“Too Mild a Nuclear Option”? National Security in the 1970s

U.S. nuclear weapons strategy evolved during the Nixon administration from a reflexive policy of massive retaliation against a Soviet attack to a diverse range of options for more limited nuclear strikes. The transition was not without some bumps.

A declassified 1974 memo recorded that National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger at first needed some persuading about the efficacy of limited strikes.

Kissinger “expressed concern that many of the options appeared to him as too timid. He judged that nuclear use must have a decisive military effect in order to achieve the desired political goal– convince enemy to stop.”

“Too mild a nuclear option is likely to convince the enemy to persevere, or respond tit for tat, or both,” Kissinger said, as paraphrased in the 1974 Pentagon memo.

The formerly Top Secret memo (document 36) is one of many that appeared in a richly informative, 1,000-page new volume of the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series on National Security Policy, 1973-1976 that was released this week.

Kissinger was soon convinced of the need for greater flexibility, and presented the argument himself to President Nixon.

“The concept that we could ‘win’ a war through virtually unlimited nuclear exchanges has become increasingly irrational as the Soviets acquired the capability to destroy the United States– even if the U.S. were to strike first,” he wrote in a memorandum to the President (document 30). “This has resulted in concern that such a strategy is no longer credible and that it detracts from our overall deterrent.”

The proposed new nuclear policy would therefore provide “for the development of a broad range of limited options aimed at terminating war on terms acceptable to the U.S. at the lowest level of conflict feasible.” Still, it would preserve “the major SIOP-type options in the event that escalation cannot be controlled.”

Kissinger asked President Nixon to approve the proposed steps and “authorize me to sign” the new nuclear weapons policy. Nixon did approve, but he wrote that “RN will sign.”

The FRUS volume is full of impressive, candid and chatty source documents on the diverse national security issues of the time, including anti-satellite weapons, the notorious “Team B” competitive analysis project that challenged CIA assessments of Soviet military strength, the Glomar Explorer effort to raise a sunken Soviet submarine, and the growing threat of Soviet surveillance and interception of U.S. communications.

The fear that Soviets were monitoring U.S. telephone communications inspired a concerted effort to improve communications security against espionage and the invasion of privacy.

“The President… recognizes that U.S. citizens and institutions should have a reasonable expectation of privacy from foreign or domestic intercept when using the public telephone system,” according to National Security Decision Memorandum 338 of September 1, 1976 (document 180).

The Foreign Relations of the United States series has been an important driver of the declassification process, identifying high-value historical records for declassification review. While it sometimes represents the state of the art in declassification, other times it lags behind, probably due to the painfully slow pace of the review and production process. (The latest volume was under declassification review from 2007 to 2014.)

In some peculiar cases, FRUS both leads and lags in declassification. So, for example, the new FRUS volume includes a copy of the 1976 National Security Decision Memorandum 333 on “Enhanced Survivability of Critical U.S. Military and Intelligence Space Systems” (document 91). The newly published document includes two declassified paragraphs that had been withheld from public release as recently as 2008. Incongruously, however, the new FRUS version of NSDM 333 also withholds two lines concerning threats against U.S. satellites that it mistakenly says were “not declassified.” In fact, those lines were declassified years ago in the NSDM 333 that is available from the Ford Presidential Library. The two contrasting and complementary versions of NSDM 333 can be viewed here and here.

Constitutional Challenges to NSA Collection, and More from CRS

New and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service that Congress has withheld from online public distribution include the following.

Overview of Constitutional Challenges to NSA Collection Activities and Recent Developments, April 1, 2014

Reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts: A Brief Overview, March 31, 2014

The Debate Over Selected Presidential Assistants and Advisors: Appointment, Accountability, and Congressional Oversight, March 31, 2014

Unlawfully Present Aliens, Higher Education, In-State Tuition, and Financial Aid: Legal Analysis, March 28, 2014

Unlawfully Present Aliens, Driver’s Licenses, and Other State-Issued ID: Select Legal Issues, March 28, 2014

Regulation of Clinical Tests: In Vitro Diagnostic (IVD) Devices, Laboratory Developed Tests (LDTs), and Genetic Tests, March 27, 2014

EPA and the Army Corps’ Proposed Rule to Define “Waters of the United States”, March 27, 2014

The Volcker Rule: A Legal Analysis, March 27, 2014

Foreign Assistance to North Korea, April 2, 2014

 

Classified Nuclear Weapon Drawings Missing at Labs

Classified design drawings used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons have not been properly and reliably maintained by nuclear weapons labs managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Department of Energy Inspector General said in a report last week.

