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Research Last Updated: Mar 17, 2020 - 12:24:05 PM

False Warnings of Soviet Missile Attacks Put U.S. Forces on Alert
By William Burr, National Security Archive, Mar 16, 2020
Mar 16, 2020 - 5:20:55 PM

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Washington D.C., March 16, 2020 - During the Cold War, false alarms of missile attacks were closely held matters although news of them inevitably leaked. Today the National Security Archive revisits the false alerts of the Jimmy Carter administration when on four occasions warning screens showed hundreds and hundreds of Soviet ballistic missiles heading toward North America.

In a reposting and update of a 2012 collection, the Archive includes recently declassified documents with new details about the 1979 and 1980 false warnings. One document, notes by William Odom, the military assistant to National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, raises questions as to whether Odom called the latter in the middle of the night about the possibility that Soviet ICBMs were incoming. Such a phone call was a major element of the 2012 posting, but Odom’s notes on the 3 June 1980 false alarm make the picture murkier. The only certainty is when Odom spoke to Brzezinski that day, he assured him he had kept the White House “in the loop” during the period of the false alarm.

The false alarms of 1979 and 1980 instigated major efforts to ensure that computers did not generate mistaken information that could trigger a nuclear war. In today’s world where more medium size to great powers, such as North Korea and China,either have ICBMs or are testing them the potential for false alarms is growing.

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During the 2008 campaign, presidential hopefuls Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama debated the question: who was best suited to be suddenly awakened at 3 a.m. in the White House to make a tough call in a crisis. The candidates may have meant news of conflict in the Middle East or a terrorist attack in the United States or on a major ally, not an “end of the world”' phone call about a major nuclear strike on the United States. Apparently at least one such phone call occurred during the Cold War, but it did not go to the president. According to the account of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the call went to the national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was awakened in the very early morning hours to be told that hundreds of missiles were heading toward North America. Just before Brzezinski was about to call President Carter, the missile attack warning turned out to be a false alarm. It was one of those moments in Cold War history when top U.S. officials believed they were facing the ultimate decision.

Gates’ account does not provide a date for the event but the only known false alert that took place in the middle of the night during the Carter years was on 3 June 1980. The cause of the false alarm? The failure of a 46-cent computer chip on a computer at the Cheyenne Mountain operations center of the then-named North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), the joint Canadian-United States command.

Recently declassified documents about false warning incidents during 1979-1980 – supplementing materials first posted on this site in 2012 – are being published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. The erroneous warnings, variously produced by computer tapes of war games and worn out computer chips, led to alert actions by U.S. bomber and missile forces and the emergency airborne command post, actions that could have led to a superpower confrontation, or at least dangerous tensions, if they had gone any further.

When the original version of this posting went online in 2012 the editor assumed that a false alarm of a missile attack on 9 November 1979 had prompted the middle-of-the-night phone call described above, but old and new evidence suggests that the false alert of 3 June 1980 was the only one where a middle-of-the night phone call would have been possible.  The false alert of 9 November 1979 took place in the mid-morning when a war game test tape was mistakenly inserted in a NORAD computer at Cheyenne Mountain.  Although a middle-of-the-nighr phone call does not fit those circumstance, it does fit the false alarm on 3 June 1980, which occurred in the very early morning period after midnight. During the half-hour before defense officials agreed there was an error, radar screens at the Pentagon and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) had shown that 200 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and then 2020 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were heading toward North America. Yet, no such data appeared on warning screens at NORAD.

The incident on 3 June 1980 was the third false alert since November 1979. The November incident was widely reported and alarmed the Soviet leadership, which lodged a complaint with Washington about the "extreme danger" of false warnings. While Pentagon officials were trying to prevent future incidents, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown warned President Carter that false warnings were virtually inevitable, although he tried to reassure the president that "human safeguards" would prevent them from getting out of control.

Among the disclosures in today’s and the original posting:

The “false alarm history” of missile warning systems from 1960 to 1976
On 9 November 1979 NORAD missile warning display screens spuriously indicated an attack by 1,400 Soviet ICBMs, information that simultaneously appeared on warning consoles at the Pentagon, Strategic Air Command, and elsewhere.
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."
Periodic outages in NORAD’s new missile warning computer system during 1979 and 1980 led to two-minute delays in the preparation of warning summaries.
After the false alert on 3 June 1980, White House military aide William Odom told Brzezinski, “I monitored the [Pentagon conference] call last night – eerie.” He had kept the White House “in the loop.”
False alerts by NORAD computers on 3 and 6 June 1980 triggered actions by SAC and the National Military Command Center (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.
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 President Carter, Secretary Brown 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."


