s attempts to reckon with its bloody past. It holds the files of more than a century of the institutional history of the former National Police, including millions of pages that chronicle the State’s repressive policies against Guatemalan citizens during the 36-year armed internal conflict (1960-96). Its records have been used by families of the disappeared to research the fate of their loved ones, scholars have drawn on the collection to examine the history of guerrilla warfare and brutal counterinsurgency policies, and prosecutors have incorporated records as evidence into some of the most important criminal human rights cases tried by Guatemalan courts.

The AHPN also offers a wealth of documentation on the country’s social history, the history of public order, and the role of the police. Over the years, it has become a model across Latin America and around the world for the extraordinary achievement of its staff and management in rescuing the enormous, abandoned collection, and for its professional work since then in preserving the records, guaranteeing public access, and undertaking research of vital, contemporary relevance.

But for all its achievements, the Police Archive has existed in a precarious legal and fiscal status since its discovery almost 14 years ago. As a repository for the historical records of a former government security force, it functioned by definition under the authority of the State; yet except for the office of the Human Rights Prosecutor (Procuradoría de Derechos Humanos—PDH) – which found the neglected archive in 2005 and managed it until 2009 – the State never took leadership in overseeing the AHPN nor any financial responsibility for its operations. Instead, funding for the archive came from foreign governments – including millions of dollars from the United States – and international organizations, and flowed primarily through the UNDP. That funding dropped precipitously in recent years, as the attention of many governments drifted on to other countries and other priorities.

More complicated still, when the archive was discovered, the State entity with direct authority over it was the Interior Ministry, which controls the country’s security forces, their properties and their records. Recognizing the potential danger of that position, the PDH and the AHPN – under former director Meoño – worked with the government of then-President Álvaro Colom to negotiate the archive’s transfer from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Culture and Sports, already the institutional home for the country’s General Archives of Central America (national archives). The transfer was effected by way of a signed agreement in 2009, conveying to Culture the physical records and the land on which the AHPN sat, a small territory inside a huge police base in Zone 6 of Guatemala City. The agreement terminates on June 30 of this year and must be renegotiated and re-signed to continue.

Even with the agreement in force, the problem remained that the AHPN as an institution was never formally accredited through any instrument under Guatemalan law, rendering it permanently vulnerable. Now the government is moving in on that vulnerability. Current Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart is one of Jimmy Morales’s closest advisers. He has aided the president’s campaign to shutter CICIG and aggressively backed efforts to arrest former Attorney General Aldana. His remarks on Monday concerning the Police Archive are the strongest indication yet that the government intends to intervene forcefully in AHPN operations and functions.

Degenhart referred to the collection as the “Historical Archive of the National Civil Police” – incorrectly imposing the name of the security force he heads for the National Police, which was abolished in 1997 by the peace accords for its role in assassinating, disappearing and torturing Guatemalan citizens during the conflict. He bristled at questions from journalists about his authority over the AHPN, saying, “The fact that the Interior Ministry through the National Civil Police does not participate in the management of its own archives is totally inconceivable.”

Degenhart repeatedly invoked Guatemala’s access to information law during his remarks (Ley de Acceso a la Información Pública, the Guatemalan version of the Freedom of Information Act) – not to promote open access to the police records but rather to insist that the records of the AHPN contain “restricted information” defined by the law and must be “protected” (in other words, withheld). Included in his concept of information restricted under the law was the “identification of persons,” which merited “special treatment.” Degenhart made no reference to Article 24 of the access to information law, which states that “In no instance can information related to the investigation of the violation of fundamental human rights or crimes against humanity be classified as confidential or reserved.

The Interior Minister also made a point of lambasting the AHPN’s decision to provide the Swiss government and the University of Texas at Austin with complete digitized copies of the police records. Former director Meoño and other senior staff made the move years ago both to ensure that a back-up copy existed in the event of an attack on the archive and to make access to the collection possible from outside Guatemala. Although Degenhart was vague about the Police Archive’s immediate future, he was abundantly clear about the government’s intention to alter the sharing arrangements.

“What I can tell you for sure is that we will not permit the massive exit of those archives outside the country,” he stated. When a journalist asked why, he answered: “Because it is sensitive information concerning national security, protected by the Law on Access to Public Information. There cannot be foreign institutions that hold a complete set of the archives.” He warned that the government was preparing legal action to challenge the agreements.

The AHPN is not the only archive serving human rights purposes under attack in Guatemala. Guatemalan media outlets reported in late March that both the chief of the General Archive of the Supreme Court – Rossana Aracely Alvarado Cortez – and the head of the Court’s Information System – Daniel Girón – were pressured to resign by Justice Department (Organismo Judicial) officials. Among the documents under Alvarado’s care were records gathered by Guatemalan tribunals in preparing cases for trial, including expert reports, witness statements and evidentiary material. Since the tribunals include the special, “high risk” courts that take on corruption and human rights cases, the lack of a director could make the archive vulnerable to interference.

A senior employee of the Justice Department reached for comment on the forced resignations called them “the destruction of justice” and a direct attack on the institution.

Another archive under stress is the collection of records of the former “Presidential General Staff” (Estado Mayor Presidencial—EMP), located inside the General Archive of Central America, Guatemala’s national archives. During the armed conflict, the EMP was a military intelligence unit serving the Chief of State, which became a notorious instrument of repression and violence. Some of its files were rescued and copied by human rights groups after President Alfonso Portillo dissolved the EMP in 2003, and the collection moved to the national archives in 2012. According to a recent column in El Periódico, the staff managing the EMP files was laid off in March. “As a result,” wrote author Manolo Vela Castañeda, “beginning in April, the cataloguing work has stopped and there is no one to attend to information requests…”

In response to the government’s actions, a broad collective of AHPN supporters have come forward to defend the Police Archive. Following Meoño’s dismissal in 2018, a civil society advisory group of Guatemalan human rights leaders, scholars, lawyers, and justice reform experts mobilized and have been a constant presence in discussions about the archive’s future. Hundreds of international allies of the AHPN – including historians, human rights groups, and archivists from around the world – signed a letter calling for the archive’s protection last summer. The National Security Archive sent this analyst for two weeks of meetings and talks with key stakeholders last October. And the widely respected Spanish archivist, Dr. Antonio González Quintana, wrote a comprehensive report on the Police Archive that assesses its current status and outlines a detailed strategy to strengthen the AHPN in the future. The report was delivered to the UNDP in February.

More recently, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, Archives Without Borders, the Guatemalan Association of Friends of UNESCO, and the Myrna Mack Foundation among many other organizations have issued statements protesting the government’s interference in the AHPN. On May 16, Human Rights Prosecutor Jordan Rodas Andrade submitted a legal complaint to the courts against the Ministries of Culture and Interior to force them to renew the agreement guaranteeing a continuation of its occupation of the police base in Zone 6 and the preservation of its documents.

The National Security Archive joins our international and Guatemalan colleagues in calling for the protection of the Historical Archive of the National Police of Guatemala. Specifically, the National Security Archive demands with our colleagues:

  • Protection of the archive’s irreplaceable trove of records from physical damage and political interference
  • Preservation of secure, digitized copies with the Swiss government and University of Texas at Austin
  • Renewal of the lease that permits the archive to remain in its original space
  • Improvement in the information system that hosts the 23 million document images scanned to date
  • Guarantees of the public’s ability to consult the records without restriction through its Access to Information Unit
  • And continuation of the archive’s support for human rights justice through investigations and analysis.

RESEARCH DOCUMENT : Trump Administration to Turn Over Trove of Declassified Records to Argentina on Human Rights Violations Committed During Military Dictatorship

Declassification Diplomacy : Trump Administration to Turn Over Trove of Declassified Records to Argentina on Human Rights Violations Committed During Military Dictatorship

Documents like this one pertaining to the fate of Ana Maria Pérez will be among those in the upcoming release. Photo courtesy of Berta Elvira Sanchez.

Published: Mar 24, 2019

by Carlos Osorio

For further information, contact Carlos Osorio : 202-994-7061 or cosorio

National Security Archive Hails Forthcoming Transfer of Formerly Secret Intelligence Records

Washington D.C., March 24, 2019 – On the 43rd anniversary of the military coup in Argentina, the Argentine government of Mauricio Macri has announced that the Trump Administration will provide “the largest delivery of declassified documents, in size and file quality, to another nation”—formerly secret U.S. records relating to human rights abuses committed during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. The official transfer of the records is planned for mid-April during a visit by Argentina’s minister of justice, Germán Garavano, to Washington D.C.

The turnover of formerly secret U.S. intelligence records—the collection will include CIA, FBI, NSC, and Defense Intelligence Agency documents—will culminate a special U.S. government declassification project authorized three years ago today by then-President Barack Obama during a visit to Buenos Aires, and implemented by the Trump administration.

In support of the Argentina declassification project, the National Security Archive hailed the forthcoming documents transfer. “We praise the Trump administration as well as President Macri for their concrete contribution to the cause of truth and human rights,” said Carlos Osorio, Director of the National Security Archive’s Southern Cone Documentation Project.

“With great expectations, Argentina awaits this documentation which will provide valuable support for the process of truth, justice and memory,” noted a statement released today by the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“This is the largest amount of information that the United States has ever transferred to another country,” President Macri tweeted today. “These documents will play a fundamental role in advancing justice for still unresolved issues of the past, one of the darkest periods of Argentine history.”

Osorio said that the National Security Archive would analyze the documentation and post a selection of the most significant and revealing records after the U.S. transferred the documents to Argentina.

In anticipation of the final release of records, the National Security Archive today posted a sampling of previously declassified, but heavily redacted, FBI records which reflect the potential value of the forthcoming declassification. Among them are detailed reports from the FBI’s legal attaché in Buenos Aires on repressive operations conducted by military security agents during the dictatorship. The declassification of similar records, according to Osorio, could provide evidence for victims, investigators, prosecutors and judges to pursue still unresolved human rights crimes in Argentina.


(chronological order)*

Document 1

FBI, Memorandum on “Roberto Quieto,” for the Ambassador from Legal Attaché, Secret, January 9, 1976


Source: FBI Argentina Project, May 2002

This fully excised two-page FBI memorandum from Legal Attaché Robert Scherrer to U.S. Ambassador Robert Hill likely contains information on Roberto Quieto’s capture and disappearance. Quieto was a Montonero leader who was disappeared in December of 1975. A couple of cables released by the Department of State in 2002 account for Quieto’s detention by Argentine security forces. But no documents released so far offer a hint as to his eventual fate. This is one of the documents among three heavily excised provided by the FBI to Argentine prosecutors in 2002. The upcoming declassification should reveal currently excised information from this cable and other cables related to the case.

Document 2

FBI, Cable for FBI Director from Legal Attaché, “Argentine Terrorist Activities”, Secret, August 11, 1976


Source: FBI Argentina Project, May 2002

A Legal Attaché cable reports that “…at approximately 1:30 A.M., August 11, 1976… units of the Argentine Army Intelligence Service operating with the Buenos Aires Provincial Police …raided an apartment in La Lucila, Buenos Aires, and arrested a female occupant of the first floor, whose parents reside in the same apartment building on the sixth floor… the security forces withdrew from the area at approximately 4:00 A.M. August 11, 1976 after having carried out their mission.”

