Washington, D.C., December 6, 2023 - Recent U.S. government decisions on the declassification of historical records on nuclear proliferation demonstrate the good, the bad and the ugly in the current national security secrecy system.
On the plus side are releases that add historically valuable information to the public record, such as the opening of documents that were reclassified after having been released at the National Archives, a newly declassified Kissinger-Nixon telcon, and U.S. embassy messages from 1980 on nuclear nonproliferation policies.
In contrast to these good releases are a number of bad and just plain ugly responses from the Pentagon and the U.S. Air Force, among others, highlighting a persistent problem where government agencies—for whatever reason—try to maintain security classification restrictions even in cases where the information has already been released, sometimes decades earlier.
Some of the documents now released in full had been held up for 20 years by the review process initiated by the Kyl-Lott Amendment and related provisions, under which the Department of Energy effectively reclassified many historical records already opened to the public at the National Archives, although other organizations, such as the U.S. Air Force and some of the intelligence agencies, also got in on the act using their own authorities.
Another key document, the CIA’s own internal assessment of its intelligence failures (and successes) before and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, includes details that were censored in 2012, and withholds details that the CIA published in 1992.
The ugliest cases demonstrate the Pentagon’s overreach. Defense Department objections led to the withholding of key parts of a Kissinger-to-Nixon memo about the British submarine-launched missile program, a document that was declassified and published in full in the Foreign Relations of the United States series nearly ten years ago. The Pentagon also censored multiple 60-year-old documents about the Israeli nuclear program, apparently completely unaware of the huge number of declassified records already available on U.S. concerns about Israel’s nuclear intentions and the Dimona reactor in particular.
The examples included in today’s publication illustrate the deep and fundamental problems that plague the U.S. secrecy declassification system. First, a dramatic lack of resources, epitomized by the National Declassification Center’s need for at least 70 more full-time positions to even begin to reduce the 12-year backlog of declassification requests. Some of the documents in today’s posting took over 15 years to process. Second, the vast overreach by the Defense Department in asserting a “foreign relations” claim to redact historical records. Third, the legacy of the disastrous Kyl-Lott reclassification process—a program conceived out of congressional paranoia rather than a measured damage assessment and without any attempt to differentiate between valid and obsolete nuclear secrets. Fourth, the general failure of some government FOIA professionals to bring a historical mindset or any knowledge of the vast declassifications that have already occurred to the declassification review process. And lastly, the overclassification that is built into the front end of the U.S. national security information security system and which must be corrected by an updated executive order.
All that said, there are still some good results from this year that are worth highlighting. These include the CIA’s release (at the Archive’s request) of a relatively complete version of Richard Lehman’s November 1962 report on “The CIA Handling of the Soviet Build-up in Cuba.” This evaluation of the Agency’s performance during the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis provided a detailed overview of the CIA’s reporting and analysis, including the clandestine services reports on the transport of the missile-like objects in Cuba during September 1962. The report also demonstrated how decisions in September 1962 by top policymakers to restrict U-2 flights over Cuba contributed to delays in intelligence collection. According to Lehman, that decision, among other developments, reflected the “lack of urgency” in the U.S. government about the importance of collecting “hard intelligence” on Cuba.
Also among this year’s good declassifications is the record of a March 1970 telephone conversation between President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. The nuclear angle came up amid discussion of the Paris peace talks. On his plans to bomb North Vietnam, Nixon first said he was ready to use “anything,” before qualifying that by adding, “everything short of nuclear weapons.” All the same, the President said he was willing to “kick the shit” out of North Vietnam.
Another recent release is a document detailing a February 1962 meeting between President John F. Kennedy and NATO Secretary General Dirk Stikker in which the two shared their apprehension about the possibility of a West German nuclear weapons program. When Stikker raised the possibility that such a development would be “considered casus belli by the Soviet Union,” Kennedy asked Stikker if he thought that the Germans understood the risks “vis-a-vis the USSR.” Stikker said he thought they did, adding that the West Germans “felt there may be no other way out.” Later in the conversation, Kennedy observed that that both he and the NATO chief had the same goal: to “prevent the development of a demand for an independent national nuclear capability by the Federal [German] Government.”
Another good release is NARA’s declassification of a September 1975 telegram from Richard Sneider, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, reflecting on Washington’s demand that Seoul abandon its plans for a nuclear reprocessing capability that could be used to produce plutonium. Commenting on the South Koreans’ reluctance to change their plans, Sneider wrote that the “essence of Korean position” was their strong concern over “loss of face and national pride, resentment that we are singling them out while their Japanese neighbors and others pursue reprocessing, and some bewilderment why we should be so greatly concerned about fully safeguarded technical tool with such little potential for producing weapons grade plutonium.” He added that “Not unsurprisingly they resent our ‘arm twisting.’”