For decades, the possibility of a Soviet missile attack preoccupied U.S. presidents and their security advisers. Because nuclear hostilities were more likely to emerge during a political-military confrontation (such as Cuba 1962) the likelihood of a bolt from the blue was remote but Washington nevertheless planned for the worst case. Under any circumstances, U.S. presidents and top military commanders wanted warning systems that could provide them with the earliest possible notice of missile launches by the Soviet Union or other adversaries. By the early 1960s, the Pentagon had the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWs) that could provide about 15 minutes of warning time. By the mid-to-late1960s, forward-scatter systems (so-called "Over the Horizon Radar") could detect missile launches within five to seven minutes while the 474N system could give three-to-seven minutes of warning of launches from submarines off the North American coast.[1]

By the end of the 1960s, the United States was getting ready to deploy the Defense Support Program satellites which use infrared technology to detect plumes produced by missile launches. DSP could be used to tell whether missile launches were only tests or whether they signified a real attack by detecting numbers of missile launches and trajectories. This provided 25 to 30 minutes of warning along with information on the trajectory and ultimate targets of the missiles. As long as decision-makers were not confronting the danger of a SLBM launch, the DSP would give them some time to decide how to retaliate.

In 1972, NORAD began to network warning systems into at "interlinked system" operated at its headquarters in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.[2] A complex computer-based system always bore the risk of failure, break-downs, or errors. Even before networking emerged, false warnings occurred as early as 1960 when a BMEWs radar in Greenland caught "echoes from the moon," generating a report of a missile attack which was quickly interpreted as false (see documents 1 and 2). During the Cuban Missile Crisis several low-level false warning episodes occurred, some of them involving NORAD, that were virtually unknown for many years.[3] A report declassified at the Carter Library cataloged the more important episodes in the following years [See document 2]. Once the networked systems were in place, the possibility that they could produce false warnings was evident.

The Events of 1979-1980

So far, the only available account of a 3 a.m. phone call between Odom and Brzezinski is in a memoir by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gate, as follows:

"As he recounted it to me, Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by [military assistant William] Odom, who told him that some 250 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President's decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes. Thus, he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that 2,200 missiles had been launched. It was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system." [4]

The Gates narrative is fascinating, but may not be entirely reliable, based as it is on Brzezinski’s account, which might have conflated the events of 9 November 1979 and 3 June 1980. The 9 November false alarm, which took place in the morning was settled in 6 minutes, did involve the mistaken use of military exercise tapes. But that was not true of the incident on 3 June, which did take place in the middle of the night and was caused by computer errror. Moreover, as indicated, the number of mistakenly detected Soviet missiles better matches the numbers from the 3 June 1980 incident than the November 1979 false alarm. Adding to the puzzle is that Odom took notes on a phone call with Brzezinski on 3 June but left no record of any conversations with him after midnight.

Gates recounted another false alarm, also as described by Odom who “overheard on his communications net dialogue between the National Military Command Center (NMCC) at the Pentagon and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in which they were describing a missile being tracked from the Soviet Union toward the Oregon coast.” According to Odom, NORAD and the NMCC “debated whether this was really a missile attack long past the time when they should have notified the Secretary of Defense.” In the end, they decided that it was a “false alarm, a computer glitch.” This incident does not track with any of the false alarms described in this posting, all of which involved more than one ICBM. Perhaps it was too small-scale to make the annals of such events, compared with those of November and June 1980, but it is interesting nonetheless.[5]

Whoever spoke with whom on 3 June 1980, the grave implications of the false alarms quickly leaked to the media. For example, The Washington Post and The New York Times printed stories on what happened on the morning of 9 November. According to press reports, based on Pentagon briefings, a NORAD staffer caused the error by mistakenly loading a training/exercise tape into a computer, which simulated an "attack into the live warning system." In fact, as an Aerospace Defense Command history suggests, it was more than a mistake because NORAD technicians were dealing with a complex system with a potential for such errors: on the one hand, they “lacked knowledge” of its totality and were “prone to accept test requirements uncritically,” and on the other hand, they did “not fully understand the possible consequences of their testing activities as they related to the systems operations.” [See Document 13], Indeed, NORAD's Commander-in-chief later acknowledged that the "precise mode” of the failure could not be replicated."[6]

The information from the test tape about a missile attack simultaneously appeared on screens at SAC headquarters and the NMCC, which quickly led to precautionary moves, including alert of NORAD interceptor forces and the premature launch of a dozen interceptors. Moreover, the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), which received the missile attack on its computer displays, launched from Andrews Air Force Base.

The 9 November false alert became diplomatically complicated because the Soviet leadership was worried enough to lodge a complaint with Washington. Cold War tensions had already been exacerbated during the previous year and the false alarm could not help. On 14 November, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent a message via Ambassador Anatoly Dobyrnin expressing his concern about the incident which was "fraught with a tremendous danger." What especially concerned Brezhnev were press reports that top U.S. leaders had not been informed at the time about the warning. The Defense Department and Brzezinski took hold of the reply to Brezhnev's message, utilizing language which senior State Department adviser Marshall Shulman saw as "gratuitously snotty" (for example, describing the Soviet message as "inaccurate and unacceptable"). The Soviets were indeed miffed, pointing out later that the U.S. message was not "satisfactory" because it had taken a polemical approach to Moscow's "profound and natural concern."

About seven months later, U.S. warning systems generated three more false alerts. One occurred on 28 May 1980, a minor harbinger of false alerts on 3 and 6 June 1980. According to the Pentagon, what caused the latter malfunctions was a failed 46¢ micro-electronic integrated circuit ("chip") and "faulty message design." A computer at NORAD made what amounted to "typographical errors" in the routine messages it sent to SAC and the NMCC about missile launches. While the message usually said "OOO" ICBMs or SLBMs had been launched, some of the zeroes were erroneously filled in with a 2, e.g. 002 or 200, so the message indicated that 2, then 200 SLBMs were on their way.

