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The CIA’s Tragic Error

Four years ago Jimmy Carter talked about banning nuclear weapons and cutting the defense budget by seven billion dollars a year. Today, he promises to develop the capacity to fight limited nuclear wars and to increase defense spending each year. Détente and arms control are almost dead. The hawks in Moscow are reinforcing the predilections of the hawks in Washington and vice versa. Most of the American advocates of negotiation, and of a balance of forces with the USSR, such as Cyrus Vance, Paul Warnke, Leslie Gelb, Marshall Shulman, and Andrew Young, have resigned. Zbigniew Brzezinski is ascendant. If Reagan wins, people who think like Brzezinski will continue to hold power.

This has happened partly because Soviet policy makers have made it possible. Soviet support for the intervention of foreign combat forces in Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and South Yemen was obviously inconsistent with détente. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan removed any remaining illusions that there were hopeful prospects for US-Soviet agreements. This use of Soviet combat forces showed that the Russians were willing to risk direct intervention in territory beyond the boundaries established by World War II, much as the United States had done when its combat forces were sent to Vietnam.

Even when détente was launched at the Moscow summit in 1972 the Soviets made clear their intent to support liberation movements in the Third World. But no American political leader would have accepted a concept of détente which acquiesced in intervention by combat forces from the outside. The Russians clearly went beyond the understandings of Nixon and Kissinger. These Third World adventures have been combined with a steady buildup of Soviet military forces. The Soviet Union, as we are continually reminded, will soon be capable of threatening the survival of our ground-launched ICBMs.

It has not been difficult, under these circumstances, for the American hawks to have their way. They long for the return of US nuclear superiority that would allow the threat of nuclear confrontation to force the Soviets to back down—the kind of threat that is widely claimed to have worked in the Cuban missile crisis. Even though some hardliners acknowledge that nuclear superiority may not be attainable again in any meaningful sense, they believe that by exploiting our technological advantages we can exert decisive political pressure on the Soviet system.

American polemicists, with Soviet help, have succeeded in creating an atmosphere in which Soviet strength is consistently and sometimes hysterically exaggerated. The origins of much of this exaggeration can be traced back to December 1976, three weeks before Carter’s inauguration, when the newspapers featured disturbing leaked reports about rising Soviet military strength. This was the so-called “Team B” estimate. George Bush, the CIA director at that time, had appointed a panel of ten military experts and Soviet specialists from outside the government to review the CIA’s own estimates of Soviet military power and intentions. Led by Richard Pipes, a professor of Russian history at Harvard, Team B was chosen to reflect a tough-minded approach to the USSR. Among its members were retired Army Lieutenant General Daniel O. Graham, the former head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency; Paul H. Nitze, former deputy-secretary of defense; Thomas Wolfe, a Soviet military affairs expert at RAND; and William R. Van Cleave, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California.

Team B, after working at the CIA for about three months, vigorously challenged the analysis of Team A, the regular CIA staff charged with estimating Soviet strength. George Bush adopted the Team B findings as the official CIA estimate. In an interview with The New York Times, he said that “new evidence and reinterpretation of old information contributed to the reassessment of Soviet intentions.” The most important new information available to Team B was the CIA’s assessment of Soviet defense spending, published in October 1976, which concluded that the percentage of Soviet gross national product absorbed by defense had jumped from 6 to 8 percent to 11 to 13 percent. The national press and television reported that the CIA had doubled its estimate of Soviet defense spending.

The text of the Team B CIA estimate has never been released, but the leaked story concluded that the USSR was moving ahead of the United States in military strength. The members of Team B asserted that the Soviets were developing the capacity to fight a nuclear war because they had worked out a strategy based on preparing and winning a “limited nuclear war.” In an interview with The Washington Post, General Graham said that there had been “two catalytic factors, quite aside from the Team B effort, which had shaped the appraisal of Soviet intentions.” One was the CIA estimate recalculating the percentage of Soviet GNP expended for defense. The other major factor in changing the official US perception, Graham said, was “the discovery of a very important Soviet civil defense effort.”

According to The New York Times, Team B analysts claimed that “the scope and detail of the Soviet civil defense program shows that it is clearly intended as an element in over-all military superiority insuring the survival of Soviet society against the principal adversary, the United States.” They maintain that the Soviet civil defense program is further evidence that the Soviets are positioning themselves to fight a nuclear war and still survive as a workable society.