According to testimonies by the father and sister of Selma Ocampo, she and a friend, Inés Nocetti, were asleep when at around two in the morning men in plain clothes and in uniform surrounded their block. Selma resisted arrest. In the next apartment, an Argentine Navy officer refused to open his door to them and called a security detachment. The raiding police and intelligence agents also tried to enter the Ocampo’s parent’s apartment, but they refused as well. The agents eventually forced their way into Selma’s apartment. However, the security personnel called by the Navy officer arrived and, in the confusion, engaged in a shootout with the raiding agents before they could identify each other and cease fire. Selma Ocampo and Inés Nocetti disappeared in this incident and were eventually killed by Argentine security forces.

Document 3

FBI, cable, “ERP” September 17, 1976


Source: FBI Argentina Project, May 2002

This declassified FBI cable from Legal Attaché Robert Scherrer to Ambassador Hill cites information from a confidential source shedding light on a recent security operation reported by the Buenos Aires news media. The source revealed that the Federal Police of Argentina (FPA), in conjunction with SIDE, raided an ERP safehouse in Buenos Aires on September 14th, 1976. "Two ERP members were killed, and three prisoners were taken, one a female in the last month of her pregnancy." The pregnant woman tried to escape from the 6th floor apartment using exterior balconies but “was apprehended in the street." The cable ends warning that “The foregoing information should not be discussed with any foreign officials, including those of the Argentine government.”

The apprehended woman was a nine-month pregnant Ana María del Carmen Pérez de Gaya, a member of the ERP whose code name was “Vicky.” She was taken to the Clandestine Detention Center Automotores Orletti and disappeared. Her remains, and those of her unborn child, were later discovered in a cement-filled drum.

RESEARCH DOCUMENT /// The Battle of the Letters, 1963 : John F. Kennedy, David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and the U.S. Inspections of Dimona

The Battle of the Letters, 1963 : John F. Kennedy, David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and the U.S. Inspections of Dimona

Published: May 2, 2019

Briefing Book #671

Edited by William Burr and Avner Cohen

For more information, contact:
For more information contact:
Avner Cohen at 202-489-6282 (mobile), 831-647-6437 (office) or
William Burr at 202/994-7000 or

Kennedy Warned Israeli Leaders in 1963 That U.S. “Commitment and Support” Could be “Seriously Jeopardized” Absent Inspection of Dimona Reactor

U.S. Intelligence Estimated That by Mid-1960s Dimona Could Produce Enough Plutonium For “One or Two Weapons A Year”

Washington D.C., May 2, 2019 – During 1963, President John F. Kennedy was preoccupied with issues such as Vietnam, the nuclear test ban negotiations, civil rights protests, and Cuba. It is less well known, however, that one of his most abiding concerns was whether and how fast Israel was seeking a nuclear weapons capability and what the U.S. should do about it. Beginning in April 1963, Kennedy insisted that the Israeli leadership accept regular bi-annual U.S. inspections, or in diplomatic language, “visits,” of Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona in the Negev Desert. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his successor, Levi Eshkol, tried to evade and avoid inspections, but Kennedy applied unprecedented pressure, informing them bluntly, in a near ultimatum tone, that Washington’s “commitment to and support of Israel “could be “seriously jeopardized” if it was thought that the U.S. government could not obtain “reliable information” on the Dimona reactor and Israel’s nuclear intentions.

The full exchange of letters and related communications between Kennedy, Ben-Gurion, and Eshkol, published for the first time today by the National Security Archive, illustrates both Kennedy’s tenacity and Israeli leaders’ recalcitrance on the matter of Dimona. Surprised by the U.S.’s firm demands, Eshkol took seven weeks, involving tense internal consultations, before he reluctantly assented. Retreating from a near-diplomatic crisis, both sides treated their communications on Dimona with great secrecy.

Today’s posting of declassified documents from the U.S. National Archives system, including presidential libraries, provides a behind-the-scene look at the decision-making and intelligence review process that informed Kennedy’s pressure on Israeli prime ministers during 1963. Among the documents are:

  • National Intelligence Estimate 30-63, “The Arab-Israeli Problem,” from January 1963, which estimated that if the Dimona reactor “operated at its maximum capacity … [it] could produce sufficient plutonium for one or two weapons a year.” This NIE was declassified in 2017.
  • A letter from a U.S. diplomat in Tel Aviv who concluded that the detection of an Israeli decision to initiate a “crash” emergency nuclear program would require “a fairly careful watch on the activities of the dozen or so top scientists.” This document was declassified in 2018.
  • A State Department memorandum supporting bi-annual inspections of the Dimona reactor to monitor the use of nuclear fuel. Without U.S. inspections, Israel could discharge spent fuel at six-month intervals “to produce a maximum of irradiated fuel for separation into weapons grade plutonium.”
  • Kennedy’s statement to French Foreign Minister Couve de Murville that Israel’s nuclear program had put that country in a “stupid” position by giving “a pretext to the Russians, who are retreating in the region, to indict us before world opinion, and perhaps not without reason.”
  • A memorandum of conversation from August 1963 in which a British diplomat reported on “new disturbing signs” of Israeli official interest in nuclear weapons. Declassified in 2016.
  • The detailed report of the January 1964 U.S. inspection of Dimona that resulted from Kennedy’s pressure on Ben-Gurion and Eshkol.

Some of the documents in today’s posting, such as the Kennedy-Ben-Gurion-Eshkol correspondence, were declassified in U.S. or Israeli archives during the 1990s, but have not been widely available.[1] Others, as indicated above, were declassified in recent years. Moreover, the French translation of Kennedy’s statement to Couve de Murville meeting has never been rendered into English before. Other documents relating to the Ben-Gurion/Kennedy confrontation remain classified at the U.S. National Archives. Significant CIA and intelligence community documents are under appeal or are awaiting declassification action.

* * * * *

Seeing nuclear proliferation as a major challenge to American power, John F. Kennedy firmly believed that the United States should use its influence to prevent Israel from going nuclear. The Dimona reactor had been discovered only two months before he assumed the presidency in January 1961 and Kennedy was already deeply concerned about Israel’s nuclear aspirations (for details see “Kennedy, Dimona and the Nuclear Proliferation Problem: 1961-1962” in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 547). Those early concerns led to the first American inspection visit at Dimona, in mid-May 1961, and a subsequent face-to-face discussion between Kennedy and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on 30 May. The nuclear issue was also discussed in the meeting between Kennedy and Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir in late December 1962. Ben-Gurion explicitly assured Kennedy that Israel’s nuclear program was for peaceful purposes and Meir insisted that Israel was not on a path to develop nuclear weapons.

In early 1963 American concerns resurfaced. In January, Kennedy received a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that highlighted the weapons potential of Dimona. It pointed out that the Dimona complex was likely to be operational later that year. According to the NIE, once Dimona was operating at full power, Israel might be on its way to produce enough plutonium for one or two weapons a year. Weeks later, in mid-March, Director of the Office of National Estimates Sherman Kent signed an intelligence estimate pointing out the negative consequences for the United States – at the regional and global levels – of Israeli acquisition of nuclear weapons. On 25 March, Kennedy met CIA Director John McCone to discuss the Israeli nuclear program, and soon afterwards asked National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy to beef up U.S. intelligence collection capabilities aimed at both the Israeli nuclear program and Egypt’s “advanced weapons programs.” The next day Bundy issued National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 231, a formal directive to State, Defense, and CIA to study “Middle Eastern Nuclear Capabilities.”

By early April Kennedy and his advisers translated their concerns about Dimona into a quiet but affirmative policy demand: they insisted that Israel accept regular bi-annual U.S. inspections (or “visits,” as they were referred to in more diplomatic language), of Dimona. Initially, Kennedy applied the pressure through diplomatic messages. On 2 April, Ambassador to Israel Walworth Barbour presented to Ben-Gurion the U.S. request for semi-annual American visits; two days later, Israeli Ambassador Avraham Harman was summoned to the State Department for a similar message.

Ben-Gurion was expected to respond to Kennedy’s request on Dimona during his next meeting with Barbour, but he was not ready for a direct showdown with a determined U.S. president. Nor was he ready to accept Kennedy’s goal of semi-annual visits; that would have ended Dimona as the embodiment of Ben-Gurion’s existential insurance policy. Instead, he tried to avoid a confrontation by diverting Kennedy’s attention.

On 17 April 1963, an opportunity arose for doing so: Egypt, Syria, and Iraq signed the Arab Federation Proclamation, calling for a military union to bring about “the liberation of Palestine.” Such rhetoric was not new at the time, but Ben-Gurion used it to start an exchange with President Kennedy about Israel’s overall security predicament, while evading Kennedy’s specific Dimona request. Whether Ben-Gurion genuinely saw the Arab Federation Proclamation as an existential threat to Israel is unclear, but it tacitly justified Israel’s efforts to create a last resort option without the outright rejection of Kennedy’s request.

Ben-Gurion’s focus on a threat posed by the Arab Federation Proclamation vis-a-vis Kennedy’s focus on the danger of the Israeli nuclear project generated a remarkably discordant exchange of letters and personal oral messages between the two leaders throughout the spring of 1963. Ben-Gurion invoked the specter of “another Holocaust,” and insisted on Israel’s need to receive external security guarantees. But such an arrangement was not in the cards because Kennedy believed that so clear a sign of favoritism toward Israel would undermine U.S. relations with the Arab states.

Kennedy did not budge on Dimona and he was determined not to let Ben-Gurion change the conversation. He dismissed the prime minister’s alarm over the Arab Federation Proclamation as both nothing new and practically meaningless, and insisted that the real danger to the region was the introduction of advanced offensive systems, especially nuclear weapons. To address this concern Kennedy was willing to explore an arms control scheme that would cover both Israel and Egypt. It was evident, however, that his prime focus was halting the Israeli nuclear program.

In retrospect, this exchange amounted to a confrontation between the president of the United States and the prime ministers of Israel over the future of the Israeli nuclear program. The peak of that confrontation was Kennedy’s 15 June letter that Ambassador Barbour was supposed to deliver to Ben-Gurion the next day. The letter included detailed technical conditions under which Kennedy insisted that the biannual U.S. visits were to be conducted. The letter was akin to an ultimatum: if the U.S. government could not obtain “reliable information” on the state of the Dimona project, Washington’s “commitment to and support of Israel “could be “seriously jeopardized.” But the letter was never delivered to Ben-Gurion because on that day he stunned his country and the world by announcing his resignation.

Ambassador Barbour, who was prepared to deliver the letter, notified the State Department and asked for instructions. He recommended postponing delivery until the “cabinet problem is sorted out” and then addressing the letter to the next prime minister, a recommendation that Kennedy and his advisers followed.

On 5 July, less than ten days after Levi Eshkol became prime minister, Barbour delivered a 3-page letter to him from Kennedy. It was virtually the same as the 15 June letter to Ben-Gurion, accompanied with a few congratulatory lines to the new leader. Not since President Dwight Eisenhower’s message to Ben Gurion, during the Suez crisis in November 1956, had an American president been so blunt with an Israeli prime minister. The specific demands that were presented to Ben-Gurion on how the U.S. inspection visits to Dimona should be executed remained word-for-word in the new letter. Many of Eshkol’s advisors saw the letter as a real ultimatum, a crisis in the making.[2]

Surprised by Kennedy’s tough demands on Dimona just days after taking office, Eshkol’s first response was to ask for more time for consultations. Only on 19 August, more than six weeks after he received the letter, did Eshkol come up with a response, which at times was vague. Under Kennedy’s pressure, Eshkol reluctantly assented, in principle, to allow regular visits by U.S. scientists to Dimona. Nevertheless, he did not agree to an early visit and avoided making a commitment to the bi-annual U.S. inspections that Kennedy sought.

