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Digital National Security Archive (DNSA): U.S. Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction: From World War II to Iraq

About this Collection

This collection includes primary sources used by Jeffrey Richelson, one of the world's leading experts on intelligence, as the basis for the widely acclaimed book, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (W.W. Norton, 2006). In addition to the once largely inaccessible primary source material Richelson used to write his ground-breaking account, the set also includes many of the U.S. Intelligence Community's products on the world's nuclear, biological, chemical, ballistic missile, and military space programs from World War II to the present. Consisting of over 600 documents and 8,300 pages, this collection is the product of an extensive series of Freedom of Information Act requests and in-depth archival research.

Research Value of the Collection

For much of the Cold War, the weapons of mass destruction and space systems that were of primary concern to the United States were those possessed and operated by the Soviet Union. Soviet space systems were able to gather data about the United States, its military forces, and environmental factors (such as the weather) that would have been used in peacetime to assess U.S. capabilities or, in case of a conflict, to target civilian and military facilities in the United States and aid Soviet forces engaged in combat with U.S. and Allied forces. Other space systems, such as navigation and communications systems, would have served as force multipliers in the event of a conflict.

Of course, the Soviet systems of most concern were their weapons of mass destruction--intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles that could be used against the American homeland, as well as shorter-range missiles that could be used against Allied forces in Europe. Those missiles were generally fitted with nuclear warheads of varying yields, although some carried deadly biological agents. In addition, the Soviet Union produced chemical weapons for battlefield use.

Until the mid-1990s very little of the Intelligence Community’s finished intelligence products on Soviet weapons of mass destruction and space systems was available to outside researchers. Thus, scholars investigating topics such as the missile gap controversy, a key element of the 1960 presidential contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, did not have access to the best evidence--the national intelligence estimates from that (and later) period(s) on Soviet strategic forces. In 1995, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the passage of time, the CIA began releasing more of those and other intelligence products concerning Soviet weapons of mass destruction and space systems. Many of the documents that became available in the first wave of released material were published by the National Security Archive in The Soviet Estimate: U.S. Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947-1991. Since that time, more documentation has become available concerning Soviet WMD and space systems, which is included in this compilation.

Even before the last years of the Cold War, the United States devoted significant attention to the WMD programs and space systems--especially nuclear weapons programs--of other nations, whether hostile or friendly, across the planet. Thus, the WMD programs of Argentina, Brazil, China, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, South Africa, and Taiwan all have been targets of U.S. intelligence collection efforts and evaluated by U.S. intelligence analysts. In some cases, the intelligence was used largely to allow U.S. officials to have accurate knowledge of the capabilities of other nations. In other cases, such as South Africa in the 1970s and India in the mid-1990s, it was used in support of U.S. diplomacy aimed at preventing those nations from conducting nuclear tests. In 2003, U.S. intelligence estimates and studies of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction became the centerpiece of the case the U.S. government made publicly as to why it was necessary to invade Iraq. Today, the question of Iran’s plans to develop nuclear weapons is among the most important issues confronting the U.S. and Western Europe.

The availability of U.S. intelligence estimates, studies, reports, and other finished intelligence on foreign weapons of mass destruction and space systems allows researchers to investigate a number of issues, including the linkage between intelligence on foreign programs and systems; U.S. diplomatic (including nonproliferation) and military initiatives as well as U.S. decisions to refrain from action; the history of various foreign WMD and space programs; and the evaluation of U.S. intelligence performance with regard to foreign programs and systems.

Among the specific topics that the researcher will be able to address with the documents in this set are:

  • Cold War intelligence issues such as the missile gap and Soviet deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • The nature of the Vela incident--the apparent indication of a nuclear test in the South Atlantic in September 1979.
  • U.S. intelligence performance with regard to key elements of South Africa’s nuclear weapons program--its method of uranium enrichment, its production of nuclear weapons, and its 1991 disclosure to the International Atomic Energy Agency after signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • U.S. monitoring of nuclear testing.
  • The assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies with regard to the WMD programs of several Middle East nations--Israel, Iraq, Libya.
  • U.S. intelligence estimates of the French nuclear weapons program from the 1950s through the 1960s.
  • U.S. intelligence studies from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, of the prospects of WMD, particularly nuclear, proliferation.
  • The nuclear programs of India and Pakistan.
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