Other examples of bad and ugly declassification responses include the Pentagon’s censoring of two memoranda of conversations from 1963 about the work of a Middle East arms control working group. On foreign policy grounds, the Department of Defense excised all references to the Israeli nuclear weapons program, ignoring the voluminous record of declassified information on Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor and U.S. efforts to inspect it. Whether due to ignorance, fear of making a mistake, or some other reason, Pentagon declassification reviewers decided that it was too risky to disclose any information from these 60-year-old documents about the Kennedy administration’s well-known concern that Dimona could be used to produce plutonium for a weapons program. The documents are now under appeal.
A U.S. Air Force documentary from 1969 on “Worldwide Airborne Command Posts” would have been among the good disclosures except for the Pentagon’s massive deletions. The key purposes of the system for survivable airborne command posts as a deterrent and as a means to control nuclear forces during conflict are evident in the released portions, but with half of the film excised, much information on the detailed arrangements remains classified. These deletions are highly questionable given the amount of information on airborne command posts that has already been declassified.
The Kennedy memcon [Document 2] and another Kennedy-era memorandum by Gerard C. Smith [Document 3] were casualties of the Kyl-Lott Amendment, which empowered the Department to Energy to sequester archival records suspected of containing restricted data (RD)—a special category of information relating to the production of nuclear energy and weapons—as well as formerly restricted data (FRD), concerning the military use of atomic weapons. There had been inadvertent releases of FRD and RD in automatically declassified records at the National Archives, and Congress over-reacted by requiring the Department of Energy to conduct an exhaustive review of previously reviewed archival records. This expensive process, which occurred in the absence of any effort at the time or since to determine what FRD secrets are worth preserving, led to the virtual “reclassification” of many State Department and other agency records from formerly open files. Moreover, some agencies conducted Kyl-Lott reviews in a heavy-handed way by removing from public access records that were unlikely to contain FRD. To appraise the quality of the withdrawals at NARA, the National Security Archive filed a FOIA request for Kyl-Lott withdrawals of State Department records during 2002-2004, which resulted in some denials (now under appeal) but also the re-opening of some documents years after they had gone into the vaults at NARA.
The Kennedy memcon is a striking example of a record that should never have been withdrawn in the first place. It includes nothing close to FRD, such as references to specific deployments of U.S. weapons in a NATO country, much less West Germany, or to military plans for the use of nuclear weapons. The discussions of nuclear weapons and the reference to “stockpile arrangements,” however, may have been enough to alarm DOE or other government reviewers. Such concenrs are unwarranted, however, since the fact that the U.S. had deployed nuclear weapons in NATO countries, including West Germany and the United Kingdom, has been declassified since the 1990s.
A few of the other releases (see documents 3 and 4) are even more striking examples of the underlying weaknesses of the Kyl-Lott program as conducted at NARA. These records concern the U.S.-Japan negotiations on Okinawa reversion and do not mention nuclear weapons at all. They should never have been withdrawn.
Also among this year’s good releases are records opened under NARA’s Indexing on Demand (IOD) program. Under IOD, a requester may request the opening of unprocessed archival records. Such records, which can be identified on NARA’s online catalog, are usually the files and papers of specific offices and organizations that have gone through declassification review (“quality assurance review”), with the still-classified items individually tabbed. Under IOD, archivists withdraw the tabbed records so a collection can be made available to researchers. Unprocessed collections with too many tabbed classified documents are usually considered poor candidates for IOD. In today’s posting, records from several successful IOD requests are included: documents 16 through 20 are from Record Group 84 (Foreign Service Posts) and Record Group 383 (Arms Control and Disarmament Agency [ACDA]).
The IOD request for ACDA records produced an especially useful document referencing the collection of Krypton-85 gases to detect spent fuel reprocessing operations in Taiwan. The RG 84 material, consisting of two cartons of records from the U.S. Mission to the International Atomic Energy Authority, yielded a number of stimulating telegrams on nuclear proliferation issues at the close of the 1970s. These included embassy reports on the nuclear nonproliferation policies of such countries as Brazil, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union, as well as a report on how a Dutch law school student uncovered important information about Pakistani nuclear physicist A. Q. Khan’s efforts to acquire uranium enrichment technology in the Netherlands.
In light of past performance, it seems likely that the Defense Department will reject any appeals for the release of more information from the Dimona documents and the airborne command posts film. Even though these are documents from the National Archives, under Executive Order 13526, NARA has no hand at all in contesting agency denials. A recent proposal for reform of the executive order on classified national security information supported giving NARA a greater role in declassification decisions; unfortunately, reform of E.O. 13256, and transparency in general, much less reform of the FRD problem, has been a low priority at the White House. If appeals are denied, a final appeal can be made to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), and ISCAP could eventually override the Defense Department’s denials, but it is seriously understaffed and underfunded (lacking, for example, technology to hold virtual interagency meetings), contributing to a seemingly interminable backlog of appeals.
