35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Nuclear Weapons on Okinawa Declassified December 2015, Photos Available Since 1990

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Published: Feb 19, 2016
Briefing Book #541

Edited by William Burr, Barbara Elias*, and Robert Wampler

For more information, contact National Security Archive: 202.994.7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu.

Interagency Panel Grants Archive Appeal, Also Releases 9/11 and Taiwan Documents

Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) also declassified:

  • CIA Post-9/11 Reports With Discredited Information about Iraqi Nuclear Programs
  • U.S. Discovery of Taiwan's Laser Uranium Enrichment Program Which Caused Secret Flap in U.S.-Taiwan Relations in 1977

Washington, D.C., February 19, 2016 – For the first time, the U.S. government has officially declassified the fact that the United States stored nuclear weapons on Okinawa during the Cold War. Although an open secret for decades, the subject has been controversial because Japan’s leaders and U.S. officials have consistently denied the presence of such weapons on Japanese territory. However welcome the release may be, its significance is somewhat tempered by the astonishing fact that U.S. Air Force photographs of nuclear weapons on the island have been publicly available for over 25 years. The National Security Archive today is posting the first formally declassified document on the subject, along with several of the photos originally released in 1990 in Air Force collections at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which have essentially gone unnoticed until now.

Also posted today are recently released CIA documents containing bogus information about Iraq’s nuclear programs and State Department cables about another nuclear controversy from the Cold War – the U.S. discovery that Taiwan was conducting laser uranium enrichment research. These records are now in the public domain thanks to the work of the Interagency Security Classification Review Panel (ISCAP), a component of NARA.

The National Security Archive applauds ISCAP for its decisions, which followed appeals by our staff. (Note: not every document is fully declassified.) At the same time, we are obliged to point out that release of this information has been far too long in coming, and the reflexive insistence by national security officials that these materials, the substance of which has been known for many years, remain under official wraps has resulted in an inordinate waste of government time and resources, and has delayed the public’s ability to understand the underlying, critical policy issues more deeply.

New ISCAP Releases on Nuclear Policy

During the late 1960s, when Tokyo and Washington negotiated the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control, the Joint Chiefs of Staff worried that the U.S. nuclear posture in the Pacific would degrade because the Japanese wanted nuclear weapons removed from the island. According to a recently declassified Defense Department chronology on the Okinawa negotiations published today by the National Security Archive, the Japanese wanted the U.S. to make a public statement that no nuclear weapons would be stationed in Okinawa at the time of reversion, but the Joint Chiefs argued that such a declaration would set a “dangerous precedent,” apparently by violating the “neither confirm nor deny” policy on the location of U.S. nuclear weapons.

For years the factual matter of whether the United States stored nuclear weapons on Japanese territory, Okinawa in particular, was one of the most sensitive official secrets in U.S.-Japan relations during the Cold War.[1] While journalists and researchers took it for granted that the weapons had once been there, Washington officially followed the “neither confirm nor deny” approach. The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) has settled the issue in December 2015 by declassifying the Okinawa chronology in its entirety and taking the nuclear component of the Cold War Tokyo-Washington relationship out of the shadows.

The chronology had been heavily excised but ISCAP declassified it in its entirely. In a series of recent decisions on documents on U.S. nuclear policy issues, ISCAP also released:

  • Fuller versions of State Department telegrams on sensitive Carter administration negotiations concerning nuclear activities in Taiwan. For the first time, the U.S. government has acknowledged its discovery in 1977 that Taiwan had been conducting a secret research program on laser uranium enrichment technology, which was in violation of a U.S.-Taiwan understanding, and which led Washington to demand that Taiwan stop the research as a condition for receiving U.S. nuclear technology.
  • Two CIA reports on Iraq and its weapons activities produced during the months after 9/11; the CIA had denied both in their entirety. Neither treated Iraq as a significant threat, but both made claims which would become part of the justification for the 2003 war: that Iraq 1) had acquired aluminum tubes for gas centrifuges and 2) had deployed mobile biological laboratories, claims which were later disproven.
  • A 1977 Defense Science Board report on air-launched cruise missiles which the Defense Department had denied in its entirety. The report reviewed possible near-term and longer-term threats, such as attacks on U.S. bomber bases by submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which could prevent B-52 bombers from (a) approaching the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, and (b) launching cruise missiles against air defense and other targets.
  • Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Department memoranda from the late 1970s and early 1980s on nuclear war planning, including targeting options and intelligence support for strategic policy. Significant information had previously been denied, including critical comments that intelligence resources for targeting policy were “grossly inadequate.”

