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KH-7 satellite reconnaissance photo of the Pierrelatte Uranium Enrichment Plant in southern France. (Source: U.S. National Archives via Tim Brown) Click to enlarge

U.S. Intelligence and the French
Nuclear Weapons Program

Documents Show U.S. Intelligence Targeted
French Nuclear Program as Early as 1946

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 184

For more information contact:
Jeffrey Richelson, Editor
202/994-7000

Posted - March 21, 2006


Spying on the Bomb:
American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea

By Jeffrey T. Richelson

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Washington, DC, March 21, 2006 - The U.S. Intelligence Community devoted significant effort to the collection and analysis of intelligence concerning the French nuclear weapons program beginning in the early days of the Cold War through the mid-1970s, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and archival research and posted on the Web today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Today's posting includes more than 30 documents -- many originally classified Top Secret -- produced by interagency groups, the Manhattan Engineer District's Foreign Intelligence Section, the CIA, the State Department, the U.S. Pacific Command, and the Strategic Air Command.

The records were obtained by Archive Senior Fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson while conducting research for his recently published book, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (W.W. Norton), and by Archive senior analyst William Burr.

The documents show that French nuclear activities were of sufficient concern to prompt the Manhattan Engineer District's intelligence section to produce a series of reports in 1946 -- based on a variety of sources on French nuclear research and development activities -- on the possibility that French scientists were willing to sell nuclear know-how to the right bidder and described the French search for uranium deposits. Documents from the early 1950s show U.S. intelligence interest in personnel changes in the French atomic energy organization.

The documents also indicate that new technological improvements in U.S. nuclear intelligence gathering were used to closely monitor the French program. The collection effort included the use of overhead reconnaissance systems (including satellites and U-2 aircraft), drones, communications intercepts systems, aircraft to gather debris and signatures from French nuclear tests, and specially-equipped ships stationed near the French Pacific test site.

Intelligence analysts used the results of these collection efforts to produce the classified periodicals, reports by the Office of Scientific Intelligence, and national and special national intelligence estimates included in the electronic briefing book.


U.S. Intelligence and the French Nuclear Weapons Program
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 184
Edited by Jeffrey Richelson

During World War II, as the United States and Britain were working to develop an atomic bomb, their intelligence services tried to determine what progress Germany had made in developing the ultimate weapon. With the collapse of the Third Reich, U.S. intelligence turned part of its attention to Soviet nuclear activities. But while the Soviet Union was the nation whose nuclear activities most concerned U.S. intelligence organizations in the decades after 1945, there were other nations whose nuclear progress was also monitored by the United States starting in the 1940s. One of those nations was France.

Initial French interest in developing nuclear weapons goes back to 1939, when Frédéric Joliot-Curie and other French scientists met with the French managing director of Union Miniere, the company that controlled the uranium in the Congo. (Note 1) After Allied forces landed at Normandy in June 1944, a U.S.-British unit, designated ALSOS, followed the invading troops, collecting scientists, documents, and equipment pertaining to the German nuclear program. But the United States also wanted to prevent France from acquiring nuclear expertise and equipment and was eager to gain control of personnel and hardware related to the German program both for intelligence exploitation and to keep the information from falling into French hands. In April 1945, ALSOS conducted Operation HARBORAGE - seizing key German scientists (including Werner Heisenberg) and an experimental reactor in an area of Germany that was soon to come under the control of French forces. (Note 2)

United States efforts to monitor French nuclear activities are revealed in declassified reports produced by the Manhattan Engineer District's foreign intelligence section in 1946. Six reports (Documents 1-6), based on a variety of sources, provided overviews of French nuclear research and development capabilities, passed on a rumor that French scientists were willing to sell nuclear know-how to the right bidder, summarized the key elements of a speech by Joliot-Curie, France's most prominent nuclear scientist, and described the French search for uranium deposits.

In the early 1950s, other elements of the U.S. Intelligence Community - including the State Department's intelligence unit and Army intelligence - provided information on personnel involved in the French nuclear program (Document 7, Document 8). At the time, and into the mid-1950s, there had been no French decision to pursue development of a nuclear weapon. But after the 1957 defeat of the government of Guy Mollet, which had promised that it would not seek to develop nuclear weapons, that would change. As an article in the CIA's Central Intelligence Bulletin (Document 9) noted in May 1957, pressures appeared to be mounting in France to develop a nuclear weapon.

