This paper is a survey of experimental results in laser- induced damage observed mainly at State Optical Institute (St. Petersburg, Russia) and at School of Optics/CREOL (Orlando, FL) which expounds conditions of observation of an intrinsic breakdown of high-purity silicate glasses and proposes the general idea of its mechanism. It is shown that the surface laser-induced breakdown of dielectrics is resulted from photo- and thermo-ionization of surface defects but not from interaction of laser radiation with dielectric material itself. Conditions of thermal ionization of the volume of dielectric materials are determined in dependence on features of absorption of material and temporal features of laser radiation. Statistical properties of laser-induced breakdown of high-purity glasses are caused by statistical properties of laser radiation while the breakdown itself is a deterministic process. Elimination of impact of self-focusing on the results of the breakdown threshold measurements is observed if the spot size of laser radiation in focal plane is less than the wavelength. No photoionization of glass matrix is detected before laser- induced breakdown, and there is no effect of photoionization of impurities and defects on intrinsic breakdown. A mechanism of intrinsic laser-induced breakdown is proposed which is a spasmodic transformation of the electronic level structure in a wide-bandgap dielectric caused by the electric field of laser radiation. This is a collective process converting a transparent material to the opaque state but not an individual process of any type of ionization.© (2002) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.