Once the warning message arrived, some of the commands took precautionary measures. At SAC, commanders ordered bomber pilots and crews to their stations and to start the engines of bombers and fuel tankers. The Pacific Command's airborne command post ("Blue Eagle") was launched as part of a routine contingency plan.[7] NEACP taxied in position at Andrews Air Force Base, but it was not launched as in November. No NORAD interceptors were launched so something had been learned from the November episode.

That missile warning sensors (DSP, BMEWs, etc.) showed nothing amiss made it possible for military commanders to call off further action. After the 3 June incident, NORAD ran its computers the next three days to isolate the cause of the error. Nevertheless, the "mistake was reproduced" in the mid-afternoon of 6 June with similar results, another false alert. In the circumstances, SAC took defensive measures. [8]

When Harold Brown explained to President Carter what had happened and what was being done to fix the system, he cautioned that "we must be prepared for the possibility that another, unrelated malfunction may someday generate another false alert." This meant that "we must continue to place our confidence in the human element of our missile attack warning system." Brown, however, did not address a problem raised by journalists who asked Pentagon officials, if another false alert occurred, whether a "chain reaction" could be triggered when "duty officers in the Soviet Union read data on the American alert coming into their warning systems." An unnamed U.S. defense official would give no assurances that a "chain reaction" would not occur, noting that "I hope they have as secure a system as we do, that they have the safeguards we do."

How good the safeguards actually are remains an open question, While Secretary of Defense Brown acknowledged the "possibility" of future false alerts, he insisted on the importance of human safeguards in preventing catastrophes. Stanford University professor Scott Sagan's argument about "organizational failure" is critical of that optimism on several counts. For example, under some circumstances false alerts could have had more perilous outcomes, e.g. if Soviet missile tests had occurred at the same time or if there were serious political tensions with Moscow, defense officials might have been jumpier and launched bomber aircraft or worse. Further, false warnings were symptomatic of "more serious problems with the way portions of the command system had been designed." Yet, defense officials have been reluctant to acknowledge organizational failings, instead blaming mistakes on 46¢ chips or individuals inserting the wrong tape. Treating the events of 1979 and 1980 as "normal accidents" in complex systems, Sagan observes that defense officials are reluctant to learn from mistakes and have persuaded themselves that the system is "foolproof." [9]

Bruce Blair also sees systemic problems. Once a "launch-under--attack" strategic nuclear option became embedded in war planning policy during the late 1970s, he sees the weakening of the safeguards that had been in place, e.g., confirmation that a Soviet nuclear attack was in progress or had already occurred. One of the arguments for taking Minuteman ICBMs off their current high alert status (making virtually instantaneous launch possible) has been that a false warning, combined with an advanced state of readiness, raises the risk of accidental nuclear war. The risk of false alerts/accidental war is one of the considerations that has led defense experts to counsel the removal of ICBMs from U.S. nuclear forces, but the Trump administration seeks to do the opposite, by building a new ICBM as part of its program to expand nuclear forces.[10]

The Soviet nuclear command and control system that developed during the 1980s provides an interesting contrast with the U.S.'s. While the United States emphasized "human safeguards" as a firewall, the "Perimeter" nuclear warning-nuclear strike system may have minimized them. In large part, it was a response to Soviet concern that a U.S. decapitating strike, aimed at the political leadership and central control systems, could cripple retaliatory capabilities. Reminiscent of the "doomsday machine" in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Perimeter could launch a semi-automatic nuclear strike under specified conditions, for example, no contact with political or military leaders, atomic bombs detonating, etc. If such conditions were fulfilled, a few military personnel deep in an underground bunker could launch emergency command and control rockets which in turn would transmit launch orders to ICBMs in their silos. According to David Hoffman's Pulitzer-prize winning The Dead Hand, when Bruce Blair learned about Perimeter, he was "uneasy that it put launch orders in the hands of a few, with so much automation." While the system may have been operational as late as the early 1990s, only declassification decisions by Russian authorities can shed light on Perimeter's evolution.[11]

Warning system failures continued after 1980, but they did not trigger alert actions. The U.S., however, was not the only site of false alerts during and after the Cold War. False alarms in the former Soviet Union (1983, Petrov) and the Russian Federation (1995, Norwegian Black Brant) continue to stimulate discussion. The failure of Hawaii’s civil defense system in 2018 caused more panic than any of the incidents of the Carter years. More ominous are the incidents or reports of “ambiguous ballistic missile threats” during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations that rose to the point where the president was notified at the time (which never happened during the Cold War!). Apparently, Chinese missile tests have instigated worrisome false alarms in Russia.[12]

More needs to be learned about the problem of false warnings during and after the Cold War and pending declassification requests, such as for White House Situation Room Logs, and appeals may shed further light on this issue. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s papers at the Library of Congress, not yet accessible to this writer, may also expand our understanding of the events of 1979 and 1980.