These releases are prime examples of the positive contribution ISCAP has made from its position in the nexus between the government secrecy system and public requests for declassification. Since its creation in the mid-1990s, ISCAP has played a major role in releasing information which U.S. government agencies had over-classified. Under presidential executive orders, starting with President Bill Clinton’s E.O. 12958 in 1994, ISCAP members, representing the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the National Security Council, and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), continue to make decisions on mandatory declassification review (MDR) appeals, in the event that the original requester is dissatisfied with the results of an initial agency decision. Using some combination of majority rule and consensus-building techniques, ISCAP has often used its authority to declassify more information than the agencies have on their own. Over the years it has done so 71 percent of the time; in some instances it has significantly reversed agency decisions and thereby greatly expanded knowledge of key developments in U.S. national security policy. In 2014, according to to government figures, in decisions on 451 documents, ISCAP declassified 181 documents in their entirety, 157 in part, and reaffirmed the classification of 113 documents.[2]

MDR requests have the advantage of allowing two chances for appeals, unlike the Freedom of Information Act, where only one administrative appeal is possible and litigation – often prohibitively expensive – is the final recourse. Lawsuits involving substantive national security information are highly difficult because judges are far more likely to accept executive branch claims about the sensitivity of the classified information at stake in a lawsuit than to side with non-governmental plaintiffs who lack access to those materials. Precisely because of the opportunity for two appeals, the final one being to ISCAP, the National Security Archive over the years has favored MDR requests when documents have had higher odds of containing especially sensitive information, for example on nuclear weapons or intelligence. This has been the case for requests to such agencies as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department but also for some records held by NARA and the Department of State.

The ISCAP process has its limits. When agencies such as CIA and the Energy Department use statutory exemptions to keep documents classified, ISCAP has no authority to reverse them; it can only try persuasion. In some areas, ISCAP has been reluctant to challenge agency decisions on topics some government officials consider especially sensitive; for example, despite arguments that requested materials can safely be released, ISCAP has affirmed decisions by the National Security Agency to exempt information on communications intelligence activities during the Cold War. It also has affirmed – though only partially – Pentagon decisions to classify details of nuclear war planning and nuclear weapons decision-making going back to 1960.




Document 1: “Okinawa Calendar of Documents,” n.d., Top Secret (previous release)

Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Melvin Laird Papers, box 8, Japan: Okinawa, Calendar of Documents

This calendar of documents from the Melvin Laird Papers held by the Ford Presidential Library represents the first official declassification of a document that in effect reveals the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of U.S. nuclear secrets: 1) the presence of nuclear weapons in Japan and Okinawa up through the Nixon administration, and 2) the existence of a secret “transit agreement” permitting movement of U.S. nuclear weapons in and out of Japan and Okinawa, which was part of the 1960 security treaty between the two countries. The fate of U.S. nuclear weapons in Okinawa was a crucial issue in the negotiation between the Nixon and Sato governments leading to the island’s reversion to Japan in 1972. But the subject was highly controversial in Japanese society, where political leaders have followed a “Three No’s” policy (neither possess, nor maintain, nor permit the introduction from outside) . Nearly two decades ago, the National Security Archive posted documents on the Okinawa negotiations and the Pentagon’s pressure to retain U.S, rights to reintroduce nuclear weapons onto the island under cover of the “transit agreement.” More recently, the Japanese government carried out its own official investigation into the “secret” nuclear agreements which resulted in Japan confirming the existence of the agreement

Outside of the isolated document releases by NARA, the Department of Defense and State Department have systematically withheld declassification of documents regarding U.S. nuclear weapons in Japan and Okinawa. The perceived sensitivity of these issues is believed to be the reason that the State Department’s official Foreign Relations of the United States volume on U.S,-Japan relations during the first Nixon administration remains unpublished. Nevertheless, the recently released official OSD history of the Laird years discusses explicitly the nuclear aspects of the Okinawa reversion negotiations (see in particular pages 330-336), with significant aspects of the historical narrative mirroring the information found in the Laird records calendar of documents on Okinawa. Perhaps changes in the Japanese government position and the release of the OSD history prompted ISCAP to declassify the chronology.