KH-7 satellite reconnaissance image of the Mururoa Atomic Test Site in French Polynesia, May 26, 1967. (Source: U.S. National Archives via Tim Brown) Click to enlarge

 

It would not be long before France had established an organization to develop a nuclear weapon and began its search for a test site. U.S. intelligence would report in the late 1950s on French progress toward detonating an atomic device - which involved reporting on personnel, reactors, enrichment facilities, the test site in the Sahara, and movements of personnel and equipment. Following the initial test in February 1960, the U.S. Intelligence Community would add estimating the timing of future tests, monitoring the results of those tests, and the research, development and production of delivery systems, to its tasks. When France was forced by Algerian independence to find a new test site, it became necessary to also monitor the construction effort and prepare to monitor tests at the new site in the Pacific.

The collection and analysis effort involved a variety of U.S. intelligence organizations. Data was collected from human sources by the CIA, while the National Security Agency intercepted relevant communications (Document 28). The CIA and National Reconnaissance Office (after its creation in September 1961) used aircraft such as the U-2 (Document 18, Document 24) and satellites to obtain overhead imagery of reactors, enrichment facilities, and test sites.

In addition, the specific signatures generated by French nuclear detonations - including seismic signals and, until France terminated atmospheric testing in 1974, the electromagnetic pulses, x-rays, infrared radiation and debris generated from atmospheric explosions - were also collected. Air Force Technical Applications Center ground stations, AFTAC/Air Force satellites (including the VELA and Defense Support Program satellites), debris-collecting U-2 aircraft operated by the Strategic Air Command, and U.S. Navy ships also contributed to the collection effort. In the early 1960s, AFTAC sought to establish ground stations closer to Algeria to facilitate test monitoring (Document 14, Document 15).

The data generated by U.S. collection efforts allowed CIA and other Intelligence Community analysts to produce current intelligence reports (for example, Document 13) as well as more in-depth studies and estimates of the French nuclear weapons program starting in the late 1950s - such as The French Nuclear Weapons Program of July 1963 (Document 19) and August 1965's The French Pacific Nuclear Test Center (Document 25).

The documents included in this briefing book were obtained from the U.S. National Archives and through Freedom of Information Act requests (some filed by National Security Archive senior analyst William Burr) as part of the research conducted by Archive Senior Fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson for his book, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea. (Note 3) They provide information on both the collection and analysis of data concerning the French nuclear program and illustrate the extensive efforts that the United States made, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s, to collect and analyze data about French nuclear weapons activities.


Documents
Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Document 1: Lt. Col. S.M. Skinner to Col. W.R. Shuler, Subject: Atomic Experiments in France, February 18, 1946. Top Secret
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), RG 226, Entry 210, Box 431, Folder 2

This memorandum, from a member of the War Department's Strategic Services Unit to a member of the Manhattan Engineer District's Foreign Intelligence Section, concerns a rumor passed on by a "reliable source." The rumor involved the alleged willingness of some French scientists to sell information concerning the "formula and techniques concerning atomic explosives" to "one of the smaller nations."

Document 2: Henry Lowenhaupt, Subject: Review of the French Atomic Energy Development, July 25, 1946. Top Secret
Source: NARA, RG 77, Entry 22, Box 173

This study was authored by a member of the Manhattan Engineer District's Foreign Intelligence Section. It provides a review of what was known to the intelligence section about the history of the French atomic energy program - with regard to organization, technology, and resources. It also poses fifteen questions for further investigation and analysis - including questions concerning French construction of reactors, attempts to acquire uranium through prospecting and purchase, and personnel.

Document 3: Major Paul O. Langguth to Lt. Col. Richard H. Free, Subject: Atomic Energy Research in France, August 29, 1946. Top Secret
Source: NARA, RG 77, Entry 22, Box 173

Prepared by a representative of the Manhattan Engineer District in London, this review of the French atomic energy program covers the functions, key personnel, and key facilities of the High Commissariat for Atomic Energy, created in October 1945. It also covers the functions and activities of other research organizations and institutions of nineteen other institutions, key personalities, raw materials, political considerations, and French capabilities.

Document 4: W.R. Shuler, Corps of Engineers to Maj. Gen. S.J. Chamberlain, Director of Intelligence War Department, Subject: Operation Crossroad, September 18, 1946. Top Secret
Source: NARA, RG 77, Entry 22, Box 173

This memo, from a member of the Manhattan Engineer District, transmits information obtained by the MED from a "reliable source." That information concerned several of the French observers who attended the U.S. CROSSROAD nuclear test at Bikini - Capt. Henri Balande, Bertrand Goldschmidt, Andre Labarthe, and Frederic Joliot-Curie - as well as France's atomic energy plans.