The confrontation by letter between President Kennedy and two Israeli prime ministers resulted in a series of six annual U.S. inspections of the Dimona complex (1964-69), until President Richard Nixon ended them. (The first inspection in January 1964 may have been delayed because of Kennedy’s assassination.) While Lyndon Johnson was less eager to take the Israelis to task, he was concerned about nuclear proliferation and supported the inspections. Nevertheless, the Israelis made their nuclear weapons breakthrough during the 1960s regardless of the inspections, which evidently had little prohibitive or deterrent impact.

Part I U.S. Plans to Regularize Inspections of Dimona

Document 01

Memorandum, “Brief on Developments re the Dimona Reactor,” n.d., Top Secret, excised copy


Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, National Security File, Komer File, box 30, Israel: Dimona #1

Compiled after the fact, this chronology summarizes key diplomatic developments involving Dimona – mainly the correspondence between President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion – covered by State Department telegram traffic and other sources during January-July 1963. One item in the chronology, dated 23 January 1963, is still classified but is likely a paraphrase or quotation from NIE 30-63, “The Arab-Israeli Problem,” which was issued on the same day and has been recently declassified (see Document 4 below).

Document 02

Memorandum of conversation, “Conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Meir,” 27 December 1962, Secret


Source: Record Group 59, Department of State Records, U.S. National Archives (RG 59), Records of Executive Secretariat. Middle East Crisis Files, 1967, box 1, Memoranda, and Statements Concerning US Security Commitments and the State of Israel 1948 through 1967 [2/2]

In this wide-ranging discussion between Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir and President Kennedy, held at the latter’s summer home in Palm Beach, Florida, Kennedy acknowledged a U.S. “special relationship” with Israel, even noting explicitly for the first time an American commitment to come to Israel’s support “in case of an invasion.” Nevertheless, he contended that as a world power the United States could not let a “special relationship” get in the way of good relations with other countries in the Middle East. On the Israeli atomic reactor, Kennedy spoke vaguely about his hope that Israel would keep U.S. nonproliferation interests in mind. Equally vaguely, Meir “reassured the President that there would not be any difficulty between us on the Israeli nuclear reactor.”

Document 03

J.W. Spain to Phillips Talbot, “Israeli Nuclear Capabilities,” 28 December 1962, Secret


Source: RG 59. Israel, 1964-1966, box 8, Dimona Reactor, 1962-1967

RG 59, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Office of the Country Director for Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs. Records Relating to Israel, 1964-1966, box 8, Dimona Reactor 1962-1967

In this cover note memo discussing attached intelligence products, including a draft NIE with text covering the Israeli nuclear problem, probably 30-63 [See Document 4 below] (originally numbered 30-62), James W. Spain, then with the Policy Planning Staff, highlighted the limits of American knowledge on Israel’s nuclear activities and the tendency to focus exclusively at the Dimona reactor. Spain offered Assistant Secretary Talbot a “disquieting thought,” the possibility there was “nothing at Dimona but that the Israelis will turn up one day with a weapon developed in other places by other means.” Spain may have been speculating about Israel’s wherewithal to reprocess spent fuel (for plutonium) or to develop gas centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment at secret sites outside of the Dimona compound.

Document 04

Director of Central Intelligence, National Intelligence Estimate 30-63, “The Arab-Israeli Problem,” 23 January 1963, Secret, Excised Copy


Source: CIA Mandatory Declassification Review Release

In this extended estimate reviewing the state of Arab-Israeli relations, intelligence community analysts touched on the military balance, including efforts on both sides to acquire advanced weapons. On Israel’s nuclear objectives, the estimate was that the Dimona reactor would become operational later that year and that by the following year, “if operated at its maximum capacity for the production of weapon-grade plutonium, the reactor could produce sufficient plutonium for one or two weapons a year.” To produce weapons-grade plutonium, Israel would need a reprocessing plant, but at that point U.S. intelligence had “no evidence to confirm or deny the existence of separation facilities.” Compounding matters, the Israelis had made contradictory statements about them, saying in 1961 that they planned to build them, then in 1962 saying they had no plans, and then telling U.S. inspectors in 1964 that they had delayed constructing a pilot plant for reprocessing.

Along with the plutonium problem, the lack of territory to test a weapon would slow down the Israeli nuclear weapons program. According to the estimate, a “very limited nuclear weapons capability” based on aircraft would not be available to Israel “until two or three years (i.e., 1967-68) after weapon-grade plutonium first became available.” President Kennedy was not wholly satisfied with the estimate and soon asked for more information and analysis.

Document 05

Charles W. Thomas, Bureau of International Scientific and Technological Affairs, to Robert C. Strong, Director, Office of Near Eastern Affairs, “Inspection of Dimona Reactor,” 1 February 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59 Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Office of the Country Director for Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs. Records Relating to Israel, 1964-1966, box 8, Atomic Energy & Dimona Jan-June 1963

The “fiasco” involving the second “improvised” and deficient U.S. inspection to Dimona in late September 1962 prompted fresh thinking within the AEC, State, and probably the White House about how the United States could effectively and systematically monitor the Dimona reactor. One conclusion was that the inspection visits needed to be bi-annual to be credible. While State Department science chief Charles W. Thomas proposed that regular AEC inspectors travel to Dimona in connection with “their normal visit to the U.S. reactor in Israel [the small U.S.-supplied research reactor at Soreq] about every six months,” AEC officials worried about mixing intelligence with normal safeguards activity. That is, the regular inspectors of the Soreq reactor could be suspected of having a “covert mission” if they were also involved in inspecting Dimona. AEC officials did not approve Thomas’s proposal, but they “shared our [State] view that it is urgently important to make some long-term arrangements as soon as possible.”

Document 06

Robert Komer to President Kennedy, 12 February 1963, Secret, Excised copy


Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library (LBJL), National Security File, Komer File, box 30, Israel Dimona # 1

State Department interest in a regularized system of inspections reflected a growing concern and consensus in Washington. Citing NIE 30–63, NSC Middle East expert Robert Komer suggested that Israel “will attempt to produce a weapon sometime in the next several years and could have a very limited capability by 67-68.” That estimate turned out to be quite accurate. Komer informed the President that “we are planning a better look [at Dimona] in the next month or so.” He mistakenly dated the last inspection at November 1962 when it had taken place in late September.

Document 07

U.S. Embassy Israel Airgram A-517 to Department of State, “Israeli Program for Nuclear Reactors,” 13 February 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, AE 11-2 ISR

Dr. Robert Webber, a physicist by training and the newly appointed science attaché at the U.S. embassy in Israel, drew up this report on Israeli nuclear activities on the basis of conversations that senior AEC official Abraham Friedman had with members and staff of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, including Chairman Ernest David Bergmann. As the IAEC was largely excluded from the Dimona project and focused on its own long-term interest in developing nuclear power, much of the report was on the Commission’s plans and programs, which may have been inflated with little grounding in reality.

Assuming that Israel was “not making a serious effort to construct nuclear weapons at the present time.” Webber seemed to accept at face value the Israeli official view that “the IDF can cope with any armed attack that may be made on Israel within the next few years.” Hence, the Dimona secrecy “seems unnecessary” and was probably fed by “Israel’s acute sense of national sovereignty” and “a firm decision not to foreclose the possibility of a nuclear weapons program should the course of Middle East events make it necessary.” This reflected Webber’s view that a dedicated weapons program would require a major and explicit national decision. If such a decision was made, the biggest obstacle Israel would face would be its ability to produce “weapon-grade fissionable material.” Israel could, however, produce a detonator mechanism because it has “demonstrated competence in the preparation and handling of conventional explosives.”

Document 08

Alexis Johnson to Dwight Ink, Atomic Energy Commission, 14 February 1963, with attached memoranda and letters, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, AE 6 ISR-US

As indicated by a previously declassified document, the U.S. government was beginning to monitor the activities of senior Israeli nuclear scientists in the United States and new information from the U.S. embassy in Israel was prompting the State Department to expand the scope of the surveillance. According to Embassy First Secretary William Bruce Lockling, Israel Dostrovsky, a prominent physical chemist of the Weizman Institute, who was already at Brookhaven, had been joined by his “most valued assistant,” Fritz Klein. Moreover, Michael Anbar, who was chief of chemistry and isotopes at Israel’s AEC, was heading for a year at Stanford University.

Lockling, who had an academic background in the social sciences, interpreted Israel nuclear policy in this way: a “long-term program toward developing nuclear competence which can be applied as needed to supplying energy for industrial or military capability.” To determine when Israel had decided to initiate a “crash,” “emergency” military program, it would be necessary to keep “a fairly careful watch on the activities of the dozen or so top scientists.” Even a “crash” program could not be accomplished overnight: Lockling’s estimated timetable was six-to-eight years to acquire enough experience and fissile material to carry out a test and about 10-to-12 years to produce enough weapons to “constitute an effective ‘force de frappe.’”

Document 09

Memorandum for the Record by Robert W. Komer, 15 February 1963, Secret, excised copy


Source: LBJL, National Security File, Komer File, box 30, Israel Dimona # 1

Komer met with AEC chair Glenn Seaborg to press for “1) early re -inspection of the Dimona reactor; and (2) a systematic on-going inspection scheme.” In light of Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s statement about “no difficulty between us” with Dimona, Komer believed that “we should move ahead with the next inspection while the Israeli assurances that there would be no difficulty were fresh in their minds.” Komer supported separate inspections of Soreq and Dimona, apparently so that intelligence would not be mixed up with the AEC inspection work, but the excised phrase makes it difficult to fathom the full meaning of his proposal. In any event, he expected Israeli opposition but did not want “prolonged negotiations” over U.S. access.

Document 10

A. Wells, Director, Division of International Affairs, Atomic Energy Commission to Charles W. Thomas, State Department, 4 March 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, 1963 Subject-Numeric Files, AE 11-2 ISR

As noted, AEC officials were worried that if its formal safeguards inspectors visited Dimona, other governments would conclude that the inspectors were doing intelligence work: Therefore, the AEC’s Algie Wells proposed that Dimona inspections be conducted “by suitably qualified technical personnel other than AEC safeguards inspectors,” who should have “full and complete access” to the entire complex. That would be enough for the U.S. to “satisfy itself with respect to the nature of the facilities at the Dimona site but also with respect to the disposition of the materials produced in the Dimona reactor.” Wells acknowledged that the inspectors would not be able “to perform materials accountability functions which are a critical part of the inspections carried out under our Agreements for Cooperation,” which depended on access to the relevant internal records. Thus, the “visits … would not provide assurance that the materials being used or produced [there] were not being employed for military purposes.”

If the Israelis rejected visits by “suitably qualified technical personnel,” the AEC would reconsider its reluctance to use the regular safeguards inspectors.

Document 11

Sherman Kent, Office of National Estimates, Memorandum for the Director [of Central Intelligence], “Consequences of Israeli Acquisition of Nuclear Weapons,” 6 March 1963, Secret


Source: CIA Web site

In a memorandum sent to CIA Director John McCone, Chairman of the Board of National Estimates Sherman Kent outlined the grave consequences that could derive from Israeli nuclearization. “Israel’s policy towards its neighbors would become more rather than less tough … it would … seek to exploit the psychological advantages of its nuclear capability to intimidate the Arabs and to prevent them from making trouble on the frontiers.” Furthermore, in dealing with the United States, Israel “would use all means in its command to persuade [it] to acquiesce in and even to support, its possession of nuclear capability.” The Arab reaction would be “profound dismay and frustration,” and the United States would be among the principal targets of Arab resentment. The Arabs’ recourse would be the Soviet Union which would “win friends and influence” in the Middle East region.