Four years later the views of Team B have become even more influential than they were in 1976 and more in need of scrutiny. For all its conclusions are either wrong, or distorted, or based on misinterpretation of the facts. Many of them have been inadequately challenged by the Carter administration, or not challenged at all. Along with the Soviet military buildup and the violations of détente I have mentioned, the Team B arguments have had enormous consequences for US defense spending. Paul Nitze and several other members of Team B organized the “Committee on the Present Danger” which has become one of the most powerful lobbies for a larger military establishment. Today Richard Pipes and other members of Team B have joined their former sponsor, George Bush, and are serving as senior advisers to Ronald Reagan.

On civil defense, at least, the Carter administration has rejected the conclusions of Team B. Interviewed on television on August 17, 1980, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown said: “I don’t think massive civil defense programs are going to succeed in protecting the population of countries that try it. I think that the Soviet civil defense program, although it probably is ten times as big as ours, would not, in my judgment prevent Soviet industry or a great fraction of the Soviet population from being destroyed in an all-out thermonuclear war…. In a limited [nuclear] war if you target cities they are not going to be saved by civil defense.”

Here Brown reflects the conclusions of the CIA estimate published in 1979, which concludes that civil defense could not protect enough of the Soviet people and economy to maintain a viable society after an all-out nuclear attack. The Soviets themselves acknowledge that civil defense measures would provide little protection against the US nuclear arsenal. They maintain that their civil defense is primarily for the purpose of providing some protection in the case of war with China. They note that Chinese nuclear weapons are currently so limited that civil defense can still be reasonably effective against them. The US continues to budget about $100 million a year for civil defense, but most of it is to be used for disaster relief in the case of floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.

Undoubtedly, the members of Team B made their greatest impact on public opinion with the claim that the Soviet Union had doubled its defense spending during the 1970s. Most members of Congress believe this today. So, it seems, do most editorial writers. The CIA’s revision has become part of the conventional wisdom of defense policy. A recent study published by the US Air Force and prepared by the US Strategic Institute said: “Estimates prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as by US academic economists, have been in error by as much as 100 percent. The CIA estimates were accepted without question until 1976, when they were acknowledged to be grossly in error and doubled. Economists have not yet recovered from the shock of that experience.”

Similarly, Richard Nixon in his new book, The Real War, writes:

In 1976 the CIA estimates of Russian military spending for 1970-1975 were doubled overnight as errors were discovered and corrected…. When the first concrete steps toward arms control were taken, American presidents were being supplied by the CIA with figures on Russian military spending that were only half of what the agency later decided spending had been. Thanks, in part, to this intelligence blunder we will find ourselves looking down the nuclear barrel in the mid-1980s.

But Nixon, Team B, the Congress, and the press have been tragically misinformed. While Team B’s report of December 1976 remained classifed, the CIA’s own official report on Soviet defense spending of October 1976 had contradicted Team B’s conclusions, not supported them. The true meaning of the October report has been missed. A gargantuan error has been allowed to stand uncorrected all these years. Here is the CIA’s explanation for its change of estimates, as published in the 1976 report: “The new estimate of the share of defense in the Soviet GNP is almost twice as high as the 6 to 8 percent previously estimated. This does not mean that the impact of defense programs on the Soviet economy has increased—only that our appreciation of this impact has changed. It also implies that Soviet defense industries are far less efficient than formerly believed.” (Emphasis added.)

So while the CIA increased its estimate of the percentage of Soviet GNP spent on defense from 6 to 8 percent to 11 to 13 percent, there had in fact been no doubling of the rate of actual defense spending. During the period between 1973 and 1976, as CIA analysts refined their methodology and obtained better intelligence, they made an important discovery. In assessing the cost of Soviet defense production they had been crediting the Soviets with a degree of industrial efficiency close to that of the United States. What they discovered was that Soviet defense production, in fact, was not very efficient. Thus, the Soviet defense effort was absorbing a greater share of the GNP than previously believed. What should have been cause for jubilation became the inspiration for misguided alarm.

In fact, there have been no dramatic increases in Soviet defense spending during the entire decade. In its official estimate published in January 1980, the CIA concluded as follows for the 1970-1979 period: “Estimated in constant dollars, Soviet defense activities increased at an average annual rate of 3 percent.” In other words, the Soviets have indeed been increasing their defense budget, each year, at about the same rate as the United States and most of its NATO partners have raised their military spending, during each of the past four years. The US defense budget for next year calls for an increase, in real terms, of about 5 percent.

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