CIA Assessments of the Soviet Union: The Record Versus the Charges
``. . .we find it hard to believe that anyone who has read the CIA's annual public reports on the state of the Soviet economy since 1975 could possibly interpret them as saying that the Soviet economy was booming.'' (HPSCI Review Committee, 18 November 1991.)
In the aftermath of the political breakup of the Soviet Union, charges that CIA was oblivious to the deteriorating economy and corroding societal conditions that set the stage for the breakup have taken on the aura of conventional wisdom. The New York Times, for example, asserted in an editorial on 22 October 1995 that: ``The CIA considered the Soviet Union an economic power when it was actually an economic wreck.'' 1 An article in The Wall Street Journal on 27 July 1995 by Adam Wooldridge stated that the CIA-in the face of readily available evidence to the contrary-''continued to endorse the myth that the communists had transformed an agricultural backwater [the USSR] into a mighty industrial power capable of ever higher levels of economic development.' 2 Neither of these assertions is accompanied by examples where CIA expressed the judgments it is accused of making.
Wooldridge's article was a review of a book-The Tyranny of Numbers by Nicholas Eberstadt 3-which includes similar, albeit less strident, criticisms of the CIA. The Foreword to Eberstadt's book was written by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 4 who has been perhaps the most prominent and influential critic of CIA's performance on the Soviet Union.
The statements from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are fairly representative of the charges levied at the CIA since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Such characterizations, however, are in direct contradiction to the record of what the CIA said in its analytical products. In mid-1991, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) commissioned a group of economic experts from nongovernment organizations to review CIA's analysis of the Soviet economy. Their final report described what they found to be flaws in certain aspects of CIA's methodologies for quantitative measurements of Soviet performance, especially the scale for comparing it to that of the United States (see the discussion beginning on page 7 entitled ``The Tyrannical Numbers''). But this ``review committee'' also stated in its report submitted in November 1991:
Most reports [from 1979] through 1988 on the course of the Soviet GNP and on general economic developments were equally satisfactory: accurate, illuminating, and timely. In fact, we find it hard to believe that anyone who has read the CIA's annual public reports on the state of the Soviet economy since 1975 could possibly interpret them as saying that the Soviet economy was booming. On the contrary, these reports regularly reported the steady decline in the Soviet growth rate and called attention to the deep and structural problems that pointed to continued decline and possibly to stagnation. 5
That HPSCI report was unclassified. The CIA ``annual public reports'' it referred to were unclassified products disseminated by or through the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) of Congress. These reports-in their entirety, including formal documents submitted for the record, oral testimony, and transcripts of the discussions and question and answer sessions-have been publicly available since their origin. Eighty-six other unclassified papers by CIA analysts on Soviet economic topics were published in JEC compendiums between 1962 and 1987. All of these also were unclassified from their origin and are and have been available for review by anyone wanting to examine CIA's performance.
About two dozen previously classified CIA papers-produced mainly in the 1980s-have been released during the past few years. Some of these, before their declassification, were reviewed by the HPSCI Review Committee, and a few of them were described in its unclassified report. Nearly half of them were used in a Harvard University case study published in mid-1994. 6
``The primary purpose of this monograph is not to `prove' CIA was `right.' Rather, the objective is to demonstrate that assertions that CIA got it blatantly wrong are unfounded.''
The titles and excerpts from these declassified CIA papers, in combination with the annual unclassified JEC reports, constitute the bulk of the major CIA studies of the Soviet economic and societal conditions from the mid-1970s through the end of the 1980s. All of these declassified products and the majority of the unclassified annual JEC reports submitted from the mid-1970s through the end of the 1980s-36 documents in all-are excerpted in Appendix A. The complete documents are available on request. This material offers a basis for comparing CIA analyses on Soviet conditions and probable future developments during the 1970s and 1980s with what now is known about that period.
References to the record of what CIA actually said-with notable exceptions such as the Harvard case study, an article in The National Interest 7, and a recent feature in The Los Angeles Times 8-have been conspicuously absent from most public discourse on CIA's analytical performance on the Soviet Union. The declassification of the documents has been preemptively denigrated by some as selective release in an effort to ``prove CIA got it right.''
While most of us who were participants in the effort believe the CIA did get most of it right, and are prepared to argue-on the basis of the record-what was right and what was in error, the primary purpose of this monograph is not to ``prove'' CIA was ``right.'' Rather, the objective is to demonstrate that assertions that CIA got it blatantly wrong are unfounded-that charges that CIA did not see and report the economic decline, societal deterioration, and political destabilization that ultimately resulted in the breakup of the Soviet Union are contradicted by the record. Arguments about who was ``how right'' are of less use, much as we might wish to engage in them.
As regards the charge of selectivity, the best answer is simply the material itself-its volume and the timespan it covers and the fact that so much of it as far back as the 1970s was unclassified from the outset. (There is, in fact, much additional unclassified material available to readers). These products were simultaneously disseminated to diverse policy agencies and were available to Congressional committees and sometimes specifically sent to them.
There was complete consistency over a decade and a half between the material disseminated in unclassified form and in classified channels. This consistency was specifically cited in the HPSCI Review Committee's report 9. To posit that CIA maintained a contradictory picture in a separate set of reports that did not become known to the recipients of the documents cited here would mean there was a conspiracy initiated well before one could have known of a need for it.
``From the mid-1970s . . . the CIA described a Soviet Union plagued by a deteriorating economy and intensifying societal problems.''
Certainly there were divergent views and predictions in the CIA-as well as in other parts of the Intelligence Community and in the policy agencies and nongovernmental circles-on the potential impact that the economic and societal problems might have on political continuity in the USSR and on the military threat. But there was no disagreement within CIA's Office of Soviet Analysis as to the fact of those enormous problems.
What Did CIA Say?
The story that the CIA presented over the decade and a half before the political breakup of the Soviet Union can be broken into three analytic phases. The excerpts in Appendix A are grouped according to these phases.
1 The New York Times, 22 October 1995, p. 12E, ``Economic Espionage.''
2 The Wall Street Journal, 27 July 1995, p. A9, ``Damned Statistics.''
3 Nicholas Eberstadt, The Tyranny of Numbers: Measurement and Misrule, (American Enterprise Institute Press, Washington, D. C., 1995).
4 Ibid., p. xviii.
5 House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence-Review Committee (hereafter cited as HPSCI Review Committee), An Evaluation of CIA's Analysis of Soviet Economic Performance 1970 -1990, 18 November 1991.
6 Kirsten Lundberg, CIA and the Fall of the Soviet Empire: The Politics of Getting It Right, Case Study C16-94-1251.0 for the Intelligence and Policy Project, John F. Kennedy School of Government (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1994).
7 Bruce D. Berkowitz and Jeffrey T. Richelson, `` CIA Vindicated,'' The National Interest, Fall 1995, pp. 35-46.
8 James Risen, The Los Angeles Times, 4 January 1996, p. 1, ``In Defense of CIA's Derring-Do.''
9 HPSCI Review Committee, p. 9.