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The Vela Flash: Forty Years Ago

Edited by William Burr, Avner Cohen, and Richard Wolfson | National Security Archive | September 22, 2019

Washington D.C. – An unidentified flash on 22 September 1979 in the far South Atlantic had a “90% plus” probability of being a nuclear test, according to a CIA finding from later that year. The document, among others uncovered recently through archival research, adds significant weight to the argument that the flash, detected by a U.S. VELA satellite, was not a natural event, as White House science advisers later insisted.

On the fortieth anniversary of the Vela incident, the National Security Archive supplements its earlier postings with documents recently obtained from the Jimmy Carter Library.

The collection includes new information on scientific intelligence provided by the Arecibo Observatory (Puerto Rico) concerning an ionospheric disturbance on 22 September that corresponded to similar evidence from Soviet nuclear tests in the  early 1960s.

The documents also put an unflattering cast on the methods of White House science experts who discounted the views of the intelligence agencies, eventually agreeing to hear them out only so “we can more safely ignore them later.” While chief White House scientist Frank Press argued that the intelligence community had no convincing case, recent scientific studies suggest that the case for a nuclear event interpretation is formidable.

____________________________________________________________

Forty years ago, on 22 September 1979, the bhangmeters on a U.S. VELA satellite picked up signals that were initially interpreted as most likely originating from a nuclear test in the far South Atlantic but which a high-level White House panel chaired by MIT professor Jack Ruina later interpreted as more probably the result of a non-nuclear event (e.g., a striking meteoroid) on or around the satellite. That view became the semiofficial public interpretation but it was contested and controversial. By contrast, according to a White House report published today by the National Security Archive, the Central Intelligence Agency had “assessed the probability of a nuclear test as 90% plus.” [See Document 5]

The CIA and White House science advisers raised their views almost entirely within the walls of government secrecy. In the intervening decade bits and pieces on the Vela incident—and the controversy over it—started to get declassified. Besides the CIA estimate of high probability, another release, a November 1979 memorandum from the Department of Energy included data from the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory in Puerto Rico on an ionospheric disturbance that some interpreted as corroborating evidence of a nuclear explosion [See document 2].

Today’s posting introduces for the first time previously declassified but obscure and previously unpublished documents from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. Collectively shedding light on the controversy over the Vela flash, the new documents supplement the two major collections published by the National Security Archive in 2006 and 2016.

These documents confirm that a number of senior government officials at the Energy Department, the Defense Department, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the CIA, among others, held the view that a nuclear explosion had taken place on 22 September 1979. Nevertheless, White House scientific advisers and officials were so strongly committed to the Ruina panel’s non-nuclear interpretation that they dismissed alternative explanations. They only agreed to hear out the views of dissenting officials “so that we can more safely ignore them.” [See Document 5]

In recent years, the Ruina panel’s arguments have come under critical scrutiny with scientists in the security studies field systematically reinterpreting the Vela data to make the case for a nuclear event. In recent publications, Lars-Erik De Geer (Swedish Defence Force Institute) and Christopher M. Wright (Australian Defence Force Academy) reviewed the publicly available evidence and concluded that the argument for a nuclear explosion is “founded upon three pillars, which include the original optical signal, the iodine-131 evidence, and the hydroacoustic signal.” According to De Geer and Wright, each of the pillars “by itself, is a strong indicator of a nuclear explosion.” For example, they found that the Vela signals provided stronger evidence of a test than the Ruina panel would credit. They further argued that the hydroacoustic data indicated that the test took place on or around the barren Prince Edward Island, some 955 nautical miles off the southern coast of South Africa.[1]