Also worth noting is that, of the nuclear-related releases selected for this posting, almost all of them came from NARA, including the Nixon Presidential Library, although some took years to process owing to insufficient staffing at the agencies and NARA’s National Declassification Center. At any rate, nothing new came from the State Department or its declassification appeals panel. During the pandemic, the declassification system virtually collapsed because workers could not safely be at their offices (classified documents cannot be evaluated at home!), and recovery has been slow. NARA has done reasonably well, but the State Department remains virtually out of action. The CIA has been trying, but other agencies such as the Air Force and the Defense Department operate at very low levels of productivity. The fact that declassification is a low and underfunded priority at federal agencies is at the heart of the problem and the source of NARA’s huge backlog of unprocessed requests. Unless Congress takes remedial action by providing targeted funding, the situation is unlikely to change for the better.
Note: Thanks to Jonathan Garcia, George Washington University, for research assistance with this posting, and to Robert Hopkins for his counsel.
I. The Lehman Report
CIA mandatory declassification review release, under appeal
This declassification of a major study on CIA reporting and analysis of the Soviet military buildup in Cuba prior to the Missile Crisis supersedes the Agency’s 2012 release. Its author, Richard Lehman, the Assistant for Special Projects at the Office of Current Intelligence, played a key role in inventing the President’s Daily Brief (PDB). In this report, Lehman detailed the CIA’s collection of intelligence on Soviet military aid to Cuba and on possible missile deployments on the island, but also the constraints on the Agency as it collected that information. While the CIA was reviewing agent reports on the movement of missile-like objects on Cuban roads during September 1962, it had orders from the White House not to publish anything relating to missile deployments that could not be verified with photographic intelligence. The ban existed because top policymakers worried about the possibility of leaks of sensitive information. Even the President’s Intelligence Checklist did not include the missile reports because its compilers drew on the Agency’s Cuban Daily Summary the output of which was constrained by the ban. Also complicating intelligence collection were the delays in U-2 flights over Western Cuba—the source of a “photo gap”—caused by senior officials who worried about an international incident should a spy plane be shot down. That problem, according to Lehman, reflected the “lack of urgency” in the U.S. government about the search for possible missile deployments in Cuba. The Lehman report provided a detailed account of the policymaking process at various stages, including the President’s decision to approve U-2 flights in October to check out the ground reports of missiles in Cuba and the procedures used by intelligence officials to inform the White House of the Soviet deployments.
The CIA’s fuller release, which could have occurred years ago, includes details on the discovery of expanded Soviet weapons shipments during the summer of 1962, consideration of the use of FIREFLY drones, and the reporting in the President’s Checklist. Some of the “new” information included in this release has long been in the declassified record, such as the creation and implementation of National Security Action Memorandum 181, well documented in the Foreign Relations series, and the role of the CIA base at Opa Locka, Florida, for debriefing Cuban refugees, which has also been declassified for years.
II. Releases of Records Impounded Under Kyl-Lott Program
National Archives, Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59 (RG 59), Records of the Multilateral Force Negotiating Team, 1961-1965, box 7, Paris Conference Papers
President John F. Kennedy highlighted his deep concern about nuclear proliferation and European stability in this discussion with NATO Secretary General Dirk Stikker about the state of the alliance. The full memorandum of conversation indicated that one of their shared concerns was the possibility that West Germany would seek an independent nuclear weapons capability, for which Stikker saw “real indications.” Stikker told Kennedy that he “personally” believed that the Soviet Unions would see such a development as a “casus belli.” When Kennedy asked whether the Germans understood the risks, Stikker said he thought they did, but “felt there may be no other way out.” Later in the conversation, Kennedy observed that that he and Stikker had the same goal: to “prevent the development of a demand for an independent national nuclear capability by the Federal [German] Government.” Their suspicions of West Germany were exaggerated, if deeply felt; while West German officials wanted to be integrally involved in alliance decisions on nuclear weapons, no evidence has emerged suggesting that they sought independent control of them.
That the German nuclear issue was a highly sensitive one for years after February 1962 is reflected in the excised version of this memcon that was published in the Foreign Relations of the United States series in 1994; State Department reviewers deleted several passages on Germany and related matters. Several years later, the same memcon was released in full at NARA in a collection of records on the multilateral force negotiations, but, as noted earlier, a Kyl-Lott review early in the 2000s locked it up for years.
National Archives, Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59 (RG 59), Records of the Multilateral Force Negotiating Team, 1961-1965, box 1, Briefing Book - Dictabelts from Ambassador Gerard Smith, Feb. 62-March 63
This is another record that was bottled up for years because of the Kyl-Lott process. A strong proponent of the multilateral force concept, Eisenhower administration veteran Gerard C. Smith was actively involved in U.S.-European negotiations to advance the MLF. Through skillful internal lobbying by Smith and others, the MLF enjoyed great traction at the State Department, even though President Kennedy and his advisers were never fully sold on the idea. With this text, typed up from a “dictabelt,” a recording and audio storage device of that era, Smith conveyed to State Department officials Howard Furnas and Henry Owen recent developments concerning the negotiations, including an argument he was developing to persuade West European members of NATO why belonging to an MLF would be advantageous. In making his case, Smith used an idiom about Chinese people that now would be considered insulting.
