The 3 A.M. Phone Call

False Warnings of Soviet Missile Attacks during 1979-80 Led to Alert Actions for U.S. Strategic Forces – Published on The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 371, by William Burr, March 1, 2012.

  • Zbigniew Brzezinski Received 3 a.m. Phone Call Warning of Incoming Nuclear Attack
  • Declassified Documents Shed Light on Soviet Diplomatic Reactions and Internal Pentagon Review
  • Secretary of Defense Advised President Carter that “We Must Be Prepared for the Possibility [of] Another False Alert” but “Human Safeguards” Would Prevent a Crisis
  • For more information contact: William Burr /e-mail, or 202/994-7000

… Among the disclosures in today’s posting:  

  • Reports that the mistaken use of a nuclear exercise tape on a NORAD computer had produced a U.S. false warning and alert actions prompted Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev to write secretly to President Carter that the erroneous alert was “fraught with a tremendous danger.” Further, “I think you will agree with me that there should be no errors in such matters.”
  • Commenting on the November 1979 NORAD incident, senior State Department adviser Marshal Shulman wrote that “false alerts of this kind are not a rare occurrence” and that there is a “complacency about handling them that disturbs me.”
  • With U.S.-Soviet relations already difficult, the Brezhnev message sparked discussion inside the Carter administration on how best to reply. Hard-liners prevailed and the draft that was approved included language (”inaccurate and unacceptable”) that Marshal Shulman saw as “snotty” and “gratuitously insulting.”
  • Months later, in May and June 1980, 3 more false alerts occurred. The dates of two of them, 3 and 6 June 1980, have been in the public record for years, but the existence of a third event, cited in a memorandum from Secretary of Defense Brown to President Carter on 7 June 1980, has hitherto been unknown, although the details are classified.
  • False alerts by NORAD computers on 3 and 6 June 1980 triggered routine actions by SAC and the NMCC to ensure survivability of strategic forces and command and control systems. The National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) at Andrews Air Force Base taxied in position for emergency launch, although it remained in place. Because missile attack warning systems showed nothing unusual, the alert actions were suspended.
  • Supposedly causing the incidents in June 1980 was the failure of a 46¢ integrated circuit (”chip”) in a NORAD computer, but Secretary of Defense Brown reported to a surprised President Carter that NORAD “has been unable to get the suspected circuit to fail again under tests.”
  • In reports to Carter, Secretary cautioned that “we must be prepared for the possibility that another, unrelated malfunction may someday generate another false alert.” Nevertheless, Brown argued that “human safeguards”—people reading data produced by warning systems–ensured that there would be “no chance that any irretrievable actions would be taken.”

Background: … (full long text, Docs 1 to 20, Notes 1 to 14).

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