A nuclear weapons command exercise by NATO in November 1983 prompted fear in the leadership of the Soviet Union that the maneuvers were a cover for a nuclear surprise attack by the United States, triggering a series of unparalleled Soviet military responses, according to a top-secret U.S. intelligence review that has just been declassified.
The PFIAB review repeatedly criticized U.S. intelligence on Soviet leaders, saying at the time of the 1984 postmortems that “the US knew very little about Kremlin decisionmaking.” It added, “Our own leadership needs far better intelligence reporting on and assessments of the mindset of the Soviet leadership — its ideological/political instincts and perceptions.” And the review said the 1984 estimates “were overconfident, particularly in the judgments pertaining to Soviet leadership intentions — since little intelligence, human or technical, existed to support them.”
On a separate track from the two estimates, the director of central intelligence, William Casey, sent a more alarming message to Reagan in June 1984 about the war scare events. Casey’s information came from the intelligence warning staff and showed “a rather stunning array of indicators” of an “increasing aggressiveness in Soviet policy and activities.” Reagan “expressed surprise upon reading the Casey memorandum and described the events as ‘really scary,’ ” former national security adviser Robert McFarlane was quoted in the review.
The war scare marked a turning point for Reagan. He acknowledged that Soviet leaders may have harbored true fears of attack.
All-Source Intelligence Report finds US-Soviet Nuclear Relations on “Hair Trigger” in 1983; Alert Air Force General acted “out of instinct, not informed guidance” to Stop Escalation of the Crisis;President Reagan: “Really Scary”