1 March 2012 — National Security Archive
Zbigniew Brzezinski Received 3 a.m. Phone Call Warning of Incoming Nuclear Attack
Declassified Documents Shed Light on Soviet Diplomatic Reactions and Internal Pentagon Review
Secretary of Defense Advised President Carter that “We Must Be Prepared for the Possibility [of] Another False Alert” but “Human Safeguards” Would Prevent a Crisis
Electronic Briefing Book No. 371
For more information contact:
William Burr – 202/994-7000
Washington, D.C., March 1, 2012 – During the 2008 campaign, Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debated the question: who was best suited to be suddenly awakened at 3 a.m. in the White House to make a tough call in a crisis. The candidates probably meant news of trouble in the Middle East or a terrorist attack in the United States or in a major ally, not an ‘end of the world’ phone call about a major nuclear strike on the United States. In fact at least one such phone call occurred during the Cold War, but it did not go to the President. It went to a national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was awakened on 9 November 1979, to be told that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the combined U.S.–Canada military command–was reporting a Soviet missile attack. Just before Brzezinski was about to call President Carter, the NORAD warning turned out to be a false alarm. It was one of those moments in Cold War history when top officials believed they were facing the ultimate threat. The apparent cause? The routine testing of an overworked computer system.
Recently declassified documents about this incident and other false warnings of Soviet missile attacks delivered to the Pentagon and military commands by computers at NORAD in 1979 and 1980 are published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. The erroneous warnings, variously produced by computer tests and worn out computer chips, led to a number of alert actions by U.S. bomber and missile forces and the emergency airborne command post. Alarmed by reports of the incident on 9 November 1979, the Soviet leadership lodged a complaint with Washington about the “extreme danger” of false warnings. While Pentagon officials were trying to prevent future incidents, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown assured President Jimmy Carter that false warnings were virtually inevitable, although he tried to reassure the President that “human safeguards” would prevent them from getting out of control.
Among the disclosures in today’s posting:
- Reports that the mistaken use of a nuclear exercise tape on a NORAD computer had produced a U.S. false warning and alert actions prompted Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev to write secretly to President Carter that the erroneous alert was “fraught with a tremendous danger.” Further, “I think you will agree with me that there should be no errors in such matters.”
- Commenting on the November 1979 NORAD incident, senior State Department adviser Marshal Shulman wrote that “false alerts of this kind are not a rare occurrence” and that there is a “complacency about handling them that disturbs me.”
- With U.S.-Soviet relations already difficult, the Brezhnev message sparked discussion inside the Carter administration on how best to reply. Hard-liners prevailed and the draft that was approved included language (“inaccurate and unacceptable”) that Marshal Shulman saw as “snotty” and “gratuitously insulting.”
- Months later, in May and June 1980, 3 more false alerts occurred. The dates of two of them, 3 and 6 June 1980, have been in the public record for years, but the existence of a third event, cited in a memorandum from Secretary of Defense Brown to President Carter on 7 June 1980, has hitherto been unknown, although the details are classified.
- False alerts by NORAD computers on 3 and 6 June 1980 triggered routine actions by SAC and the NMCC to ensure survivability of strategic forces and command and control systems. The National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) at Andrews Air Force Base taxied in position for emergency launch, although it remained in place. Because missile attack warning systems showed nothing unusual, the alert actions were suspended.
- Supposedly causing the incidents in June 1980 was the failure of a 46¢ integrated circuit (“chip”) in a NORAD computer, but Secretary of Defense Brown reported to a surprised President Carter that NORAD “has been unable to get the suspected circuit to fail again under tests.”
- In reports to Carter, Secretary cautioned that “we must be prepared for the possibility that another, unrelated malfunction may someday generate another false alert.” Nevertheless, Brown argued that “human safeguards”—people reading data produced by warning systems–ensured that there would be “no chance that any irretrievable actions would be taken.”
Check out today’s posting at the National Security Archive website –http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb371/index.htm
Find us on Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/NSArchive
Unredacted, the Archive blog – http://nsarchive.wordpress.com/
THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.