Reflections on Intelligence and the End of the Cold War

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COLLOQUY (Security Affairs Support Association, December 1999), Author's Final Draft

Reflections on Intelligence and the End of the Cold War
By Robert D. Steele
Dampened in mood by the death of twelve young Texas A&M students the evening before, but accustomed to the reality of death from their decades on the front lines of the Cold War, they gathered in College Station, Texas. "By invitation only", the four-hundred plus participants in the CIA-Bush School conference on "Intelligence and the End of the Cold War" ran the full spectrum. The participants were led by retired President George Bush, bursting with vitality, and by The Honorable George Tenet, the current Director of Central Intelligence, who offered a powerful testament to the importance of a bi-partisan Intelligence Community. Former DCI's Helms, Webster, Gates and Woolsey were there. Policy players from the Bush Administration included Brent Scowcroft, Dick Cheney, and a host of arms control experts. Attentive to their every word were a broad range of former and current intelligence professionals from both the analysis and the operations directorates, as well as a number of earnest young future intelligence professionals.
As one who has been very critical of the Intelligence Community, I went there somewhat smugly, thinking that it would be both historic and amusing to see these good and brilliant people gloss over their mistakes. Grand mistakes, such as the consistent over-statement of the strength of the Soviet economy, the consistent under-statement of the weaknesses of the Soviet military, a general lack of understanding of the nuances of the relationships between the Soviets and their satellite states, and a deep inconsistency and general failure in the warning arena—including warning of the two most important post-war events in this century, the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the subsequent reunification of Germany) and the dismantling of the Soviet empire.
I left, instead, in a state of quiet contemplation, awed by the over-all accomplishments of the community, and reflective over its future. Read on, please.
If I were to capture the essence of the conference in four bullets, it might read as follows:

  • we obsessed on the Soviets and got a passing grade;

  • we did indeed have the best and the brightest on both sides of the producer-consumer relationship, and they did well in spite of intelligence gaps;

  • we ignored the rest of the world and its emerging challenges to our national security, and now will pay the price for being shallow on global coverage; and

  • we dabbled in covert actions with mixed results while glossing over counter-intelligence, such that we are now severely handicapped in the one and have a substantial number of undiscovered traitors in the other.

This was an honest conference, with an honest self-appraisal, and we must acknowledge our shortcomings and strive to do better. What I had not anticipated was the powerful influence on my perspective of this opportunity to reflect on the larger accomplishments of the past fifty years:

  • We created the newest intelligence service in the world, learning from and then surpassing the British in many respects. Our leadership brought together the allied services in a manner never before attempted.

  • We broke the Soviet diplomatic code (VERONA) through great perseverence and ingenuity and were thus well-equipped over the years to deal with their provocations and deceptions.

  • We helped drive the development of U.S. high technology, and produced new technical wonders from the U-2 to overhead satellites to hand-held transmitters that were decades ahead of their time.

  • We plumbed the depths of the ocean, not only with signals but also physically, carrying out undersea communications intercepts that no normal person would contemplate.

  • We recovered, at enormous risk and with sensational endeavor, major treasures from the sea, the Glomar Explorer being merely the most visible of these routine operations.

  • We completed the trans-Pacific communications pipe by running an underground cable from Viet-Nam to Subic Bay, and provided superb signals intelligence support to the military during Viet-Nam as a direct result.

  • We created the Cray computer and many other electronic engineering marvels as part of the growth of the National Security Agency, setting the stage for America's preeminence as the software and hardware superpower of the information age.

  • We pulled off what is surely one of the very best of the clandestine operations in this century, making off with the entire original files of the notorious and globally-influential STASI, the East German intelligence service.

In brief, at the end of the conference I was a bit wiser and a bit more humble. I left this conference with a sense of awe—and I use this word with great deliberation—at what the Intelligence Community had been able to accomplish over the years, and at how wrong Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, my hero from New York, was in discrediting the Central Intelligence Agency in particular and the Intelligence Community in general, for their Soviet-related failures. Despite my own quarter century in the business of intelligence, it had been all too easy for me to forget the urgency and the importance of many of the Intelligence Community's accomplishments in the post-WWII period, beside which its flaws and omissions were a pale comparison. I realized that over the years the Intelligence Community had relied too much on secrecy, and had not developed a capability for informing its own employees, its policy clients, and the public at large, of its generic accomplishments and its worth to the Nation. I left the conference convinced that we need to emulate the Dutch intelligence service, and publish an annual report that lists targets and accomplishments with a sufficient degree of detail to permit an informed citizen to vote on behalf of political leaders who appreciate the value of intelligence.

