The CIA And The Culture Of Failure



Neoreactionary and related analysis of politics and meta-politics

The central premise of the book is that exaggerated doubt in the CIA’s competence, budget cuts, and real intelligence failures led to the major intelligence failures of the 21st century.

The book is very fair to its criticized parties, offering a steel-man case for them in turn. In the CIA’s case, the author offers a list of points from Richard Kerr, a senior CIA analyst:

  • No nuclear war with the Soviet Union and no major combat incident pitting U.S. forces directly against Soviet forces anywhere in the world during fifty years of Cold War.

  • The slowing and halting of the expansion of communism.

  • The development of highly accurate intelligence on virtually all Soviet weaponry—to include acquisition of entire weapons systems, such as fighter planes.

  • A transition to representative democracy in Easter Europe that was, except in Romania, almost entirely peaceful.

This list is a bit ridiculous of a justification for the CIA being essential or having performed well.

To some extent, the tale of the CIA not predicting the fall over the Soviet Union are exaggerated, but only slightly.

The Aldrich Ames scandal, a failure in its own right, severed all of the CIA’s sources in the Kremlin in one fell swoop. This left the CIA unusually blind in the critical Gorbachev years.

The book pinpoints the moment of the decision to send a massive Soviet force into Afghanistan as the decisive moment that brought down the Soviet Union.

The author addresses the CIA’s failure to predict the invasion (p. 56). Once again, the CIA did not entirely miss the mark; the dominant perspective was simply that it was not a likely possibility. CIA reports to Director Turner included as early as March 28, 1979, the possibility of an invasion, which is only eleven days after it was first deliberated in Moscow.

The events around the initiation the the Soviet war in Afghanistan are of the convoluted nature that often surround events initiated by intelligence agencies. The facts are, that the Soviets were afraid that the Americans would get involved in Afghanistan on the side of its communist leader, Amin, and that they therefore ought to overthrow him and replace him with a Russian-friendly communist. The Americans were in fact about to get involved in Afghanistan, but in order to fund rebels against Amin. Both sides were wrong about what the other was doing. Afghanistan was not about to fall into the American orbit, and the Soviets did not have a good relationship with Amin. The CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan may have incidentally set off events that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that war jump-started Islamic militancy, the consequences of which rock the world today.

I think this makes a strong case against the utility of the foreign antics of a secret service like the CIA. The product never seems to match the intent; triggering random, unpredictable events that reverberate far into the future is perhaps not the best strategy for foreign policy.

Being fair to the CIA, their prevailing view was that the Soviets would not invade Afghanistan because it was a trap that would absorb Soviet blood and treasure and produce nothing of value—it was the Soviets who failed to come to the same conclusion. The CIA judged that the Soviets would act in their rational interest. They understood Soviet capabilities, but not intent (p. 72-73).

The CIA in 1979 was in a position in which both left and right had reason to deride them—Carter to explain why he did not take a more hard line policy, and Reagan to justify a weapons buildup. The invasion supported the earlier “Team B” conclusion that the Soviet empire would become more aggressive and expansionist, and therefore for political reasons, the idea of Soviet decline was not supported.

The CIA was further harmed by its failure to predict the Soviet response to the Polish crisis with Solidarity. As we learned in my previous Book Notes, Solidarity was given the velvet glove treatment for the most part, whereas the CIA believed that the Soviets would intervene with force against the Polish dissidents, which of course, did not happen (p. 76).

A reason that this failure occurred was because the intelligence analysts at the CIA were failing to see events through the Soviet perspective, especially in light of the experience in Afghanistan. Despite having ample information available, without thinking as the Kremlin would, the CIA came to the wrong conclusions (p. 78). The CIA had the information available that Jaruzelski was intending to declare martial law—but the CIA believed that the Polish military was not sufficiently loyal to Communism for the Polish government to be able to enforce martial law, which would therefore require Soviet military intervention. The Soviets were conducting threatening military exercises on the border with Poland, so the frequent warnings that the Soviets were planning an invasion were based on something of substance and differ in this way to certain infamous claims about Iraq and WMDs.

What the CIA fundamentally missed in Poland was that the crisis was not a pragmatic choice specific to the case at hand, but a fundamental shift in Soviet resolve and policy.

The best documented evidence of a belief in the possible fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War is from a document written by Richard Kerr, the chief of intelligence analysis, in 1989:

“Assuming Gorbachev holds on to power and refrains from repression, the next two years are likely to bring a significant progression toward a pluralist—albeit chaotic—democratic system, accompanied by a higher degree of political instability, social upheaval, and interethnic conflict that this Estimate judges probable. In these circumstances, we believe there is significant chance that Gorbachev, during the period of this Estimate, will progressively lose control of events. The personal political strength he has accumulated is likely to erode, and his political position will be severely tested. The essence of the Soviet crisis is that neither the political system that Gorbachev is attempting to change nor the emergent system he is fostering is likely to cope effectively with newly mobilized popular demands and deepening economic crisis.”

This minority view by Kerr is the closest to a prediction of Soviet collapse produced by the CIA.

While I do not agree with Condoleezza Rice’s view that the CIA’s performance in this era was “magnificent,” the book very successfully promotes a more informed view that is neither the cartoon view that the CIA was a bumbling and clueless organization nor the view that the CIA played a critical role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. At best, the CIA fulfilled its basic duties in providing intelligence analyses to the President. Additionally, one can lay blame on the CIA for failing to “predict” the downfall of the Soviet Union, but the author makes a good point that neither did Moscow itself see the collapse coming. It was a result of Gorbachev’s actions, but certainly not his intent. Given that the person in the most advantageous position possible, in terms of making such a prediction, could not do so, perhaps neither could the CIA be expected to either.

Before getting to the next chapter, I wanted to point out perhaps the most interesting sentence in the book so far (p. 101):

“One could define the CIA’s performance in the latter years of the Cold War as a failure to see the rise of Russia just as easily as one could define it as a failure to predict the breakup of the Soviet Union. To be sure, the CIA tracked the growing influence of Boris Yeltsin and the tension between the Communist Party and Russian nationalism.”

There is nothing more said on the “rise of Russia”, but this presents an interesting area of study that would be interesting to pursue via some other book, if such a book even exists.

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