Document 5: H.S. Lowenhaupt, Subject: France's Atomic Energy Development, as Extracted From Joliot-Curie's Speech to the Committee on Atomic Energy, November 14, 1946. Top Secret
Source: NARA, RG 77, Entry 22, Box 173

This summary and analysis of Joliot-Curie's speech covers a wide variety of topics - including, the origins of the French Atomic Energy Commission (High Commissariat for Atomic Energy), French knowledge of Soviet nuclear developments, Joliot-Curie's vision of cooperation with the smaller nations of Europe in the atomic energy field, the existence of uranium deposits in French colonies, nuclear-related facilities, and the need for secrecy concerning the nation's atomic energy developments.

Document 6: Lt. Col. Edgar P. Dean, Office of the Military Attache, American Embassy London, to Col. L.E. Seeman, Subject: Review of the French Atomic Energy Development, November 18, 1946. Top Secret
Source: NARA, RG 77, Entry 22, Box 173

This memo, another prepared by the Manhattan Engineer District's London office, demonstrates the continued interest in developments in the French nuclear program. It reports on French geological survey activities conducted in France and its colonies related to minerals of interest to the French nuclear program, the High Commissariat for Atomic Energy's headquarters, and nuclear physics equipment in France. Attached is a breakdown of nuclear physics personnel associated with French universities.

Document 7: Division of Biographic Information, Department of State, to Special Assistant Intelligence, Department of State, Francis Perrin, French High Commissioner of Atomic Energy, April 24, 1951. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This one-page biographic sketch focuses on the Frederic Joliot-Curie's replacement as chairman of the French atomic energy commission. It focuses on the reasons for the delay in confirming Perrin, as well as the new chairman's personal, political, and professional history.

Document 8: Garrison B. Coverdale, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence Memorandum, Memorandum for: Director of Central Intelligence, Subject: French AEC Personnel Changes and Appointments, December 23, 1952.Secret, w/att: French AEC Personnel Changes and Appointments
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

The memo attached to the cover memorandum reports comments from an unidentified source concerning personnel changes in the French Atomic Energy Commission - commenting on the political beliefs of one individual who had been invited to join the AEC, and the likely role of another individual associated with the commission, and the replacement of the AEC's secretary-general.

Document 9: Office of Current Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, "French Position on Disarmament May Be Shifting," Current Intelligence Bulletin, May 29, 1957. Top Secret
Source: CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) Collection, NARA

The government of Guy Mollet, recently defeated in elections, had offered assurances that France would not seek to develop nuclear weapons if any early disarmament agreement. This brief report notes that pressures appeared to be mounting in France to develop a nuclear weapon - and notes the political forces pushing for such a weapon, and the factors behind nationalist pressures for a French atomic bomb.

Document 10: Office of Current Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, "French Nuclear Weapons Program," Current Intelligence Weekly, September 18, 1958. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

In the first years after France had decided to develop a nuclear weapons capability, U.S. intelligence reported on French progress toward joining the nuclear club. This article reports on the assessment of France's capability to explode a nuclear device, possible preparations, the activities of an unidentified German scientist, and relevant statements by French officials.

Document 11: Office of Scientific Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, The French Nuclear Weapons Program, November 19, 1959. Classification Redacted
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

Despite suggestions a year earlier (Document 10) that France might soon test a nuclear weapon, no test had yet occurred at the time this scientific intelligence report was completed. The report's objective was to assess French capability to produce fissionable material (both highly enriched uranium and plutonium); to develop, test, and produce nuclear weapons; and to estimate the likely timing of the first test.

Document 12: Office of Current Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency. "The French Nuclear Energy Program," Current Intelligence Weekly Summary, January 28, 1960. Classification Redacted
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This four-page article reviews some of the history of French atomic energy efforts, the nation's "peaceful uses" program, the weapons program, weapons testing and plans, the relationship between the nuclear weapons program and foreign policy, and France's role in international nuclear activities and agreements. The weapon testing and plans section discusses the reasons for the then-recent delay in timing of the first French test and specifics of the planned test series.

Document 13: Office of Current Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency. "French Nuclear Test Plans," Current Intelligence Weekly Summary, February 25, 1960. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

Published less than two weeks after France's first test on February 13, this article reports on the expectations concerning the specifics of the three devices that would make up the remainder of the initial test series, the role of the tests in development of an actual weapon, the impact of international protests on French plans to test underground, and France's disarmament plan.