In the fully released version of the Laird Okinawa calendar, the summaries of Documents 2, 3, 4, 13 and 32, which were redacted in the initial release, directly address the question of nuclear weapons on Okinawa. The first four items demonstrate the Pentagon’s concern, as the Nixon administration began developing its security policies regarding Japan, that the U.S. retain its nuclear rights after Okinawa reverted to Japan, arguing that loss of these rights would degrade U.S. nuclear capabilities in the Pacific and Asia. The last item reveals how Laird, reflecting the concerns of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pressed Nixon to refuse to meet Japanese demands that the U.S. make a public statement that no nuclear weapons would be stationed in Okinawa at the time of reversion, arguing that this would establish a “dangerous precedent,” presumably by violating Washington’s “neither confirm nor deny” policy on the location of nuclear weapons.


Documents 2A-B: The Carter Administration and the Taiwanese Nuclear Program

A: State Department telegram 305274 to U.S. Embassy Taipei, “The Taiwan Research Reactor,” 22 December 1977, Secret, excised copy (See previous release here)

B: State Department telegram 225046 to U.S. Embassy Taipei, “Follow-Up to Nuclear Team Visit: Demarche to President Chiang,” 5 September 1978 (See previous release here)

Source: MDR request to State Department

These State Department telegrams document U.S. government monitoring of the Taiwanese nuclear program. Throughout the 1970s Washington made determined efforts to prevent the Taiwanese government from acquiring sensitive nuclear technology which could bring it close to a weapons capability. For example, during the early and the mid-1970s, Washington succeeded in discouraging Taipei from acquiring reprocessing technology from France and then the Netherlands. Another flap occurred in 1977, when International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors detected what appeared to be efforts to violate safeguards agreements by diverting spent fuel from the Taiwan Research Reactor (TRR). The TRR suspended its operations and Washington developed terms [Document 2A] for restarting the reactor. Comparing the earlier release of this document with the ISCAP release indicates that some of the language that the State Department had withheld was truly small beer (e.g. “acceptable” or “may”), but some of the restored language is of more interest – for example, a prohibition against the chemical analysis of irradiated fuel samples to prevent steps toward plutonium reprocessing. The terms for resuming TRR operations included safeguards arrangements which would be implemented by the IAEA. Those arrangements remain classified but they probably involved an improvement of the safeguard arrangements which were already in place in 1976 and which are in the public record.

By contrast, Document 2B, a State Department telegram from 1978, had been massively excised previously. ISCAP’s review produced significant new information demonstrating that U.S. concerns went far beyond problems at the TRR. In July 1978 a team of U.S. government experts met with Taiwanese scientists and officials, including key personnel at scientific research centers the group visited in Taiwan, including the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CIST). During this visit the U.S. team discovered that a scientist at CIST had been conducting research in laser uranium enrichment technology, a technology with considerable weapons potential and therefore a genuine proliferation risk. The telegrams on the visit remain partially excised, but the ISCAP release of the 1977 telegram demonstrates the Carter administration reading the riot act to President Chiang Ching-kuo, warning that if there was any uncertainty about Taiwan’s cooperation, Washington would find it “impossible to continue supporting nuclear export licenses for your power program.”


Document 3: “Report of the Strategic Panel of the 1977 DSB [Defense Science Board] Summer Study on Cruise Missiles,” n.d., Secret, excised copy

Source: MDR request to Defense Department

After the Defense Department received an MDR request for this Defense Science Board report, it attempted to coordinate a declassification review with the Navy and Air Force. But neither service followed through; consequently, the Defense Department decided to deny the report altogether, in effect leaving it to ISCAP to adjudicate the matter. The released report has significant excisions but it provides an interesting perspective on air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). The Pentagon sought ALCMs in order to give B-52 bombers greater destructive capability by allowing them to blast air defenses and other Soviet threat targets which would increase the odds of reaching other targets in the interior. In 1977, R&D work on the ALCM was ongoing and a special Defense Science Board panel chaired by Michael M. May, a nuclear weapons designer who had senior roles at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, looked closely at the possible military threats the ALCM could face when it was eventually deployed.