Document 12

William R. Crawford to Mr. Strong, “Israel’s Atomic Energy Programs,” 15 March 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric File 1963, AE 6 ISR

During a recent trip to Tel Aviv, Crawford, in charge of the State Department’s Israel desk, met with science attaché Webber who briefed him on the IAEC’s nuclear reactor plans. On the question of nuclear weapons, Webber believed that it would take a special effort for Israel to work jointly on missiles and warheads: they would need to undertake a “crash program” involving the merger of missile and weapons research to produce “nuclear war-head missiles in less than a decade.” As William Bruce Lockling had advised, Webber would look for signs of such developments by “watching the activities of the Israeli scientists who really count.” Crawford noted that Webber and his embassy colleague Spencer Barnes were doubtful that the Israelis would agree to two inspections a year, but he told them that the “Israelis might be more sensitive than they imagined to the degree of Presidential concern on this subject.” The implication was that the Israelis needed to be ready for considerable U.S. pressure on this point. With his close contact with White House officials and the future drafter of presidential messages to Ben-Gurion, Crawford knew of what he wrote.

Document 13

National Security Action Memorandum No. 231, McGeorge Bundy to the Secretary of State, Chairman Atomic Energy Commission, Director of Central Intelligence, “Middle Eastern Nuclear Capabilities,” 26 March 1963, Top Secret


Source: RG 59. Policy Planning Council Records, 1963-1964, box 41, NSAM

A day before National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy issued this National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM), President Kennedy met CIA Director McCone. According to McCone’s record of the meeting, he raised the “question of Israel acquiring nuclear capability” and gave Kennedy Sherman Kent’s estimate of the consequences of Israeli nuclearization. Then, according to McCone, Kennedy instructed Bundy to ask Secretary Rusk, in collaboration with the DCI and AEC chairman, to submit a proposal “as to how some form of international or bilateral US safeguards could be instituted to protect against the contingency mentioned.”

It is evident from NSAM 231 that Kennedy thought official knowledge of the Israeli nuclear program was lacking. Whatever triggered this concern (e.g., the gap between his possible recollection of Ben-Gurion’s 1961 statement about a “pilot” reprocessing plant and CIA’s apparent lack of knowledge about reprocessing), NSAM 231 directed the three relevant agency chiefs – State, AEC, CIA – “to undertake every feasible measure to improve our intelligence on the Israeli nuclear program as well as other Israeli or Arab advanced weapons programs” (a reference to chemical, biological, or radiological weapons and missile programs). In this context, Kennedy also indicated the need for the “next informal inspection of the Israeli reactor complex to be undertaken promptly and to be as through as possible.”

NSAM 231 also directed the State Department to “develop proposals for forestalling” nuclear weapons programs in the Middle East partly by “seeking clearer assurances from the governments concerned on this point” and to impress on them “how seriously such a development would be regarded in this country.”

Part II Initial Approach on Regular Bi-Annual Inspections

Document 14

State Department telegram 658 to U.S. Embassy, Israel, 27 March 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59. Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, DEF 12 ISR

A day after NSAM 231 was issued, the State Department began to implement it by asking Ambassador Barbour to inform Prime Minister Ben-Gurion that the U.S. government sought his “assent to semi-annual repeat semi-annua1 visits to Dimona perhaps May and November, with full access to all parts and instruments in the facility, by qualified U.S. scientists.” This message, along with a parallel demarche to the Israeli ambassador, was the first salvo in what would develop into the toughest American-Israeli confrontation over the Israeli nuclear program.

Document 15

U.S. Embassy Israel Telegram 721 to State Department, 3 April 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, DEF 12 ISR

On 2 April, at the end of a two-hour discussion with Ben-Gurion on the refugee problem, Barbour raised the matter of Dimona inspections. Ben-Gurion said that he wanted to postpone the discussion until after Passover. When Barbour noted that the last inspection had been limited to 45 minutes, an evidently surprised Foreign Minister Meir replied that the short visit had been the decision of the U.S. inspectors. Barbour disagreed.

To underline the point more sharply, on 4 April, the next day, Assistant Secretary Talbot summoned Israeli Ambassador Harman and presented him with a demarche on the inspections. Documentation on this episode is not available, but it is cited in the “Brief on Developments Re the Dimona Reactor” [See Document 1].

Document 16

Israeli Foreign Ministry record of meeting between Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense Shimon Peres, and President Kennedy at the White House, 2 April 1963.


Source: Israel State Archives, Foreign Ministry Record Group, 4326/26

This is the seven-page Israeli record of an unscheduled meeting between Kennedy and Shimon Peres, then Israel’s deputy minister of defense and chief of the Israeli nuclear program, at the White House on 2 April 1963. Visiting Washington for talks on the purchase of Hawk missiles, Peres stopped by the White House to meet with presidential adviser Myer Feldman, who was central to policy on Israel, with a say on all decisions involving Arab-Israeli matters that had domestic implications. Accompanying Peres were Ambassador Harman and Deputy Chief of Mission Mordechai Gazit.

From the White House perspective, the timing of Peres’s visit could not have been better. With all of the State Department, AEC, and White House discussion over the previous weeks, Kennedy had an opportunity to meet with Peres – known to the U.S. as the key man on the Israeli nuclear program – in person and directly convey his concerns about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. That is what happened. Apparently by pre-arrangement between Feldman and Kennedy, the president ran into them in the corridor and invited them for a brief introductory meeting at the Oval Office. In the half-hour conversation Kennedy interrogated Peres on Israel’s nuclear activities and intentions. It was in response to Kennedy’s question that Peres invoked – for the first time to the United States – the pledge that would subsequently become Israel’s public formula for nuclear opacity (pages 3-4 in the document). Here is a translation of this exchange as recorded on page 3 of the Israeli document:

Kennedy: You know that we follow very closely the discovery of any nuclear development in the region. This could create a very dangerous situation. For this reason, we monitor your nuclear effort. What could you tell me about this?

Peres: I can tell you most clearly that we will not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be the first.

Years later, Peres revealed that his answer was an improvisation in response to an unexpected situation. Not expecting to see the president, and certainly not to be asked that question by him, Peres had to come up with a response that did not involve revealing state secrets or telling an outright lie. What he said, however, was consistent with, and probably influenced by, the approach that Ben-Gurion had already been taking in meetings with Israeli newspaper editors – that Israel would not be the first to “introduce nuclear weapons” in the region.[3]

As significant as Peres’s declaration was, the understanding on the U.S. side was apparently different. According to Feldman, Peres “had given an unequivocal assurance that Israel would not do anything in this field unless it finds that other countries in the area are involved in it.” “Not do anything” has a different meaning than “not introduce.” Thus, President Kennedy continued his effort to prevent Israel from reaching the point where it would have the capability to “introduce” the bomb.

Document 17

[Excised] Executive Officer, Board of National Estimates to Allen Evans, INR et al., “SNIE 30-2-63: The Advanced Weapons Programs of the UAR and Israel,” 11 April 1963, enclosing memorandum from Thomas Hughes, INR, to DCI John McCone, n.d., Secret, Excised copy


Source: CIA FOIA Reading Room

In the spring of 1963 some top officials in Israel, primarily Mossad chief Isser Harel with the support of Foreign Minister Golda Meir, initiated a public campaign (via leaks to the Israeli media) about German scientists in Egypt involved in developing ballistic missiles and radiological weapons, possibly even nuclear weapons. Reinforcing NSAM 231 and raising the urgency, State Department intelligence chief Thomas Hughes asked DCI McCone to issue a special NIE on “advanced weapons programs” in both the UAR and Israel. Hughes asked McCone for a “comprehensive round-up of available intelligence on UAR and Israeli developmental programs and capabilities in the fields of nuclear weapons, missiles, and bacteriological, chemical, and radiological warfare,” as well as the nature of any foreign private or governmental assistance in those areas.

Document 18

State Department telegram 720 to U.S. Embassy, 19 April 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, DEF 12 ISR

Having waited more than two weeks for an answer from Ben-Gurion, Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked Ambassador Barbour to “press” for an “affirmative reply” to the U.S. request for semi-annual inspections of Dimona.

Part III Ben-Gurion’s Efforts to Deflect Kennedy’s Pressure

Document 19

Prime Minister Ben-Gurion Letter to President Kennedy, 26 April 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10 Israel 3 of 3

Not having answered the U.S. request about Dimona, on 26 April 1963, Ben-Gurion tried to change the subject in a long letter to Kennedy. Prompting the letter was the recent Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi Arab Federation Proclamation on 17 April calling for a military union to produce the “liberation of Palestine.” Ignoring Kennedy’s request for bi-annual visits at Dimona, Ben-Gurion elaborated in his letter on regional stability and Israeli security, and in response proposed a joint U.S.-Soviet security guarantee for the territorial integrity of all states of the Middle East

Document 20

State Department telegram 780 to U.S. Embassy, Israel [transmitting letter from President Kennedy to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion], 4 May 1963, with State Department memo attached, Secret


Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1966, box 10, Kennedy/Johnson Israel Officials 1963-1964-1965

In reply Ben-Gurion’s 26 April letter, Kennedy assured the Israeli prime minister that he shared his concern but was puzzled by the proposal for a joint declaration with Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Such an action, he believed, would only add to Soviet “prestige” in a region where it had made trouble, for example, as a supplier of arms. Kennedy also tried to direct the exchange to his original concern, telling Ben-Gurion that he was much less worried about an “early Arab attack” than “a successful development of advanced offensive systems which, as you say, could not be dealt with by presently available means.” Indirectly raising his concern about the Israeli nuclear program, Kennedy noted that he had “expressed before [his] deep personal conviction that reciprocal and competitive development of such weapons would dangerously threaten the stability of the area. I believe that we should consider carefully together how such a trend can be forestalled.”

Document 21

Central Intelligence Agency, “Israel Preparing Case to Justify Development of Independent Nuclear Capability” Article in Current Intelligence Digest, 7 May 1963, Secret


Source: National Archives, RG 59, Consolidated Records of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Lot 81D343, box 36, Israel Atomic 353.42

Citing Embassy reporting, the CIA’s analysts implied that Ben-Gurion was more interested in pursuing a nuclear capability than in receiving security guarantees. The prime minister saw that U.S. proposals for arms control in the Middle East could place Israel at “such a disadvantage” that it could raise the danger of war. Moreover, “Ben-Gurion stated that neither a guarantee nor any alliance is sufficient for Israel’s protection without adequate independent strength.” Accordingly, the Knesset “adopted a resolution to increase Israel’s ‘deterrent strength.’”

Document 22

Director of Central Intelligence, Special National Intelligence Estimate 30-2-63, “The Advanced Weapons Programs of the UAR and Israel,” 8 May 1963, Top Secret, Excised copy, under appeal since 2012.


Source: MDR request

Responding simultaneously to Kennedy’s request for better intelligence and to INR’s recent request for a “comprehensive round-up” of recent intelligence on the Israeli and UAR advanced weapons programs, the intelligence community presented a Special National Intelligence Estimate in early May focusing exclusively on unconventional weapons in the Middle East. While this revised estimate included much more data on Israeli nuclear activities, some of it excised, it was not enough to change the overall conclusions of the January 1963 NIE. In resemblance to the original one, it concluded that “Israel intends at least to put itself in a position to be able to produce a limited number of weapons relatively quickly after a decision to do so” and that “unless deterred by outside pressure [the Israelis] will attempt to produce a weapon sometime in the next several years.” Unless they had a secret source that shed light on Israeli intentions, the analysts may have made their case by inference.