Among Smith’s arguments was that an MLF would be a way to “eliminate the chance of a U.S. nuclear withdrawal from Europe” but also “to keep down pressure for additional national forces in Europe—a contingency which most sensible men abhor.” The implicit reference to the West German nuclear issue, was a commonly used argument to support an MLF. Smith also noted that firing missiles assigned to the MLF would require a unanimous decision, giving the U.S., or any other member, a veto over their use. That, Smith argued, was also to the European advantage because unanimity would be “insurance of the United States’ involvement in European affairs.”
Well aware that President Kennedy had serious doubts about the MLF, Smith cited the President’s conversation with West German defense minister Kai-Uwe Van Hassell, where Kennedy said that “if the MLF does did not work out we would have to find other means of reassuring the FRG.” For Smith, “anything that is said about if MLF does not work out is most counterproductive.”
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-1969, box 2460, POL 19 RYU IS
As noted earlier, this is one of the State Department documents that the Department of Energy bottled up under the Kyl-Lott program. While it is an interesting review of the problems raised by U.S. control over Okinawa for Japanese sensitivities, there is no hint that the island was a site for U.S. nuclear weapons. That this telegram was sent back to NARA’s classified vaults for some 20 years demonstrated the weaknesses of the DOE’s search for documents potentially containing RD or FRD.
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-1969, box 2460, POL 19 RYU IS
Like the previous telegram, NARA released this telegram some 20 years after the Department of Energy impounded it under the Kyl-Lott program. The document contains interesting information on financial arrangements for the November 1969 U.S.-Japan agreement on Okinawa but has nothing to do with nuclear weapons.
III. Denials on Dimona
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, box 3817, POL Arab-ISR
Under National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 231, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy directed the CIA and other agencies to “undertake every feasible measure to improve our intelligence on the Israeli nuclear program as well as other Israeli or Arab advanced weapons programs.” He 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.” In keeping with those purposes, the State Department set up a special task force to review prospects and possibilities for arms control in the Middle East.
This excised memorandum is the record of the first meeting of the Task Force on Middle East arms control established in response to NSAM 231, as prepared by Middle East expert Francois Dickman. Unfortunately, the Defense Department deleted significant portions of this memorandum, even though the Pentagon had nothing to do with the task force or the creation of this record. Given the opportunity to review it, the Pentagon used its prerogative to deny portions of this document under exemption 6 of Executive Order 13526, designed to prevent the release of information that could harm U.S. diplomatic relations with other countries. What the Defense Department did with this record was to excise any references to the Israeli nuclear program or to the contents of NSAM 231, despite the fact that the latter has been declassified for years, along with other substantive and significant information on the Kennedy administration’s deep concerns about what Israel was doing at its Dimona reactor. The State Department also used exemption 6 to withhold a sentence or so from page 3.
If what was at issue were current secrets about Israeli nuclear activities, that would be one thing. But “secrets” from 60 years ago that have long been overtaken by previous declassifications are another matter altogether. As U.S.-Israeli relations are currently burdened with deeply serious issues, the thought that declassification of these old documents would harm the diplomatic relationship makes little sense. What would make more sense, however, is if the Pentagon’s security reviewers improved their standards for assessing classified historical records and developed an appropriate mindset for declassifying historical documents that require different standards from today’s top secrets.
RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files 1963, box 3817, POL Arab-ISR
The Defense Department excised the record of a follow-up meeting of the working group, also on diplomatic relations grounds, removing more references to the Israeli nuclear program. The CIA also withheld a few lines, mainly the name of a CIA official, probably unnecessarily, from this 60-year-old record.
IV. Air Force Film on Airborne Command Posts
National Archives, Motion Pictures Unit
This film, originally requested in 2009, provides a useful overview of the Pentagon’s worldwide airborne command post system as it stood at the close of the 1960s. According to the film, arrangements for survivable command posts had two major purposes. The first was to provide control over strategic forces “throughout the entire spectrum of nuclear war.” As the narrator further put it, the system was designed to “assure timely execution of our war plans and to provide trans and post-attack command and control of the nuclear forces.” The second purpose was deterrence. The existence of the system would tell adversaries that the U.S. would have survivable control of nuclear forces “even after a surprise attack.” The film identified the four key elements of airborne command posts— survivable command authority, survivable two-way communications, flexible weapons systems, and current and accurate operational intelligence—and the requirements for each element. Also depicted were plans for a massive aircraft, Lockheed’s C-5 “Galaxy, “to replace the EC-135s then in use, although a few years later the Pentagon chose to use Boeing 747s instead.
With respect to nuclear war fighting, and implicitly to deterrence, the film presented airborne command posts as providing a capability to execute and monitor the progress of a nuclear war in order to reach a “better position to bring hostilities to an end on terms advantageous” to the U.S. Left unexplained is how “advantageous” terms could be reached when the world on the ground was a “smoking radioactive ruin.”