Document 14: Richard St. F. Post to Mr. Witman, Subject: Coverage of French Underground Tests, August 4, 1961. Secret
Source: NARA, RG 59, Records of Special Assistant to Secretary for Atomic Energy and Outer Space, Subject and Country Files, 1950-1962, Box 5, Folder 1961-France-Testing

This memo reports on a meeting held in the office of the State Department's Special Assistant for Atomic Energy and Outer Space, following up on late July inquiry from the head of the Air Force Technical Applications Center. The subject under discussion was whether it would be possible to place three Atomic Energy Detection System (AEDS) stations in areas close to Algeria, in order to cover French nuclear tests expected to take place from October 1961 through March 1962. The participants discussed the feasibility of locating stations in Mali, Niger, and Libya.

Document 15: Howard Furnas to General Rodenhauser, August 15, 1961. Secret
Source: NARA, RG 59, Records of Special Assistant to Secretary for Atomic Energy and Outer Space, Subject and Country Files, 1950-1962, Box 5, Folder 1961-France-Testing

This letter from State Department official Howard Furnas to the head of AFTAC, General Rodenhauser, reports on the conclusions reached as a result of considering the feasibility of placing AEDS stations close to Algeria. It explains why Mail and Niger are not feasible alternatives, and why Libya is a possibility. It goes on to note that the State Department was in the process of evaluating the foreign policy implications of the proposal.

Document 16: Office of Current Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency. "France May Reassess Nuclear Force," Current Intelligence Weekly Summary, April 12, 1963. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

According to this article, technical difficulties and rising costs might be forcing France to take a harder look at its program to develop an independent nuclear deterrent. While France remained committed to having its own force, the article reported that there were indications that, in order to obtain technological assistance, it might be looking for ways to reduce its differences with the Western Alliance.

Document 17: Office of Current Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency. The French Nuclear Strike Force Program, May 31, 1963. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

Several aspects of France's nuclear strike program are examined in this report - the program's goals, the Mirage IV aircraft (at the time France's only means of delivery nuclear warheads), the program to develop a ballistic missile-launching submarine, warhead development, and the competition for resources.

Document 18: James A. Cunningham Jr. Memorandum for: Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, Subject: Proposed Operation of U-2 Aircraft from Aircraft Carrier, July 22, 1963. Secret
Source: CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) Collection, NARA

In 1963 the CIA initiated an effort to modify some U-2 aircraft to allow them to take off and land on aircraft carriers - which would allow some U-2 flights to be conducted without obtaining foreign basing rights, and could move the planes into position to conduct overflights of targets that might not be easily reachable if launched from bases on land, even if basing rights could be obtained. The only two operational U-2 overflights launched from a carrier, in 1966, would overfly the new French nuclear test site on Mururoa.

Document 19: Director of Central Intelligence, SNIE 22-2-63, The French Nuclear Weapons Program, July 24, 1963. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This estimate, coordinated among all relevant intelligence community organizations, focuses on three topics related to the French nuclear weapons program - current status and future development (with regard to both nuclear weapons and delivery systems), the cost and burden to the French economy, and political considerations (including President Charles de Gaulle's justification for an independent French program, European support for de Gaulle's program, and French reaction to a treaty banning atmospheric tests).

Document 20: Office of Scientific Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency. The French Nuclear Weapon Program, March 27, 1964. Top Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

Produced by the CIA Directorate of Science and Technology's scientific intelligence component, this study devotes more attention to technical issues concerning the French nuclear weapons program than the 1963 special national estimate. In assessing the available resources, production capacity, and testing facilities of the French program, the study examines the availability of raw materials, research facilities and their missions, production of fissile ("special") material, and nuclear weapons tests and test sites.

Document 21: Director of Central Intelligence, Memorandum to Holders of Special National Intelligence Estimate Number 22-2-63, The French Nuclear Weapons Program, April 8, 1964. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

In SNIE 22-2-63 (Document 19) the Intelligence Community estimated that France was probably not planning to develop a land-based intermediate range ballistic missile as a nuclear delivery vehicle. This memorandum was prepared in response to the acquisition of information that drastically altered that conclusion.

Document 22: Office of Scientific Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency. French Development of Nuclear Weapons Delivery Systems, July 14, 1964. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This study was written to evaluate the "probable nature, effectiveness, and timing of the various French nuclear weapons delivery systems." It examines the characteristics and capabilities of the Mirage IV supersonic bomber, the planned ballistic missile submarine, and the land-based intermediate range ballistic missile system. An appendix on ballistic missile research and development in France discusses the organizations involved, depicts potential locations for IRBM sites, and technical considerations facing warhead developers.