The DSB was highly supportive of the ALCM project but worried that improved Soviet air defenses could neutralize the missile’s capability. For example, in the event that the Soviets could prevent B-52s from approaching their coast lines, the panel recommended improving ALCM range and equipping (by 1985) all B-52s on ground alert with 20 ALCMs each. Moreover, in light of a possible threat from Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile attacks on U.S. bomber bases, the panel called for improved reaction times for B-52s so they could escape such attack. To minimize detection, the DSB proposed smaller radar cross section (RCS) for cruise missiles. The panel also speculated at some length about a range of Soviet threats in the 1990s, including possible capabilities to destroy cruise missiles in flight or greater threats to U.S. bomber bases, which could necessitate a second generation ALCM and improvements in bomber design in order to achieve faster “flyout capability.”

Only months after this study was prepared, the Defense Department sponsored a competition between the AGM 109 (Tomahawk) (McConnell Douglas) and the AGM-86B Boeing to determine which was better suited for the B-52. Boeing won the competition and by December 1982 the AGM-86B was operational, with over 1700 units produced by 1985.


Documents 4A-C: SIOP Developments under Presidents Carter and Reagan

A: Walter Slocombe, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs, to David Gombert, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, Department of State, “SIOP Revision,” 31 May 1979, Top Secret, excised copy (See original release here)

B: Daniel J. Murphy, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Policy) to Deputy to the DCI for Resource Management, “IC Staff Study on Intelligence Support to Strategic Forces,” 22 June 1979, Top Secret, Excised copy (See original release here)

C: John W. Vessey, Jr., Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Secretary of Defense, “Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) Revision,” 26 September 1983, Top Secret, excised copy (See first release here) (Second release)

Source: MDR requests to Defense Department

Getting information about the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) from the Defense Department is often an uphill struggle because the offices with “equities” in targeting policy insist on excising information they claim is sensitive on the grounds that it relates to war plans still “in effect.” These concerns are often exaggerated and prevent even retroactive accountability for U.S. nuclear planning during the Cold War. ISCAP does provide greater balance in such instances, and without its decisions, these documents would remain massively excised.

The first document in this group includes substantive information about the Carter administration’s efforts to incorporate options for smaller nuclear attacks in military planning. That led to the framing of Presidential Directive 59 in 1980, but even before Carter signed the PD, Pentagon planners were developing what they called “Selected Attack Options” for use against conventional or nuclear threats to NATO. The types of options under consideration have been excised in this release, but they may have included attacks on Soviet medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) bases, which generally targeted NATO countries, or Warsaw Pact conventional forces based in countries such as East Germany, Czechoslovakia, or Poland.

The third document, also about the SIOP, went through two releases before ISCAP reviewed it. A short memo, it is more about the process than the substance of war planning; the original excisions included brief references to SIOP-6 and the JCS “Black Book” of SIOP options, but it is puzzling why the Defense Department found this information sensitive decades after it was produced. Nevertheless, ISCAP could not agree to release this memo in its entirety. It is possible that the excised passage is a reference to the SIOP decision handbook, which one of the president’s military aides keeps in a special briefcase (the famous “football”). 

The Defense Department memorandum on intelligence support to strategic forces provides an inside perspective from an unhappy intelligence consumer who was displeased with the quality of the information intelligence agencies were producing. For Admiral Daniel Murphy (Ret.), Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, U.S. war plans were only as valid as the strategic intelligence that supported them. Given that the SIOP was a “dynamic” plan that was constantly under review Murphy implied that U.S. intelligence capabilities were “grossly inadequate” for policymakers who would need the most accurate data possible to develop targeting options before, during, or after a “nuclear exchange.”

