‘The DEFCON III Affair’

[ NOTE: This is an excerpt from President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, 30 January 2013, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, CA. The excerpt is part of a section on intelligence written by Matthew T. Penney, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, History Staff ]

Nixon and Kissinger

The war crisis reached its apex, as far as US security interests were concerned, on the night of 24-25 October, in the now famous White House decision— made without President Nixon present— to bring US military forces to a higher alert status (DEFCON III) worldwide.

From an intelligence point of view, a number of developments had occurred by 24 October to justify top US policymakers’ careful scrutiny of the broader US-Soviet situation. A crisis had developed as the tide of the war definitely turned in Israel’s favor. Cease-fi res unraveled, Israeli forces threatened to annihilate Egypt’s 3rd Army in the Sinai, and Moscow became suspicious that, despite Washington’s assurances, the United States would not or could not restrain the Israelis. [14 lines not declassified] 34

Atop these alarming reports came an extremely tough note to President Nixon from Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev threatening to dispatch Soviet troops to the Middle East unilaterally. Kissinger, Defense Secretary Schlesinger, JCS Chairman Admiral Moorer, White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, General Brent Scowcroft (Kissinger’s NSC deputy), and DCI Colby were the officers who participated in the rump session of the WSAG during the night of 24-25 October that resulted in the remarkable decision for a Defense Condition III (DEFCON III) alert. While they met, Nixon remained upstairs in the White House, although Kissinger conferred with him by phone before the group’s decision.

Many questioned, then and later, whether the decision for DEFCON III was based on legitimate alarms or whether it was an overreaction. There has also been speculation that the decision may have been politically motivated, at least in part, by the needs of a Watergate beleaguered White House. 35 Colby considered that the DEFCON III decision had been justified and four days after that WSAG meeting, so informed Secretary Kissinger. 36 In his memoirs Colby explicitly supported Kissinger’s decision for the DEFCON III alert. Writing in 1978, Colby believed that Kissinger had not overreacted, inasmuch as Defense Condition III was the lowest level of US military alert, and the Strategic Air Command and a good portion of the Pacific Command were already at that level. 37 Ray Cline’s view of Kissinger’s role in the DEFCON III affair is less generous. “I have always looked on this as a kind of shell game, a superficial exercise,” he later stated. “That is, Kissinger knew what he wanted to do all along, had already decided to do it.” In Cline’s view, Kissinger only summoned Secretary of Defense Schlesinger and the others to give the decision the semblance of official action. “I’ve heard that President Nixon was upstairs drunk that night.” Cline observed, “I don’t know that that’s a fact, but it is clear and we didn’t know it at the time how far Nixon was out of things in those days.” 38

In retrospect, Colby held that the October Middle East War afforded a number of intelligence lessons. In his view, the experience demonstrated that the Intelligence Community’s collection machinery could be superb when focused as it had been in the latter days of the crisis, but that the real challenge for the future would be to make the analytic process function with the same degree of excellence. To accomplish this, Colby believed that more automatic challenge or variations to the consensus must be built into the analytical process. In addition, Colby pointed out, US intelligence before the war had suffered from a dearth of independent coverage and [less than one line not declassified] The intelligence provided the White House had been too much a CIA product. In the future, he concluded, the White House must more fully share privi1eged data with the DCI, while the full analytical weight of the entire Intelligence Community must be brought more directly to bear on policymaking considerations. 39

Colby subsequently made some progress in correcting these weaknesses. He stimulated more competitive analysis and greater analytic contribution by agencies of the Community other than the CIA. He also encouraged advances in coverage by special technical systems, as well as the acquisition of [less than one line not declassified] He broadened the responsibilities of the Intelligence Community’s watch function, to prevent a repeat of the situation that existed at the time of the October War’s outbreak— when the National Indications Center had had no explicit requirement to warn, only to watch, and the USIB’s Watch Committee had “degenerated into participation only by action officers rather than serious analysts or high officials.” 40 Colby also set in motion new initiatives that led ultimately to the creation of a Special Assistant to the DCI for Strategic Warning.

Colby was not successful, however, in changing Henry Kissinger’s proclivity for keeping sensitive information to himself. Despite the excellent crisis management support that Colby and the Intelligence Community contributed after the hostilities began, their failure to foresee the war’s out break hardened Nixon’s and Kissinger’s conviction that US intelligence was deficient on many scores and further damaged Colby’s standing at this, the very outset of his tenure as DCI. His role thereafter remained that of a senior staff specialist to whom the White House looked for intelligence data and support, but not for interpretations of broader issues, to say nothing of policy recommendations. On most issues Colby had to deal with Kissinger’s deputy, Brent Scowcroft, and NSC staffers and was shut out from any meaningful, continuing access to the major policy players.

34 [one line not declassifi ed] The 5 November issue of Aviation Week stated flatly that the Soviets had sent two brigades of nuclear armed SCUD missiles to Egypt and that the US Government had satellite pictures to prove it. [one line not declassifi ed] A parallel study conducted within the NSC carried an even more alarmist tone (compartmented intelligence, Nixon materials, box 132 NSC files/HAK office files). [six lines not declassified]

35 Among the skeptics at the time was Australia’s Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who, when asked at a press club luncheon (8 November) whether US bases in Australia bad been put on more than normal alert, answered: “I don’t know if they were put on alert. I wasn’t told. I believe the announcement was for domestic American consumption.” His remarks were noted, with anger, in the White House (see Top Secret documentation in Nixon materials, box 2, White House special files/staff and office files). This DEFCON III nighttime episode took place just four days after Mr. Nixon’s Halloween Massacre: the departure of Messrs. Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus. One interpretation at the time was that the Washington Special Action Group’s decision had been made at least in part to undercut any thought in the Kremlin that the White House was too paralyzed by Watergate to take decisive action on a crisis situation abroad.

36 Colby, Memorandum for Kissinger. “Critique of Middle East Crisis,” 27 October 1973.

37 Colby, Honorable Men, p.367.

38 Cline, interview by Ford, 31 March 1988.

39 Colby, Memorandum for Kissinger, “Critique of Middle East Crisis,” 27 October 1973.


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