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Undated photo of the South African nuclear test site taken by a U.S. reconnaissance satellite during 1977 or 1978. See document 3 for the image in context.

First Publication of Recently Declassified Satellite Photographs of South African Nuclear Test Site—1977

New Release of CIA Report on September 1979 South Atlantic Mystery Flash Joins Annals of Dubious Secrets by Exempting Pages of Previously Released Information

Department of Energy and Defense Intelligence Agency Reports Illuminate Pre-War Controversy over Iraqi Procurement of Aluminum Tubes for Alleged Gas Centrifuge Program

December 2013—The Soviet Union assisted the United States in its effort to curb South Africa’s nuclear program in August 1977 when Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sent President Jimmy Carter a message that Moscow’s spy satellites had noticed signs of nuclear weapons test preparations at a site in the Kalahari Desert. Very quickly the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) directed spy satellites to photograph the site which intelligence analysts later agreed was geared to nuclear testing. The U.S. government has declassified some of those satellite photographs for the first time. Published today by the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, the photographs of the Kalahari site appear in a declassified article from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s Special Projects Division, later known as the “Z Division.” This and other reports by the Special Projects Division are also published for the first time by the National Security Archive in a collection of intelligence studies and articles on nuclear proliferation issues.

Other recently released reports provide new information on high-profile incidents such as the recent Iraq war and the mysterious flash over the South Atlantic on 22 September 1979.

Intelligence reports produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) shed light on a key claim made by the Bush administration during the lead-up to the Iraq War: that specialized aluminum tubes sought by the Iraqis would be used for gas centrifuges for producing highly enriched uranium. As national security adviser Condeleeza Rice put it, the tubes were “only really suited for a nuclear weapons program.” That was incorrect, but it at least ran parallel to the DIA view that the tubes’ “specifications are consistent with earlier Iraqi gas centrifuge rotor designs.” By contrast, Department of Energy experts, who were highly familiar with uranium enrichment technology, argued that the tubes’ design and construction made them better candidates for building conventional rockets than for gas centrifuges.

This release includes a heavily excised version of the Director of Central Intelligence report from December 1979 titled The 22 September 1979 Event, referring to the controversial mystery flash over the South Atlantic, which may have been a nuclear test. The massively excised version of the report published today includes previously unreleased material. However, most of the withheld information—including analysis of whether Israel, South Africa or both were behind the event—was declassified by the CIA years ago. This discrepancy is a prime example of both the enduring problem of over-classification and of the U.S. government’s great difficulty in making consistently rational declassification decisions.

Also published today:

• A Special Projects Division report on South African nuclear intentions and capabilities which found that it had a “high caliber” program, but no evidence that South Africa had a “complete” weapons capability or that it had produced or acquired fissile material.

• A CIA analysis of South Africa’s “nuclear options” which found no “clear” capability to produce highly enriched uranium, but that it was likely that the South Africans were preparing for a “series of nuclear tests” before the Kalahari site was discovered.

• A CIA study of Iraq’s nuclear intentions saw “no hard evidence” that it was intent on acquiring a weapons capability but argued that seeking one was consistent with that country’s interest in a hegemonic regional role.

This collection complements numerous Electronic Briefing Books on nuclear proliferation intelligence, most recently “Nuclear Proliferation Intelligence, 1966-1991,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 423, also published jointly with the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project. For more information on collections relating to nuclear proliferation intelligence, see the Nuclear Vault’s Index and NPIHP’s nuclear history archive.

Proliferation Watch: U.S. Intelligence Assessments of Potential Nuclear Powers, 1977–2001

William Burr & Jeffrey T. Richelson, eds.

For most U.S. policymakers during and after the Cold War, the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities suggested greater instability, a greater danger of nuclear weapons use and nuclear war, and a risk of erosion to the U.S.’s superpower status. Accordingly, since the early years of the nuclear age, a multitude of U.S. intelligence organizations have devoted at least part of their attention to monitoring the nuclear aspirations and activities of foreign nations—whether they be superpowers, smaller regional powers, or rogue states. Intelligence analysts and reporters have devoted great effort both to broad studies of the motivations of possible nuclear powers as well as activities at specific sites and a host of technical issues.