Documents 5A-B: Iraq through CIA Eyes after 9/11

A: Central Intelligence Agency, “The Iraq Threat,” 15 December 2001, SPWR [Senior Publish When Ready] 12501-07, Top Secret, excised copy

B: Central Intelligence Agency, Senior Executive Memorandum [SEM], “In Response to a query about the status of Iraq's nuclear program,” 11 January 2002, Top Secret, excised copy

Source: MDR request to CIA

These two high-level CIA assessments from late 2001 and early 2002 demonstrate the lack of solid intelligence regarding Iraq’s WMD programs during the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq.[3] There was a marked gap between the empirical information which the CIA could report, and be certain about, and the threat assessments which analysts were tasked to produce. Worst-case outcomes are proposed, then quickly undermined by admitting the lack of any intelligence to support doomsday scenarios. “The worst case scenario is illicit acquisition of sufficient fissile material, uranium or plutonium, to allow Baghdad to produce a crude nuclear weapon within a year. CIA has not detected a dedicated Iraqi effort to obtain fissile material from another government or on the black market but Baghdad could be expected to entertain any offers it deems credible” [SEM].

The memoranda also indicate a significant disparity between what was probable, and what was feared. The analysts were most confident assessing that Saddam Hussein could be developing nuclear capabilities in just under ten years. Iraq might produce a “nuclear weapon, potentially late this decade,” the SEM notes. The SPWR, on the other hand, concludes: “Iraq is trying to jump-start a clandestine uranium enrichment program to produce the fissile material for a weapon, potentially by late this decade.” Those assessments were produced in the shadow of the failure of U.S. intelligence to detect Saddam Hussein’s clandestine nuclear program before the Gulf War. CIA analysts were hesitant to conclude that Iraq was not an immediate threat, yet they had little evidence indicating the existence of an Iraqi nuclear program that genuinely posed a hazard. “Saddam never abandoned his nuclear weapons program, but reporting on Iraqi efforts to revive it is limited. Iraq continues to employ effective denial and deception measures and there are no indicators that Baghdad has embarked on an extensive nuclear weapons effort as it did before the Gulf War” [SEM].

The released paragraphs addressing Iraq’s support of terrorism failed to mention al-Qaeda, surprising in light of claims from Bush Administration officials that Iraq was linked to terrorism and September 11. The Senior Executive Memorandum notes: “Baghdad has reduced its reliance on surrogates, preferring instead to use its own intelligence services for sensitive terrorist operations,” making a connection to non-Iraqi terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, doubtful. Within Iraq, the 2001 memo notes how Saddam maintained a “multilayered and pervasive security apparatus.” The underground networks were critical to the anti-American insurgency that developed following the 2003 U.S. invasion, fragments of which have since evolved into the Islamic State. 

Despite their equivocal findings, these reports are evidence of the intelligence failure which contributed to the U.S. war. For example, CIA analysts linked the procurement of aluminum tubes to the potential development of centrifuges for uranium enrichment – an assertion later seized on by top officials as evidence that Iraq was trying to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. Interestingly, intelligence analysts at the Department of Energy disagreed with this CIA contention, instead assessing that the aluminum tubes in question were much more likely intended for more benign purposes. However this disagreement did not appear to receive a full vetting during the lead-up to the 2003 war. Just as dubious were the CIA statements about mobile biological warfare laboratories, information that can be traced back to the notorious dissembler Curveball.


* National Security Archive Research Fellow Barbara Elias is an Assistant Professor of Government at Bowdoin College




[i] . Chuck Hansen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History (New York: Orion Books, 1988), 133-138.

[ii] . Ibid, 151-154.

[iii] . Aaron Tovish, “The Okinawa Missiles of October,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 30 October 2015; Travis J. Tritten, “Cold War Missileers Refute Okinawa Near-Launch,” Stars and Stripes, 23 December 2015.

Essay and Documents

[1] . Perhaps just as sensitive was the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in funding the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which for years was Japan’s ruling party.

[2] . Information Security Oversight Office, 2014 Report to the President (Washington, D.C., 2015), 20-23.

[3] . Both items are referenced and quoted in the report, dated 31 March 2005, of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction