Declassified Cold War Reporting Featured at Convention
CIA’s Historical Collections Division (HCD) recently presented declassified information on hot-button Cold War events at the 44th Annual Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) convention in New Orleans, Louisiana. Participating in academic conferences is one way CIA showcases its contributions to national security and shares insight into the workings of government.
Session chair A. Ross Johnson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, identified criteria for evaluating historical intelligence reports: “What do they add to what we know? How prescient were these at the time? And, most importantly, how well did they inform the policymakers?”
Those questions formed the backbone of the discussions that followed, as each CIA case study was brought to life by an analyst who had contributed to the original reporting:
- Peter Nyren, a 25-year Soviet and Russian intelligence analyst, described the role intelligence played in forming President Ronald Reagan's policy toward the USSR. Contrary to urban legend, said Nyren, Reagan was an avid consumer of intelligence. He was also the first president to receive CIA-produced video briefings, which included intelligence about the Soviet space program and the Chernobyl disaster [external link disclaimer].
- John Bird, a 32-year veteran analyst of Soviet military issues at the CIA, explained the difficulties the Agency faced in the late 1950s gauging the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles the Soviet Union had. “We lived in an information void,” he said, citing the lack of internal Soviet sources and the unreliability of available analyses. The creation of satellite reconnaissance enabled the Agency to dispel concerns over the Soviet Union’s reportedly superior missile capacity. Bird said the perception of a ”missile gap,” as it was called, existed in part because “Khrushchev had been bluffing!”
- One of the best sources of intelligence reporting about the Soviet Union during the Cold War came from Polish military officer Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski. He passed to the CIA approximately 40,000 documents over 9 years. “He had access to almost all Soviet Pact intelligence,” said Terry Bender, a former CIA intelligence analyst who specialized in East European issues for 30 years. “This was an unabashed success story.” Bender also discussed the challenges in determining the likelihood of Poland implementing martial law, which was ultimately done on December 13, 1981.
Panelist Mark Kramer, director of the Harvard University Cold War Studies Program and a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, addressed the charge that the CIA failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, a claim Nyren said is not borne out by the growing body of declassified reports revealing what the CIA was telling policymakers about the state of the Soviet Union.
“The CIA provided an excellent picture of what was going on in the Soviet Union. The Agency didn’t have a Kuklinski in the Soviet Union, but it did make great use of information from various sources,” said Kramer.