Part I: Warning Systems and False Alarms

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Document 01
Excerpts on warning systems and October 1960 false alarm from Institute for Defense Analyses, The Evolution of U.S. Strategic Command and Control and Warning, 1945-1972, Study S-468 (Arlington, Virginia, 1975), Top Secret, excerpts: pp. 216-218, 339-347, and 419-425.
Source: Digital National Security Archive
This invaluable history provides useful background on the missile attack warning systems--BMEWs and DSP, among others--that became available during the 1960s and 1970s. One chapter provides context for the creation of the National Emergency Airborne Command Post [NEACP] that became operational in 1975.

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Document 02 NEW
Secretary of Defense Brown Memorandum for the President, “Questions Brought Up at the Presidential Visit to the National Military Command Center,” 9 February 1978, Secret, Excised Copy
Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, NLC 8-4-7-18-3
When President Carter went to the Pentagon war room for a briefing, he and his party raised a number of questions, e.g., over the vulnerability of the Defense Support System satellites to laser beams.  Another report on “Missile Warning System False Alarms” cataloged the six false warnings incidents between 1960 and 1976.  While two were in the “Alarm Level One” category, NORAD put all of them in the no confidence category.

Part II: The November 9 False Alert and Its Consequences

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Document 03
State Department cable 295771 to U.S. Embassy Moscow, "Brezhnev Message to President on Nuclear False Alarm," 14 November 1979, Secret
Source: State Department FOIA release
The Soviets surely read about the November 1979 false warning in the U.S. press, but whether their intelligence systems had detected any discussion of it is not so clear. In any event, Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev privately expressed his "extreme anxiety" to President Carter a few days after U.S. press reports appeared on 11 November 1979. The message was closely held, not only as "Nodis" ("no distribution" except to a few authorized people), but also as "Cherokee," a special information control established when Dean Rusk was Secretary of State (Rusk was born in Cherokee Country, GA) and used by subsequent secretaries of state.

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Document 04
Brigadier General Carl Smith, USAF, Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, to William Odom, Military Assistant to the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, "Proposed Oral Message Response," 16 November 1979
Source: Defense Department FOIA release
Officials at the Pentagon drafted a reply that became the basis for the message that was eventually sent to the Kremlin. Giving very little ground the text asserted that the Kremlin had made "inaccurate and unacceptable" assertions, that Moscow had little to worry about because U.S. forces were under reliable control, and that it did not "serve the purposes of peace or strategic stability" to make a fuss about the recent incident.

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Document 05
Excerpt from State Department memorandum to Secretary of State with attached memo "Late Supplement to VBB [Vance, Brown, Brzezinski] Item on Brezhnev Oral Message on False Alert," circa 16 November 1979, secret, excerpt
Source: State Department FOIA release
Excerpts from a memorandum to Secretary of State Vance to prepare for a routine coordinating meeting with Secretary of Defense Brown and national security adviser Brzezinski, suggest that senior State Department officials opposed rushing a response to the Soviet message. Although they agreed that the "tone" of Brezhnev's message was "unacceptable," they opposed giving the Soviets ammunition to exploit, wanted to discuss carefully the "merits" of the Soviet case, and did not want to appear too "cavalier" about the incident because that could make U.S. allies nervous when they were already discussing new U.S. nuclear deployments in Western Europe.

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Document 06
Marshal Shulman memo to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, 16 November 1979, Top Secret
Source: State Department FOIA release
Vance's adviser on Soviet policy, Marshal Shulman, had signed off on the memorandum on the reply to the Soviets but had further thoughts. Believing that the U.S. could not really fault the Soviets for worrying about such episodes, Shulman noted that false alerts were not a "rare occurrence" and worried about "complacency" toward the problem. Seeing the proposed reply as "kindergarten stuff," he suggested more straightforward language. Whether this paper actually went to Vance is unclear, given the line crossing out the text.

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Document 07 NEW
Secretary of Defense Brown to President Carter, “NORAD False Alarm,” 20 November 1979, Top Secret, Excised copy
Source: Department of Defense Release, Under Appeal at ISCAP
Secretary of Defense Brown wrote to President Carter about the incident, but the Defense Department has released the document in massively excised form.  Despite all of the information about the November false alert that is in the declassified record, the Defense Department denied the Archive’s appeal for a re-review under mandatory declassification review.

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Document 08
Marshal Shulman memo to Cyrus Vance, 21 November 1979, with draft message attached, unclassified,
Source: State Department FOIA release
The debate over the reply continued, and an alternate version was drafted, but the one that Vance approved was the version that Shulman and others in the Department and the NSC found "gratuitously insulting and inappropriate for the Carter/Brezhnev channel." Shulman's advice came too late; even though Vance reportedly disliked the reply, he did not want to revisit the issue. Instead of handling the memorandum at the Secretary of State level, Vance's top advisers wanted it to be delivered to the Soviets at somewhat lower level such as by Assistant Secretary of State George Vest. The version that is attached to Shulman's note is a milder version of what was sent (see document 8).

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Document 09
State Department cable 307013 to the U.S. Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "TNF: Soviets and the False Missile Alert," 28 November 1979, Secret
Source: State Department FOIA release
Before the Soviets received the reply, the State Department briefed permanent representatives to the North Atlantic Council to counter any attempts by Moscow to "cast doubt on the reliability of our nuclear control" and thereby influence the outcome of the ongoing debates over prospective theater nuclear forces [TNF] deployments in NATO Europe. This cable includes briefing information on what happened and also to demonstrate the "the redundant and complete nature of our well-established confirmation and control mechanisms." The message was reasonably accurate about the cause of the false warning, the mistaken transmission of part of a test tape. Yet, as Scott Sagan has pointed out, this message wrongly asserted that the NORAD interceptors were launched because of an earlier alert; nothing of that sort had occurred.[13]

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Document 10
State Department cable 312357 to U.S. Embassy Moscow, "U.S. Oral Message on Purported Alert of American Strategic Forces," 4 December 1979, Confidential
Source: State Department FOIA release
On 4 December 1979, Robert Louis Barry, an official at the Bureau of European Affairs, at a lower level than Assistant Secretary Vest, finally conveyed the reply to the Soviet embassy's Minister Counselor Aleksandr Bessmertnykh (later an ambassador to the United States). Unlike the original Soviet message, it was not a head of state communication, suggesting that relations were quite frosty in this pre-Afghanistan period. Possibly the version of the reply that Shulman saw as "snotty," it described Brezhnev's original message as "inaccurate and unacceptable." Ignoring Brezhnev's concern about "no errors," the message insisted that U.S. strategic forces were under "reliable control."

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Document 11
State Department cable 326348 to U.S. Embassy Moscow, "Supplementary Soviet Statement on U.S. Strategic Alert," 19 December 1979, Confidential
Source: State Department FOIA release
Apparently surprised by the U.S. reply, the Soviets took issue with it in a "non-paper" delivered to the State Department by their chargé. Arguing that they had not raised the issue to engage in "polemics," the Soviets asserted that a "profound and natural concern" instigated their original message.

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Document 12
Message, HQ/NORAD to Assistant Secretary of Defense C3 and Joint Chiefs of Staff, 20 December 1979, Secret
Source: Donation by Scott Sagan, Stanford University
Sen. Gary Hart (-D-Co), a member of the Senate Arms Services Committee, was concerned about what had happened on 9 November and visited NORAD for a briefing. While Hart wondered why the president and the secretary of defense had not been informed at the time, Lt. General Bruce K. Brown and other NORAD briefers explained that almost from the outset of the episode, NORAD officials had seen "a very high probability" that the warning was false. Hart also wondered why development testing on the NORAD 427M computer had been allowed; the briefers explained that NORAD officials recognized there was a problem and had recommended an auxiliary computer system as an "isolated" means for testing but the request had been denied because of "lack of funds."

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Document 13 NEW
Aerospace Defense Command, History of ADCOM/ADC, 1 January-31 December 1979, n.d., Secret, excerpts, excised copy
Source: Declassification release by U.S. Northern Command
This official history by the U.S. element of NORAD provides an overview of the  false alert on 9 November 1979. It demonstrates how a test scenario of a missile attack on North America was transmitted from the Message/Generator Recorder (MG/R) to the 427M computer on the operations side of Cheyenne Mountain: “There it was processed as real information and displayed on missile warning consoles in the command post.”  Nevertheless, neither senior officials nor the president was informed because the warning information was “almost immediately given a low confidence of not being true,” although because of “procedural and equipment failures” NORAD interceptors were launched.  This history includes information on developments in the Defense Support System during 1979, including the launching of new DSP satellites.

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Document 14 NEW
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Communications, Command, Control and Intelligence Gerald Dinneen to Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense, “NORAD Missile Warning System,” 2 January 1980, Secret, with Memo for President, attached
Source: National Archives, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  Record Group (RG) 218, Records of JCS Chairman David Jones, box 37, NORAD 1 Jul 78- 8 Dec 80
“Outages” during the operation of NORAD’s new computer missile warning system wee “interfering to an unacceptable degree with NORAD's operational capability.”  A recurring problem before and since the false alert on 9 November, the outages were caused by the temporary failure of a communications processor interrupting computer system operations.  While computer capabilities needed to be expanded, to prevent interference and false alarms such as the one on 9 November, testing had to be separated completely from operations.  Assistant Secretary Dinneen attached a proposed memo to President Carter to explain the “serious shortcomings” with the computer system and their impact.  Back-up arrangements were available during computer outages, such as voice communications (“voice-tell”) [sic] , it became necessary to prepare manually “certain warning information summaries” which caused a two-minute delay in their availability.  Any corrective actions would be shaped by two constraints: the system could neither be shut down nor replaced

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Document 15 NEW
DJS [Director Joint Staff] to CJCS [Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, “NORAD False Events,” 7 March 1980, Secret, with memos attached
Source: RG 218, Records of JCS Chairman David Jones, box 37, NORAD 1 Jul 78- 8 Dec 80
This recounts an investigation by the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering William Perry to determine whether simulations and test data could still sneak through NORAD computers and displays as “real data.”  According to Perry’s memo, the “good news is that the test procedures that have been established precluded any false alert.”  More work needed to be done to prevent a recurrence of the 9 November event.