The National Intelligence Council, like the academic community, has attempted to understand proliferation (or the lack thereof) by examining the various factors that advance or restrain the acquisition of nuclear weapons.1 For example, a 1985 study, The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation (Document 8), examined why there had been no additional overt proliferation since China’s 1964 nuclear test. As the author explained, India had not built nuclear weapons despite its 1974 “peaceful” test and Israel and South Africa had not “taken any action to signal overt possession of nuclear weapons.” At the heart of the study was an attempt to identify the considerations causing proliferation “not to occur.”

But most work on proliferation, beyond general technical issues, focuses on the prospects of proliferation with respect to specific nations. Thus, in the period between 1977 and 2001, the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and intelligence components of the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories produced nuclear proliferation studies and assessments concerning South Africa, India & Pakistan, Iraq, and North Korea.

While the CIA has declassified some of its analytical work on nonproliferation issues, the Z Division, a little known but important office in the Department of Energy nuclear complex, has released virtually none of its output. The Z Division originated from a 1965 agreement between the CIA and the Atomic Energy Commission in which they established a Special Projects Division at what was then the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, to analyze the Soviet nuclear weapons program—and, shortly thereafter, the Chinese program. In the mid-1970s the organization began work on the nuclear weapons efforts of India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and other nations.2

Image removed.

Vaults in which South African nuclear weapons were stored. (Source: Robert Windrem)

South Africa

As with many other nations South Africa’s acknowledged nuclear activities and claimed objectives were suspected to be either only part of the story or attempts, at least in part, at deception. Part of the U.S. intelligence community’s focus on South Africa’s nuclear program was on technical issues. One segment of a June 1978 report (Document 3) by the Lawrence Livermore’s Special Projects Division concerned the Kalahari drill site—a location where Soviet and U.S. satellite reconnaissance had detected what appeared to be preparations for a nuclear test in July and August 1977, precipitating international pressure on South Africa.3

Other studies, from the Special Projects Division (Document 1, Document 7) and the Director of Central Intelligence (Document 2), were broader in scope—examining capabilities and options as well as possible motivations for going nuclear. The first Special Projects Division report (Document 1)—prepared a month after the Kalahari discovery—argued that the South African regime had sufficient economic, military and political motives to pursue nuclear weapons, but did not see evidence that South Africa had produced fissile material. It also suggested that the U.S. had few means of pressuring the South Africans away from pursuing nuclear weapons.

The DCI interagency intelligence memorandum (Document 2), published the following summer correctly concluded that South Africa was attempting to develop nuclear weapons and that its uranium enrichment efforts had a military objective. The authors were also convinced that the Kalahari site was a nuclear test site and that the South Africans were planning a “series of nuclear tests” prior to the August 1977 diplomatic campaign. The memorandum also stated that it was not clear how much progress had been made in developing nuclear weapons and that the Afrikaner regime would continue to pursue a covert program—even if they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and accepted International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.In any event, in late 1989, when it became evident that South Africa needed to change and that the apartheid regime could not last, the South Africans began to dismantle the covert nuclear weapons program. They did not formally acknowledge its existence until March 1993, two years after they had signed the NPT.

The Vela Incident

One of the most enduring nuclear and intelligence mysteries of the last thirty-five years has been the detection of a possible nuclear detonation over the South Atlantic by a U.S. Vela satellite on 22 September 1979. Originally a closely held U.S. government secret, the event was eventually revealed in press accounts.

