National Security Archive

The 3 A.M. Phone Call

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The 3 A.M. Phone Call - Pictures

Washington, D.C., March 1, 2012 – During the 2008 campaign, Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary 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 probably meant news of trouble in the Middle East or a terrorist attack in the United States or in a major ally, not an ‘end of the world’ phone call about a major nuclear strike on the United States. In fact at least one such phone call occurred during the Cold War, but it did not go to the President. It went to a national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was awakened on 9 November 1979, to be told that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the combined U.S.–Canada military command–was reporting a Soviet missile attack. Just before Brzezinski was about to call President Carter, the NORAD warning turned out to be a false alarm. It was one of those moments in Cold War history when top officials believed they were facing the ultimate threat. The apparent cause? The routine testing of an overworked computer system.

Recently declassified documents about this incident and other false warnings of Soviet missile attacks delivered to the Pentagon and military commands by computers at NORAD in 1979 and 1980 are published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. The erroneous warnings, variously produced by computer tests and worn out computer chips, led to a number of alert actions by U.S. bomber and missile forces and the emergency airborne command post. Alarmed by reports of the incident on 9 November 1979, the Soviet leadership 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 assured President Jimmy 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 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.»


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 from 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 number of missile launches and trajectory. This provided25 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, the North American Aerospace Command (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 emerged as early as 1960 when a BMEWs radar in Greenland caught «echoes from the moon,» which generated a report of a missile attack which was quickly understood to be false (see document 1). During the Cuban Missile Crisis false warning episodes occurred, some of them involving NORAD, that were virtually unknown for many years.[3] If there were significant incidents during the years that followed, it remains to be learned. But once the networked systems were in place, the possibility that they would typically produce false warnings became evident.

The Events of 1979-1980

«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.» — Robert M. Gates. From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996),114.

The series of alarming incidents and telephone phone calls recounted by former NSC staffer (and later CIA director and future Secretary of Defense) Robert Gates took place in the middle of the night on 9 November 1979. Because of the potentially grave implications of the event, the episode quickly leaked to the media, with the Washington Post and The New York Times printing stories on what happened. According to press reports, based on Pentagon briefings, a NORAD staffer caused the mistake by mistakenly loading a training/exercise tape into a computer, which simulated an «attack into the live warning system.» This was a distortion because it was not a matter of a «wrong tape,» but software simulating a Soviet missile attack then testing NORAD’s 427M computers «was inexplicably transferred into the regular warning display» at the Command’s headquarters. Indeed, NORAD’s Commander-in-chief later acknowledged that the «precise mode of failure … could not be replicated.»[4]

The information on the display simultaneously appeared on screens at SAC headquarters and the National Military Command Center (NMCC), which quickly led to defensive actions: NORAD alerted interceptor forces and 10 fighters were immediately launched. Moreover, the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), used so the president could control U.S. forces during a nuclear war, was launched from Andrews Air Force Base, although without the president or secretary of defense.

Some of this information did not reach the public for months, but at least one reporter received misleading information about how high the alert went. According to the New York Times’ sources, the warning was «deemed insufficiently urgent to warrant notifying top Government or military officials.» Apparently no one wanted to tell reporters (and further scare the public) that the phone call went to President’s Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The behind-the-scenes story became more complicated because the Soviet leadership was worried enough to lodge a complaint with Washington. The Cold War tensions had already been exacerbated during the previous year and this could not help (nor could an impending Kremlin decision to invade Afghanistan). On 14 November, party 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 which senior State Department adviser Marshall Shulman saw as «gratuitously snotty» (for example, language about the «inaccurate and unacceptable» Soviet message). The Soviets were indeed miffed because they later replied 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; it was a minor harbinger of false alerts on 3 and 6 June 1980. According to the Pentagon, what caused the malfunctions in June 1980 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 National Military Command Center (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 message arrived at SAC, the command took survivability measures by ordering bomber pilots and crews to their stations at alert bombers and tankers and to start the engines.

No NORAD interceptors were launched so something had been learned from the November episode, but SAC took same precautionary measures. The Pacific Command’s airborne command post («Blue Eagle») was launched for reasons that remain mysterious.[5] NEACP taxied in position at Andrews Air Force Base, but it was not launched as in November. That missile warning sensors (DSP, BMEWs, etc) showed nothing amiss made it possible for military commanders to call off further action. According to a Senate report, NORAD ran its computers the next 3 days in order to isolate the cause of the error; the «mistake was reproduced» in the mid-afternoon of 6 June with the similar results and SAC took defensive measures.[6]

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.» A nameless 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 were 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.»[7]

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 is prompting other anti-nuclear activists, including Daniel Ellsberg, to protest at Vandenberg Air Force Base against the Minuteman ICBM program and the continued testing of Minutemen.[8]

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.[9]

According to Bruce Blair, writing in the early 1990s, warning system failures continued after 1980, although they did not trigger alert measures.[10] The U.S. nuclear incidents that have received the most attention have not been false warnings, but events such as the Air Force’s accidental movement of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot AFB to Barksdale AFB in 2007 and the mistaken transfer of Minuteman nose-cone assemblies to Taiwan in 2006. In any event, more needs to be learned about the problem of false warnings during and after the Cold War and pending declassification requests and appeals may shed further light on this issue.

By William Burr

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