There were a couple of other insights gleaned from this historic event.
In the over-all scheme of things, I also left persuaded that that it was not the findings of intelligence that mattered, as much as the process of both intelligence and intelligence in relation to policy. This was driven home to me with great force by the words of respect and affection from Arnie Kantor, one of the principals for arms control under President George Bush, for Doug McEachin, then the senior intelligence officer responsible for supporting our arms control policy team.
The corollary of this insight is that individuals matter more than organizations. Arnie Kantor, Stephen Hadley, and Ron Lehman— all talked about how the relationship between the individual delivering and discussing the intelligence, and the individual making policy recommendations to the President, and the respective backgrounds of each, led to a mental model with differing discount rates for different types of intelligence, all dependent on the individual participants. From this one can readily conclude that the public trashing of the Intelligence Community, and the end of the Cold War, place the process at risk because we appear to be less and less attractive as a calling for great individuals. We need to recruit, at all levels, the Helms and Schlesingers of the future, and accept them as they are, warts and all. The day of the "organization man" is long past, as is the day of the dabbling Ivy League prima donna, and I worry that the Intelligence Community has become too staid, too insular, and too bureaucratic. The current difficulties being encountered by LtGen Mike Hayden, Director of NSA, with his most senior staffers, represent in my mind all that is wrong with the community.
Having said all this, it became clear to me as I listened to these various exchanges between the best and the brightest from both the intelligence and policy worlds that our greatest failure in the past fifty years—a failure that will haunt us for a decade or two to come—was of our own making. We failed to develop a process for educating our own intelligence professionals, our policy clients, and our public. Gordon Oehler, until recently the last word in nonproliferation intelligence, has said publicly that we must regard intelligence as an educational process and I now understand his insight.
Perhaps more importantly, I see now that our Intelligence Community, if it is to prosper and be relevant in the 21st Century, requires both a strong internal educational program for intelligence collectors, producers, and consumers; and also a very robust educational outreach program for Congress, the public, foreign leaders, and foreign publics. Non-governmental organizations, those that Jessica Matthews of the Carnegie Endowment has properly noted are now at the forefront of the PowerShift (author Alvin Toffler's term) stemming from the information revolution, must also be embraced and educated as part of this process.
Internally, we must follow the prescription of Christopher Andrews, author of For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency, and do what we can to ensure that both intelligence producers and intelligence consumers are well grounded in history and context. Neither history nor context are secret, and this will confound those whose eyes are unaccustomed to sunlight, especially the most senior.
Externally, I now believe that it is not possible to have a successful intelligence community within a "dumb nation". As Dick Kerr, recently retired Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, has noted publicly, "The Intelligence Community has to get used to the fact that is no longer controls most of the information." This fact of life requires that we devise a process to create a genuinely national intelligence community that can harness the distributed intelligence of the entire policy community, the business community, state and local governments, academics, and all other overt sources of information. This will require an extraordinary change in perspective for our most senior intelligence community leaders, as well as a new mandate and new programs that can only come at the behest of an inspired and committed President.

The George Bush Presidential Library has a magnificent painting in its rotunda showing the President and his principal advisors during the Gulf War. Powell, Scowcroft, and Cheney are in the picture. The DCI is not. We have much to do as we prepare our Intelligence Community for the 21st Century, but I for one am now less critical of the process that got us here, and more enthusiastic about the prospects for constructive improvements in the decades to come. In 2010, in the aftermath of four regional wars, a brief but catastrophic digital blackout at home, a successful "Digital Marshall Plan", and the successful realignment of 50% of our national security budget from reactive war-fighting to pro-active peacekeeping, I want to attend the opening ceremonies for the retiring president's new library. I will look for that generation's painting, and I pray that the DCI—a long-serving bi-partisan DCI—will be in the picture.

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