If the Vela sensors did detect a nuclear explosion, who set it off has also been a matter of speculation and controversy. A leading theory, advanced by former Senate staffer Leonard Weiss and others, is that it was an Israeli test conducted with South African logistical assistance.[2] In a major report the CIA also looked at scenarios involving both Israel and South Africa, among other countries, but its conclusions remain classified. President Jimmy Carter shared the view that Israel most likely played a lead role. On 27 February 1980, he wrote in his diary that “We have a growing belief among our scientists that the Israelis did indeed conduct a nuclear test explosion in the ocean near the southern end of South Africa.” [3]

By now, forty years later, it is clear enough that South Africa could not be a suspect.  South Africa was not in a position to conduct such a test, as former South African scientists openly acknowledged years later. Israel, although presumably assisted by the South Africans, remained the sole suspect.[4]

It would be worth knowing which scientists President Carter had in mind, because the Ruina panel would have strongly disagreed with his assessment. He may have become acquainted with scientific intelligence reports as part of his daily briefing, but what they were is unknown. With major studies still classified, such as a critically important report by the Naval Research Laboratory (which the NRL cannot locate) and CIA studies as well as White House files still under declassification review or under appeal, much remains to be learned about U.S. government intelligence collection and analysis as well as the role that politics and diplomacy played in internal discussions of the Vela incident.

Documents

Document 1

White House Situation Room, Situation Room Log, “Reflections of South African Nuclear Event,” 25 October 1979, Secret

1979-10-25

Source: Zbigniew Brzezinski Material, Country Files [NSA 6] Box 72, South Atlantic Nuclear Event, 9/79-6/80

Since its creation during the Kennedy administration, the White House Situation Room has functioned as a communications center and a site for holding sensitive meetings. This record of situation room interactions with various agencies concerning the 22 September event provides an overview of the delayed and unsuccessful efforts to detect the radioactive debris that a nuclear test could have produced. The excised portions are probably a reference to the Air Force Technical Applications Center [AFTAC], which under various names has been monitoring overseas nuclear developments since the late 1940s and which played a role in the search for radioactive samples in the South Pacific after the Vela Incident..

Even though AFTAC found no traces of fallout, analysis of thyroid glands of sheep slaughtered in Australia in October 1979 showed “abnormally high levels” of Iodine 131, a “short-lived isotope that occurs as the result of a nuclear event.”

Document 2

John Deutch, Deputy Secretary of Energy, to Ambassador Henry Owen, enclosing “21-22-September Acoustic Gravity Wave Detection, Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory, Puerto Rico Facility,” 8 November 1979

1979-11-08

Source: Zbigniew Brzezinski Material, Country Files [NSA 6] Box 72, South Atlantic Nuclear Event, 9/79-6/80

Writing to Ambassador-at-Large Henry Owen, who had overlapping roles at the White House and the State Department, John Deutch sent a report of a “traveling ionospheric disturbance”—a wave in the upper atmosphere—detected by the Arecibo Observatory, a giant radio telescope nestled into the mountains of Puerto Rico. According to Deutch, the data on the ionospheric disturbance “possibly may confirm the signal from the VELA system.”

The Arecibo Observatory (now a National Science Foundation facility) can detect signals in the upper atmosphere that originate in violent events at Earth’s surface—including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, nuclear explosions, and even rocket launches. Such events can produce strong sound waves of very low frequency (pitch), far below what the human ear can detect (the periods of these waves are measured in minutes or longer, as opposed to thousandths of seconds for humanly audible sound). These waves propagate upward through the atmosphere. When they reach the ionosphere, a layer of electrically charged particles beginning about 80 kilometers (50 miles) above Earth, they may induce so-called traveling ionospheric disturbances (TIDs).

The Arecibo Observatory is one of the best instruments in the world for observing TIDs. It does conventional radio astronomy for studying the cosmos, but it also sends powerful radar beams into the upper atmosphere to probe Earth’s ionosphere. Several hours after the VELA flash detection, Arecibo observed a TID. Initially downplayed in part because of Aricebo’s location thousands of miles from the VELA event, the observation produced a different perspective from DOE, which suggested that the TID was consistent with “an earthquake or explosion source” and that the wave speed was consistent with an event having come from the VELA source—although ambiguities in the exact type (mode) of the wave made a shorter distance also possible. The available declassified information notes that similar observations (although pre-Arecibo) have been associated with nuclear tests in the Soviet arctic in 1961.