The film identifies major airborne command posts that were operational as of 1969: those of the Strategic Air Command, the Pacific Command and the European Command, along with the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) created for the National Command Authority (the President and the Secretary of Defense). The discussion of the NEACP is interesting, if not revelatory, demonstrating its immediate alert status with a “highly trained operational team.” It “can function as the primary national military command center.” The footage of the landing of a helicopter carrying the President to the NEACP is less than realistic because it is more likely that, in a real emergency, the President would be running, not walking, to the aircraft. The depiction of a Senior Master Sergeant typing on a portable typewriter will bring back memories to viewers who grew up in the pre-digital age.
The Defense Department excised this film severely, deleting over 13 of its 23 minutes. Given that the film was produced over 50 years ago and how much information is already in the declassified public domain on airborne command posts, it is unlikely that releasing any of the withheld portions would harm U.S. national security. Some of the excisions are substantial, but several are brief and somewhat obvious. For example, the excision at 6:21, in the context of a discussion of the Navy’s very low frequency communications system, is most probably a reference to the system’s role in communicating with Polaris missile launching submarines, which has long been declassified.
After the airborne command post film concludes, there are a few minutes of extraneous footage, apparently included by accident in the copy that NARA acquired from the Air Force. The first scrap of film is from the early 1970s, depicting training for the new F-15 fighter-bomber. The second scrap briefly shows an Air Force recruiter making a pitch to potential African-American recruits, with the GI Bill as a major talking point.
V. Documents from the Nixon Library
Richard Nixon Presidential Library (RNPL), Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, box 4, March 17‐20, 1970
A brutal and angry Richard Nixon is evident in this recently declassified Kissinger telcon. The telephone conversation transcripts kept by the late Henry Kissinger are the gift that keeps on giving, although Kissinger had tried for years to prevent early public access. This telcon was in the queue at various agencies for over ten years before it was declassified. The discussion covered a range of issues concerning the wars in Southeast Asia—the secret war in Laos, the “Menu” bombing of Cambodia and the recent coup there (“the Cambodia thing”) that had just brought General Lon Nol to power, and the negotiations with North Vietnam—with some comments by Nixon on the press (“not loyal to the country”).
Concerning the negotiations in Paris with Hanoi, Kissinger said he was preparing for the next series of meetings beginning 4 April 1970. While both Kissinger and Nixon wondered whether the North Vietnamese had been “diddling”in the negotiations, Kissinger more than Nixon acknowledged that there had been some give in Hanoi’s position. Looking for an excuse to carry out a heavy bombing campaign against North Vietnam, Nixon spoke of creating a “provocation to hit them,” but not in the “way Johnson did,” apparently referring to the gradual escalation of bombing strikes. “If we provoke them we are going to kick the shit out of them.”
Nixon said he would use “anything,” but quickly qualified that by adding “everything short of nuclear weapons.” Mentioning his speedy approval, the day before, of B-52 strikes in Northern Laos, he asked “what difference does it make if we hit them with little planes or big ones.” This led Nixon to conclude that “we may as well use the big ones.” Kissinger helpfully offered to “give them an ultimatum if they don’t give us something.” While Nixon waited until 1972 to escalate bombing against North Vietnam, within weeks he had expanded the war with the invasion of Cambodia.
Nixon’s words, “everything short of nuclear weapons,” were representative of his thinking. While he found nuclear weapons useful for threat-making, he excluded their combat use in the Vietnam War. That probably had nothing to do with ethical or moral concerns, but reflected Nixon’s view that nuclear weapons use was irrelevant for military operations in Vietnam and potentially destabilizing to U.S. foreign policy interests.
The excised portions at the opening of this telecon are probably references to the deployment of U.S.-supported Thai guerillas for the defense of Long Tien, the CIA’s base for the secret war in Laos. Nixon and Kissinger had been concerned about the “deteriorating situation” at Long Tien; with the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops approaching, the CIA provided reinforcements with Special Guerilla Units (SGU) consisting of Thai forces. The CIA’s sponsoring role of the SGUs is clear enough from records of the Washington Special Actions Group meetings on the morning and afternoon of 19 March 1970, which included discussion of B-52 strikes, the “hard option” that Nixon was demanding.
RNPL, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, box 63, Exchange with the UK ‐ SLBMs [2 of 2]
One of the Nixon administration’s most secret and sensitive negotiations concerned the talks with London about the role of U.S. assistance in supporting the UK’s follow-on to the Polaris Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile. This excised Kissinger memorandum reviewed the state of the talks and the four options that the British had before them. In this version, only one option has been fully declassified; the rest are withheld. Yet the four options have been declassified for years, (here, for example) as has been the Kissinger memorandum itself, which was published in the Foreign Relations series in 2014. Among the 2023 releases, this is a particularly ugly one, given its previous publication. Perhaps just as bad, it took over 15 years for the agencies to process it.
RNPL, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, box 63, Exchange with the UK ‐ SLBMs [2 of 2]
Like Document 7, this heavily excised release is also suspicious, with much of the withheld contents most likely overclassified. Perhaps a different reviewer worked on it because, in contrast to Document 7, it includes three of the original four options, with option 2 excluded (see page 2). While the British side of the story is well-documented in their open archival records, the Defense Department continues to treat these 50-year-old negotiations as too sensitive to declassify in full.