Shortly after that detection, the National Security Council asked the Director of Central Intelligence to prepare a paper that started with the assumption that a nuclear event had occurred and then examined who might be responsible. The result was a December 1979 interagency intelligence memorandum titled The 22 September 1979 Event. Inconsistent declassification has produced two different redacted versions of the study (Documents 6A and Document 6B). Collectively, the two different versions contained discussions of several possible perpetrators (given the state of knowledge at the time) of a secret test—the Soviet Union, Israel, South Africa, Israel and South Africa jointly, India, and Pakistan. However, the conclusions remain classified.

More typical of the classified work done on the Vela Incident were technical studies that attempted to assess the extent to which the data produced by the satellite’s bhangmeter—as well as other signals (or lack of)—suggested that a test had occurred. A number of those studies, often in heavily redacted form, have been released in the past.4 A more recent release is a study produced by the Los Alamos National Laboratory International Technology Office (Document 5) – its counterpart to Livermore’s Z Division. The Los Alamos report discusses the bhangmeter signals, a traveling ionospheric disturbance detected at the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico, covert nuclear weapons development and circumstantial evidence suggesting that a test took place.

India & Pakistan

Two nations whose nuclear aspirations were both intertwined and of concern to U.S. policymakers are India and Pakistan—both of which have been the focus of significant intelligence collection and analytical efforts.5 Documents recently released concerning India and Pakistan, in addition to the December 1979 study (Document 6A, Document 6B) that examined their possible role in the Vela incident include several Special Projects/Z Division reports as well as a thesis (Document 13) produced by a student at the DIA-run Joint Military Intelligence College.

A June 1978 Special Projects Division quarterly proliferation report (Document 3) notes that Z Division had produced a study for the Department of State, using assumptions specified by State, entitled “An Evaluation of Pakistan’s Capability to Acquire Fissile Material for a Nuclear Explosive.” It provides the background of the study, notes its scope, and specifies State’s assumption. It also provides an executive summary of its results—all of which were based on examining scenarios involving production of plutonium.

Two further examples of much more recent Z Division work (Document 12, Document 13) examine the challenges of nuclear weapons development in India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, the released versions are so heavily redacted that little has actually been released. The significantly higher (codeword) classification of the study on Pakistan indicates use of more sensitive sources—such as communications intelligence—in that study. The report’s distribution list indicates that the recipients included the Joint Special Operations Command—the organization that has often been assumed would be involved in any attempt to secure Pakistani nuclear weapons in the event that they appeared at risk of falling into the hands of Islamic extremists. (It is also possible that JSOC is a regular recipient of all Z Division reports).


In contrast to assessments of the possible nuclear proliferation activities of other nations, during the 1977–2001 period, assessments of Iraqi proliferation activities became relevant to U.S. policy debates over initiating military action to forestall develop of nuclear weapons. Among the topics that were covered in assessments were nuclear program personnel, possible attempts to acquire uranium, and the implications of Iraq’s efforts to covertly acquire aluminum tubes.

In 1979, two years before Israel bombed Iraq’s OSIRAK reactor, the Director of Central Intelligence issued an interagency intelligence memorandum (Document 4) which explored Iraq’s nuclear program and its possible intentions. The memo examined both feasibility issues with regard to the acquisition of fissile material as well as the implications of any Iraqi attempt to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. The report also concluded that there “was no hard evidence” that Iraq was intent on such a capability.

In April 1991, in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, John T. Kriese, the head of DIA’s Nuclear Energy Division and chairman of the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee, provided a briefing to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on U.S. understanding of Iraq’s nuclear program. Kriese characterized U.S. knowledge as “good at the strategic level.” He also mentioned a 1989 national intelligence estimate that conveyed differing agency views as to how close Iraq was to developing a nuclear device. According to the estimate, “Iraqi efforts to acquire parts for gas centrifuges . . . were uncovered and stopped.”