The Department of Energy’s Los Alamos Laboratory developed its thinking on the Arecibo signal, treating it as a possible indicator of a nuclear event. Nevertheless, the Ruina panel would discount the Arecibo data on grounds of “mathematical errors,” although the defense and energy departments strongly disagreed. Pending declassification requests may shed more light on the debate over the Arecibo data.

Document 3

White House Science and Technology [Staff] Report to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Evening Report,” 9 November 1979, Secret

1979-11-08

Source: Staff Material Science and Technology Files [NSA 30], Box 5, [Marcum Chron file]: 1-12/79

According to national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s aides, a panel organized by White House science adviser Dr. Frank Press and chaired by MIT professor Jack Ruina was already reviewing data and heading toward a “preliminary finding” that the Vela flash was not a nuclear event. According to the early findings, “it is entirely possible that the September 22 signal could have been caused by a meteroid of somewhat different velocity, size and rotational motion.” Moreover, the Vela signal “itself differs in some important ways from previous nuclear signals.” Without corroborating data, “these facts tended to make the panel somewhat skeptical that a nuclear explosion actually occurred.”

The report also mentioned Deutch’s report on the newly interpreted data from the Arecibo Observatory. While noting that the Arecibo data “has a very different timescale” and that the “relationship between nuclear explosions and ionospheric disturbances is much less well understood than for optical signals recorded by bhangmeters [on VELA satellites],” it “represents the best lead yet in the search for corroborative data.”

Document 4

Henry Owen/Jerry Oplinger, White House Staff, to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, “South Atlantic Event,”9 January 1980, Secret

1980-01-09

Source: Staff Material Global Issues Files [NSA 28], Box 55, Proliferation – South Atlantic Nuclear Event, 1/80

On 9 January 1980, a “mini-SCC [Special Coordinating Committee]” meeting discussed the 22 September event. According to participants, “The consensus was that we don’t know what happened, and must proceed in policy terms accordingly.” The effort to politicize science is implicit. In a way, that conclusion matched the findings of the Ruina panel. Agnostic semi-official conclusions notwithstanding, important elements of the intelligence community continued to hold that a nuclear event had been detected, as evidenced in a report included in the National Security Archive’s 2016 posting.

Document 5

Jerry Oplinger, National Security Council/Science and Technology Staff, to Ambassador Henry Owen, “South Atlantic Event,” 25 January 1980, Secret, Excised copy

1980-01-25

Source: Staff Material Global Issues Files [NSA 28], Box 55, Proliferation – South Atlantic Nuclear Event, 1/80

This report conveys the approach that senior White House staff took toward dissenting views on the 22 September event. A scheduled presentation by representatives of the Departments of Energy and Defense would provide an opportunity for them to express arguments that a nuclear event had occurred; they would be heard out, according to this memo, “so that we can more safely ignore them.” This can arguably be seen as another possible demonstration of a “whitewash” effort to politicize scientific evidence.

According to Oplinger’s memorandum, the CIA’s “Safeguards-D” report had “assessed the probability of a nuclear test as 90% plus.” The Safeguards-D report was one required by the U.S. Senate when it ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Consistent with proposals by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the treaty be ratified on the basis of specific conditions, the Senate required the Kennedy administration to take specific implementing actions, such as recommendation D: “The improvement of our capability, within feasible and practical limits, to monitor the terms of the treaty, to detect violations, and to maintain our knowledge of Sino-Soviet nuclear activity, capabilities, and achievements.”