VI. Taiwanese and South Korean Nuclear Weapons Program
MDR release from RG 59, Access to Archival Databases
In the early 1970s, South Korean president Park Chung-Hee secretly initiated a national nuclear weapons program largely out of concern that U.S. security guarantees were becoming unreliable in light of U.S. decisions to withdraw troops. The CIA had learned about Park’s decision and the secret program during 1974, but it was not until a 13 May 1975 meeting with a delegation led by Minister of Science and Technology Choi Hyung-Sup that the U.S. officially received a detailed account of the plans to acquire from France the reprocessing plant that was an essential element of the weapons program.
This discussion occurred as the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) were studying the possibility of incorporating national plans to reprocess spent fuel into regional arrangements that would reduce risks of the diversion of reprocessing capabilities into weapons programs. Consistent with that, the U.S. was encouraging the Japanese and the South Koreans to consider a regional option. During this discussion, South Korean officials acknowledged their interest in siting a reprocessing plant in Korea that would meet future economic needs in the context of an IAEA-safeguarded regional arrangement, with the “dirty end products” of reprocessing stored on an “isolated” Korean island.
In the course of the meeting, Ambassador Richard Sneider asked for more information about South Koreans plans. Yun Young-Kuo, the President of the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute, officially acknowledged that the ROK had a contract with a French firm for a reprocessing facility. After Sneider expressed “regret that USG had learned of so sensitive a decision after the fact,” the Koreans explained that their plans had not been so secret but had “slipped through [the] cracks” of U.S.-South Korean exchanges. Sneider saw some truth in that and, in his comments to the State Department, he noted that, while the acquisition of the plant was contrary to U.S. policy, the deal had gone so far that its reversal was “very difficult.” But “now that ROK decision is on the table complete with its rationale, Koreans are prepared to talk much more openly about multiple problems involved in this decision.”
MDR release from RG 59, Access to Archival Databases
This message, responding to a still-classified embassy telegram on Taiwan’s nuclear energy activities, commented on the reprocessing issue. Just as was the case for South Korea, the U.S. government “continues to oppose the acquisition of a reprocessing capability by the ROC.” Commenting on Taiwanese interest in a reprocessing plant, the State Department observed that, because Taiwan would not have an operating nuclear power plant until 1977 and would not have “significant quantities of irradiated fuel” until the mid-1980s, “it is highly questionable whether the ROC needs reprocessing in the near term or even needs to make a decision.” Noting that reprocessing was “very expensive, very risky and very complicated,” the State Department found that there “was nothing in the ROC situation that can be said to require a decision on where ROC spent fuel might be reprocessed.” All of that provided a “manifest basis for the expression of USG and Embassy concern and skepticism at any ROC claims that they need their own facility.” The Department noted that “we may want eventually to seek to direct ROC interest in reprocessing toward a regional plant” located elsewhere.
MDR release from RG 59, Access to Archival Databases
Reflecting on his difficult meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Nam Duck Woo the day before, Richard Sneider explained to the Department why the U.S. request that the South Koreans cancel their plans for a reprocessing facility posed so many problems. According to Sneider, the “essence of Korean position” involved strong concern over “loss of face and national pride, resentment that we are singling them out while their Japanese neighbors and others pursue reprocessing, and some bewilderment why we should be so greatly concerned about fully safeguarded technical tool with such little potential for producing weapons grade plutonium.” The Koreans had made it “clear that, if we lack trust, they are prepared to give unlimited access to facility to American technicians.” He added that “Not unsurprisingly they resent our ‘arm twisting.’”
Acknowledging that the Koreans were “flirting with first stages of development of nuclear capability” but were “a long way from getting it,” Sneider observed that Park “was well aware of [the] risks” associated with such a pursuit. Moreover, the General had “given Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger his personal assurances on non-proliferation.” Instead of forcing the reprocessing issue to the “point of major confrontation with Park,” Sneider recommended waiting for the official reply, which was “likely to be negative.” At that point, he suggested “test[ing] out possibilities of seeking compromise solution.” The negative reply followed quickly, and the South Koreans insisted on preserving their freedom of action until the U.S. found, by working closely with Canada and France, a “face saving” way to induce Seoul to cancel the reprocessing contact.
National Archives, Record Group 383, Records of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Non-Proliferation Files, 1973-1978, box 3, Clippings Nonproliferation
During July and August 1976, the U.S. government was receiving reports about Taiwanese efforts to purchase a reprocessing plant from European suppliers. A leak to the New York Times put the issue in the open, with a report claiming that the CIA had found that Taiwan had “recently begun reprocessing of the fuel to acquire a stockpile of plutonium.” Meeting with members of Congress, ACDA officials commented that, despite the “definite impression” given by such reports that the Taiwanese were “illegally reprocessing,” “the available evidence was not so clear.” The U.S. was checking the evidence “and making additional crosschecks,” especially of “Crypton [sic] 85 Plum evidence.” That was a reference to Krypton-85, a gaseous fission product released through reprocessing activities. Evidently, “Plum” was the code name for the U.S. government’s collection, presumably through mechanisms at an embassy or some other facility, of Krypton-85 gases emanating from a reprocessing plant. According to this report, information from an IAEA inspection would be available soon, although it would take some months to “crosscheck” the “Crypton 85 evidence.”