However, the conclusions of the SNIE were more specific and definitive than the January estimate: “We believe that in the most favorable circumstances Israel could detonate a domestically developed nuclear device by late 1965, but a more likely date would be sometime in 1966. Developing the device into a weapon which could be delivered by aircraft would require a year or two more (1967- 1968), though this period could be virtually eliminated if Israel obtained from another country detailed and tested weapons designs.” Despite these strong conclusions, the analysts admitted that “we have no evidence to confirm the existence of plutonium separation facilities.” Furthermore, the SNIE, like the previous estimate, assumed the production of a “limited number” of weapons would require a “decision.” No such decision, tacit or otherwise, could be taken, in the absence of a plutonium separation plant, although the Dimona facility was large enough to accommodate one. The SNIE’s authors took it for granted that testing would be required, whether underground or atmospheric (the latter was ruled out when Israel signed the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty). Both methods had their limitations, for example, the fallout hazards created by atmospheric testing. Moreover, before it could safely test a device, Israel would need enough fissile material for at least one more “so as not to be left without any after the test.” In addition, testing would be delayed because Dimona would produce spent fuel at a relatively slow rate.

By contrast to Israel, the UAR, “alone or in combination with other Arab States, does not have the capability of producing a nuclear weapon in the foreseeable future.” Both sides, however, were interested in surface-to-surface missiles, but if they developed such systems their “purely military significance is likely to be modest for some time.” The UAR would not be able to arm its SSM’s with nuclear warheads, but Israeli missiles could be nuclear-armed in a shorter time period (“several years”), thus increasing Israeli “military superiority.” While Israel’s motive in acquiring a nuclear capability would be “primarily defensive,” once the Israelis had the bomb that could “encourage them to be bolder in the use of their conventional resources both diplomatic and military in their confrontation with the Arabs.”

As this paper was being prepared, the U.S. began to learn about the deal that Israel made with the French company Dassault for the development of a short-range surface-to-surface missile.

Document 23

State Department telegram 800 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 10 May 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59. Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, POL ARAB-ISR

On 5 May, Ambassador Barbour met and discussed the matter of semi-annual U.S. visits to Dimona with Ben-Gurion. The record of this meeting has not been released, but the State Department reaction was that it “appears here [the Prime Minister] may now be attempting [to] throw question of Dimona inspections into arena of bargaining for things Israel wants from us, such as security guarantee.” Whatever Ben-Gurion had in mind, Kennedy and his advisers objected to making such a linkage and wanted Barbour to remind Ben-Gurion that he and other senior officials had approved the idea of inspections in the past unconditionally. Apparently, Ben-Gurion had argued against inspection on the grounds that the U.S. was “not insisting on inspection in the Arab countries”, to which Rusk advised Barbour to say that Washington had good intelligence on Arab nuclear efforts “and these do not amount to a serious program.”

Document 24

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs James P. Grant to Secretary of State Rusk, “White House Concern with Arab-Israeli Matters,” 11 May 1963, Top Secret, excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963.


Source: RG 59. Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, POL ARAB-ISR

With the White House under greater domestic pressure to fashion a Middle Eastern policy that was more “consonant with Israeli desires,” President Kennedy (no doubt with 1964 presidential election in mind) wanted to reach an “accommodation” to those pressures “without seriously impairing our other interests in the area.” In a memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Grant acknowledged that such an accommodation “would be extremely difficult to accomplish,” not least because President Kennedy was concerned about the “arms escalation” in the region, especially the Israeli nuclear program. Consistent with the concern about domestic politics, Grant noted that Deputy Counsel Mayer (Mike) Feldman had a new political role at the White House, as the primary staffer to approve all State Department telegrams concerning Israel and Arab-Israeli issues that had domestic political implications. Grant further mentioned that Kennedy had asked Rusk that the State Department draft a presidential letter to Egypt President, Gamal Abdul Nasser, to initiate dialogue on area security and arms limitations.

Document 25

Prime Minister Ben-Gurion to President Kennedy, 12 May 1963, with State Department memo attached, 14 May 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10, Pres Kennedy/Johnson Israel Official Correspondence 1963-1964-1965

In a lengthy and highly personal response (9 typed pages) to Kennedy’s 5 May letter, Ben-Gurion continued his earlier effort to change the conversation but also to explain indirectly the purpose of Dimona. On the surface, Ben-Gurion’s letter seems to ignore the issue of Dimona entirely, as if he either overlooked or dismissed Kennedy’s letter and the recent U.S. requests for visits to Dimona. Instead, in the tone of an old statesman who had seen it all, Ben-Gurion wrote about his impressions of Nasser and his Pan-Arabism, and then made an analogy between Nasser and other contemporary Arab leaders with Hitler, writing:

“knowing them I am convinced that they are capable of following the Nazi example. Nasser is in fact adopting the National-Socialist ideology of the Nazis. For many years the civilized world did not take seriously Hitler’s statement that one of his aims was the worldwide extermination of the Jewish people. I have no doubt that a similar thing might happen to Jews in Israel if Nasser succeeded in defeating our army.”

Ben-Gurion all but linked the possibility of another Holocaust to his request for security guarantees to Israel, asserting that the best way to avoid a cataclysm was joint action by the two superpowers. Acknowledging Kennedy’s view that such joint action was politically impossible he suggested a U.S-Israel security agreement, U.S. arms supply equal to what the Arabs were receiving, turning Jordan’s West Bank into a demilitarized zone, and “a plan of general disarmament between Israel and the Arab states under a system of mutual and international inspection and control.” Ben-Gurion, however, doubted the practicality of the last idea.

When top Israeli diplomat Ambassador Gideon Rafael (the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director general), saw the draft, he advised against sending it. Rafael argued that the letter “looks sick” and that “the Prime Minister must not speak about something that seems sick.” Ben-Gurion usually rejected editorial advice and insisted on the tone and the length. Therefore, why did he send such a strange letter?[4]

Besides failing to address Kennedy’s requests, the letter proposed ideas that looked utterly unrealistic. One way to explain this puzzle was that Ben-Gurion meant to suggest to Kennedy his rationale for the Dimona project, without saying so explicitly. By reminding Kennedy that another Holocaust was possible, he effectively conveyed why Israel needed a nuclear deterrent. Dimona was the ultimate security assurance for Israel, because no external security guarantees were feasible or credible.

Document 26

U.S. Embassy Israel Telegram 894 to State Department, 15 May 1963, as summarized in a "Chronology of Israel Assurances of Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy and Related Events," enclosed with Memorandum from Benjamin Read, Executive Secretary, Department of State, for McGeorge Bundy, The White House, "Israel’s Assurances Concerning Use of Atomic Energy," 18 March 1964, Secret (published as document number 9 in National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 432)


Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Records of Office of Country Director for Israeli and Arab-Israeli Affairs, Records Relating to Near Eastern Arms Initiative, box 1, Talbot in Spring 1964 & Exchange of Letters

Almost in parallel to his letter of 12 May, in which he totally ignored Kennedy’s requests on Dimona, Ben-Gurion met Ambassador Barbour to revisit the Dimona problem. In reviewing the request for visits, Ben-Gurion asked if Washington intended semi-annual visits to Egyptian sites. After Barbour observed that there was nothing there to see, Ben-Gurion stated his disagreement with the U.S. “assessment [of] Egyptian nuclear programs.” He concluded that he would consult his cabinet but observed that it was to Israel’s advantage if the Arab governments were “worried rather than reassured on Israeli nuclear program.”

Document 27

Robert Komer, memorandum for the President, 16 May 1963, enclosing Phillips Talbot memorandum to the Secretary, 14 May 1963, Top Secret, excised copy


Source: John F. Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, box 119

Presenting the President with the State Department scenario for talks with Israel and the UAR on security and disarmament issues, in a response to NSAM 231, Komer argued that Israel would go ahead with a nuclear program unless Washington provided security guarantees. Consistent with this, the State Department suggested that Washington send a special emissary to both Israel and the UAR with an offer that linked security assurances to a nuclear and missile stand-still. The fact that Ben-Gurion had insisted on inspections of both Israel and UAR nuclear facilities, Komer believed, provided the U.S. with an “opening.” Komer further saw the attached State Department proposal as a “good opening bid” for security assurances tied to a nuclear/missile standstill agreement.

Document 28

Department of State telegram 835 to U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, 18 May 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1966, box 10, Kennedy/Johnson Israel Officials 1963-1964-1965, excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963.

Kennedy did not allow Ben-Gurion to change the conversation into a discussion of “another Holocaust.” Kennedy’s new letter to Ben-Gurion, dated 17 May, categorically separated the two issues, i.e., the question of Israel’s existential security, and the matter of Dimona. Kennedy ignored for the time being the existential issues raised in Ben-Gurion’s 12 May letter and focused solely on Ben-Gurion’s oral response about the Dimona visits to Ambassador Barbour on 14 May.

Based on their meeting in May 1961, Kennedy rhetorically suggested that he was sure that both would agree “that there is no more urgent business for the whole world than the control of nuclear weapons.” Both must agree, he wrote, “that the dangers in the proliferation of national nuclear weapons system are so obvious that I am sure I need not repeat them here.” Worried about the impact on both world and regional stability of an Israeli nuclear weapons capability, Kennedy warned Ben-Gurion that such development would make the Soviets more involved in the Middle East and would almost certainly lead other larger countries “to follow suit.”

It was in that letter that Kennedy elevated the request for bi-annual visits at Dimona to a level that was very close to an ultimatum. Kennedy observed that as strong as the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security was, it would “seriously jeopardized in the public opinion of this country” if it was thought that “this Government was unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of the character of Israel’s effort in the nuclear field.” This ultimatum-like language remained in all subsequent letters.

Document 29

Memorandum of Conversation, “Review of French Foreign Policy,” 25 May 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59. Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, Pol FR-US; excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada.

In this general discussion of French foreign policy between President Kennedy and Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville, the Israeli nuclear program made several appearances. According to the State Department version of the discussion, after Kennedy and de Murville spoke about the German nuclear problem, Kennedy suggested that because the Israelis had acquired uranium the Germans might be able to do the same; de Murville commented that “even if the Israelis get an atomic device they would be able to make trouble but they would not be able to wage nuclear war in the real sense of the word” (although perhaps the people targeted by the attack would have a different perspective).

The French Foreign Ministry’s compilation, Documents Diplomatiques Français. provides a fuller and more interesting account of the meeting, especially of the brief discussion of Israel during two different points.[5] Here follows a rendition into English of the French original, showing how Kennedy shifted the discussion from the German nuclear problem to Israel.[6]

Kennedy: It is the same problem as Israel. I would like you to discuss this very thoroughly with the Secretary of State, because it is at present a grave concern.

Couve de Murville: I totally agree with you on this point, but the Israelis could produce at most one to two bombs that could not be considered as true weapons of war. It would lead to Middle East unrest, but it would not be a real threat to the survival of the human race.

Later in the conversation, according to the U.S. version, de Murville stated that France “had made a mistake in having furnished Israel with plutonium.” The French, however, had provided only a small quantity of plutonium, for lab research only, and that was probably not what de Murville was talking about. It is possible that the U.S. interpreter/notetaker did not fully understand what de Murville had said or that the final U.S. version, especially Kennedy’s frank comments, was edited beyond recognition. Here follows a rendition into English of the French original.[7]

De Murville: As far as we are concerned, we have taken all the necessary precautions. We are committed to supplying [the Israelis] with certain quantities of uranium for their reactor, but they must return it as soon as they have processed it, so that they do not have the possibility of extracting the plutonium. Sadly, the Israelis are likely to find uncontrolled [sources] of uranium alloys. It is a question on which I wish to speak with Mr. Rusk, for we agree with you on the danger of this subject.

