Washington, D.C., April 6, 2018 – Secret CIA interviews with East bloc scientists and technicians in the mid-1950s yielded invaluable insights into Soviet nuclear capabilities, according to recently declassified intelligence records posted today by the George Washington University-based National Security Archive.
One riveting account came from an eye-witness to a late 1955 nuclear blast near Semipalatinsk, which analysts subsequently concluded was the first Soviet test of a two-stage thermonuclear device – developed by the so-called father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov.
Today’s posting highlights several reports of interviews with well-placed sources, some of whom were targeted by a joint British-American intelligence activity code-named Operation DRAGON, aimed at persuading key figures to defect to the West.
CIA Debriefed Soviet H-Bomb Eye-Witness in 1957
by William Burr
During the Fall of 1955, a confidential source would later tell U.S. intelligence officials, he had been at work at a soda plant in Kazakhstan when he suddenly experienced a “significant change in pressure on his ear drums,” causing his hearing to go out briefly. According to a CIA report published for the first time by the National Security Archive, the source recalled that the ground began to shake and the workers were ordered out of the plant. Buildings in the area began to oscillate “as if they had been set in motion by the ground.” Moreover, the air was “crackling with pressure;” as if the “air was tearing up.” Then he turned around and saw “the upper third of a large fireball on the southwest horizon,” appearing in “color and intensity like a bright sun shining through a haze.” Realizing that he had witnessed a nuclear test, the source later heard that it had caused several deaths in the area. It is likely that the witness experienced the effects of the Soviet Union’s first test of a two-stage thermonuclear weapon (invented by Andrei Sakharov), air-dropped at Semipalatinsk on 22 November 1955, although he recalled the event as taking place on 8 December 1955.
The report on the Soviet thermonuclear test is one of a number of intelligence products by the CIA and other intelligence agencies issued in 1957 and declassified last year in State Department records at the National Archives. All of the documents in today’s publication were the result of U.S. and British intelligence’s intensive efforts to interrogate defectors and other sources to expand knowledge of the progress and direction of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program.
Documents published today include:
- Three CIA reports on the contribution of German scientists and technicians, many captured or detained during or after World War II, to the Soviet Union’s nuclear program. The reports drew entirely on information provided by interviews U.S. and British intelligence conducted with the German returnees during 1954-1955.
- A Naval Intelligence report of a dinner conversation with East German nuclear scientist Heinz Barwich, whom U.S. intelligence may have targeted for possible defection. Barwich had won the Stalin Prize for helping the Soviets produce enriched uranium, and later defected to the West.
- A CIA report from a source who had worked at the construction site of the highly secret plutonium production plant at the closed city of Krasnoyarsk-26 in Siberia.
- An Army intelligence interview with a Hungarian defector, a former army officer, who attended a secret presentation of two Soviet films of nuclear tests. According to the source, when one of the Hungarians in the audience asked when they would be getting atomic weapons, a Soviet colonel said “in due course.”
- A memorandum by CIA intelligence manager Ray Cline on the implications for U.S. policy of the Soviet Union’s development into a “powerful nation.” Because the United States could not eliminate Soviet competition politically or militarily and neither side could risk nuclear war, “the only alternative for the United States is to live with the Russians.”
The report of the conversation with East German scientist Heinz Barwich identified him as a DRAGON, which meant that he was within the scope of a British-U.S. intelligence program, initiated during the late 1940s, which sought to identify German scientists who were working on the Soviet nuclear project and ascertain when they were going to return so their knowledge could be tapped. The program was codenamed Operation DRAGON. For those scientists who went to East Germany, U.S. and British intelligence secretly encouraged them to defect so they could be interviewed (under Operation DRAGON RETURN). British intelligence invented both codenames, but apparently U.S. intelligence used them as well.
The Germans who had worked in the Soviet nuclear program were a potential bonanza for Western intelligence because they worked in a number of institutions and on research and development programs, had worked with Soviet scientists, and had practical experience in working with the Soviets to solve scientific and technological problems. Some of the scientists and technicians had been prisoners of war, some had volunteered for political or financial reasons (a “flight from hunger”), and many had been swept up in Germany by special Soviet teams and deported to the Soviet Union. Even those who had volunteered did not expect to remain for more than a few years, but most were in Soviet hands for years. For the most part they were not released until 1954-1955, but only after a few years of “cooling off,” where they worked in routine factory jobs, so their knowledge of the Soviet atomic program would be less current.
Drawing on information yielded by the DRAGON RETURN program, three of the CIA reports in today’s publication are part of a series assessing the contribution of the German scientists to the Soviet nuclear program. One (Document 1) is a general appraisal, while two others (Documents 4 and 5) cover the work of German scientists at two specific institutions, the Sungul Institute and the Atomic Research Institute at Obninsk. As noted in the reports, “All information presented herein has been obtained from the testimonies of returned German and Austrian scientists and technicians.” Other reports on the German scientists identified in these documents are the subject of a pending declassification request to the CIA.
Other documents published today are the results of interrogations of sources that remain completely unknown. To protect sources and methods the CIA has excised from the first page of the reports all information discussing the informant and his/her background. The exception, and an interesting contrast, is Document 2 which includes U.S. Army intelligence’s detailed description of the source, a Hungarian army officer who had defected during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and emigrated to the United States. Why Army intelligence can declassify source information while the CIA will not release any from its reports is an interesting puzzle that is not easily solved.
Archival source: The documents identified below were found in Record Group 59, Department of State records, U.S. National Archives, Records of the Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for Atomic Energy Matters (S/AE), General Records Relating to Atomic Energy Matters, 1948-1962, Box 534, Z1.91 Country File USSR F. Intelligence Reports May-December 1957, Parts 1, 2, and 3.
Drawing on the intelligence gained from DRAGON interviews, this report provides an overview and analysis of the role of German scientists and technicians in the development of the Soviet nuclear program. According to the summary, "the total effect of the contributions of the German scientists on the over-all success of the Soviet nuclear energy program was considerable in that they greatly accelerated, either directly or indirectly, all aspects of the research and development of nuclear energy in the Soviet Union." Among the contributions were hastening the "successful development" of the uranium metal program, innovations in isotope separation technology used for producing fissile material, material contributions to the nuclear reactor and heavy water production programs, and the overall expansion of the Soviet nuclear research program. While the Germans were not directly involved in weapons activities, they expedited them; for example, "the establishment of an adequate uranium metal production program is a prerequisite to the production of weapon grade material."
According to the report, the Germans experienced working conditions that "were not always the most pleasant." They were "constantly" under the watch of MVD guards, which was "irritating," and there "was a constant striving on [the part of the Germans] to 'go home.'"
This report, collected by U.S. Army intelligence at the Defector Reception Center in West Germany, was from a Hungarian army officer who defected on 4 November 1956 during the revolution against the Soviet occupation. In mid-July 1956, the source attended showings of two secret Soviet films of atomic tests, with narration provided by a Soviet officer. The first film was of a surface burst during daytime; the second film was of a night-time air burst, which "caused 50 percent more complete destruction, outward from ground zero, than the surface burst in the first film." Because of the vegetation near the test site, the source assumed that the tests had occurred during the summer months.
The films showed troops from two unidentified mechanized divisions near the scene of both tests. After each test, aircraft approached the target area and dropped bombs to "simulate hampering or preventing recovery measures." From the mechanized ground units, artillery opened fire, then tanks maneuvered in the test area while bulldozers scraped the top surface of the ground. Following the paths created by the bulldozers, troops wearing gas masks, protective boots, gloves, and capes moved toward ground zero. The films concluded with radioactivity monitoring teams at work and the decontamination of troops and equipment.
According to the source, questions followed each film with answers provided by the Soviet officer. One question concerned the period of time needed for recovery of radioactive burns. The answer: "The medical people are working on this." Another question: "When will the USSR equip the Hungarian Army with atomic weapons?" The answer: "In due time." In fact, with the agreement of Communist Party General Secretary Janos Kadar, at some unknown date the Soviets deployed nuclear weapons in Hungary, for use by Hungarian and Soviet troops in the event that war with NATO broke out.
This CIA report provides a vivid personal account of a Soviet thermonuclear test near the Semipalatinsk test site. According to the source, the test occurred on 8 December 1955, but as a State Department official noted on the document's margins, "we know of no such shot" on that day. However, the effects of the detonation - the temporary loss of hearing, the "air was crackling with pressure;" it sounded as if the "air was tearing up," the shaking of the ground, burst windows, the huge fireball, and the reported loss of life - strongly suggest that the source was in the vicinity of the first Soviet thermonuclear test, which occurred on 22 November 1955. The air-dropped two-stage "superbomb" had an explosive yield of 1.6 megatons.
The source had been living in Kazakhstan for some years and had already experienced the effects (pressure waves) of several nuclear tests but did not know what they were. After the "8 December test," however, "which he considered to be unmistakably an atomic test, he thought back to the previous experiences of a similar nature and concluded that the above effects were also the results of nuclear tests."
A group of German scientists worked at the Sungul Institute (after the name of a nearby village), 20 miles northeast of the major nuclear complex whose secret name was Cheliabinsk-40 (more recently known as Ozersk), a closed city near Kyshtym. A key figure in the group was Hans Born, a radiochemist who had been associated with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. According to the report, the group "was probably instrumental in the initiation, development and ultimate establishment of a comprehensive biological and medical program within the Soviet atomic energy complex." As part of this work, the group developed techniques for separating fission products from highly radioactive liquid waste - "pile soup" or "pile waste" - shipped from the Cheliabinsk-40 reprocessing plant. MVD guarded delivery vehicles delivered the "soup" in shipments of sometimes leaky one-liter stainless steel cannisters; the Germans recounted that they saw "no evidence" of "protective measures having been taken either from the standpoint of radiation protection or from the standpoint of physical security." This was also true of the storage of the "pile soup" in underground tanks; when the cooling system for one tank failed in September 1957, its explosion caused one of the major disasters of the nuclear age.
A team of German scientists headed by Born successfully isolated fission products from the "soup," including strontium, ruthenium, lanthanum, columbium, cesium, cerium, barium, yttrium, and europium. Later the Soviets distributed the various radioisotopes to other units in or outside of Sungul for radiation experiments. The staff was working with "hot" materials, but safety measures and precautions for such work "were most noticeable by their absence." For example, Sungul, had "no special 'hot labs' in the sense that we know them and there was very little remote handling equipment available for use by the scientists."
This highly technical report is on the work of German scientists at the Atomic Research Institute, also known as "First Research Institute Laboratory 'V'" (and later known as the Institute for Physics and Power Engineering). Located at Obninsk, the site's code-name was Malojaroslavets-10, after a nearby town. The report covers the institute's organizational history and its primary goal, the development of a working nuclear reactor, in which the German contribution was "substantial" according to the CIA assessment (See Document 1). The nuclear physicist Heinz Pose, the designated leader of the German scientists, had worked on Nazi Germany's wartime uranium project, including the efforts to develop a nuclear reactor.
The MVD initially operated the institute, but, according to the report, a failure to meet objectives in developing a beryllium moderated reactor and inefficient direction of the German staff led to a reorganization in 1950, with the First Chief Directorate of the Council of Ministers taking over the work. At that point, "the emphasis of the research program appears to have switched to study of reactors suitable for the production of electric power." According to the CIA analysis, that decision was "probably influenced by the successful detonation of an atomic device in September 1949," apparently raising top-level interest in all things atomic. Around 1951, many of the Germans noticed work on a construction site nearby that led to the Soviet Union's first atomic power station, which reached full power in October 1954.
