US Intelligence and the End of the Cold War

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US Intelligence and the End of the Cold War  (1999) 
by Robert Gates

Former DCI of the CIA, Delivered remarks at UT Austin




In CIA’s 52 year history, there have been 18 Directors. Just three of us have been career intelligence officers - Bill Colby is gone. I would like to recognize and pay tribute tonight to the Dean, if I may use that honorific title, to the Dean of all of the CIA Directors. One of the greatest DCIs of all times and a true American hero of the Cold War, Dick Helms.

I’ve been asked this evening to evaluate the role of US intelligence during the Cold War. This is, I suppose, a little bit like asking the barber whether you need a haircut. Because even if I claim to be objective, most listeners would be skeptical. But I will try to be balanced, providing some observations on failures and shortcomings as well as successes.

Many of you will remember that President Kennedy on a visit to CIA headquarters many years ago told his audience of intelligence professionals that “your failures will be trumpeted and your successes unknown.” Little did he realize how exactly he had it right.

There are few people in the world with access to newspapers or to television who are not aware of CIA’s failures - both real and imagined. But it seems to me it’s been more than secrecy that has distorted the public view of CIA and its record.

I suspect that CIA more than perhaps any institution in America has been subject to mythology and misinformation. The result of too many novels, too many television shows, too many conspiracy theorists, too many James Bond and Jack Ryan movies, at least one too many movies directed by Oliver Stone, and as we are recently learning, too much disinformation by the KGB.

With the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, in recent years CIA has begun to open its historical record, it’s record in the Cold War, and thereby allow independent scholars to evaluate what actually happened. What CIA actually did.

I suppose this process began a dozen or so years ago when as DDI and then as DDCI, I initiated a program with the Kennedy School at Harvard University to declassify CIA documents that could be used in case studies on the role of intelligence in US decisionmaking during key events of the Cold War. Several dozen of these Kennedy School case studies are now available publicly.

Several years later as Director, I announced that we would declassify all national intelligence estimates on the Soviet Union. Nearly all of these are now available.

With these in hand, and as my successors declassify other materials, more comprehensive and objective studies of the role of intelligence in the Cold War can be done by scholars. It seems to me that conferences such as this one play an important role in this process.

But independent of the panel discussions today and tomorrow, I’ve been asked to offer my views on the strengths and weaknesses, the accomplishments and failures of US intelligence during the Cold War, especially during the last 30 years or so. Here goes.

First, you must remember that CIA, like the Presidents it served, was under political attack from both conservatives and liberals from the early 1970s on, and probably long before that. Liberals generally opposed CIA’s operational activities and believed it exaggerated the Soviet threat. Conservatives, on the other hand, were critical of CIA’s assessments of the Soviet Union which they considered too soft and skewed by CIA’s involvement in the arms control process. CIA was, again, like the Presidents it served, more or less constantly embattled during the last half of the Cold War, and yet its record in retrospect, I believe, is far better than its critics of all political hues have so far admitted.

Operationally, CIA had important successes in covert action. Perhaps the most consequential of all was Afghanistan where CIA, with its management, funneled billions of dollars in supplies and weapons to the Mujahhadin, and the resistance was thus able to fight the vaunted Soviet army to a standoff and eventually force a political decision to withdraw. Both the costs of the war and the stalemate had a significant and broad political impact domestically inside the Soviet Union.

Similarly, covert actions in Angola and even in Nicaragua produced sufficient pressure on Soviet clients to buy time for non-communist or anti-Soviet alternatives to emerge.

Throughout the Cold War, in the third world CIA worked successfully with governments friendly to the United States to combat subversion by the Soviet Union and its surrogates. We also waged a war of ideas and covert human rights campaign inside the Soviet Union itself and supported a growing opposition in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland.

CIA carried out a propaganda war against the Soviet regime itself, publicizing to the world the abuses inside the USSR and aggressions and subversion beyond its borders.