Kennedy: I am pleased because if Israel had atomic weapons, we would be blamed equally, you for furnishing uranium, and we for the financial aid given to Israel. The position of that country is stupid because it gives a pretext to the Russians, who are retreating in the region, to indict us before world opinion, and perhaps not without reason,

Document 30

U.S. Embassy Israel Airgram A-746 to State Department, “Visits to Dimona; Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s Letter of May 27 to President Kennedy,” 29 May 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1966, box 10, Kennedy/Johnson Israel Officials 1963-1964-1965

Kennedy’s letter of 19 May must have made it clear to Ben-Gurion that he had to respond to Kennedy’s specific request on Dimona. In his reply, dated 27 May, Ben-Gurion started with the same peaceful research narrative that he had used to characterize the Dimona project from the very beginning, including during his meeting with Kennedy in May 1961. In response to the request for bi-annual visits, Ben-Gurion evaded the bi-annual issue and instead simply referred to the past American visits to Dimona, “such as have already taken place,” but asked for a delay, arguing that there would be nothing to see until the early 1964 “start-up” of the reactor. “At present, nothing is going on there except building construction.” According to a report to Bundy from the State Department’s Executive Secretary, that reply was “less than fully satisfactory.” Komer later reported that Assistant Secretary Talbot and his associates saw the letter “as a step backward on terms of access to Dimona. More importantly, by postponing the proposed inspection to at least end-1963, the Israelis kept this bargaining counter in play for forthcoming negotiation.”

Document 31

U.S. Embassy Israel telegram 949 to State Department, 29 May 1963, extract from “Brief on Developments Re the Dimona Reactor,” n.d. Top Secret


Source: LBJL, National Security File, Komer File, box 30, Israel: Dimona #1

Ambassador Barbour interpreted Ben-Gurion’s letter more favorably, arguing, for example, that it “accepted [the] principle of continuing visits,” gave “assurances in writing at highest level as to the peaceful nature of the reactor” and dropped the notion of parallel visits to Israeli and Egyptian sites.

Document 32

William H. Brubeck, Executive Secretary, to McGeorge Bundy, “Reply to Israel Prime Minister Ben-Gurion on Dimona Visit,” 11 June 1963, Draft, Secret


Source: RG 59, Bureau of International Scientific and Technological Affairs. Central Files, 1964-1966, box 4, Israel-Dimona

In a draft of a memorandum to be sent to the national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, officials at the State Department’s science bureau explained that Ben-Gurion’s desire for annual visits “would not meet our minimum intelligence requirements to satisfy ourselves … as to Israel’s intentions;” nor was it consistent with IAEA inspection standards, which Washington supported: If the Dimona reactor was for research only, its spent fuel would need to be discharged every two years, “but approximately at six months intervals if the object was to produce a maximum of irradiated fuel for separation into weapons grade plutonium.” Hence, to monitor the use of the reactor fuel, Dimona would require two inspections annually. In addition, a visit would be needed before the reactor went critical because once that happened some sections of the reactor become inaccessible.

As a partial compromise, the State Department proposed a mid-summer 1963 visit, one in June 1964, and then visits every 6 months thereafter, with access to all areas of the site, including related operations that might be somewhere else, such as a reprocessing plant. The memo included the draft text for the Kennedy letter to Ben-Gurion that was sent a few days later.

Document 33

State Department telegram 938 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 15 June 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10, Israel 3 of 3; 1965, excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963

Replying to Ben-Gurion’s letter of 27 May, Kennedy respectfully but firmly insisted on the need to create a system of regular bi-annual U.S. visits to Dimona. Like the previous letter, this one included the same ultimatum-like warning: Washington’s “commitment to and support of Israel could be seriously jeopardized if it should be thought that we are unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital” as Israel’s intentions in the nuclear field. For this reason, the letter insisted on a schedule along the lines suggested by the State Department, that is, the first visit during that summer, before the reactor turned critical, then the next summer (June 1964), and after that at intervals of six months.

Document 34

U.S. Embassy Israel telegram 1043 to State Department, 16 June 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1963, AE 11-2 ISR

As Kennedy’s letter arrived in Tel Aviv, on 16 June, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion resigned; he cited unspecified “personal reasons,”[8] although the CIA believed that his conciliatory policy toward West Germany. was a cause. Ambassador Barbour recommended that once a new Israel government had formed, the U.S. demarche be sent in a redrafted form. He further observed that the Dimona inspection was a controversial issue when Ben-Gurion presented it to the cabinet in late May.

Part IV: Kennedy Confronts Eshkol

Document 35

State Department telegram 193 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 4 July 1963, Secret


Source: John F. Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, box 119, Israel Security, 1961-1963; excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963

The State Department drafted a new letter on Dimona to new Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. After congratulating him for assuming office and mentioning his earlier exchanges with Ben-Gurion on Dimona, Kennedy used virtually the same text of his undelivered 16 June letter to Ben-Gurion in the letter to Eshkol. It included the same warning that the “American commitment to and support of Israel” could be “seriously jeopardized” if Israel did not let the United States obtain “reliable information” about Israel’s effort in the nuclear field. Kennedy suggested the same schedule of visits to Dimona that he conveyed to Ben Gurion: the first one in the summer of 1963, then a year later, and then at intervals of six months.

Document 36

U.S. Embassy Israel telegram 74 to State Department, 17 July 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10, Israel 3 of 3

In his interim reply to the communication of 4 July, Eshkol told Kennedy that he needed time to review the entire issue involving the Dimona project before giving a substantive response, which some in the White House saw as an attempt to treat inspections as a “bargaining card” for security guarantees. In his conversation with Barbour, Eshkol mentioned his great “surprise” (“searching for the right word,” he added) over Kennedy’s near-ultimatum statement that the U.S. commitment to and support of Israel could be “seriously jeopardized.” While he hoped that U.S-Israeli friendship would grow, “Israel would do what it had to do for its national security and to safeguard its sovereign rights.” Barbour assured him that Kennedy’s statement was “factual” because critics of strong U.S.-Israel relations could complicate the diplomatic relationship.

Later in the discussion, Eshkol asked a question that Ben-Gurion had never openly raised: how would Washington react to an Israeli proposal to “consult in advance” with the United States “in the event that, sometime in the distant future,” Middle Eastern developments made it necessary for Israel to “embark on a nuclear weapons program.”

Notwithstanding the hypothetical language, this was the first time an Israeli prime minister had treated Dimona as a security asset. Barbour replied that he could not answer such a question and had no idea what the United States reaction might be. Noting that “it should be sufficient for word of sovereign state to be acceptable,” Eshkol asked whether the United States expected to inspect India’s nuclear developments. Barbour did not directly answer the question but assured the prime minister that the U.S. concern about nonproliferation was broader than the problem of Israel, although the “introduction” of nuclear weapons into the Middle East would be “especially grave.”

Document 37

Memorandum of conversation, “McCloy’s Near East Arms Limitation Probe; Security Guarantee for Israel,” 23 July 1963, Top Secret


Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat Middle East Crisis Files, 1967, box 3, Chron Summary of the Arms Probe with Nasser and Related Events, 1963-1964; excised version published in Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963

This memo records a meeting with John J. McCloy, the President’s envoy on Middle East arms limitations upon his return from Cairo earlier that month, in which Kennedy and his Middle East advisers reviewed the possibilities for developing inspection arrangements for nuclear facilities in the UAR and Israel. So far President Nasser had resisted inspections, in part because, as he argued [in his conversation with McCloy on 27 June], Egypt had nothing to show, which meant that McCloy had to call off his planned visit to Israel. After Kennedy asked about Nasser’s statements about pre-emptive attacks on Dimona, Ambassador John Badeau observed that “our past assurances to the Arabs, that the reactor is not producing such weapons have helped” to calm the situation.

On Israel, Kennedy suggested he needed to apply more pressure on Eshkol (“keep up with the correspondence” on Dimona) but “wondered how one could prevent Israel from manufacturing nuclear weapons.” CIA Director McCone observed that the “first inspection should reveal much about Israeli intentions.” If the inspection showed that Israel was building a “chemical separation plant, this suggests they may have in mind making nuclear weapons.” This statement from the CIA director manifested the genuine uncertainty, even ignorance, about Israel’s secret plans for a separation plant. Later, McCone said that he was “satisfied that there is no other nuclear complex in Israel at the present time.”

McCone also briefed the group on the French-Israeli nuclear agreement, which specified that “plutonium” or spent fuel from the Dimona plant was to be “retained by the French.” McCone said senior French diplomat Charles Lucet had “expressed concern” because the Israelis were acquiring unsafeguarded fuel (possibly referring to purchases from Argentina According to Lucet, these actions had “require[ed] the French to do some preemptive buying.” This could be a reference to French efforts to prevent the Israelis from buying uranium from Gabon.

Document 38

Harrison M. Symmes to Mr. Grant, “Your Meeting with Mr. Killick (British Embassy) at 10:45, Wednesday, August 14,” 12 August 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject Numeric Files, 1963, Def 12 ISR

Harrison Symmes, one of the department’s top Middle East specialists, informed Deputy Assistant Secretary Grant that the British were strongly interested in keeping “in close touch” with Washington on the Israeli nuclear problem especially because they were “disturbed by the recent conjunction of high-level U.S. and French expressions of concern” emanating from both Rusk and Couve de Murville. While no new information was available on Israeli intentions or the specific direction of Israeli technological development, “we remain glad to share our thoughts fully with the U.K.” Washington was also seeking information from the French on their safeguards arrangements, but it was not clear how “forthcoming” they would be because of their own internal divisions.

Document 39

Memorandum of Conversation, “Israeli Nuclear Program; Security Guarantee,” 14 August 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject Numeric Files, 1963, Def 12 ISR

To plumb U.S. thinking and to share British intelligence, Embassy Counselor John Killick met with State Department officials with whom he discussed a recent series of “disturbing signs,” including explicit statements on nuclear capabilities by the Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. General Zvi Tzur, Prime Minister Eshkol, and the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom. For example, the latter had told British Foreign Secretary Lord Home that without security guarantees Israel would have to resort to “new deterrent weapons." In light of such statements, Killick observed that the “fundamental question” was “how Israel is to be deterred from nuclear weapons development.”

Acting Assistant Secretary Grant assured Killick that Washington and London were operating on the “same factual and intelligence basis.” Neither country had “conclusive proof” that Israel had nuclear weapons plans, but Washington believed that it was developing a “technological capacity which could be devoted to weapons production on short notice.” To prevent the situation from getting out of hand, the administration was taking various steps, such as discussing procedures to “regularize” inspections of Dimona and supporting the goal of placing UAR and Israeli nuclear activities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

For Grant, it was important to make sure that the Israelis “see clearly that were they to go the weapons path the Arabs would have to follow and this would open the door for the Soviets, perhaps on the Cuba pattern.” He further believed that the Israelis were using “talk of a nuclear deterrent” as part of a calculated effort to induce Washington to offer a security guarantee. “On this point, we would agree with the UK that a unilateral security guarantee to Israel should not be considered.”

Document 40

U.S. Embassy Israel telegram 204 to State Department, 19 August 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Executive Secretariat. Presidential and Secretary of State Correspondence with Heads of State, 1961-1971, box 10, Israel 3 of 3

After about seven weeks of highly intense consultations, Eshkol finally handed to Ambassador Barbour his reply letter to Kennedy’s letter of early July, Eshkol agreed to a Dimona visit in late 1963, before the reactor reached criticality, and suggested that a follow-up visit in mid-1964 could be discussed. Eshkol acknowledge Kennedy’s request for bi-annual visits to Dimona, but without making any commitment apart from a general expression of confidence that agreement on a future schedule could be reached. Noting Kennedy’s concern about the reactor’s fuel cycle, Eshkol stated that the reactor fuel was French “and is fully controlled by the French government, to whom it has to be returned after irradiation.” Barbour later commented that Eshkol “has not had an easy time in obtaining agreement of his colleagues to the line taken in this letter, a line which represents a major effort on his part … to meet U.S. anxieties on this important problem.”