Concern about Taiwanese reprocessing would lead to demarches to Taipei and eventually to the assignment of a U.S. team to inspect Taiwan’s research reactor and the discovery that spent fuel had been diverted.
VII. Records of the U.S. Mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency
National Archives, Records of Foreign Service Posts, Record Group 84 (RG 84), Central Subject Files of the U.S. Mission to the IAEA, 1/1/1979-12/31/1980 [Central Subject Files], box 1, Def 18-6 NPT Non-Proliferation Treaty 1980
Responding to a State Department message asking for an assessment of Italy’s nonproliferation policies, the Embassy reported that Italy’s political leaders were not “heavily involved in defining the country’s nonproliferation policy, which is left—for good or ill—essentially in the hands of the ‘technical’ personnel in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN).” After reviewing the perceptions of U.S. policy by officials at the “sub-political and technical level,” the Embassy discussed the “marked dichotomy between rhetoric and action.” Even though the U.S. and Italy “appear to share the same nonproliferation objectives, Italy does not, in practice share the US view of the immediacy and breadth of the problem.” The Embassy pointed to the “growing body of evidence that Italy’s clear-cut stand ... becomes rather fuzzy around the edges when proliferation concerns come into conflict with commercial policy.”
RG 84, Central Subject Files, box 1, Def 18-6 NPT Non-Proliferation Treaty 1980
The U.S. Mission to the IAEA received a garbled version of the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia’s assessment of nonproliferation policy, but enough points come through to make it worth reading. Taking a critical perspective, Ambassador Robert M. Sayre saw U.S. policy as “too legalistic and mechanistic” and questioned whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should have the “final word on nuclear exports,” owing to its lack of “international expertise.” In his brief review of the Brazilian-West German nuclear deal, Sayre argued that U.S. opposition “accelerated an existing GOB tendency to diversify the nation’s international interactions away from the US toward Europe and the developing world.” He further commented that U.S. nonproliferation polices “overestimated our means to influence other nations.” For example, just when the U.S. was losing its “competitive edge” to other nuclear exporters, it “adopted a policy of denial.” Thus, Argentina and Brazil could turn to other countries for nuclear technology, needing the U.S. only for research reactor fuels. “In seeking additional conditions for nuclear exports, we are thus in a position of all sticks and no carrots.”
RG 84, Central Subject Files, box 1, Def 18-6 NPT Non-Proliferation Treaty 1980
Responding to the State Department’s request, the Embassy prepared a critical assessment of the Pakistani approach to the nonproliferation issue. As the Embassy had produced extensive reporting on Pakistani nuclear issues, it limited itself to some observations.
A central point was the perceived narrowness of local attitudes to the “present and future dangers posed ... by the proliferation hazards of sensitive nuclear technology.” According to the Embassy, “The public dialogue … is almost innocent of any reflection on its relation to the need for an evolutionary nuclear regime that can accommodate the next generation of nuclear technology and reduce the dangers of its widespread use.” Rather than considering whether investments in nuclear technology should be evaluated by their “economic, technical and scientific merits,” the Government of Pakistan gives greater priority to “concerns of national security and self-sufficiency.” In that respect, the “nuclear effort is geared mainly to assuring that this nation will not suffer any strategic disadvantage vis-a-vis India.” In light of the Pakistani Government’s efforts to ensure that its nuclear options are not constrained, “we are not sanguine that the fundamental conflict over nuclear issues between the USG and the GOP will diminish.”
RG 84, Central Subject Files, box 1, Def 18-6 NPT Non-Proliferation Treaty 1980
Written in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when U.S.-Soviet diplomatic relations were in poor shape, the U.S. Embassy’s detailed assessment of Moscow’s nonproliferation policy found some positive developments. According to the Embassy, the Soviets saw nuclear proliferation as a security risk because many of the countries that sought to join the “nuclear club,” such as India, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel, and South Korea, had borders near the Soviet Union or “not far from” it. The Embassy saw Soviet policy as having important areas of “overlap” with U.S. interests, such as support for “strengthening the NPT regime,” enhancement of IAEA safeguards, opposition to the transfer of sensitive technology, and support for full-scope safeguards, among other issues. Nevertheless, the U.S. found Soviet policy wanting in some areas, such as their support of negative security assurances, failure to secure Cuban support for NPT and the Treaty of Tlatelolco, and their failure to respond to the U.S. request for any information the Soviets had on the 22 September 1979 “Vela Flash.”
Moscow’s critique of U.S. policy indicated “real underlying Soviet suspicions” about U.S.-Israel and U.S.-South Africa nuclear relations and that the U.S. failure to control sensitive technology transfers by allies reflected the fact that nonproliferation was a low priority in U.S. policy. The Soviets regard “other elements of our policy as perhaps well-intentioned, but misguided,” such as the U.S. decision to defer reprocessing of spent fuel and the U.S. delay of its breeder reactor program. The Embassy saw the forthcoming NPT review conference as a “major test of the two countries’ ability to work together toward the common goal of strengthening (or in this case, minimizing damage to) the NPT regime.”
