Team “B”

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

As Republican senator Chuck Hagel noted on NBC’s “Meet The Press” last Sunday, intelligence analysis “is a matrix of many dynamics.” It’s a complex process filled with uncertainty, guess work, and potential for misinterpretations. But American citizens, and those of the rest of the world, might be forgiven for believing that no such ambiguity was even imaginable. Recall the following statements, representative of many more:

"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Dick Cheney Speech to VFW National Convention, Aug. 26, 2002.

”We know they have weapons of mass destruction … There isn’t any debate about it." [It it] beyond anyone’s imagination" that U.N. inspectors would fail to find such weapons if they were given the opportunity. Donald Rumsfeld, Sept. 2002.

"We know for a fact that there are weapons there." Ari Fleischer press briefing, Jan. 9, 2003.

"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." George W. Bush address to the nation, March 17, 2003.

”There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction." Gen. Tommy Franks press conference, March 22, 2003.

"I’m absolutely sure that there are weapons of mass destruction there." Colin Powell remarks to reporters, May 4, 2003.

During the past week, the administration, together with its allies in Congress, has gone on the offensive, in the words of Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller, to try to "lay all of this out on the intelligence community” and thereby shift the spotlight away from its intense efforts to corrupt the intelligence process down the line. As Vince Cannistraro, former CIA operations chief, recently testified Valerie Plame “was outed as a vindictive act because the agency was not providing support for policy statements that Saddam Hussein was reviving his nuclear program.” The leak was intended “demonstrate an underlying contempt for the intelligence community, the CIA in particular.”

This, in and of itself, ought to be a significant scandal, whether we concern ourselves with the outing of Ms. Plame, Secretary Rumsfeld’s efforts to create the Office of Special Programs with its deeply misguided reliance on information provided by the convicted embezzler Achmad Chalabi and his cronies in the Iraqi National Congress or Vice President Cheney’s repeated visits to CIA headquarters, where, together with his hardline chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, he appeared to signal to all concerned that there were “right” answers and “wrong” answers to administration questions—and these could be determined independent of any actual evidence.

But to fully understand the nature of the crisis imposed on the CIA and other intelligence professionals by the Bush administration, journalists need to study up on a little history, as we have all been to this movie before. As American Progress fellow Lawrence Korb told a gathering I hosted at the World Policy Institute at New School University in New York last week, “the agency has never recovered from ‘Team B.’”

Many of the very same people who deliberately created the misimpression about Iraq to goad the American people into supporting a war had already executed a run-through of the same strategy in the 1970s. Back then, establishment hardliners associated with the now defunct “Committee on the Present Danger” heaped scorn upon the professional intelligence services for their alleged underestimation of Soviet military capabilities. They succeeded in convincing then-CIA Director, George H.W. Bush, to appoint a now infamous "Team B" to go through the same material and come up with an answer that would justify a vast increase in U.S. defense spending. With the powerful political patronage of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, its members, including Paul Wolfowitz, came up with astronomical numbers for alleged Soviet military spending and capabilities. As Newsweek’s Farred Zakaria, a moderately conservative war supporter, has observed, “In retrospect, Team B’s conclusions were wildly off the mark.” It argued, for instance, that back in 1976, the Soviets enjoyed "a large and expanding Gross National Product." It credited them with double the number Backfire bombers the nation could actually produce. It turns out that even the CIA’s much pilloried estimates for Soviet military capabilities were far too generous. Sounding very much as if he were talking about Iraqi WMD capabilities 30 years later, Rumsfeld claimed, “No doubt exists about the capabilities of the Soviet armed forces.”

In fact, in 1989 the agency admitted that, contrary to the Team B analysis, it had "substantially overestimated" the Soviet threat in almost every aspect. And these same Neoconservatives proved extremely critical of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s efforts to join with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War and frequently advised the president and public that both "glasnost" and "perestroika" were "just a trick" to lull the West into subservience. For instance, as late as November 1987, when the rest of the world was extremely eager to take advantage of the chances Gorbachev offered, the United States was hobbled in its efforts to recognize the new reality by neoconservative commentators who, like Charles Krauthammer, complained, "We don’t know if Gorbachev is sincere. If he is, we don’t know whether he will succeed in winning over his bureaucracy. If he does, we don’t know if he will last."

Zakaria also notes that, having been made to look foolish by Gorbachev and losing the Soviet Union as an enemy, neoconservatives tried the same trick with China in the 1990s. Alas, it did not work very well, because China was still a third-world nation with little potential to threaten the United States in any meaningful (i.e. non-suicidal) way. Nevertheless a neocon-dominated document entitled “the Cox Commission Report,” published in 1999, attempted to argue that the Chinese military spending was really double the CIA’s estimate. A generally shoddy job, some of the facts to disprove its wild claims can be found in the report’s own footnotes. But it does help explain the pre-9/11 hysteria on the part of the hardliners like William Kristol and Robert Kagan, when, during the brief China crisis of 2001, they accused President Bush of heaping on the heads of the American people, a “profound national humiliation” in which he “revealed weakness… revealed fear [and whose] capitulation will also embolden others around the world who have watched this crisis carefully to see the new administration’s mettle tested.”

9/11 changed all that, of course, and gave these hardliners just the opportunity they had truly coveted for more than a decade: a chance to “finish” the 1991 Gulf War, in which Saddam Hussein had been expelled from Kuwait, but allowed to remain in power.

Meanwhile, as Korb pointed out, the CIA never entirely recovered from the vote of no-confidence it received. Never again, many vowed, would its professionals allow themselves to stand so vulnerable against a concerted political assault from the right. As Robert Parry reports, the damage to the CIA of this episode attracted the concern of virtually no powerful politicians as it took place. A mini-controversy arose when, in 1991, Bush promoted Robert Gates to CIA director. A number of CIA analysts who felt that Gates had been insufficiently protective of their professionalism banded together to protest “politicization of intelligence,” and Soviet specialist Melvyn Goodman, identified Gates as the key “politicization” culprit. Since Gates already had Iran-contra trouble, and had been involved in back channel aid to Saddam Hussein – another black mark on his record – their objections threatened to derail the nomination. But Bush and Gates had allies on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and managed to secure the support of key players like Democrat David Boren, who chaired the committee.

Who was Bush’s man on the committee? He was an anonymous staffer at the time, but he’s become a bit better known in the ensuing decade. His name is George Tenet, and yes, history really does repeat itself as farce.

For further reading, see Anne Hessing Cahn and John Prados, “Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, April 1993, Robert Parry, “Why U.S. Intelligence Failed,” Consortium News, and Seymour Hersh, “The Stovepipe,” The New Yorker, Oct. 27, 2003




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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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