The subject of aluminum tubes became a contentious one in the 2001–2003 debate over Iraq’s nuclear efforts. The Department of Energy’s intelligence office (Document 15B) and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded that the specific tubes that were being targeted by Iraq (which were a match for a rocket program) would be inefficient for use in gas centrifuges and thus were poor evidence for an Iraqi nuclear reconstitution effort—a view which proved correct. In contrast, the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Center (WINPAC) and DIA reached different conclusions. The DIA view is expressed in a 2001 article (Document 15A) in its Military Intelligence Digest—which stated that “alternative uses for these tubes are possible, such as rocket motor cases or rocket launch tubes, [but] the specifications are consistent with earlier Iraqi gas centrifuge rotor designs.”

North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear activities had been a concern to the United States intelligence community since the 1960s—when construction of a reactor at Yongbyon became the target of U.S. satellite photography. In the late 1980s and early 1990s monitoring and assessing the program became more critical as the prospect of North Korea becoming a nuclear weapons state became a realistic possibility—sufficient to inspire both intense U.S. diplomatic efforts as well as planning for a possible pre-emptive strike.

Among the many intelligence products concerning the North Korean program was an entry in the DIA-produced Nuclear Proliferation Data Sheets. The entry examined a number of aspects of the North Korean program—nuclear infrastructure, fuel cycle, the extent of foreign assistance, treaty obligations, possible future developments, and delivery vehicles. It also stated that under some circumstances, probably the existence of a covert enrichment facility, “North Korea might already have a nuclear device.”

Documents 1A–B

1A: Warren Christopher to William Hyland, “Response to Soviet Message on South Africa,” 10 August 1977, Secret
Source: National Archives,
Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Records of Warren Christopher, box 16, Memos to White House 1977

1B: Special Projects Division, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, South Africa: Motivations and Capabilities for Nuclear Proliferation, September 1977, Top Secret, excised copy
Source: Department of Energy Freedom of Information Act Release.

General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s August 1977 message to Jimmy Carter on the suspicious site in the Kalahari Desert is not yet available, but a draft of Carter’s reply has been declassified. It includes a number of interesting points, among them a request for the “geographic coordinates, size, configuration, and exact nature of the facility,” so the United States could better target its reconnaissance satellites on the site. Whether the Soviets provided such details remains to be learned, but the National Reconnaissance Office, which operated the satellites, was taking photographs on 12 August 1977, only two days after Christopher sent the draft letter.

Later the next month, the Special Projects Division employed its diverse intelligence sources for a comprehensive study of South Africa’s nuclear program. The analysts believed that the Afrikaner rulers had ample economic, military and political motives to acquire nuclear weapons and had a “high caliber” program, but the analysts did not see evidence of a “complete” weapons capability or that South Africa had produced or acquired fissile material. Nevertheless, the analysts saw Kalahari as a “probable” site for underground nuclear tests, although they explored alternative explanations.

Seeing no regular pattern to nuclear proliferation activities, the authors believed that South Africa would not be as compliant as Taiwan had been (and even Taiwan resisted U.S. pressures). Moreover, Washington had “few levers” available to discourage South Africa’s nuclear program unless it sought ways “to diminish” the fears of its rulers. Not seeing the end of apartheid as a prospect the analysts leaned toward conciliation to “minimize” the Afrikaners “sense of isolation” and by helping solve the South-West African and Rhodesian problems.

The report pointed to downsides of U.S. and international pressures against pariah or otherwise beleaguered states such as South Africa and Israel and against would-be nuclear proliferants. They might cooperate to advance their goals. One of the annexes to the report discussed ongoing Israeli-South African cooperation, [1] while another reviewed the possibility of cooperation between various potential nuclear weapons states.

Document 2: Director of Central Intelligence, Interagency Intelligence Memorandum, South Africa’s Nuclear Options and Decisionmaking Structures, date illegible, but circa July 1978, Top Secret.
Source: CIA Freedom of Information Act Release.