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Document 16
Letter, Lt. General James V. Hartinger, Commander-in-chief, Aerospace Defense Command, to General Lew Allen, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, 14 March 1980, Secret, attachments not included
Source: Donation by Scott Sagan, Stanford University
In a letter to the Air Force Chief of Staff, NORAD commander General Hartinger summarized the command's report on the 9 November incident. That report is currently the subject of a declassification request to the Air Force. Not sure whether the incident was caused by a "human error, computer error, or combination of both," Hartinger reported that "stringent safeguards have been established to preclude a repetition."

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Document 17 NEW
DJS [Director Joint Staff] to CJCS [Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff]. “Reply to USCINCEUR,” with draft messages attached, 17 March 1980, Secret
Source: RG 218, Records of JCS Chairman David Jones, box 37, NORAD 1 Jul 78- 8 Dec 80
Responding to a request from the commander-in-chief of the European Command (CINCEUR) for an account of the 9 November incident and corrective measures being taken, the Joint Staff provided General Jones with several draft replies, of which they recommended the first.  According to the draft messages, the display screens at Cheyenne Mountain indicated an attack by 1,400 ICBMs, a detail not mentioned in other accounts (press reports mentioned SLBMs).

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Document 18 NEW
Notecard dated 3 June 1980, with handwriting
Source: Library of Congress Manuscript Division, William Odom Papers, box 17, Card File
By 5:37 “Zulu” [military time: 12: 37 a.m. EST], if not earlier, Odom was apparently listening in on a Missile Display Conference call at the National Military Command Center. The discrepancies in the computer screens were evident: The ones at SAC and the Pentagon showed incoming SLBMs and ICBMs, while the ones at NORAD and the Alternate Military Command Center showed “nothing.”  There is no indication that he called up Brzezinski during the night.

That morning, Odom spoke with Brzezinski who told him that JCS Chairman Jones had called about the “Missile Threat Assessment Conf[erence].”  Moreover, President Carter had two questions about the false alert: “Are [the] computers internal,” and “what triggered [false] information.”  The first question is somewhat unclear, but perhaps meant whether the computers were linked to others (which they were).  Secretary of Defense Brown wrote Carter a detailed memo a few days later answering those questions.

Odom told Brzezinski, “I monitored the call last night – eerie,” conveying the disconcerting nature of the situation.  Further, he said that the “WH [White House] was in loop.”  By “call” Odom meant the conference call at the Pentagon, but he did not mention any other conversations with Brzezinski.  Perhaps he was being discreet by not taking note of phone discussions with Brzezinski earlier that morning about the false alarm.

Later Odom spoke with Jones who gave him access to “J-3”, Joint Staff Operations, for “direct data” on the events.

On the bottom the notecard Odom wrote, “Colin Powell on poss[ible] press reaction,” indicating that he spoke with future JCS Chairman and Secretary of State Powell, who then held a senior position at the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

That same day, President Carter wrote in his diary that “Zbig reported that a false signal into some of our computers had triggered early stages of response to a Soviet missile attack. None of our sensing devices picked up any launches so no damage was done, but we need to find out how to prevent this occurring in the future.” In a few days, after one more such incident, Secretary of Defense Brown would present Carter with details on the false alerts and what was being done to prevent a recurrence.[14]

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Document 19 NEW
Notecard dated 6 June 1980, with handwriting
Source: Library of Congress Manuscript Division, William Odom Papers, box 17, Card File
Three days after the initial incident, Odom reported another false alarm. He noted that the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon had reported the “same warning … this afternoon [as] for 3d June.”  As occurred on the 3rd, “SAC crews scramble.”

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Document 20 NEW
Zbigniew Brzezinski to Secretary of Defense, enclosing “Fact Sheet,” 5 June 1980, Secret, with annotations by President Carter
Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Brzezinski Material Subject File, box 42, Missile Warning Incidents 11/79-8/80
This Pentagon-prepared “Fact Sheet” reviewed what happened during the 3 June false alarm and compared it with the 9 November 1979 incident, although it did not yet have an explanation.  In the meantime, the Pentagon had in effect a “special watch condition known as 'Voice Tell’” that provided a “secure telephone connection” that would allow officials to override “any false computer driven indications of an attack.”  In his side-comments, President Carter asked: “What caused it?  Corrective action?”

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Document 21 NEW
William Odom to Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Another False Tactical of a Missile Attack,” 6 June 1980, Secret, Draft
Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Brzezinski Material Subject File, box 42, Missile Warning Incidents 11/79-8/80
Recounting the false warning from the morning of 6 June, Odom notes that it “was contained below a missile threat assessment conference call this time.”  On the 6th, SAC crews scrambled and “turned over their engines” but “NEACP did not move.”

