Intelligence reports

by Chris Bertram on June 11, 2004

I caught about five minutes of some retrospective on Reagan last night. One of the talking heads — a US protagonist whom I didn’t recognize — said something like the following:

bq. Of course, we now know that the Soviet Union was incredibly weak, falling apart in fact, and that it probably wouldn’t have survived even without the pressure we were putting on. But you have to remember that, _at the time_ , all the intelligence reports (and the media) stressed how _strong_ the Soviets were. On the basis of the intelligence we were getting, we’d never have guessed the reality.

Deja vu?



Motoko Kusanagi 06.11.04 at 9:49 am

It is interesting to note that the famous “Team B” – a group of hardliners selected by the CIA in the 70s to produce a report in which they claimed that the Soviet threat had been terribly underestimated and there were all sorts of military “gaps” and “windows of vulnerability” – was set up by Richard Perle and included Paul Wolfowitz. It’s a living, I suppose.


Gavin Cameron 06.11.04 at 10:45 am

The CIA certainly did overestimate the economic power of the Warsaw Pact, which is odd since you’d think they could just pop over into East Berlin and compare the West’s BMWs with the East’s Trabants! But I guess it wasn’t as easy as all that – the Soviet Union itself was a police state after all, so as long as the Soviets kept sending their shiny tractors and tanks to international trade fairs, it was probably hard to work out what was going along on the ground in Perm or Kuybuyshev! And it’s worth recalling that the stuff the Soviets did show off was really good. Soviet tanks and fighters, for example, can and did match their Western counterparts. Fortunately for us, Western armies only tended to meet Soviet kit when it was outdated and being used by less competent armies (North Korea, Iraq, Libya etc).

It’s a hard call to make, but my feeling is that Reagan perhaps perceived the general weakness of the Soviet economy better than the analysts simply because the analysts drew their conclusions from the military side not the civilian side.


NelC 06.11.04 at 10:51 am

One imagines that a vital step in assessing a potential threat is to produce best case and worst case assessments based on the information available. The gap between the two would then graphically show the depth of actual knowledge about the situation and therefore indicate the areas that need to be examined more fully.

Trouble is, even if this is done with intellectual rigour, if the knowledge gap is large the worst case looks so bad that it can be picked up and waved about dramatically to serve a politico’s own ambitions, thereby dangerously short-circuiting the entire process.


mitch 06.11.04 at 11:11 am

“Of course, we now know that the Soviet Union was incredibly weak, falling apart in fact, and that it probably wouldn’t have survived even without the pressure we were putting on.”

What this assessment misses is the USSR’s drive for control in the Middle East, circa 1980. The vulnerability of First World economies had already been demonstrated by the oil embargo, a revolution had taken place in Iran with a strong left-wing element, and the USSR was trying to install a puppet government in Afghanistan. Throw in the Baluch independence movement in Pakistan – an independent, Soviet-allied Baluchistan would have given the USSR access to the Persian Gulf – and Iraq’s status as a Soviet ally, and they had a real chance at controlling the world’s oil supply.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to have a go at answering the questions I’ve posed here (start at the bottom), I’d be grateful.


q 06.11.04 at 11:23 am

If anyone has the time, it would be worth studying if overstating the enemy has some significant benefit to the US economy.


Bob 06.11.04 at 11:38 am

“War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.” Major General Smedley Butler USMC in a speech in 1933 quoted at:


q 06.11.04 at 11:54 am

_significant benefit to the US economy_ – I would expect evidence to be of the sort:
1. More efficient use of existing resources of labour and capital,
2. Greater control, influence of external resources, either through transfer of ownership, or support contracts


Gavin Cameron 06.11.04 at 12:10 pm

Significant benefit to the US economy?


Significant benefit to certain interest groups?



Motoko Kusanagi 06.11.04 at 12:24 pm

If anyone has the time, it would be worth studying if overstating the enemy has some significant benefit to the US economy.

Here’s some Chomsky for you:

“By the late 1940s, it was taken for granted in government-corporate circles that the state would have to intervene massively to maintain the private economy. In 1948, with postwar pent-up consumer demand exhausted and the economy sinking back into recession, Truman’s “cold-war spending” was regarded by the business press as a “magic formula for almost endless good times” (Steel), a way to “maintain a generally upward tone” (Business Week). The Magazine of Wall Street saw military spending as a way to “inject new strength into the entire economy,” and a few years later, found it “obvious that foreign economies as well as our own are now mainly dependent on the scope of continued arms spending in this country,” referring to the international military Keynesianism that finally succeeded in reconstructing state capitalist industrial societies abroad and laying the basis for the huge expansion of Transnational Corporations (TNCs), at that time mainly U.S.-based.

