Learning to Estimate, 1948
The Berlin Crisis – which began in March 1948 – was an important test for the American intelligence establishment. When Soviet premier Joseph Stalin took steps designed to push the Western Allies out of Berlin, intelligence officers had to judge (on very slim evidence) whether his pressure was a prelude to war or a calculated bluff. It was the first test of the US intelligence officers’ ability to judge Soviet intentions and capabilities in a volatile and dangerous Cold War confrontation. Their performance would have lasting effects on the growing Intelligence Community.
On March 5, 1948, Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the American Military Governor in Berlin, described to Washington "a subtle change in Soviet attitude," which convinced him that war might soon come "with dramatic suddenness." Together with other reports from Berlin, Clay's telegram "fell with the force of a blockbuster bomb," in the words of one contemporary chronicler. Within days, Washington was on alert, and Director of Central Intelligence Roscoe Hillenkoetter was consulting with the heads of the military and State Department intelligence agencies about how to deal with the situation.
At the time, there was no national intelligence unit to produce assessments. At the request of the Office of Naval Intelligence, DCI Hillenkoetter established an ad hoc, inter-agency committee to prepare an "estimate" of Soviet intentions. On Saturday, March 13, the committee met for the first time; its chair was CIA's DeForrest Van Slyck, an analyst from CIA's Office of Reports and Estimates. Hillenkoetter left Van Slyck to run the meeting, but bustled in and out with trays of coffee and sandwiches.
The committee had a difficult time reaching a common estimate. It was not for several days--and a demand from President Truman that the agencies agree--that the committee and the heads of the intelligence agencies reached an agreement. They said that they did not believe the USSR would "resort to military action within the next 60 days."
A series of escalating Soviet provocations--culminating in the blockade of Berlin and the Allied air lift--kept the ad hoc committee busy for the rest of the year. As the Berlin crisis deepened, the ad hoc committee estimates proved to have immediate and long-term relevance for policymakers in Washington. Thus, when the Soviets cut all ground access to Berlin, President Truman could be reasonably certain the city could be supplied by airlift without deliberate interference from Soviet air defenses. That confidence was no doubt shaky at first. But by year's end, the confrontation over Berlin was clearly a struggle of endurance that, barring accident, could be expected not to escalate into war.
A study group – chartered by the National Security Council – reported in early 1949 that the performance of the ad hoc committee was "the most significant exception to a rather general failure...in national estimates." The Berlin crisis was so obviously a national intelligence problem that it transcended the bureaucratic lines that had divided the intelligence agencies for the previous two years. The alternative to a "national" approach to the intelligence problem presented by Berlin was quite simply paralysis.
DCI Hillenkoetter's successor, Lt. General Walter B. Smith, adopted the workings of the ad hoc committee in 1950 as an example to be replicated in the his new Board of National Estimates, the forerunner of today's National Intelligence Council.