Discussing the issue further, Eshkol said that his mind was not yet made up, but for the time being he asked that Nasser not be told about future U.S. visits to Dimona: it was better that he “not be completely assured that Israel is not working toward nuclear weapons production.” Ambassador Barbour cautioned the prime minister of the danger that Nasser might conclude that Israel was getting the bomb and that it was necessary for the UAR to make a “preventive attack” lest Israel strike first.”

In a memo to Kennedy, Under Secretary of State George Ball observed that Eshkol had not agreed to the summer 1963 visit that Kennedy had requested and did not consent to semi-annual visits beginning in 1964. In effect, Ball suggested that Kennedy reply as if Eshkol had made those concessions, a suggestion that Komer endorsed. That Eshkol objected to U.S. briefings to the UAR about the inspections was a serious problem because of the “deterrent effect” that the information would have, for example, by assuring Nasser about Israeli capabilities.

Document 41

State Department telegram 193 to U.S. Embassy Israel, 26 August 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Presidential and Secretary of State Official Correspondence, 1961-1966, box 10, Kennedy/Johnson Israel Officials 1963-1964-1965

Kennedy’s appreciative reply (which he personally approved) to Eshkol did not mention the divergences over the timing and frequency of the Dimona visits, but assumed there was basic agreement on “regular visits.” In the instructions, Barbour was asked to tell Eshkol that, seeing as he had not made up his mind over whether Nasser should be informed of the U.S. visits, that Kennedy believed that “there are real advantages for security in setting to rest any fears which might otherwise lead to nuclear weapons acquisitions efforts by others in the area.” The ambassador was asked to assure Eshkol that a reply to Ben-Gurion’s letter of 12 May on security guarantees to Israel was forthcoming, but Kennedy would remain unwilling to make “explicit” guarantees.

Document 42

Memorandum of Conversation, “Israel’s Atomic Energy Activities,” 26 August 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, AE 6 ISR

The British provided more intelligence on the Israeli nuclear program, this time from a source at the French Embassy in Tel Aviv. According to the source, the French government had toughened its inspection/safeguard procedures, although the Embassy did not know the details, having been “cut out” of the process. The Embassy source did know, however, that the numbers of French workers at Dimona had been exaggerated (not “200 families,” but 60 workers). While the Israelis were “miffed” that the French were “suspicious” of their nuclear plans, the latter took a position comparable to Washington’s: recognizing that Israel was then “in no position to manufacture nuclear weapons,” but that the program had to be watched. Nevertheless, the French believed that the Israelis were “exploiting doubt regarding [their] intentions as a factor in the political game.”

Document 43

U.S. Embassy Israel telegram 291 to State Department, “Inspections of Dimona Reactor,” 30 August 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, Def 12 Isr

In a conversation with Embassy Counselor Nathan Barnes, Teddy Kollek, director-general of the prime minister’s office (and subsequently the long-serving mayor of Jerusalem), noted that before Eskhol made his decision on the U.S. Dimona inspections, he had spent “hours with scientists” and made trips to the reactor site. Kollek told Barnes that Eshkol consulted on the text with former Prime Minister Ben Gurion, who remained unenthusiastic about it. Kollek acknowledged that there was a “spectrum of opinions” about the U.S. visits, with Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres representing one “extreme” because he believed that as a “sovereign nation” Israel did not have to accede to inspections by a country that had played no role in the construction of Dimona. The other extreme was exemplified by Ambassador Harman, who believed that the requests should be met because the United States was a “real and valuable friend.”

In comments on the U.S.-Israel defense relationship generally, Kollek discussed the nuclear weapons option. His perception was that as a “friend” of the United States, Washington would be sympathetic if Israel faced an “emergency” but would not “necessarily … go to war” on its behalf. Nevertheless, Kollek believed that a “closer … relationship would tend to undercut still widely held view that, even though no plans now for manufacturing nuclear weapons, would be short-sighted for Israel not to move toward position where it could exercise option quickly if later circumstances required.” According to Barnes, “it seems clear that [Kollek] did not consider abandonment of [that] option to be irrevocable decision.”

Part V: The U.S. Inspection of Dimona, January 1964

Document 44

Memorandum of Conversation, “US Arrangement for Dimona Visits,” 16 September 1963, Secret


Source: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, AE 6 Isr

This record of a meeting with John Killick is somewhat ambiguous but it confirms that the Israelis had agreed to a “third visit prior to the activation of the reactor” (That did not happen; see Document 46) U.S. diplomat Rodger Davies correctly observed that agreement on semi-annual visits had not been reached. The goal was a “thorough” inspection of the site, including the “plutonium separation plant,” which may have been a reference to the pilot plant that Ben-Gurion had told Kennedy about in their 1961 Waldorf-Astoria meeting. Davies cited Israeli assurances about Dimona’s “peaceful purposes,” which he said, “we are inclined to believe,” although that was not entirely consistent with the more nuanced view that James Grant had offered to John Killick a few weeks earlier.

Document 45

Harry S. Traynor, Atomic Energy Commission representative to U.S. Intelligence Board, to U.S. Intelligence Board, “Report on U.S. Inspection Team Visit to Dimona, Israel,” 30 January 1964, Secret


Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, National Security Files. Robert W. Komer, box 30, Israel-Dimona, 1964 #1 [2 of 2]

This report, produced and kept within intelligence channels, provided highlights of the U.S. inspection visit that took place on 18 January 1964. The first such visit since the fall of 1962, it was a consequence of the pressure Kennedy had applied. And as the AEC had preferred, the inspectors did not have AEC safeguards backgrounds (instead, experience in reactor development and arms control. Both the U.S. and the Israelis kept the fact of the visit highly secret and no leaks to the press appeared. The findings raised no suspicions of weapons work, but it was “the impression of the team that the Dimona site and the equipment located there represented an ambitious project for a country of Israel’s capabilities.” A key development, according to the Israelis, was that the reactor had gone critical on 26 December 1963, only a few weeks earlier. Notably, however, the Hebrew website of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission marks July 1963 – six months earlier – as the date when the Dimona reactor started its operations. Another noticeable Israeli disclosure to the visitors was that work on the pilot reprocessing plant had been delayed, indicating that the intelligence community was aware of it if it had not been earlier.

Document 46

U.S. Inspection Team Visit to Israeli Atomic Energy Installation, January 16-20, 1964,” n.d. [Circa 30 January 1964], Secret


Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, National Security Files. Robert W. Komer, box 30, Israel-Dimona, 1964 #1 [2 of 2]

The full report by the inspectors was quite detailed and technical, covering every phase of the visit to Dimona on 18 January and the discussion with Israeli officials and reactor staff.[9] For example, the report cited a discussion of Dimona’s total cost, in the range of $60 million. When managing director Mannes Pratt discussed stocks of uranium concentrate, he acknowledged that 20 tons came from a foreign source but would not disclose the source because it was classified. That was probably a reference to the supply from Argentina.

The status of the pilot reprocessing plant was the subject of some discussion. Apparently higher than estimated costs had led to some delay, but Eshkol’s science adviser, Professor Ephraim Katchaslski [Katzir][10] told the U.S. team that he “hopes that the plant will be built in a year or two” because of its value for training purposes. During the inspection the U.S. team saw the space that had been slated for the pilot plant, about 50 by 50 feet with a 20-foot ceiling.

Whether talk about the plans for a pilot plant was a deliberate diversion from ongoing secret reprocessing activities at Dimona remains to be learned.

The report concluded with an absorbing discussion of recommendations on procedures for future visits, including what methods could work best to prevent subterfuge on the Israeli side. For example, a two-day visit, separated by one week, would be best for a three-person team because during the intervening time they could discuss observations and make plans for the return visit. If only one day was available, then two teams of two or three each would be preferable for covering the site “effectively.” While the Israelis would find that approach “intrusive and offensive” it would be difficult to conceal from the staff that this was an “inspection” and not a “visit.” In any event, “even such an intrusive technique would not prove that the facility was being used only for peaceful purposes.”

After the visit to the reactor had been completed, the U.S. team met briefly with science attaché Robert Webber in the corner of a room and whispered their findings to him so he could report them to Washington.

President John F. Kennedy and Israel Foreign Minister Golda Meir shown here on 27 December 1962 after a meeting at the residence of C. Michael Paul in Palm Beach, Florida. Walking down the stairs in background (L-R): Deputy Special Counsel to the President Myer "Mike" Feldman; Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Phillips Talbot; and National Security Council staffer Robert W. Komer.(photo from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, JFKWHP ST C74-1-62)

Deputy Special Counsel to the President Myer "Mike" Feldman advised President Kennedy, and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson, on matters involving relations with the Jewish community, including all American-Israeli dialogue on Dimona and other sensitive Israeli-related matters. (Photo from John F. Kennedy Library, JFKWHP-AR695).

President Kennedy meeting with French Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville (to Kennedy’s right) and Ambassador Hervé Alphand (on the sofa), 25 May 1963. Their discussion covered the Israeli nuclear program, with Kennedy remarking, according to a translation of the French record of the meeting, that “if Israel had atomic weapons, we would be blamed equally, you for furnishing uranium, and we for the financial aid given to Israel.” (photo from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, KN-C8712)

Levi Eshkol, Prime Minister of Israel, 1963-1969. Succeeding David-Ben Gurion as Prime Minister, within less than ten days Eshkol received an ultimatum-like letter from President Kennedy demanding that he agree to a U.S. inspection visit to the Dimona reactor. It took Eshkol almost two months to resolve the internal crisis brought on by Kennedy’s letter. (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)


[1] . For the first full coverage of the issues and the Kennedy/Ben-Gurion/Eshkol correspondence, see Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 115-174.

[2] . The late Professor Yuval Ne’eman (1925-2006), who served as the scientific director of the Soreq Nuclear Center, and advised Prime Minister Eshkol on nuclear matters, referred to the demands of Kennedy’s letter as an ultimatum and described the exchange over Dimona as a crisis point. See Israel and the Bomb, 135.

[3] . Avner Cohen notes in Israel and the Bomb, at page 404, note 51, that according to late journalist Moshe Zak (1918-2001), Ben-Gurion had already used similarly general language to describe his nuclear policy in various closed fora, for example in meeting with the chief editors of Israeli newspapers.

[4] . Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 122.

[5] . Maurice Vaïsse, ed., Documents Diplomatiques Français 1963, Tome 1 (1er Janvier-30 Juin) (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 2000), 540-542.

[6] . The French original:

Kennedy: C’est le même problème que Israël dont je voudrais que vous discutiez à fond avec le secretaire d’Ếtat, car c’est à l’heure actuelle un grave souci.

De Murville: Je suis entièrement d’accord avec vous sur ce point, mais les Israéliens pourraient tout au plus produire, un au deux détonateurs qui ne pourraient être considérés comme une véritable arme de guerre. Ceci entrainerant des troubles au Moyen-Onent, mais il n’y aurait pas là une veritable menace à la survie de l’espèce humaine

[7] . The French original:

De Murville: Pour ce qui nous concerne, nous avons pris toutes les précautions nécessaires. Nous sommes engagés à leur fournir certaines quantités d’uranium pour leur réacteur, mais ils doivent nous le rendre dès qu’ils l’ont traité, de façon à ce qu’ils n’aient pas la possibilité d’en extraire Ie plutonium. Malheureusement. les Israéliens risquent de trouver ailleurs de l’uranium sans côntrole. C’est une question don’t je veux m’entretenir avec M. Rusk, car nous sommes d’accord avec vous sur le danger qui existe à ce sujet.