The German scientists were in a "Theoretical Group" that played an important role in research and development in various aspects of the reactor project, although by 1951 the group was "increasingly excluded from the main work of the institute." For example, the Germans played a role in research on the use of liquid metal for cooling reactors but the classified nature of the project "prevented [them] from learning the results of the program." The Soviets later presented their research on liquid metal cooling at the 1955 conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy: "While this work was not identified with Obninskoye, the research methods and conditions fitted those described by the Germans."
A conference on isotope separation at Amsterdam gave U.S. nuclear experts and a U.S. Naval Intelligence official an opportunity to have dinner with Heinz Barwich, the director of the Institute for Nuclear Physics in the former German Democratic Republic. Having worked in the Soviet nuclear program until he left for the GDR in 1955, Barwich was identified in the report as a DRAGON, someone whose knowledge U.S. intelligence wanted to tap and possibly encourage to defect. The author of this report, Oswald F. Schuette, was science liaison officer in West Germany for U.S. Naval Intelligence.
Barwich had been part of the German group at Sverdlosk-44 that aided the Soviet gaseous diffusion project and for his contribution he was a co-recipient of the Stalin Prize in 1951. During the meeting in Amsterdam, the discussion turned to some aspect of gaseous diffusion technology that remains classified by the U.S. Department of Energy, but with which Barwich was conversant. He had said earlier in the conversation that he "had agreed with the Soviets to keep his knowledge secret," so that when the Americans tried to find out what he knew, "it was necessary to change the subject to relieve the tension."
A committed socialist, Barwich became highly critical of the GDR's version of socialism. He may not have been ready to defect in 1957, but apparently after the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 he was fed up. In September 1964, Barwich and his wife separately but simultaneously defected to the West; he was in Geneva, Switzerland, for an Atoms for Peace conference and she used forged West German identity papers to cross into West Berlin. Two years earlier, Barwich had become deputy director of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, in the Soviet Union. By then, East German intelligence later determined, he had been in touch with the CIA.
Whether GDR or Soviet intelligence ever learned that in 1957 Barwich had a dinner with American nuclear experts including a military intelligence official (no doubt under cover) remains to be learned. Perhaps the event occurred under the radar screen, although it is possible that East bloc intelligence knew about Scheutte’s role as an intelligence officer. Certainly, by meeting with such a group an eminence like Barwich may have put himself at risk, although perhaps the contact was authorized as an intelligence gathering activity.
According to the account of a chemical warfare officer, apparently from a Soviet bloc country, he was flown to the USSR in mid-May 1956 where he and a group of 50 others from his country witnessed what appeared to be the test of a small atomic bomb. On the document, a State Department official commented, "We know of no test on that date." The source must have been confused because the air dropped tests that the Soviets staged during 1955had substantial yields, whereas the only small weapons tested were ground bursts.
The source was probably Hungarian because of the reference to his training at the "Tancsics Military Academy." That academy was probably named after the 19th century Hungarian writer and politician Mihály Táncsics
Apparently, several sources had identified a "war plant" in the vicinity of Mozhaysk, west of Moscow, and a report from a source who had been there indicated that the plant was below a military camp. This report also discussed airfields, a possible atomic energy plant, and the placement of electrical lines. That a U-2 flight in 1956 had already spotted construction work at a heavily guarded site no doubt enhanced interest in Mozhaysk and by 1961 CIA photo analysts had concluded that the suspect site was a nuclear weapons storage facility.
This report concerns a secret underground plutonium production plant, which later became known to the world as Krasnoyarsk-26, located in a closed city 37 miles from Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia. The CIA's source, possibly a returned German prisoner-of-war, reported on the tight security on the perimeters (eight watchtowers) and in the interior of the plant, with the movement of workers between various workshops at the installation closely controlled. The plant installations were "entirely underground" and a "tremendous heat rises from the elevator shaft through the day." The workers, "perspiring profusely, periodically go to the [free] buffet for a drink of milk" or bread and butter. According to the report, "some people are convinced that the plant is an atomic energy installation," although the guard units were "strictly forbidden to speculate on this subject in their conversations and the troops are reminded at every opportunity of Regulation No. 303, according to which excessive curiosity in this respect is a punishable offense."
Construction of Krasnoyarsk-26 began in 1950 and actual production of plutonium started in 1958, which meant that when the source was at the plant in mid-1957, the work there was in its final stages.
Slated for a stint as CIA station chief in Taipei, Ray Cline, the outgoing chief of the Sino-Soviet branch at the Directorate of Intelligence, wrote up his thoughts - what his boss, Robert Amory, called a "vade mecum" - on where he thought the Soviet Union was heading and what the implications for U.S. national security policy were. Influenced by the post-Stalin "Thaw," Cline optimistically wrote that with a great "sense of security and a natural waning of revolutionary zeal, the USSR will gradually evolve in the direction of more decent and humane political conduct internally and eventually toward more civilized and bearable behavior internationally." Nevertheless, the USSR would remain a "powerful nation" that would "for a long time remain fundamentally hostile and competitive in its dealing with the United States."
Because the United States could not eliminate Soviet competition politically or militarily and neither side could risk nuclear war, "the only alternative for the United States is to live with the Russians." While the United States could "win" the competition "hands down," to do that "we are going to have to negotiate with them in order to find out in detail what makes them tick and in order to resolve or at least dampen down dangerous conf1icts of interest." While achieving "mutual trust" was not likely in the short term, negotiations could make the competition safer, Cline wrote, by "progressively insur[ing] the removal of the US-Soviet strategic conflict from the outright military arena - so long as modern technology leaves military power roughly balanced - and the transfer of' competition to the political and economic arena."
. For Operations DRAGON and DRAGON RETURN, see Paul Maddrell, Spying on Science: Western Intelligence in Divided Germany 1945-1961 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 181-183, 204-235, and Mitchell Goodman, Spying on the Nuclear Bear: Anglo-American Intelligence and the Soviet Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 177-179. See also Paul Maddrell, “British-American Scientific Intelligence Collaboration during the Occupation of Germany,” Intelligence and National Security 15 (2000), 74-94.
For a declassified CIA article that refers to DRAGON, in the context of a fascinating account of the early U.S. intelligence efforts to plumb Soviet nuclear activities, see Henry L. Lowenhaupt, “On the Soviet Nuclear Scent,” Studies in Intelligence, 11( Fall 1967), 13-29.
. Oleykninov’s conclusions in “German Scientists in the Soviet Atomic Project,” at pages 1 and 26, are parallel, although he emphasizes the great value of the 300 tons of German uranium seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
. David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Nuclear Energy, 1939-1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 316-317.
. For the development of Cheliabinsk-40, see Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb, 184-189.
. For overviews, see “Kyshtym – The Nuclear Disaster Both the Soviets & the U.S Tried to Hide,” n.d., Sobify and “The Kyshtym Accident, 29th September 1957,” Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, NRPA Bulletin, 8 (2007).
. “Physicist Oswald F. ‘Mike’ Schuette,” The Washington Post, 10 August 2000.
. For the role of Barwich and other German scientists in the Soviet gaseous diffusion project, see accounts by Oleykninov, “German Scientists in the Soviet Atomic Project,” 19-21, and Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb, 190-192.
. Paul Maddrell, “The Scientist Who Came in from the Cold: Heinz Barwich’s Flight from the GDR,” Intelligence and National Security 20 (2005), 608 – 630.
. Dino Brugioni, Eyes in the Sky: Eisenhower, the CIA, and Cold War Aerial Espionage (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 168-169.
. In a Studies in Intelligence article, CIA nuclear expert Henry S. Lowenhaupt wrote that a returned German prisoner-of-war provided information about the Krasnoyarsk site. According to the article, the former POW identified the nearby town as Komsomolsk na Yenisey, but Lowenhaupt may have been in error because no such town can be identified. However, the word Yenisey, a river near Krasnoyarsk, is included in the name of the town mentioned in Document 9: Severo-Yeniseyskiy. See Lowenhaupt, “Mission to Birch Woods Via Seven Tents and New Siberia,” Studies in Intelligence, Fall 1968, 1-12.