Some months later intelligence analysts were still perplexed about South Africa’s nuclear capabilities and what “they are up to.” They found “persuasive but circumstantial evidence” that South Africans were trying to develop nuclear weapons and that the uranium enrichment program had military objectives. Although a capability to produce HEU was “not clear,” the analysts were persuaded that the Kalahari site was for nuclear tests. Moreover, the analysts concluded that before the site’s discovery, the South Africans were preparing for a “series of nuclear tests.” After reviewing decision-making structures and alternative development/production strategies, the “net assessment” was that the Afrikaner leadership was pursuing a weapons option but that “success to date is not clear.”

During the period the Carter administration was putting pressure on South Africa to avoid the nuclear weapons route, but the analysts suggested that even if the South Africans signed the NPT and accepted IAEA safeguards they would continue to pursue a “covert program.”  Before they signed the NPT they could simply acquire an HEU stockpile and continue secret weapons work.

Document 3: Special Projects Division, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Proliferation Group Quarterly Report, January – March 1978, June 1978, Top Secret.
Source: Department of Energy Freedom of Information Act Release.

Before Livermore Lab’s Special Projects office became the “Z” Division, sometime after the May 1974 Indian “peaceful nuclear explosion” it established a Proliferation Group to apply all-sources intelligence to the latest developments. Sometime in the mid-1970s the Group began producing a quarterly report with technical and country studies. This issue includes an extract from a recent study on Pakistan and two highly technical articles relating to on-going research to identify the signatures of high explosives used for the implosion method of nuclear detonation. The articles are “High Energy Partitions in HE [High Explosive] Detonations,” pages 33-41, and “Evaluation of HE [High Explosive] Charges from Seismic Amplitudes,” pages 42-73.

Another technical article is specifically on South Africa: “Geology and History of the Kalahari Drill Site,” pages 11-32 (reference notes on page 74). Using open literature and classified intelligence, including two satellite photographs, the purpose of the article is to illuminate how the South African Government intended to use the site, down to the depth and thickness of the bore holes. The article concludes with massively excised speculation on the explosive yields of nuclear tests that would be consistent with the drill hole.

Document 4: Director of Central Intelligence, NI-IIM 79-100213, Iraq’s Nuclear Interests, Programs, and Options, October 1979. Top Secret.
Source: CIA Freedom of Information Act Release.

Coordinated with a number of intelligence offices in the U.S. government, this report found
“no hard evidence” that Iraq was intent on a nuclear weapons capability. Nevertheless, considering the scope of Iraq’s “ambitious” nuclear program, intelligence analysts concluded that the Baath regime was covertly seeking a weapons capability to support its pursuit of regional hegemony and to match the perceived Israeli nuclear threat.

One of the most significant problems was acquiring fissile materials to fuel a nuclear weapon, and there were no quick fixes; the French were providing highly enriched uranium for research reactors that they were supplying but diversion of the HEU for weapons could not be accomplished without “terminating or conspicuously violating international safeguards.” Moreover, neither the OSIRAK nor the ISIS reactors that the French were building could “produce more than a few grams of plutonium in the fuel elements.” It would be an “extremely difficult technical operation” taking years to produce enough plutonium under a weapon and that would have to “be accomplished under the noses of inspectors and visiting scientists.”

A nuclear Iraq would be a “destabilizing” force in the region, especially if it appeared before an Israel-Palestinian settlement, but Washington lacked significant leverage to prevent Baghdad from acquiring nuclear technology. France and Italy had been selling nuclear supplies to Iraq but if it became evident that Iraq was seeking a weapons capability they would face a “painful dilemma.” Given their non-proliferation commitments both would demonstrate “displeasure with Iraq’s behavior” but their “important political and economic interests” in Iraq (petroleum supplies, export markets, etc.) would “argue against a forceful response.” And given those interests, it would be difficult to press such allies as France and Italy to cooperate against Iraq without creating “considerable friction.”