In short, after Vietnam made the use of American military forces in the third world politically impossible at home for several decades, CIA became the primary instrument of successive Presidents and acted at their direction to maintain a decade’s long policy of containment of the Soviet Union - a policy based on the premise that a Soviet Union denied the opportunity to expand influence and power outside its own borders would eventually collapse from its own internal contradictions.

The Agency’s clandestine successes went beyond covert action. We secretly acquired by thievery, scams and trickery an amazing array of Soviet military equipment for the US military to dissect and study that enabled the preparation of countermeasures. CIA stole Soviet weapons manuals, recruited Soviet scientists and engineers as agents who told us about weapons in research and development, and developed many often heroic agents who revealed much about Warsaw Pact plans and capabilities.

From the Berlin tunnel to the very end of the Cold War, CIA and other parts of the intelligence community developed astonishingly imaginative and advanced techniques, devices, and technical schemes on land, on sea, and undersea that, when combined with the operational skill of officers from the Agency’s clandestine service, yielded extraordinary information on Soviet military operations.

The operational record, though very strong, and in fact I would argue without peer in the world, was clearly far from perfect. We failed to dislodge Qadhafi in Libya. We were duped by double agents in Cuba and East Germany. We were penetrated with devastating effect at least twice by the Soviets and suffered other counterintelligence and security failures. We never recruited a spy who gave us unique political information at a high level inside the Kremlin. And we too often failed to penetrate the inner circle of Soviet surrogate leaders in Hanoi and Tripoli, Havana, Managua, and elsewhere.

For too long our support to US military operations was not as good as it should have been, plagued by democratic rivalries and turf wars on both sides, and by a cultural gap that grew too great after Vietnam.

The Agency was criticized from time to time, and usually after the fact, about the character of the individuals and governments that we helped, or who had cooperated and worked with us. But in fact it is a sad truth that at no point in the Cold War were there very many democratic governments in the third world. That would change only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And as a result, during the global struggle against the Soviet Union, CIA and the United States more broadly ended up with some strange and often unsavory bedfellows - folks you wouldn’t want to bring home to meet mom.

But especially after the congressional investigations of the mid 1970s, foreign agents and governments were told our rules and if they didn’t play by them, our policy was to walk away. The Agency’s record in this respect was far from perfect, but it was far better, and we worked a lot harder at it than is usually understood.

Similarly on occasion our operations, for example in Afghanistan, had limiting and dangerous after-effects. The training and weapons we provided after the conflicts ended sometimes were put to unwelcome purposes and even used in actions hostile to US interests. We at CIA were always conscious of this possibility and indeed warned policymakers about it. For example, during the debate over whether to provide Stingers to the Mujahhadin.

All in all, CIA uniquely among the world’s intelligence services, endeavored to conduct its operations according to presidential directive under the rule of law and in every way possible consistent with American values. No one can or will deny that there were lapses and failures and that the Agency paid a high price for them. But in a shadow war that ranged across the globe for nearly five decades, such failures were remarkably few and far between.

In sum, CIA in my view was remarkably successful in carrying out the operational assignments of American Presidents.

I had my differences with the clandestine service over the years and probably was regarded by some, and perhaps many of its officers, as overly critical. But then why should they be different than the analysts? But the Directorate of Operations’ record of accomplishment in the Cold War had no equal and far surpassed that of its Soviet adversaries.

CIA’s clandestine service was the effective hidden hand of the United States and of American Presidents in the shadow wars of the Cold War. Throughout, our operations officers tireless and courageously labored and too often died to protect the land they loved.

In the are of technical collection, CIA and the US intelligence community scientists and engineers were simply brilliant. The American people, and I would say indeed most of the West in general owe a huge debt of gratitude to the unsung technical experts of US intelligence and to those in American industry who worked with them. Those who figured out how to obtain information from a distance of hundreds or even thousands of miles, those who designed and built unique technical systems to monitor missile testing and deployments and who could make sense out of a bewildering array of squiggly lines and rows of numbers and at least at the beginning some very fuzzy satellite pictures.