Document 23: Director of Central Intelligence, NIE 22-64, The French Advanced Weapons Program, November 18, 1964. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

A key conclusion of this estimate was that before the end of 1964, the French would begin a series of underground tests in the Sahara aimed at developing thermonuclear techniques. Other key conclusions concerned the Mirage IV, the French submarine missile force, and the cost of the program. The estimate's discussion section addresses problems and prospects of the French advanced weapons program with regard to the production of fissile material, the construction of new test facilities in the Pacific, and the development of delivery systems. An appendix examines the costs of the advanced weapons program.

Document 24: Directorate of Science and Technology, Central Intelligence Agency, U-2 Aircraft Carrier Operation: project "WHALE TALE," December 1964. Top Secret
Source: CREST Collection, NARA

This document describes the early history of the program to operate U-2 aircraft off carriers - which would be used to overfly the French Pacific Nuclear Test Center - the approval of the program, as well as pilot training and suitability tests.

Document 25: Office of Scientific Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency. The French Pacific Nuclear Test Center, August 6, 1965. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

Political pressure first forced France to moves its Algerian tests underground. Algerian independence then forced France to find a new test site. After consideration of a number of sites, two sites in the Pacific were selected - Mururoa and Fangataufa. This study reports on the ongoing construction effort, scheduled to be completed in early 1966, as well as past French nuclear tests, the decision process to select a new test site, organization of the French testing program, test schedules, and test operations.

Document 26: U.S. Pacific Command, CINCPAC Command History 1973, Volume I, n.d. (Extract). Top Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This extract provides details of one element of the U.S. intelligence collection efforts directed against French nuclear tests in the Pacific - the one that employed USNS Wheeling (codenamed POCK MARK).

Document 27: Central Intelligence Agency, "France," Current Intelligence Bulletin, July 13, 1973. Top Secret
Source: CREST, NARA

This short item in the CIB tries to provide readers with a preview of the French nuclear tests for 1973. The portion of the item that was not redacted specifies the expected number and type of detonations, the protests that had taken place, and French determination to proceed irrespective of international pressure.

Document 28: History Division, Strategic Air Command, SAC Reconnaissance History, January 1968-June 1971, November 7, 1973. (Extract) Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This extract focuses on one part of the aerial element of the U.S. collection effort against the French program - operation BURNING LIGHT. The operation involved use of two KC-135R aircraft, whose primary sensors measured and recorded the electromagnetic pulses generated by a nuclear detonation. The extract provides data on the number of BURNING LIGHT flights in 1968 and 1970. It also notes the role National Security Agency intercepts played in providing advance notification of tests - allowing BURNING LIGHT missions to be in the required area at the time of the tests.

Document 29: Office of the Historian, Strategic Air Command. History of SAC Reconnaissance Operations, FY 1974, August 28, 1975. (Extract) Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This extract provides information about BURNING LIGHT monitoring of French nuclear tests during the 1974 fiscal year. In addition, it discusses the role played by the USNS Huntsville in monitoring the same tests.

Document 30: Central Intelligence Agency, French Nuclear Reactor Fuel Reprocessing Program, September 1984. Classification Redacted
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This study primarily concerns French reprocessing for commercial purposes, but does contain a section on the production of plutonium for weapons use (p.2) and discusses government policy on the proliferation aspects of reprocessing (p.12).

Document 31: Central Intelligence Agency, French Underground Nuclear Testing: Environmentally Safe and Likely to Continue, May 1985. Classification Redacted
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

This lightly-redacted, brief study, was produced in the wake of protests that claimed that French testing in the Pacific had resulted in Mururoa Atoll breaking apart and leaking large amounts of radioactive debris into the environment. The conclusion reached by the CIA, as indicated by the title, was quite different. After presenting that and other key judgments, the study examines the geology of Mururoa Atoll, normal containment practice, the current status of Mururoa Atoll, and the environment status of the Atoll as documented in two studies - one by French scientists and another by Pacific Basin Scientists - and considers future prospects.

Document 32: Bureau of Intelligence and Research, State Department, French Nuclear Strategy and Nuclear Forces: An Update, June 30, 1987. Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act Request

Two portions of this study remain after the removal of classified information - an overview of how French nuclear doctrine evolved in response to concerns about different aspects of Soviet military capabilities, as well as brief discussion of the shift in expenditures from French conventional forces toward nuclear ones.


Notes

1. Leslie R. Groves, Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (New York: Da Capo, 1983), pp. 33-34; Bertrand Goldschmidt, Atomic Rivals (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990), p. 296.

2. Groves, Now It Can Be Told, p. 234; Robert S. Norris, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man (South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth, 2002),
p. 303.

3. Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).

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