How Israel would take in Iraqi nuclear aspirations was the subject of speculation. The “present limits of Israeli tolerance are unknown” but the analysts did not think that Israel would take “really drastic action unless they are convinced that Iraq is on the verge of acquiring one or two deliverable nuclear weapons.” That proved to be a significant underestimation of Israel’s “limits” because Israeli aircraft bombed the low-capacity OSIRIK reactor in 1981 before it had gone on-line.

Document 5 [Deleted], International Technology Office, Los Alamos National Laboratory, ITO-79-155, 22 September 1979 Event, November 26, 1979. Secret.
Source: Department of Energy Freedom of Information Act Release.

This Los Alamos study is another in the series of report and studies of the Vela event performed by U.S. intelligence agencies, the national labs, and contractors. It discusses the bhangmeter signals that were the center of the controversy and the traveling ionospheric disturbance measured at the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico. Additional sections (with significant redactions) concern covert nuclear weapons development and the circumstantial evidence suggesting that the Vela satellite detected a nuclear test.

Document 6A-B
A: Director of Central Intelligence, NI IIM 79-10028, The 22 September 1979 Event, December 1979, Secret (2013 Release)

B:Director of Central Intelligence, NI IIM 79-10028, The 22 September 1979 Event, December 1979, Secret (2004 Release)
Sources: Freedom of Information Act Releases by Department of Energy and the CIA respectively.

This study begins, as the National Security Council requested, by assuming that the September 22, 1979 Vela event was a nuclear detonation. It discusses the possibility that the detonation could have occurred due to an accident, and noted the Defense Intelligence Agency’s suggestion that the Soviet Union might have had reasons to conduct a covert test in violation of its treaty commitments. But most of the study is concerned with other possibilities to explain the incident--a secret test by South Africa or Israel, or India, or Pakistan, or a secret joint test by South Africa and Israel.

The two versions, released nine years apart, reveal an inconsistent and incoherent declassification process. The 2004 version, in some instances, contains more information through page 10 than the 2013 version. But the 2013 release (which is currently under appeal) includes some information from a “Secret Test by Others” (Pakistan, India) and the map on page 12 that had not been released before. The entire discussion section (minus some classification data) is included in the 2004 version but substantial portions are deleted from the 2013 release. Likewise, substantially more information from pages 8 and 9 was redacted from the 2013 version than the 2004 version. Two sections withheld in their entirety from the 2013 version focused on the possibility that the event was either a secret Israeli or a joint Israeli-South African test.

Document 7: Special Projects Division, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Proliferation Analysis and International Assessments, February 1980, Secret
Source: Department of Energy Freedom of Information Act Release

An example of another Special Projects Division publication, this issue of Proliferation Analysis and International Assessments includes a heavily excised article on Iraq, a piece on South Africa’s security prospects, and apparently a third essay that has been wholly exempted. The essay on South Africa’s nuclear aims suggests that the arguments pro and con for a nuclear capability to deal with regional security threats are so powerful that “internal political and bureaucratic” consideration are probably more relevant for nuclear decisions.

Document 8: National Intelligence Council, NIC M 85-10001, The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation: Balance of Incentives and Constraints, September 1985, Secret, excised copy.
Source: CIA Research Tool (CREST), National Archives, College Park, Md.

The most recent release from the CIA documents database at the National Archives included this analysis of “The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation: Balance of Incentives and Constraints.” The analyst sought to explain why “no additional overt proliferation of nuclear weapons has actually occurred” since the Chinese nuclear test, India had not weaponized while Israel and South Africa had not “taken any action to signal overt possession of nuclear weapons.” The author saw serious proliferation risks in a number of Third World countries, but the emphasis was on “What Causes Proliferation Not to Occur.” A number of variables were relevant, including more complex decision-making processes, changes in global economic conditions, and the global nonproliferation regime, including the NPT, organizations such as the nuclear suppliers group, and an “international norm against developing nuclear explosives.” With respect to decision-making, some of the earlier nuclear programs were in countries where a “few key figures” secretly shaped the original decisions in such countries as Israel and Taiwan. With ongoing political development, however, “the costs of making decisions that favor proliferation are higher . . . and more likely to be criticized by groups with political clout.” Competition for resources could block decisions for weapons programs and critics could argue that it was not so clear that having a nuclear weapon actually yields “additional national security.” 

Document 9: John T. Kriese, Defense Intelligence Agency, “Talking Points for briefing to House Energy and Commerce Committee – Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, on 24 April 1991,” 24 April 1991. Secret/Noforn.
Source: Defense Intelligence Agency Freedom of Information Act Release.

Only a few months after the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm, these talking points were prepared for John T. Kriese, who at the time was both chief of DIA’s Nuclear Energy Division and chairman of the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee. The U.S. government was learning more and more about the status of the Iraqi nuclear program and the talking points focused on the intelligence that Washington had available. This redacted version includes some details on the elements of the Iraqi program, characterizes U.S. knowledge “as good at the strategic level” and notes the views expressed in a November 1989 concerning the timeline for Iraqi development of a nuclear weapon. Foreshadowing the debate over aluminum tubes a decade later (Document 15A, Document 15B) the State Department and Energy Department intelligence components had view that differed from the estimate’s conclusion on how soon Iraq could have a bomb. According to Kriese, “Iraqi efforts to acquire parts for gas centrifuges . . . were uncovered and stopped.”

Document 10: Defense Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Assessment, DST-1540Z-509-92-SI, Nuclear Proliferation Data Sheets, November 1992. Top Secret/Noforn.
Source: Defense Intelligence Agency Freedom of Information Act Release.

This extract from a collection of DIA reports on national nuclear weapons programs, focuses on North Korea—which is discussed in the both the key judgments section as well as in a chapter which examines several aspects of the North Korean nuclear program. The chapter examines North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, fuel cycle, the extent of foreign assistance, treaty obligations, the nuclear program and possible future developments, and delivery vehicles. In both the key judgments and chapter it is noted that under some circumstances, the specifics of which are redacted but probably apparently involved as covert facility for the production of fissile material, “North Korea might already have a nuclear device.”

Document 11: Defense Intelligence Agency telegram, “South Africa: Nuclear Program in Turmoil,” April 15, 1994, Secret/Noforn.            
Source: Defense Intelligence Agency Freedom of Information Act Release.

According to this message, with the liquidation of South Africa's weapons program, "disgruntled" scientists under threat of lay-off "threatened to reveal closely guarded secrets … unless they receive severance pay."

Document 12: [Deleted], Z Division, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Challenges of Advanced Nuclear Weapon Development in India, November 1998. Secret/Restricted Data.
Source: Department of Energy Freedom of Information Act Release.

This heavily-redacted study is one of the few Z Division documents that have been released. An unredacted portion (pp. 25-26) reports on the statements, labeled “inconsistent” by the author(s), of Indian nuclear scientists after the May 1998 Indian nuclear tests with regard to specific details of the devices tested.  

Document 13: [Deleted], Z Division, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Challenges of Advanced Nuclear Weapon Development in Pakistan, May 1999. Top Secret/Codeword.
Source: Department of Energy Freedom of Information Act Release.

This study, even more heavily redacted than the Z Division study on India (Document 11), examined the status of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon status, and number of other topics (deleted from the table of contents), and policy implications. The Joint Special Operations Command is among the agencies on the distribution list. As the report is a “Gamma Controlled Item,” some of the excisions relate to communications intelligence information.

Document 14: [Deleted], Joint Military Intelligence College, From Independence to the Bomb: India’s Nuclear Motivations, 1945-1974, August 2000.
Source: Defense Intelligence Agency Freedom of Information Act Release.

This unclassified JMIC thesis focuses both on general motivations for nuclear proliferation as well as examining the specific case of India. Its chapters focus on key issues for nuclear motivations analysis; economic motivations for nuclear power, 1945–1964; India’s bid for nuclear self-reliance, 1962–1974; India’s nuclear motivations, and implications of India’s decisions.