Having heard rumors that the CIA wanted to rewrite its safeguards report so that it corresponded to the findings of the Ruina panel, Oplinger wanted to make sure that CIA did no such thing because “nothing would suggest a whitewash more effectively.” If the CIA later decided that it wanted to update the earlier report that would be another matter as long as it could “provide solid and objective reasons.”

Document 6

Frank Press to Stan Turner, “Possible South Atlantic Nuclear Explosion,” 6 June 1980, Secret

1980-06-06

Source: Zbigniew Brzezinski Material, Country Files [NSA 6] Box 72, South Atlantic Nuclear Event, 9/79-6/80

In this memorandum to Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner, Frank Press, White House science adviser, explained the reasoning behind the Ruina panel’s conclusion that the Vela flash was “probably not from a nuclear explosion” and “more likely … caused by a natural event.” He could not have written to Turner, however, without acknowledging the dissents expressed by “key officials” at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA’s Nuclear Intelligence Panel (NIP), and the DOE weapons laboratories, who believed that the Vela signal detected a nuclear event. According to Press, “this is due primarily to the fact that the signal so closely resembles those from previous nuclear explosions, but the weapons laboratories have been unable to come up with a physical explanation that could explain the discrepancies observed in the signal.”

Press also noted that some of the agencies point to the “few pieces of geophysical data from September 22 that might have been related to a nuclear explosion.” He most likely referred to Arecibo data, and quite possibly also to the acoustic signals as analyzed by the naval Research Laboratory. Nevertheless, Press discounted it all: the data had “been thoroughly analyzed and none can be clearly correlated with the VELA signal.” We do not know if CIA Director Turner responded in writing to this memorandum. In the late 1990s, Turner told one of us (Avner Cohen) that he (and the Agency) had no doubt that it was a test and almost certainly an Israeli test.

Believing that White House scientists were not acting in good faith, by the spring of 1980, DIA experts saw the nuclear interpretation as settled in light of Naval Research Laboratory acoustic data that had not been available to the CIA or the Ruina panel. According to a senior DIA official, the acoustic signals were “unique to nuclear shots in a maritime environment.’”

Notes

[1]. Lars-Erik De Geer and Christopher M. Wright, “The 22 September 1979 Vela Incident: The Detected Double-Flash,” Science and Global Security 25 (2017): 95-124, and “The 22 September 1979 Vela Incident: Radionuclide and Hydroacoustic Evidence for a Nuclear Explosion,” Ibid, 26 (2018): 20-54.

[2]. Weiss has written extensively on this issue. See “Israel’s 1979 Nuclear Test and the U.S. Cover-up,” Middle East Policy,” Vol. 18 No.4 (2011); “The 1979 South Atlantic Flash: The Case for an Israeli Nuclear Test,” in Henry Sokolski, ed., Moving Beyond Pretense: Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation (Harrisburg, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, 2014), 345-371; and “Flash from the Past: Why an Apparent Israeli Nuclear Test in 1979 Matters Today,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, (8 September 2015). “Flash from the Past: Why an Apparent Israeli Nuclear Test in 1979 Matters Today.” See also Timothy McDonnell, “International Conference: The Historical Dimensions of South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program,”4 January 2013, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.

[3]. Jimmy Carter, White House Diary, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), p. 405.

[4]. See Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), at 136 and 141, and Nic von Wielligh and Lydai von Wielligh-Steyn, The Bomb: South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Programme (Pretoria: Litera Publications, 2015), at 157.

October 12, 2019 - Posted by | Deception, Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Militarism, Timeless or most popular | ,

2 Comments »

  1. If an American Satellite picked up that signal 40 years ago, imagine what the latest Satellites with far more modern technology can do. But, “no one knows who sent the missiles into Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, disrupting 50% of their Oil production.
    Someone ISN’T telling us the truth…….

    Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | October 12, 2019 | Reply

    • But, If the attack was made by Iran, it would be plastered ALL OVER the MEDIA……

      Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | October 12, 2019 | Reply


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