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First Page of Paramount Able Archer 83 Report Declassified by British Archive; Remainder of “The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War Against NATO” Withheld.

October 27, 2014


I recently ripped open a package shipped across the pond (for considerable pounds) from the British National Archive.  My heart accelerated as I read the title of the first page, “The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War Against NATO.”  This was it; the first comprehensive report of the Soviet response to Able Archer 83; information on the specific “unprecedented” Soviet reaction to a NATO command post nuclear release exercise that utilized “new nuclear weapons release procedures” at the height of the Era of Renewed Confrontation.  I flipped the page to read the specific evidence on just how dangerous what is now called the 1983 Able Archer Nuclear War Scare actually was.  Did the newly declassified evidence confirm that the Soviets “believe[d] that the situation was very dangerous?”  Or were they just “rattling their pots and pans?

My racing heart sank as I turned the page and realized that these questions would, at least for now, remain unanswered.  The British National Archive had released only the cover page of the report.  The rest of this key historic document –despite its age of over thirty years and the British government’s professed and lauded “Thirty-Year Rule”— remains censored by the British Cabinet Office.

Despite the Cabinet Office’s attempt to obscure Britain’s role in alerting the United States to the nuclear danger that Able Archer 83 may have provoked, documents released last year by the British Ministry of Defence to Peter Burt of the Nuclear Information Service show that the above JIC report was drafted in response to “an unprecedented Soviet reaction to Able Archer 83 and other reports of alleged concern about a surprise NATO attack.”

“…urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack.”

This evidence was crafted into a Joint Intelligence Committee report labeled JIC84)(N)451.  The indications and warnings of Soviet fear of a Western attack were then discussed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, head of the Ministry of Defence Michael Heseltine, and Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary Geoffrey Howe in early May of 1984.  At the conclusion of the meeting, Thatcher “said that officials should urgently consider how to approach the Americans on the question of possible Soviet misapprehensions about a surprise NATO attack.”


“In response to  British concerns…”

A May 28, 1984, US Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research memo to Secretary of State George Shultz confirms that the warning reached US officials: “In response to British concerns, the Intelligence Community undertook a detailed review of recent Soviet military and political moves beginning with exercise ‘Able Archer 83.’  The result was a Special National Intelligence Estimate addressing these developments.”2

This top secret SNIE 11-10-84/JX, now largely declassified, used British and US intelligence to report the “elaborate” Soviet reaction to this exercise included “increased intelligence collection flights, and the placing of Soviet air units in East Germany and Poland on heightened readiness in what was declared to be a threat of possible aggression against the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries.”  The US SNIE acknowledged that “since November 1983 there has been a high level of Soviet military activity, with new deployments of weapons and strike forces” but concluded that “[w]e believe strongly that Soviet actions are not inspired by, and Soviet leaders do not perceive, a genuine danger of imminent conflict or confrontation with the United States.”


…”A rather stunning array of indicators”

A memo for the President and key cabinet officials written less than a month after the SNIE by the Director of the CIA William Casey included a different and more concerning conclusion.  He, again likely drawing from the still-classified JIC report, warned of “a rather stunning array of indicators of an increasing aggressiveness in Soviet policy and activities.”  He concluded that “[t]he behavior of the armed forces is perhaps the most disturbing. From the operational deployment of submarines to the termination of harvest support to the delayed troop rotation there is a central theme of not being strategically vulnerable, even if it means taking some risks… The military behaviors we have observed involve high military costs … adding thereby a dimension of genuineness to the Soviet expressions of concern that is often not reflected in intelligence issuances.”

The same debate within the US and British governments over the extent of the Soviet “dimension of genuineness” of fear of a NATO attack is now continued by historians.  To answer criticisms that the study of the Able Archer War Scare was “an echo chamber of inadequate research and misguided analysis” and “circle reference dependency,” with an over reliance upon “the same scanty evidence,” the National Security Archive has posted and analyzed more than 1,000 pages of declassified documents on the topic.

But this key document’s withholding3 continues to obscure understanding of one of the most important nuclear episodes in our history.  As we wrote in our pending appeal to the British Information Commissioner, the British Cabinet Office’s decision to continue withholding this thirty year document –especially considering the multitude of other British, American, Russian, German, and former Eastern Bloc releases— harms the public interest and obscures history.

It’s sadly ironic that the government which first alerted the US to the potential nuclear danger of Able Archer 83 is now leading in its concealment.

1. There is a discrepancy between the titles reference in these documents.  The MOD documents, released last year refer to a document entitled”JIC(84)(N)45 Soviet Union: Concern About a Surprise NATO Attack,” while the cover page released from the National Archive is “JIC(84)5 The Detection of Soviet Preparations for War Against NATO.” I postulate that the two titles evolved over the drafting process but refer to the same document.  Of course, despite the similarity of the titles and date ranges it is possible that two distinct documents exist.  Only declassification will answer this question.

2. In “Countdown to Declassification” for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, I wrote that this same document described the creation of an additional “sanitized version” of this SNIE, marked “secret” rather than “top secret,” for circulation among “NATO ministerial colleagues.”   This sanitized version removed all mentions of Able Archer 83 and the Soviet response to that exercise –the very reason the estimate was drafted– and hid the increased danger the NATO exercise had engendered from the very countries that participated in it.  Part of the reason for this sanitization was to protect the MI6 source inside the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky. But clearly, some US policy makers also did not want to tell their NATO allies that Able Archer 83 may have increased the risk of nuclear war, because doing so might have caused some of those allies to reconsider decisions to deploy nuclear-armed US cruise and Pershing II missiles on their territory.

3. There is one additional document which may be as important as this JIC report.  It is the most comprehensive known US government evaluation of the War Scare, a 110-page report produced by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) and authored by Nina Stewart. It was completed on February 15, 1990, and forwarded to President George H.W. Bush. Despite the public historical debate over the 1983 War Scare, declassification of other War Scare documents, and repeated FOIA and MDR requests (dating back to 2006) for the document, this illuminating PFIAB report remains locked from public view, a victim of the United States’ broken declassification system.  The National Security Archive is anxiously waiting for this case to come before the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), housed at NARA, which we sometimes call (in the spirit of gallows’ humor) “the secrecy court of last resort.” Fritz Ermarth, the primary author of the CIA’s 1984 initial Special National Intelligence Estimate on the War Scare has written, “If it hasn’t already been, [the PFIAB] report should be declassified as much as possible … the historical work done since then suggests [it] had a point, and it is worth pursuing further.” The Archive has posted an interview with one of this elusive PFIAB report’s authors, describing that the “retrospective view of the PFIAB, [was] that [the] war scare was an expression of a genuine belief on the part of Soviet leaders that US was planning a nuclear first strike, causing Sov[iet] military to prepare for this eventuality, for example by readying forces for a Sov[iet] preemptive strike. If so, war scare a cause for concern.”

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