The Pentagon system was considered ideal for these purposes. It imposes on the public a large burden of the costs (research and development, R&D) and provides a guaranteed market for excess production, a useful cushion for management decisions.”


Max 06.11.04 at 12:29 pm

Off topic, I know, but probably fitting in with discussion of Richard Perle and NeoCon strategy.

BBC Radio 4 last briefly mentioned that there were moves to privatise the (nationalised) Iraqi Petroleum Company? Does anyone have any more on this? As far as I can tell, this would be the single worst thing that could happen to the Iraqi economy (oil exports bring in around $9 billion per annum).


gavin 06.11.04 at 12:43 pm

Even if true, why would privatization be the worst thing? If the sale was conducted properly, the new state would raise a huge amount of cash. Max, you seem to be assuming that it would be given away for free.


gavin 06.11.04 at 12:47 pm

As for the Chomsky quote, what he refers to as international military Keynesianism is really just countercyclical fiscal policy, nothing very special about that, or suspicious.

btw, I think that there should be a Chomsky equivalent of Goodwin’s law. The first person in any argument to quote Chomsky is therefore revealed to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist (unless the argument is about linguistics I suppose).

Here are the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for paranoid personality disorder. How many can you spot in any Chomsky quote?

Beginning by early adult life, the patient is distrustful and suspicious of others, whose motives are seen as malevolent. These attitudes are present in a variety of situations and shown by at least 4 of:
-Unfounded suspicion that others are deceiving, exploiting or harming the patient;
-Preoccupation with unjustified doubts as to the loyalty or trustworthiness of associates or friends;
-Reluctance to confide in others due to unwarranted fears that information will be maliciously used against the patient;
-Interprets hidden, demeaning or threatening content into ordinary events or comments;
-Persistently bears grudges;
-Imagines personal attacks on own reputation or character that others do not perceive; the patient responds quickly with anger or counterattacks;
-Unjustified, recurring suspicions about the fidelity of spouse or sexual partner.


Bob 06.11.04 at 12:47 pm

Why restrict the focus to just the American arms industry?

“As Europe’s biggest arms fair opens in London, BBC News Online takes a look at the importance of the UK defence industry. With annual sales of about £17bn, the industry likes to see itself as a key plank of the UK economy.

“The industry’s biggest customer is the British government, which last year placed orders worth about £13bn.

“But the UK is also the world’s second biggest arms exporter, behind the United States, with a market share of about 20%.” – from:

Britain’s arms industry is doing very well nicely, thank you, selling arms to the world under Tony Blair’s charismatic leadership. It wasn’t ranked anywhere near as well against the fierce international competition under the Tories. I suppose we have to put it down to New Labour’s ethical foreign policy. Whatever became of that?

Of course, the race to sell arms to the Middle East started some way back and well before the Iraq war started. When Tony Blair was asked about doubling British arms exports to Israel, he was reported as saying: “you could cut the British arms industry, but someone else would supply them.” – from:,3858,4468406-110779,00.html

I seem to remember much the same being said by the defendant at his trial for supplying crack cocaine but that is bound to be just another of those untimely coincidences.


Motoko Kusanagi 06.11.04 at 1:08 pm

Gavin: “As for the Chomsky quote, what he refers to as international military Keynesianism is really just countercyclical fiscal policy, nothing very special about that, or suspicious.”

I know that, and so does Chomsky, that’s why he calls it “Keynesianism”. You should have noticed that. The point is that the spending goes through the Pentagon, and is not publicly presented as an economical stimulus but as a necessary answer to some kind of military threat, real or exaggerated – the “missile gap” etc.


pepi 06.11.04 at 1:25 pm

Of course the most fascinating thing about that kind of “at the time we didn’t know that” statement is that it doesn’t absolve anyone, because it does not provide an explanation for why that knowledge was so lacking.

I’m always in awe at how we’re supposed to be trusting intelligence all the time, except when to defend a certain policy post-facto it’s argued the intelligence was incomplete or incompetent or flawed, but without saying why. We’re supposed to believe intelligence simply overestimated the threat like that, for no reason at all, other than _naivete_ and maybe, inexperience. Like it was 12 year olds playing strategy games. And if you don’t buy that, and ask a question or two, you’re a “conspiracy theorist”. So the only choices you have are to be dumb, or crazy.


