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Exaggeration Of The Threat: Then And Now

Test of Soviet SS-18 (R-36) ICBM. (Kosmotras Web site)

Test of Soviet SS-18 (R-36) ICBM. (Kosmotras Web site)

A recently declassified study on Soviet intentions during the Cold War identifies significant failures in U.S. intelligence analysis on Soviet military intentions and demonstrates the constant exaggeration of the Soviet threat.

The study, which was released last week by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, was prepared by a Pentagon contractor in 1995 that had access to former senior Soviet defense officials, military officers, and industrial specialists. It demonstrates the consistent U.S. exaggeration of Soviet “aggressiveness” and the failure to recognize Soviet fears of a U.S. first strike. The study begs serious questions about current U.S. exaggeration of “threats” emanating from Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, long after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signaled reduced growth in Soviet defense spending, the CIA produced a series of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) titled “Soviet Capabilities for Strategic Nuclear Conflict,” which concluded that the Soviet Union sought “superior capabilities to fight and win a nuclear war with the United States, and have been working to improve their chances of prevailing in such a conflict.”

The notion of winning or prevailing in a nuclear conflict was, of course, ludicrous in the extreme, but this did not stop the CIA’s leadership (Director William Casey and Deputy Director Robert Gates) from endorsing the view that the Soviet Red Army could conduct military operations on a nuclear battlefield and had improved “their ability to deal with the many contingencies of such a conflict, and raising the possibility of outcomes favorable to the USSR.”

The CIA ignored the Soviet slowdown in the growth of military procurement, exaggerated the capabilities of important strategic systems, and distorted the military and economic power of the Warsaw Pact states. As late as 1986, the CIA reported that the per capita income of East Germany was ahead of West Germany and that the national income per capita was higher in the Soviet Union than in Italy. Several years later, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and former CIA director Stansfield Turner wrote that the “corporate view” at the CIA “missed by a mile.”

The Pentagon study demonstrates that the Soviet military high command “understood the devastating consequences of nuclear war” and believed that the use of nuclear weapons had to be avoided at “all costs.” Nevertheless, in 1975, presidential chief of staff Dick Cheney and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld introduced a group of neoconservatives, led by Harvard professor Richard Pipes, to the CIA in order to make sure that future NIEs would falsely conclude that the Soviet Union rejected nuclear parity, were bent on fighting and winning a nuclear war, and were radically increasing their military spending.

The neocons (known as Team B) and the CIA (Team A) then wrongly predicted a series of Soviet weapons developments that never took place, including directed energy weapons, mobile ABM systems, and anti-satellite capabilities. CIA deputy director Gates used this worst-case reasoning in a series of speeches to insinuate himself with CIA director Bill Casey and the Reagan administration.

In view of the consistent exaggeration of the Soviet threat throughout the 1980s, when the USSR was on a glide path toward collapse, it is fair to speculate on current geopolitical situations that are far less threatening than our policy and intelligence experts assert.

For example, is it reasonable to argue that the United States needs to deploy a strategic air defense in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend against a possible Iranian attack against Central Europe? How did our military planners come up with a scenario that projects Iran’s intentions to target Europe? Why do we dismiss Russian fears of the deployment of such a system in two former Warsaw Pact countries near Russian borders?

North Korea, like Iran, is another country that provokes irrational behavior and threat assessments on our part despite its military and economic backwardness. For the past several months, the Pyongyang government has consistently signaled an interest in improving relations with both the United States and South Korea.

The release of two American journalists and a South Korean worker as well as an agreement to allow tourism and family reunions to resume with the Seoul government point to an effort to ease relations after months of growing tension. What is North Korea demanding? Nothing more than bilateral talks with the United States. Why is this so difficult?

And why does President Barack Obama consider Afghanistan to be an “international security challenge of the highest order” and the Afghan war a “war that we cannot afford to lose.” The terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 were operating independently of any national government and did most of their organizational work in Germany and the United States. We were compelled to rout them from Afghanistan in 2001, but the wars in Iraq and the continued war in Afghanistan has not contributed to the security and stability of the United States.

The exaggeration of the Soviet threat in the 1980s led to an additional trillion and a half dollars in defense spending against a Soviet Union that was in decline and a Soviet military threat that was disappearing. It is time to recognize the great harm that was done to the intelligence community and the CIA with the politicization of intelligence in the 1980s as well as the militarization of intelligence over the past twenty years.

If we don’t reform the intelligence process and create a genuinely independent intelligence capability there will continue to be threat exaggerations that cost us greatly in blood and treasure over the next 10 years.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, is The Public Record’s National Security and Intelligence columnist. He spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.