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Document 22
Department of Defense "Fact Sheet," n.d. [circa 6 June 1980], Secret
Source: Defense Department FOIA release
This document reviewed the false alerts on 3 and 6 June of Soviet ICBM and SLBM attacks, what caused them (problems in a minicomputer), what SAC bomber crews did in response to the warnings, and the measures that were taken to diagnosis what happened and to ensure that it did not happen again. Corrective measures included a separate computer system for testing operations (which had been rejected before because of insufficient funds)[15] and a determination by CINCNORAD that the U.S. is "under attack" before anything beyond basic "precautionary measures" are taken. After the first incident on 3 June, SAC, NORAD, and the National Military Command Center established a "continuous voice telephone conference" to ensure that nothing went amiss.

An article in The New York Times published on 18 June ("Missile Alerts Traced to 46¢ Item") included details on the false alarm not mentioned in the "Fact Sheet" or in Brown’s memo, asserting that missile crews went on a "higher state of alert" and that submarine crews were also informed. The Times' writers, however, were not aware that NEACP "taxied into position" as a readiness measure.

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Document 23 NEW
Secretary of Defense Harold Brown to President Carter, "False Missile Alert," 7 June 1980, Top Secret
Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Brzezinski Material Subject File, box 42, Missile Warning Incidents 11/79-8/80
The Archive’s original posting included a massively excised version of this Harold Brown memo, but since then the Carter Library has released it in full.  Brown reported on the three false warning incidents of late May and early June 1980, noting that malfunctions in the computer systems hardware and software caused the failures, which “weaken my confidence” in the systems: “I consider the situation to be very serious.”  Brown further explained what corrective measures NORAD would take, such as using its back-up computer system to avoid the “minicomputer” that had been used to transmit missile warning data to computer displays at SAC and other command centers.

Brown’s account of the 3 June event describes how SAC went on alert in response to a report that BMEWS had detected 200 SLBMs and then 2020 ICBMs heading toward the United States, which was close to the numbers, 250 and 2,200, that Gates later reported based on Brzezinski’s account of the conversation with Odom.   While the system reported that some of the SLBMs had “impacted,” sensors did not display any missile strikes.

Brown briefly explained the Pacific Command’s decision to launch its command post aircraft:  it initiated the launch “because a Threat Assessment Conference had been convened.”  So even though NORAD was seeing no threat, the Threat Assessment Conference must have been a trigger in the Pacific Command’s contingency plans.

An incident that occurred a few days later, on 6 June, reported flights of 2000 ICBMs on SAC’s warning displays and then flights of 2020 ICBMs at the Alternate National Military Command Center.  The incident lasted 17 minutes; thus, alerted SAC crews started bomber engines, but no further action was taken once NORAD had given a vote of no-confidence to the missile displays.

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Document 24
Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs Reginald Bartholomew to Secretary of State [Muskie], "False Alarm on Soviet Missile Attack," 10 June 1980, Limited Official Use
Source: State Department FOIA release
Reginald Bartholomew sent a briefing memo on the incidents to Secretary Muskie, noting that "these incidents inevitably raise concerns about the dangers of an accidental nuclear war." The media had already picked up on the story[16], so there was some possibility of a Soviet complaint, although "the tone may well be sharper" in light of the tensions over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

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Document 25
Secretary of Defense Brown to President Carter, "False Missile Alerts," 13 June 1980, Secret, Excised copy
Source: Defense Department FOIA release
In this memorandum, Brown provided suggestions on how to answer media questions about the false warning problem. Treating false warnings as a byproduct of computerized warning technology, he emphasized that "human safeguards" ensured that there would be "no chance that any irretrievable actions would be taken." While "any missile warning indications", false or otherwise, would force SAC to take "precautionary action" by raising the bomber force's alert status, Brown did not believe that anything more would happen.

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Document 26
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Communications, Command, Control, and Intelligence Gerald P. Dinneen to Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense, "False Missile Alerts Information Memorandum," 14 June 1980, Top Secret, excised copy
Source: Defense Department FOIA release
Assistant Secretary of Defense Dinneen (former director of Lincoln Laboratories) apprised Brown on the efforts to identify what had caused the false alerts and what could be done to fix the problem. A task force studying NORAD computer problems had identified a "suspect integrated circuit" as the most likely culprit (although they were not 100 percent certain). Various measures had been taken or were under consideration, but the details have been excised. A few days later Dinneen would brief the press on the failure of the 46¢ chip.

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Document 27
Memorandum of Conversation, "U.S.-Soviet Relations," 16 June 1960
Source: State Department FOIA release
During a meeting between Secretary of State Muskie and Ambassador Dobrynin, the latter asked about the recent "nuclear alerts," which Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had already raised with U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Thomas Watson. Muskie downplayed the problem on the grounds that the false signals would not create a "danger of war" because of the "interposition of human judgment."

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Document 28
Secretary of Defense to President Carter, "False Missile Alerts," 12 July 1980, Top Secret, excised copy, attached to memorandum from Zbigniew Brzezinski to Brown, "False Alerts," 17 July 1980, with annotations by Jimmy Carter
Source: Defense Department FOIA release
Here Brown updated Carter on the explanations for the recent false alert, corrective measures (e.g. special alarms when warning messages arrived so they could undergo confidence checks), and reactions by Congress and the public. Carter approved Brown's report with an OK but was surprised (see handwritten exclamation mark) by the statement that "NORAD has been unable to get the suspected circuit to fail again under tests." That conflicts with a statement in the Senate report that what caused the 6 June incident was an attempt to reproduce the earlier false alert, but perhaps subsequent attempts failed. Brown reminded Carter that "we must be prepared for the possibility that another, unrelated malfunction may someday generate another false alert."