If ever legends and stories of American technological genius were deserved and not yet realized, they would be about the scientists and engineers, the wizards of CIA and American intelligence who pioneered reconnaissance aircraft like the U-2 and the SR-71, photographic satellites from the KH-4 to the KH-11, an amazing array of signals intelligence satellites and people who worked brilliantly but anonymously to serve their country.

As they targeted one of the most secretive countries in the world, it is a tribute to these remarkable men and women that, beginning in the 1960s, there were virtually no further Soviet military surprises of strategic importance.

The continuing great strength and success of the analysts of CIA and the intelligence community was in describing with amazing accuracy from the mid 1960s on to the Soviet collapse the actual military strength and capabilities of the Soviet Union.

Until the end of the Cold War and beyond, liberals long argued that CIA overstated Soviet military power, and the conservatives argued just as stridently that we underestimated. But we located and we counted with remarkable accuracy the number of deployed aircraft and tanks and missiles and ships, and these numbers and capabilities would be relied upon with confidence by the executive branch, including the Defense Department, the Congress and our allies, both for military planning and for arms control negotiations.

Perhaps the intelligence community’s greatest contribution during the last two-thirds of the Cold War was that there were no more strategic surprises. No more missile gaps, no more bomber gaps. And as in the 1950s, we were able to overcome these deficiencies.

Further, our detailed knowledge of Soviet forces and capabilities after the middle 1960s made it virtually impossible for the Soviets strategically to bluff or to fool us. This helped prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings that could have destroyed the world.

Similarly, CIA’s work on growing Soviet internal problems stands up far better in hindsight than criticism suggests. CIA’s record, literally thousands of assessments and briefings and monographs, public and classified, over a 30 year period makes clear that the Agency, from the late 1960s onward, accurately described the growing economic, political, and social weaknesses of the Soviet Union.

It accurately portrayed the futility of tinkering with the system and pointed out how Gorbachev was undermining the foundations of the old system without embracing a new one. And by 1988 and 1989 it warned of deepening crisis - the potential for a rightist coup and the possible collapse of the entire system.

It is a simple fact that thanks to American intelligence every American President from Lyndon Johnson through George Bush made policy toward the Soviet Union knowing that economic problems in the Soviet Union provided the United States with increasing leverage and advantage.

In analysis as in operations the record was not perfect. On the military side, we were occasionally surprised by technical capabilities of specific Soviet weapons. For example, the speed of the Alpha Class submarine. We would, from time to time, both over and underestimate the specific characteristics of specific Soviet weapons to the frustration of people like Jim Woolsey and other negotiators in MBFR and CFE. We were constantly revising our estimates of how many actual troops there were in the Warsaw Pact.

And perhaps further, as a reflection of our underestimates of the 1960s in terms of future Soviet strategic forces, during the mid 1980s our projections of Soviet military forces that we thought they would deploy five or ten years in the future were clearly too high. While we saw no slackening at that time in the vigor of Soviet research and development and modernization programs, the already huge Soviet deployed forces in the 1980s did not grow as quickly as we had predicted.

All that said, for a quarter of a century American Presidents made strategic decisions with confidence in our knowledge of the adversary’s actual military strength - a confidence that was justified.

The Soviet military capabilities that we described were real, and those capabilities were created to a considerable degree at the cost of bringing an already fundamentally flawed economic system to its knees. It is one of history’s great ironies that the Soviet military thus helped destroy the system it was created to perpetuate.

In the economic arena CIA, in its statistical analysis, overstated the size and growth rate of the Soviet economy and relatedly underestimated the burden of military expenditures on that economy and on that society. CIA’s statistical analysis of the Soviet economy, while the best available, East or West - and I would have to tell you, we had clandestine reporting to the effect that even Andropov regarded our reporting on the Soviet economy as the best available to him - still in absolute terms it described a stronger and larger economy than our own interpretive analysis portrayed and that existed in reality.

Most important though, by 1987, CIA was warning policymakers of the deepening crisis in the Soviet Union and the growing likelihood of the collapse of the old order.

In late 1987, the Agency was warning about growing ethnic conflict in the USSR and arguing that ethnic conflicts and separate Soviet republics had larger implications for the Soviet Union as a whole. That the potential was growing for ethnic crises and different republics to combine and produce an overall crisis of central control in the non-Russian republics.

Other US intelligence agencies disagreed. The State Department’s Intelligence Bureau especially and adamantly contending that each crisis was unique and explainable in local terms. And according to State, there would be no cumulative or contagious effects. When CIA’s warning was published as an article in the National Intelligence Daily, State insisted that the article note explicitly their view that CIA’s view was alarmist.

CIA carefully watched the unfolding violence and crises in the Caucasus in 1988, especially in Armenia and Azerbaijan. And our analysts understood the significance of these developments for the Soviet Union as a whole. So beginning in mid-June 1988, Bill Webster as Director and I as his Deputy began warning the National Security Advisor, Colin Powell, that Moscow was losing control.

Throughout the first months of the Bush Administration, CIA published for the government as a whole, and Bill Webster and then Deputy DCI Dick Kerr were personally providing to senior policymakers, a steady stream of assessments of the growing crisis in the Soviet Union.

One assessment in April of 1989, warned that the situation was less stable than at any time since the great purges of the 1930s, and that it was far from certain that Gorbachev could control the process he had set in motion. The assessment described in detail the growing threat from nationalism and warned that Gorbachev’s policies could unleash centrifugal forces that would pull the Soviet Union apart. It warned specifically about the possibility of a conservative backlash and a possible coup attempt.

Brent Scowcroft referred to these analyses from the Soviet Union and from CIA about the Soviet Union as their gloom and doom. But the fact is this gloom and doom from the CIA had two concrete results. First, at the White House. I sent a memorandum to President Bush on July 18, 1989, based on the stream of reporting from CIA.

It said, “The odds are growing that in the next year or two there will be popular unrest, political turmoil, and/or official violence on such a scale as to affect Gorbachev’s position, his program and current Western policies. We must begin to think about the possibility that that reality will include significant political instability.” I concluded, “As we look out to 1990 and 1991, we should not be confident of Gorbachev remaining in power, of the continuation of reform as presently structured with or without him, or of the continued manageability of widespread turmoil and even violence. We should not be taken by surprise.”

“In terms of the future, we should begin very quietly to begin some contingency planning as to possible US responses, actions and policies in the event of leadership or internal policy changes or widespread ethnic violence or repression.”

With President Bush’s express approval, that fall Brent and I established a top-secret, high-level contingency planning effort to prepare for the possibility of a Soviet collapse. It was chaired by Condi Rice of the NSC and her group included Dennis Ross at State, Fritz Ermarth and Bob Blackwell at CIA, and Paul Wolfowitz and Eric Edelman from the Department of Defense. This was in September of 1989.

This group commissioned a number of studies by CIA and used them in reviewing and planning US options. The work was used to good effect when the Soviet Union imploded two years later.

Thanks to this work, we knew that our first priority was the security of tens of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons. That meant we needed Soviet command and control to remain intact and that in turn required that we should do all we could to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia.

When some in the Administration expressed a desire to see Russia come apart so that it would never again be a threat to the United States, this earlier homework would prove exceptionally important.

Second, CIA’s warnings helped consolidate the judgment in the Bush Administration by the summer of 1989 to move quickly to lock in with the Gorbachev government as many accomplishments in our national interest as possible.

Preventing surprise was CIA’s mission, and with respect to the Soviet collapse it fulfilled that mission more than two years ahead of time. That was two years more than Gorbachev got.