“NNSA sites could not always locate as-built product definitions or associated drawings for nuclear weapons and components in official records repositories.” At the Pantex Plant, “officials were concerned and surprised at the difficulty in finding as-built product definitions for the nuclear weapons,” the DoE IG report said.

At Los Alamos, the information system “allowed changes to classified nuclear weapons drawings without using an approved change notice. This practice could permit unauthorized changes to weapons drawings.” Questioned about undocumented changes to a particular weapon drawing, “officials were unable to explain why changes were made, but told us that they ‘assumed’ the changes were needed.”

“Over the decades of nuclear weapons development, neither NNSA nor its sites treated the maintenance of original nuclear weapons… information as a priority,” wrote DoE Inspector General Gregory Friedman.

“Not having complete and accurate [weapon production] information can have significant effects on surveillance and safety, and can lead to time-consuming and expensive recovery efforts.” See National Nuclear Security Administration Nuclear Weapons Systems Configuration Management, Audit Report DOE/IG-0902, March 26, 2014.

“NNSA is on a trajectory towards crisis,” said Norman Augustine, the venerable engineer and aerospace executive who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise.

“The ‘NNSA experiment’ involving creation of a semi-autonomous organization [within the Department of Energy] has failed,” he said.

NNSA “has lost credibility and the trust of the national leadership and customers in DOD that it can deliver needed weapons and critical nuclear facilities on schedule and on budget,” Mr. Augustine said. He spoke at a March 26 briefing for the House Armed Services Committee.

The problems are not entirely attributable to NNSA itself, he said, but are due in part to an eroding consensus concerning the role of nuclear weapons in national security policy.

“At the root of the challenges are complacency and the loss of focus on the nuclear mission by the Nation and its leadership following the end of the Cold War,” Mr. Augustine said.

He cited “the absence of a widely accepted understanding of, and appreciation for, the role of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology in the 21st century, with the resultant well-documented and atrophied conditions of plans for our strategic deterrent’s future– in DOD as well as in DOE.”

Missing the Open Source Center / World News Connection

The decision by the Central Intelligence Agency to terminate public access to its translations of foreign news reports at the end of 2013 continues to reverberate among frustrated former consumers.

The translations had been performed by the Open Source Center (OSC) at CIA, and marketed to subscribers through the NTIS World News Connection (WNC). Their absence has left a felt void, particularly since the daily products had been continuously available to the public (by paid subscription) since 1974.

“The first three months of 2014 have seen so many crucial international stories that current WNC Daily Report public access could have helped to illuminate,” said one disappointed subscriber. “OSC short-sightedness is mind-boggling.”

An effort to reverse the CIA move and to restore public access is beginning to take shape, but the prospects for success are uncertain.

Besides translations, the Open Source Center also produces original analysis of open sources. Much of this material is unclassified and could be released. Occasionally, some of it leaks.

In a marvelous piece described (but not disclosed) by Michael Rubin in Commentary on March 19, the Open Source Center reportedly performed a critical analysis of the music that was performed at the Sochi Olympics and Paralympics.

“The Open Source Center’s Russia analysts… observed that during the Olympic Games’ closing ceremonies, Russian authorities played an instrumental version of a song that called for Alaska’s return to Russia.”

A Wall Street Journal op-ed by Samantha Ravich and Carol Haave praised the value of open source intelligence and called for new investment in this area (“Nukes and ‘Snowden-Proof’ Intelligence,” March 17).

“Crafting new analytic methods for acquiring and exploiting… open-source scientific literature is crucial for understanding the pace, scale and scope of other countries’ nuclear-weapons aspirations,” they wrote, while open source intelligence “can often give us better insight into foreign leaders’ motivation and intent” than some other modes of collection and analysis.

But today’s CIA has proven to be an unreliable custodian of the open source intelligence enterprise, having deprived the public of access to its products for the first time in four decades. If there is ever to be a resurgence of open source intelligence, it probably ought to be managed and housed far from CIA.