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Document 29
Office of NORAD Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations, Captain Victor B. Budura, J-3, "Talking Points on 3/6 June False Indications," 21 July 1980, Secret
Source: Scott Sagan Collection, National Security Archive
This NORAD document provides a chronology of the episodes of 28 May, 3 June, and 6 June 1980, although leaving out some events, such as the role of NEACP in the 3 June incident.

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Document 30
U.S. Pacific Command, Annual History, 1980, excerpt, pages 201-202 (2nd page of excerpt unreadable), n.d. Secret
Source: Scott Sagan Collection, National Security Archive
This excerpt from a Pacific Command history discusses the launching of the Pacific Command airborne command post, "Blue Eagle," during the 3 June false episode. As the chronology in document 19 indicates, the warning was determined to be false before "Blue Eagle" had taken off, but it stayed airborne for several hours.[17]

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Document 31 NEW
Aerospace Defense Command, History of ADCOM/ADC, 1 January-31 December 1980, n.d., Secret, excerpts, excised copy
Source: Declassification release by U.S. Northern Command
This history includes a useful overview of Cheyenne Mountain as the “hub” of the tactical warning and attack assessment system.  A review of the aftermath of the 9 November false warning incident concluded that while NORAD had been unable to determine exactly how the Message/Generator Recorder had contributed to the incident, whether through human or computer error, “stringent controls were necessary to preclude a similar occurrence in the future.”  The incidents of 3 and 6 June received coverage (although the one on 28 May did not). As Brown had noted, SAC and NMCC missile display consoles showed incoming missiles even though NORAD warning displays showed nothing.  Nevertheless, various commands followed protocol and SAC and other forces took the precautionary moves noted earlier.  During a conference call convened by the Pentagon, NORAD “confirmed there was no threat,” bringing the episode to the end.

On 6 June 1980, another false alert occurred while NORAD was running a test of the system.  Thinking that the NOVA 840 computer was the source of the problem, NORAD tried to isolate it by “running the system in the same configuration” as on 3 June.  In the middle of the test, another false alarm occurred when SAC and command centers “displayed different numbers of threatening missiles.”  After the source of the problem was identified, “a faulty silicon chip” in a circuit board, NORAD worked to establish safeguards to allow its computers to return to normal operations.




[1]. The following draws on the Institute for Defense Analyses' History of Strategic Command Control and Warning, 1945-1972 (excerpts in document 1) and Jeffrey Richelson, America's Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites and National Security (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999

[2]. Joseph T. Jockel, Canada and NORAD: 1957-2007: A History (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, Program, 2007), 95. This book and Jockel's earlier, No Boundaries Upstairs: Canada, the United States, and the Origins of North American Air Defence, 1945-1958 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987) are valuable studies on the origins and development of NORAD. A comparable U.S. study on NORAD history remains to be prepared, although Christopher Bright's Continental Air Defense in the Eisenhower Era: Nuclear Antiaircraft Arms and the Cold War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) is helpful on nuclear issues in NORAD's early years.

[3]. Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). 99-100 and 126-133.

[4]. Robert M. Gates. From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996),114.

[5]. Gates. From the Shadows. 114.

[6]. See also Sagan, Limits of Safety, 228-229, 238.

[7]. Ibid., 232, 244-246. See also Report of Senator Gary Hart and Senator Barry Goldwater to the Committee on the Armed Services United States Senate, Recent False Alerts from the Nation's Missile Attack Warning System (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), 5-6, and Government Accounting Office, MASAD 81-30, "NORAD's Missile Warning System: What Went Wrong?"

[8]. Report of Senator Gary Hart and Senator Barry Goldwater, Recent False Alerts, 7.

[9]. Sagan, 225-249 passim.

[10]. Bruce Blair, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993), 193; Kingston Reif, “Congress OKs Trump Nuclear Priorities,” Arms Control Today, January-February 2020.

[11]. David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2009): 152-154, 422-423.

[12]. David E. Hoffman, "Cold War Doctrines Refuse to Die," The Washington Post, 15 March 1998; Bruce G. Blair, “Loose Cannons: The President and US Nuclear Posture,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 76 (2020). On Chinese missile tests: communication from Bruce Blair, 20 February 2020. Pavel Podvig raises questions about the Petrov and the Norwegian Black Brant episodes in “Does Russia Have a Launch on Warning Posture? The Soviet Union Didn’t.” http://russianforces.org/blog/2019/04/does_russia_have_a_launch-on-w.shtml

[13]. Sagan, Limits of Safety, 240-241.

[14]. Jimmy Carter, White House Diary (New York: Farrer Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 434.

[15]. Sagan, Limits of Safety, 239.

[16]. For example, the Washington Post published a story by George C. Wilson, "Computer Errs, Warns of Soviet Attack on U.S.," on 6 June 1980.

[17]. Sagan, Limits of Safety, 244.

Source:Ocnus.net 2020

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