Kennedy: J’en suis heureux car, si Israël avait l’arme atomique, nous serions blames les uns comme les autres, vour pour avoir fourni de l’uranium, nous pour I’aide financière que nous donons à Israël. La position de ce pays est stupide, car ils donnent un prétexte aux Russes, qui sont en recul dans la région de nous mettre en accusation devant l’opinion publique, et peut- être pas sans raison.

[8] . Ben-Gurion never explained in public what those “personal reasons” were. To this day there is an aura of mystery around Ben-Gurion’s final resignation. It is unknown what exactly pushed him to resign, whether it was one prime issue or a cluster of issues and to what extent it was a personal problem involving his state of mind. Some senior political leaders (e.g., Pinhas Sapir, Israel Galili) believed that Kennedy’s pressure on Dimona might have played a major role in his resignation decision, possibly because he realized that he had been trapped by his strategy toward Kennedy. Others, including Yitzhak Navon, his senior aide (and later the president of Israel), dismissed the importance of the nuclear issue and referred to a cluster of personal and political problems that led to his resignation. See Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 134-36. Tom Segev, State at Any Price: The Story of Ben-Gurion’s Life [in Hebrew, Keter, 2017], 622-27.

[9] . As the AEC had preferred, the inspectors were not connected with the official safeguards program: two of them, Richard W. Cook and Ulysses M. Staebler, had been involved in reactor development, while the third, C. L. McClelland, was on the staff of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

[10] . Professor Ephraim Katchaslski Katzir was subsequently elected the fourth president of Israel (1973-1978.

RESEARCH DOCUMENT : “The candle is not worth the flame” : Was FISA’s Section 215 Worth it ? Or Even Effective ?

“The candle is not worth the flame” : Was FISA’s Section 215 Worth it ? Or Even Effective ?

The National Security Agency (NSA) has formally recommended terminating its controversial phone and text surveillance program, according to the Wall Street Journal.[1] The program has been frequently criticized for violating Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless search and seizure. The program has also been criticized for its lack of transparency, including most infamously Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s later-recanted statement in Congressional testimony before Senator Ron Wyden that the NSA did not collect any type of data on Americans.[2] Beyond these criticisms, legal and logistical hurdles in recent years have reportedly encumbered the program. “The candle is not worth the flame,” a senior intelligence official told the Journal.

Section 215, “Access to Records and Other Items under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” has been one of the most contentious pieces of legislation to come out of the 9/11 era. It was initially enacted as part of the USA PATRIOT Act of October 2001. Congress later modified it via the USA FREEDOM Act in 2015, following the political storm caused by the Edward Snowden leaks of 2013. In 2013, former NSA Director General Keith Alexander stated that Section 215 had prevented approximately ten terrorist attacks.[3]

The provisions under Section 215 are currently set to expire in December 2019 but some observers point out that technology changes and shifts in the nature of foreign threats have already reduced the provision’s effectiveness substantially. These changes include the dramatic rise of cellular technology over landlines and the use of more advanced switches that make it easier to locate known individuals. Other differences over time have been the looser structure of groups like ISIL and the non-telephone communications methods (Internet, WhatsApp, etc.) they use that do not leave the kinds of call record data that Section 215 collection captures.

As the telephone metadata collection program approaches its final days, the Cyber Vault has pulled together a range of materials that chart its legislative origins and evaluate it from the perspective of effectiveness, legal and privacy concerns, and other considerations.

Legislative Background:

U.S. Congress, Public Law 95-511, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, October 25, 1978. Unclassified.

U.S. Congress, Public Law 107-56, “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT Act) Act of 2001,” October 26, 2001. Unclassified.

U.S. Congress, Public Law 114-23, “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline over Monitoring Act of 2015” (USA FREEDOM Act), June 2, 2015. Unclassified.

Assessments & Reviews of Section 215 Authorities, Pre-Snowden:

Larry E. Craig, Richard J. Durbin, John Sununu, Russell D. Feingold, Lisa Murkowski, Ken Salazar, Chuck Hagel, John F. Kerry, and Barack Obama, letter to Dear Colleague, December 14, 2005. Unclassified.

Elizabeth B. Bazan, Gina Marie Stevens and Brian T. Yeh, Congressional Research Service, Government Access to Phone Calling Activity and Related Records: Legal Authorities, August 20, 2007. Unclassified.

Elizabeth B. Bazan, Edward C. Liu, and Gina Stevens, Congressional Research Service, Government Access to Phone Calling Activity and Related Records: Legal Authorities, February 2, 2010. Unclassified.

President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies, “Liberty and Security in a Changing World,” December 12, 2012. Unclassified.

Assessments & Reviews of Section 215 Authorities, Post-Snowden:

Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, U.S. Senate, "Wyden, Udall Question the Value and Efficacy of Phone Records Collection in Stopping Attacks," June 7, 2013. Unclassified.

House Committee on the Judiciary, “The Administration’s Use of FISA Authorities,” July 17, 2013. Unclassified.

American Civil Liberties Union et al. v. James R. Clapper, Keith B. Alexander, Charles T. Hagel, Eric H. Holder, and Robert S. Mueller III – Declaration of Professor Edward W. Felten in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

United States Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, A Review of the FBI’s Use of Section 215 Orders: Assessment of Progress in Implementing Recommendations and Examination of Use in 2007 Through 2009, May 2015. Unclassified.

Edward Liu, Andrew Nolan, and Richard Thompson, “Overview of Constitutional Challenges to NSA Collection Activities,” May 21, 2015. Unclassified.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Fact Sheet: Implementation of the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015,” November 27, 2015. Unclassified.

Congressional Research Service, “Amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Expiring on December 15, 2019,” April 11, 2016. Unclassified.

The White House, Privacy in Our Digital Lives: Protecting Individuals and Promoting Innovation, January 2017. Unclassified.

ODNI Usage Statistics:

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Statistical Transparency Report Regarding use of National Security Authorities, Annual Statistics for Calendar Year 2013", June 26 2014. Declassified.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Statistical Transparency Report Regarding use of National Security Authorities, Annual Statistics for Calendar Year 2014", April 22 2015. Unclassified.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Statistical Transparency Report Regarding use of National Security Authorities, Annual Statistics for Calendar Year 2015", April 30 2016. Unclassified.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Statistical Transparency Report Regarding use of National Security Authorities, Annual Statistics for Calendar Year 2016", April 2017. Unclassified.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Statistical Transparency Report Regarding use of National Security Authorities, Annual Statistics for Calendar Year 2017", April 2018. Unclassified.


[1] Dustin Volz and Warren P. Strobel, “NSA Recommends Dropping Phone–Surveillance Program,” Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2019

[2] Spencer Ackerman, "Clapper: I gave ‘erroneous’ answer because I forgot about the Patriot Act," The Guardian, July 2, 2013.

[3] General Keith Alexander, "Hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on How Disclosed NSA Programs Protect Americans, and Why Disclosure Aids Our Adversaries," June 18, 2013.

RESEARCH DOCUMENT : National Security Archive Joins Media Groups Versus Unlimited Gag Orders

National Security Archive Joins Media Groups Versus Unlimited Gag Orders

Published: May 3, 2019

Edited by Lauren Harper and Tom Blanton

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv

Amicus Brief Argues for Court Review, Time Limits on Secrecy of National Security Letters

Barr v. Redacted Needs A Sunset

Washington, D.C., May 3, 2019 – The National Security Archive, along with 15 other media organizations, filed a “friend of the court” brief on April 29 in the lawsuit Barr v. Redacted challenging the FBI’s authority to issue national security letters (NSLs) without any judicial oversight and under indefinite gag orders. The letters demand business records from a wide array of organizations for national security investigations, and their accompanying gag orders prohibit the recipient from speaking with anyone about the NSL, often permanently.

The amicus brief argues courts have put time limits on secrecy before, both by ordering the government to justify the continued necessity of a nondisclosure provision on an ongoing basis (In re Nat’l Sec. Letters, No. 16-518), and requiring a triennial judicial review for a nondisclosure provision (Sessions v. Twitter, Inc. and In re Nat’l Sec. Letters, No. 16-518), making Barr v. Redacted’s unlimited time frame an outlier. The brief also underscores that both the media and recipients of the NSLs have mutually reinforcing First Amendment interests in contributing to public debate about government surveillance, and that the media’s role in this area is unique because NSLs often evade both public scrutiny and review by the courts.

The amicus curiae brief was filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which is reviewing a lower court decision that held that the FBI’s Termination Procedures are a “potential backstop to protect First Amendment interests.” The Archive was represented pro bono by Lisa Zycherman of Davis Wright Tremaine and Peter Karanjia of DLA Piper, the same team that represented the Archive in the Gina Haspel torture cable case, National Security Archive v. CIA, which forced the release of the Haspel torture cables and provided a chronology of black site waterboarding supervised by the future CIA director.

In addition to the Archive, the brief was filed on behalf of the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the Associated Press, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, First Look Media Works, Inc., the Hearst Corporation, the McClatchy Company, the Association of Magazine Media, the New York Times, Online News Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Washington Post.

In August 2016 D.C. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg became the first judge to publicly assess the new gag-order rules mandated by the USA Freedom Act of 2015. He criticized the NSLs, specifically faulting “several large loopholes” in the new rules that would, under various circumstances, allow the NSLs to remain open indefinitely. Boasberg also faulted the lack of review for “large swaths” of issued NSLs.

In 2014, an intelligence panel set up by President Obama proposed requiring judicial approval for issuing NSLs, and cited a 2008 Justice Department Inspector General report as proof that the 192,499 NSLs the FBI sent between 2003 and 2006 were extensively misused. The expert intelligence panel noted, “We are unable to identify a principled reason why NSLs should be issued by FBI officials when section 215 orders and orders for pen register and trap-and-trace surveillance must be issued by the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court],” going on to suggest that a transition should take place “as soon as reasonably possible.” Then FBI director James Comey spoke out against the suggestion.

There have been several victories against NSLs over the years in addition to Sessions v. Twitter, Inc and In re Nat’l Sec. Letters, No. 16-518. The 2004 case Doe v. Ashcroft challenged the constitutionality of the letters, specifically their non-disclosure provisions, and the resulting ruling issued by Judge Victor Marrero found the NSLs violate the Fourth Amendment. This led to revisions of the USA Patriot Act, allowing for greater judicial review and clarifications to the non-disclosure clauses.

In 2015 Nicholas Merrill, who ran the small Internet company Calyx, became the first person allowed to fully disclose the contents of an NSL he received from the FBI in 2004. Thanks to a multi-year court battle Merrill’s gag order was lifted, and revealed that in 2004 the FBI demanded Merrill “turn over all physical mail addresses, email addresses and Internet Protocol addresses associated with one customer’s account, as well as telephone and billing records and anything else considered to be an ‘electronic communications transactional record.’” The NSL also demanded cell-tower location data and any “screen names” or online nicknames associated with the customer in question.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s most recent statistical transparency report on the use of FISA orders and national security letters during calendar year 2018 shows that there were 10,235 requests filed for 38,872 subscribers’ information last year.

For more information on these letters, visit the Archive’s Cyber Vault, which contains all six of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Statistical Transparency Reports.