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It’s Time to Bench “Team B”

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Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

The reports of the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence miss the real problem facing the intelligence community. The real problem is not organization or culture, but the Team B concept which began in 1976, and the real villains are those hardliners who refuse to accept the unbiased and balanced judgments of intelligence professionals about the threats facing the country.

On May 6, 1976, then Director of Central Intelligence George H.W. Bush created a Team B to assess a 1975 National Intelligence Estimate by his agency on Soviet Strategic Objectives. Because the NIE did not endorse a worst-case scenario of Soviet capabilities, outsiders demanded access to the same classified intelligence used by the CIA in preparing the report so they could come to their own conclusions. The concept of a Team B competitive analysis had been opposed by William Colby, a career professional and Bush’s predecessor as CIA director. But Bush, under pressure from President Ford, who was facing a strong challenge from right-wing Republicans in that year’s primary, and Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, which was trying to undermine support for Kissinger’s détente with the Soviet Union, caved in.

The outside experts on Team B were led by Harvard Professor Richard Pipes and included such well-known hawks as Paul Nitze, William Van Cleave, and Paul Wolfowitz. Not surprisingly, Team B concluded that the intelligence specialists had badly underestimated the threat because they relied too heavily on hard data, instead of extrapolating the Soviets’ intentions from ideology.[1] According to some Team B members, “the principal threat to our nation, to world peace, and to the cause of human freedom was the Soviet drive for dominance based upon an unparalleled military buildup.”[2]

Although the Team B report contained little factual data, it was enthusiastically received by conservative groups such as the Committee on the Present Danger, whose members included Ronald Reagan, and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. But the report turned out to be grossly inaccurate. For example, it said that the Soviets would have 500 intercontinental Backfire bombers capable of striking the United States by 1984. In reality, only 235 were deployed. Team B also claimed that the Soviets were working on an anti-acoustic submarine, though they failed to find any evidence of one. The hawks explained away this lack of evidence by stating that “the submarine may have already been deployed because it appeared to have evaded detection.”[3]

Team B was right about one thing. The CIA estimate was indeed flawed. In 1989, the agency published an internal review of the threat assessments from 1974 to 1986. The report concluded that the Soviet threat had been “substantially overestimated” every year. In 1978, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that the selection of Team B members yielded a flawed composition of political views and biases.[4] Consequently, the Team B analysis was deemed a gross exaggeration and completely inaccurate.

The failure of Team B in 1976 did not deter the hardliners from challenging the CIA’s judgments for the next three decades. During the period from 1982 through 1992, many of the Team B members were in government as members of the Reagan and the first Bush administrations. In 1981, after the publication of Clare Sterling’s The Terror Network, which had argued that global terrorists were actually pawns of the Soviets, leading hardliners asked the CIA to draft an NIE on the relationship between Soviets and terrorist organizations. The NIE concluded that although there was evidence that the Soviets had assisted groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization with weapons and training, all of the evidence indicated that the Soviets did not encourage or approve of these groups’ terrorist acts.[5] However, hardliners like Secretary of State Alexander Haig, CIA Chief William Casey and Policy Planning Director Paul Wolfowitz rejected the draft as a naïve exculpatory brief and had the draft retooled to assert that the Soviets were heavily involved in supporting “revolutionary violence worldwide.”[6]

A similar situation arose with the CIA analysis of the role of the KGB in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981. The CIA analysis showed that the attack had been carried out by Turkish fascist extremists and that there was reliable documentation that proved that neither the Soviet Union nor Bulgaria was involved in the plot. Nonetheless, Casey produced a study to the contrary, which reached President Reagan and other senior members of the administration.

In the first Bush administration, the CIA claimed that Soviet spending on weapons started declining in 1988 and that the number of Soviet strategic launchers was staying the same or declining. Then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney argued publicly that the Soviet Union’s efforts to modernize its strategic nuclear weapons were “robust and continuous.”[7] Moreover, Cheney asserted that there was “absolutely no evidence” that Gorbachev’s ascension had altered Soviet strategic planning.[8]

During the Clinton years, the Team B hardliners found themselves out of power. But when the Republicans took control of the Congress in 1995, the legislative branch became the favored vehicle for second-guessing the CIA. When an NIE in the mid-1990s concluded that it would be at least 15 years before a rogue nation could threaten the U.S. with an intercontinental ballistic missile, it undercut the hardliners’ case for deploying a national missile defense system. House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not like this assessment, so the Republicans demanded Congress set up a commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld to assess the threat. As Washington Times reporter Rowan Scarborough noted, the “nine-member commission was tilted in Rumsfeld’s favor.”[9] Not surprisingly, it concluded that once again the intelligence community was wrong. In its view, “the threat to the U.S. posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community.”[10]

The other concern of the hardliners was China. Here again they did not like what the agency was telling them, so they established a commission headed by Congressman Chris Cox (R-CA) to look at China’s military spending. Not surprisingly, in 1999 the Cox Commission, in a largely speculative report, declared that Chinese military spending was in fact twice what the CIA estimated.

To be sure, the intelligence community has made misjudgments. That is to be expected. But given the fact that the intelligence community has been second-guessed and publicly embarrassed when it tried to present unbiased objective assessments of threats from the Soviets, China, and rogue nations, it is not surprising that it caved in on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. While there was no formal Team B pressure, the hardliners were now back in power.

Douglas Feith, under secretary of defense for policy, set up his own intelligence operation in the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans. According to current and former Pentagon officials, Feith believed that the CIA and other intelligence agencies so dangerously undervalued threats to U.S. interests that he could not get objective evidence from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, or Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Moreover, by the time that they were asked to produce the October 2002 NIE, most of the hardliners had advised the president that Saddam needed to be removed. Vice President Dick Cheney, who had made several visits to the agency, had already told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Creating an intelligence czar, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission, may help. But unless we protect the professionalism of our analysts, not much will change.

An abridged version of this column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 8.


[1] See Anne Hessing Cohn, “Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 49:3 (April 1993). Available at: http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/1993/a93/a93Teamb.html

[2] Richard Pipes, Paul Nitze, and William Van Cleave, “Common Sense and Common Danger” (Washington, DC: Committee on the Present Danger, 1976) in Alerting America: The Papers of the Committee on the Present Danger, ed. Charles Tyroler II (Washington, DC: Pergamon Press, 1984), 3

[3] Khuram Husain, “Neocons: The Men Behind the Curtain,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 59:6 (November/December 2003), 62–71. Available at: http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/2003/nd03/nd03husain.html
[4] United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Subcommittee on Collection, Production, and Quality, National Intelligence Estimates A-B Team Episode Concerning Soviet Strategic Capability and Objectives. 95th Congress, 2d session, 1978.

[5] Melvin Goodman, “As a CIA Analyst, I’ve Seen Distortions of Intelligence Before,” The Progressive Media Project, at http://www.progressive.org/mediaproject03/mpgj2303.html

[6] Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Estimate: Soviet Support for International Terrorism and Revolutionary Violence (Washington, DC: 1981)

[7] Dunbar Lockwood, “‘Modernization’ Means Cuts and Slowdowns,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 47:5 (June 1991).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rowan Scarborough, “Rumsfeld’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Anti-Terrorist Commander,” The Washington Times, February 24, 2004, A1.

[10] United States Congress, Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, June 15, 1998. Available at: http://www.fas.org/irp/threat/bm-threat.htm

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