Max 06.11.04 at 1:29 pm

gavin — Privatisation of the Iraqi oil industry would surely lead to a short-term gain, but for the country sitting on the second largest know reserve it would lead to a loss of economic power and a reduced return. Also, the Iraqi people as a whole are unlikely to benefit from a privatised oil industry even if, like in Russia with GazProm, they can buy the oil below market price. To continue with a Russian analogy, privatisation there only made a handful of people rich. I’m not saying the situation in Iraq would be exactly the same, but it does seem like an attempt to deprive Iraq of its primary source of wealth and power.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be given away for free. But the Ba’ath Party nationalised it for a reason and a lot of the good things about Iraq (universities, health care, etc.) were certainly a result of the wealth created by a nationalised oil industry.

I’m interested to see what people here think about it.


q 06.11.04 at 1:32 pm

I don’t know if we are supposed to take the idea “at the time we didn’t know that” seriously. If we were, we might replace the leaders with some competant ones.

There are lots of experts and informers around, so information is not so hard to gather.


LowLife 06.11.04 at 2:24 pm

I remember alot of short articles in the mid to late 70’s in my Detroit local papers talking about how bad the soviet economy was. They also emphasised the potential for many of the Soviet Republics to brake away. I don’t recall any time tables for these predictions but all the articles cited CIA reports as their sources.


Scott Martens 06.11.04 at 2:46 pm

“Team B” was not a group of people selected by the CIA, it was selected by George Bush in 1976 to contradict the mainstream CIA, which was claiming that the Soviet Union was relatively weak and poor. Certain elements of the Goldwater wing of the Republican party believed (or wanted to believe) that the Soviet Union was a much bigger threat than it was. “Team B” drastically overestimated the Soviet Union. The CIA was much closer to the mark. Some people – not just Chomsky – have noted the links between regressive poltics, defense contractors, and the people who formed “Team B” and think we shouldn’t be surprised that their conclusions led to paranoia, a reactionary change in American government and increased defense spending.

And when exactly did the Soviet Union try to take over in the Middle East? In what deluded Reaganite fantasy was the USSR at all close to Khomeni’s Iran? “Left-wing elements”? Yes, there were left wing elements to the Iranian revolution. There was a lot of disgust at Shah’s rather plutocratic government. But Khomeni was a theocrat. That’s pretty far from the Soviet Union. The Iranisn revolution, and the Baluch independence movement has about as much to do with the USSR as Malcolm X did.


Motoko Kusanagi 06.11.04 at 3:06 pm

““Team B” was not a group of people selected by the CIA, it was selected by George Bush in 1976 to contradict the mainstream CIA…”

You’re right that Team B was formed to counter the mainstreamers in the CIA, who thought that the Soviets only wanted to achieve nuclear parity. But Team B was a CIA creation – Bush was director at the time.

“In 1976, when George Bush became the new director of central intelligence, the PFIAB lost no time in renewing its request for competitive threat assessments. Although his top analysts argued against such an undertaking, Bush checked with the White House, obtained an O.K., and by May 26 signed off on the experiment with the notation, “Let her fly!! O.K. G.B.”…”

(The Trillion Dollar Experiment)


q 06.11.04 at 3:13 pm

Well no-one is really criticizing the overestimation itself – so it sounds like everyone is happy with it.

So when the next Cry-Wolf comes along – China, for example – do we mind the trillion dollar arms boost to oppose the Chinese. No, maybe not. We just ask for a high paid defence contract.

The only downfall in this strategy I can see is perhaps less focus on social issue, and potentially keeping the focus in the wrong place. For example, while we build up against 1 “wolf”, another nukes Miami.


rea 06.11.04 at 3:19 pm

“The Iranisn revolution, and the Baluch independence movement has about as much to do with the USSR as Malcolm X did.”

That is, nothing at all–although I’m sure you could find people on the right who think Malcom X was allied with the Soviets, too, just like Martin Luther King.


Motoko Kusanagi 06.11.04 at 4:03 pm

Didn’t David Horowitz have a graph showing the connections between them and Michael Moore and Al-Zarqawi and John Kerry?


Motoko Kusanagi 06.11.04 at 4:15 pm

I remember: (mirror)


Greg Hunter 06.11.04 at 7:20 pm

Ok Mitch,

Since no one else will play. I have looked at your assertions and have tried to determine where the information that you presented was sourced. I cannot determine if they are credible, but they mention some of your listed items, indicating that Iraq was responsible for all of the terrorist attacks perpetrated on the US. Even some that have not been confirmed as fact (TWA 800). What is your point? That invading Iraq was justifiable?