I was a policymaker then, not an intelligence officer. I believe that in the real world speculation of a Soviet internal apocalypse much before then would have been ignored if not ridiculed by American policymakers. In fact, CIA was way out on a limb that spring in Washington. Indeed, when the National Intelligence Council at that time prepared an interagency paper on Gorbachev’s chances for survival, CIA was by far the most pessimistic of the US intelligence services and formally dissented predicting that unless Gorbachev changed his current policies he could not survive.

CIA has been accused in the 1980s of failing to warn of Soviet limitations and vulnerabilities and weakness, but in truth the accusations are not supported by the documents. The Agency’s record of Soviet economic and social crisis is well documented, including, I suspect, most pointedly by Kay Oliver’s Oval Office briefing of President Reagan in November of 1985, just before the Geneva Summit.

In that briefing, Kay concluded it by telling the President, and I quote, “We cannot foresee the time, but we can see the tendency between social aspirations and regime control eventually to confront the regime with challenges to its political control that it cannot contain.” That was in 1985.

Now I have to tell you in that briefing, Fritz Ermarth who’s here tonight, and I gave a briefing as part of that session with the President, gave briefings on the overall global strategic situation, and the President listened to Fritz and I politely, but he was transfixed by what Kay had to say about the internal situation, about what was happening to the Russian citizens on the ground.

My most memorable memory of that briefing was during the course of my conversation with the President, and I was sitting just a few feet from him, as I began to brief him, a minute or two into the briefing I heard this incredible noise - whrrrr - the President reached up and adjusted his hearing aid. I went on for a few minutes, and all of a sudden there was this other noise - whrrr - and the President’s eyes got very wide, and he reached up and he plucked his hearing aide out of his ear and he pounded it in his hand and then he leaned over to me and whispered, “It’s my KGB handler trying to reach me.”

In the military arena after many a hard fought debate, CIA warned about Soviet shortcomings and the limitations of specific Soviet weapon systems. On issues ranging from the declining rate of growth and Soviet military spending in the early 1980s to problems in morale and the unreliability of Warsaw Pact allies to economic crisis, CIA described Soviet problems and vulnerabilities, often providing policymakers with analysis they did not want to hear. I know this because as DDI and DDCI and as DCI I was usually on the receiving end, along with Dick Kerr and Bill Webster.

The truth is, I suspect I’m the only CIA officer to have had two Secretaries of State, a Secretary of Defense, and the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party all try at different times to get me fired. A dubious distinction that would have turned a lesser man’s hair gray.

While CIA reminded our government of continuing Soviet interest in the third world and large sums that Moscow was still spending to support Cuba and Angola and Nicaragua and Vietnam and others well into Gorbachev’s tenure, the Agency also advised them of strains in those relationships and the dissatisfaction of Soviet clients with much of the aid they received.

In conclusion, and not surprisingly, I believe that CIA and American intelligence made a critical contribution to victory in the Cold War. Because of information provided by US intelligence, President Kennedy had an accurate picture of Soviet strategic inferiority during the Cuban missile crisis. And thanks importantly to US knowledge of Soviet strategic strength and capabilities, there would never again be a similar Soviet-American nuclear confrontation.

US intelligence information and collection capabilities made possible the negotiation of all arms control agreements and the ratification of those agreements by the Senate. US intelligence over a period of nearly 50 years helped keep the Cold War “cold”.

During the Cold War, CIA was the American sword in the surrogate wars of the third world. It was a source of help and sustenance for dissidents and oppositionists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It was the worldwide purveyor of the realities of Soviet repression and subversion. It was the gatherer of critical military information and the accurate appraiser of Soviet military strengths and weaknesses. It was the chronicler of the growing Soviet crisis at home. And by 1989, the first herald in governments East or West of potential systemic collapse.

Americans deserve to know more about this record. Two generations of the brave men and women of American intelligence and of CIA deserve acknowledgment of their sacrifices, their service, and their victories. It was, for all of us, a glorious crusade and a more complicated but freer and safer world is our legacy to our successors.

Thank you very much.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).