Documents 15A-B:
A: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency “Iraq: Procuring Possible Nuclear-Related Gas Centrifuge Equipment,” Military Intelligence Digest Supplement, November 30, 2001, Top Secret/Codeword.

B: U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Intelligence, Technical Intelligence Note, “Iraq: Recent Aluminum Tube Procurement Efforts,” September 13, 2002, Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Releases

These documents highlight the competing pre-Iraq War claims within the intelligence community concerning specialized aluminum tubes that Iraq had been trying to procure. The DIA article briefly describes Iraq’s effort to procure aluminum tubes from 1986 to 1991 and discusses the potential for their use for conventional military purposes. After a brief description of the Iraqi nuclear program and the operation of gas centrifuges, DIA offered an assessment of the capability of the centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium: “Although alternative uses for these tubes are possible, such as rocket motor cases or rocket launch tubes, the specifications are consistent with earlier Iraqi gas centrifuge rotor designs.”  During the lead-up to the 2003 war this became the Intelligence Community’s official position as well as that of the Bush administration, although Energy and State Department intelligence dissented.[2]

While the Department of Energy dissented on aluminum tubes its intelligence office went along with the prevailing view that Iraq was trying to “rejuvenate” its nuclear program. According to the DOE dissent, the Iraqis wanted to acquire the tubes for conventional military purposes, more likely for rocket motor cases. If the Iraqis were trying to develop a gas centrifuge, it probably was based on the designs of Austro-German physicist Gernot Zippe (rather than the one developed by the University of Virginia’s Jesse Beams) and the walls of the aluminum tubes were too thick to be used for the Zippe model. The Iraq Survey Group later gathered evidence suggesting that the Energy Department’s explanation of the aluminum tubes was correct.


1. For analyses of the determinants of proliferation and nonproliferation, see, for example, Etel Solingen, Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007); Scott D. Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?:Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security 21, 3 (Winter 1996/97): 54-86; Mitchell Reiss, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995).

2.W.F. Raborn, Director of Central Intelligence and Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, “Memorandum of Understanding Between the Atomic Energy Commission and the Central Intelligence Agency Concerning Work to Be Performed at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory,” August 3, 1965;  [Deleted], “Charting a Technical Revolution: An Interview with Former DDS&T Albert Wheelon,” Studies in Intelligence, 45, 2 (2001): 31-44.

3. Jeffrey T. Richelson (ed.), National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 181, U.S. Intelligence and the South African Bomb, March 13, 2006; Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 277-282.For background on South African nuclear history, see Anna-Mart van  Wyk, “Apartheid’s Bomb and Regional Liberation: Cold War Perspectives,"; ”Ally or critic? The United States’ Response to South African Nuclear Development, 1949-1980,” Cold War History 7 (2007): 169-225; and “Sunset over Atomic Apartheid: United States–South African nuclear relations,1981–93,”Cold War History 11 (2011):51-79

4.  Jeffrey T. Richelson (ed.), National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 190, The Vela Incident: Nuclear Test or Meteoroid?, May 5, 2006; Richelson, Spying on the Bomb,283-316.

5. William Burr, (ed.), National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 367, The Nixon Administration and the Indian Nuclear Program, 1972-1974,”, and  National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 333, The United States and Pakistan's Quest for the Bomb; Jeffrey T. Richelson (ed.), National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 87, U.S. Intelligence and the Indian Bomb, April 13, 2006. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, pp. 218-235, 327-332, 338-346, 427-446.

Document Description Notes

1. For secret Israeli-South African cooperation during the 1970s. see Saha-Polakow Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (New York, 2010), 74-153.

2. See David Barstow, William J. Broad and Jeff Gerth,How the White House Embraced Disputed Arms Intelligence,” The New York Times, 3 October 2004, for an account of the dispute over the aluminum tubes.

Nuclear Proliferation International History Project

The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more