RG 84, Central Subject Files, box 2, AE 13 Export of Nuclear Material 1980
The discovery of A. Q. Khan’s successful efforts to support the Pakistani nuclear weapons program went public in 1979. Khan’s accomplishments in purloining sensitive gas centrifuge technology used for uranium enrichment became a scandal in the Netherlands, the scene of the crime. The Dutch Parliament reported on its investigation, but a diligent law school student at the University of Tilburg added more to the story. According to the U.S. Embassy’s message, the student’s research identified the role of the Van Doorne company in fulfilling the order of Pakistan’s embassy in West Germany for over 6,000 tubes made from a “special hard type of steel,” suitable for use in gas centrifuges. In its report, the Dutch parliament characterized this transaction as a “particularly grave offense.” The special type of steel used was “maraging” steel, and its supply by a Dutch firm had been an item in U.S.-French intelligence discussions a year earlier, on 21 and 29 June 1979, although whether their sources had identified a specific firm was not disclosed. In September 1980, when this telegram was written, the Dutch government’s Criminal Investigations Department was scrutinizing the Van Doorne company’s role in the transaction.
. For important news coverage of Kyl-Lott’s origins and implementation, see George Lardner Jr., “Automatic Declassification Halted,” The Washington Post, 16 October 1998, and “DOE Puts Declassification in Reverse,” The Washington Post, 19 May 2001.
. It is worth noting that a 1992 CIA release of portions of the Lehman report includes some details excised from the latest version. See Mary S. McAuliffe, ed., CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, D.C.: CIA History Staff, 1992), at PDF pages 106-109.
. For background, see David Barrett and Max Holland, Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis (College Station, Texas A & M Press, 2012).
. Andreas Lutsch, “West Germany and NATO's Nuclear Force Posture in the Early 1960s (Part 1),” Journal of Cold War Studies 24 (2022), 15-16.
. David A. Rosenberg, “A Smoking Radiating Ruin at the End of Two Hours”: Documents on American Plans for Nuclear War with the Soviet Union, 1954-55,” International Security 6: (Winter, 1981-1982), 25.
. Several declassified references to the use of ultra-low frequency communication systems for contacting nuclear submarines can be found in L. Wainstein et al., The Evolution of U.S. Strategic Command and Control and Warning, 1945-1972, Institute for Defense Analyses, June 1975, at 186, 385, and 391. This report includes much detail on the history of airborne command posts.
. For examples, see Nixon’s comments in documents published in the Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972, John M. Carland, ed., (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2010, Documents 131 and 164. Nixon was more emphatic about nuclear use during a telephone conversation on 25 April 1972, when he urged Kissinger to “think big” about using nuclear weapons in the response to Hanoi’s Easter Offensive. Judging by Nixon's tone he may have been trying to goad Kissinger. After Kissinger demurred from bombing North Vietnam's dikes ("That will drown about 200,000 people"), Nixon said "I would rather use a nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?" To which Kissinger replied, Now that ... would be too much." Nixon then asked, "A nuclear bomb, does that bother you?... I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sake.” From Jeffrey Kimball’s transcript of the tape recording published in Kimball, editor, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence, Ks: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 216-217. For a useful overview of Nixon’s thinking, see Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 227-240.d
. For the defense of Long Tien, see Victor B. Anthony and Richard R. Sexton, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973 (Center for Air Force History, 1993), 323-330.
. See for example, Helen Parr, “The British Decision to Upgrade Polaris, 1970-4,” Contemporary European History 22 (2013), 253- 274.
. Se Young Jang, “The Evolution of US Extended Deterrence and South Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions,” Journal of Strategic Studies 39 (2016), 512-514. For the CIA’s role in the discovery of the secret program, see Richard Phillip Lawless, Hunting Nukes: A Fifty-Year Pursuit of Atomic Bomb Builders and Mischief Makers (Mountain Lake, MD: Mountain Lake Press, 2022), especially 148-178.
. “U.S. Finds Taiwan Develops A-Fuel,” The New York Times, 30 August 1976.
. David Albright and Andrea Stricker, Taiwan’s Former Nuclear Weapons Program: Nuclear Weapons on Demand (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Science and International Security, 2018).
. For a case study illustrating Italy’s ambivalent position on exports of nuclear technology, see Giordana Pulcini and Or Rabinowitz, “An Ounce of Prevention? A Pound of Cure? The Reagan Administration’s Policy and the Osirak Raid,” Journal of Cold War Studies 23 (2021): 4-40.
. For a comprehensive account of Brazilian nuclear activities, see Carlo Patti, Brazil in the Global Nuclear Order, 1945-2018 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021)
. For background and context on Soviet/Russian nonproliferation policy, see William Potter and Sarah Bidgood, The Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2018).
. Feroz Hassan Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 168.