Just because groups of people happen to be from or visited Iraq seems to mean that Saddam H. was so efficient and sneaky that he was able to pull all of the attacks in some coordinated effort. Get a clue. The Muslims hate us because we are hypocrites; we talk democracy but would no risk the flow of oil to get it done. Mr. McVeigh was privy to this hypocrisy during the first Gulf War and used it as part of his rationalization for the OK City bombing.

The more likely scenario is that the boys (UK & US) in charge determined that 911 was a perfect opportunity to get a foothold in the Middle East, before the nuclear option became available to a Muslim country. They are fighting a war in a proxy country and are in a position to take advantage of any destabilization of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Besides, with the Chinese and the Indians ramping up Industrialization, they are going to need resources as well. Don’t you think it is very wise to have the British and the US at the spigot now, instead of worrying how much oil China or India would dole out the West?

Wake up Mitch, the white nations always win and they win because they convince people like you that brownie would kill them given the opportunity, so killing them first is justifiable.


mitch 06.12.04 at 8:19 am

Scott, my point certainly wasn’t that Iran under Khomeini was some sort of Soviet satellite state. It was that socialist, pro-Moscow movements (such as Tudeh in Iran) were strong in the Muslim world at that time (late 1970s, early 1980s). In fact, I’d very much like to know the extent to which the triumph of Baathism in Iraq and Islamism in Iran, over the Iraqi Communist Party and the Tudeh People’s Party respectively, was enabled by the CIA.

With respect to the Baluch, they have been the object of many foreign intrigues. Both Bhutto in Pakistan and the shah in Iran warned of Soviet backing for an independence movement, possibly coming through Afghanistan and Iraq. Pakistan also worried that Iran might attempt to annex Pakistani Baluchistan, as part of a deal with Afghanistan and India to dismember the country. (I have the impression that today it’s China which is seeking Gulf access through Pakistan, via the Baluch port city of Gwadar, while Russia is now trying to work with Iran.)

This is all relevant to my debate with Greg, since the two men at the core of Al Qaeda’s war against America in the 1990s aren’t just Kuwaitis, they’re also Baluch. They were born and raised in Kuwait, but they come from a family of Pakistani Baluch guest workers. Another member of that family, Zahid Sheikh Mohammed (Zahid al-Sheikh), was reportedly a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Kuwait, and ran a major Kuwaiti charity for Afghan refugees in Peshawar.

Now consider this essay by India’s former counterterrorism chief. He flatly says that in the 1980s, Iraqi and American intelligence cooperated in Pakistani Baluchistan to subvert Iran. Meanwhile, a Kuwaiti Baluch is one of the chief administrators for Gulf Arab assistance to the American-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan. Jump ahead ten years, and you find that the USA has become Iraq’s enemy, and there’s another Kuwaiti Baluch – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of Zahid’s brothers – in charge of Al Qaeda’s martyrdom brigades. I would suggest that somewhere in this thicket of relationships (between Iraq, Kuwait, the USA, the mujahideen, and the Baluch) which existed in the 1980s, lie the seeds of 9/11.


derrida derider 06.12.04 at 2:13 pm

“It is very difficult to convince a man of a fact when his income depends on his not understanding that fact” – GB Shaw (I think)

The CIA, the military and the pollies that funded them all depended for their income on the existence of a strong Soviet threat. So of course they all sincerely believed in it, and all believed it their duty to keep the population in fear of that threat.

A bit like the war on terrorism actually.


Max 06.12.04 at 10:44 pm

mitch — I’ve been told that the best work on the Iraqi Communist Party is Hanna Batatu’s The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq”.


q 06.13.04 at 4:18 am

Mitch – Speculation of whether it is this enemy or that is fascinating and worthy of many books, but it is like a farmer complaining about which of the animals are getting restless (Orwell’s 1984).

As Greg Hunter points out this misses the main dymanic. “wood for the trees” – Washington has few friends in the lands from Hanoi, Dehli, Islamabad, Tehran, Baghdad, Beirut to Istanbul.

The more interesting questions are surely:
(1) How will the farmer retain control
(2) if the farm gets overthrown, what will replace it?


q 06.13.04 at 4:29 am

Was Big Brother a farmer? I don’t think so! I must have been referring to Orwell’s Animal Farm!

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