Judge Webster: US Intelligence and the End of the Cold War
Texas A&M University, Opening Dinner
Speaker: Former DCI Judge William Webster
November 18, 1999
JUDGE WILLIAM WEBSTER: Thank you very much, Lloyd, Provost Douglas, ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues. It's a pleasure to be with you tonight and to fill in for George Tenet as best I am able.
I would like to make a few brief comments. Along with Lloyd and George and the others who have noted tonight the circumstances and the events of today. We do gather tonight in the midst of a great tragedy here at Texas A&M, and although many of the conference participants have only just arrived at College Station, we too share the feeling of shock and sorrow that pervades this campus. All of us have been deeply moved by the spirit of solidarity and compassion that everyone is showing in this crisis -- the students, the faculty, the university leadership, the rescue personnel, the townspeople and the authorities. We're all most grateful to all those at the university who have worked so long and hard for many months to put this conference together. And under these tragic circumstances we will do everything that we can to ensure that we do not add to their enormous burdens.
Our hearts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the students who have died or have been injured in this terrible accident. Whenever wonderful young lives are lost, we lose a precious piece of our future -- a future that all of us here tonight have sought to make more free and more secure for our country and the world.
This conference has as its subject "US Intelligence and the End of the Cold War." It's one that I take more than scholarly interest in, because the two years- ‘89 to ’91 - that have been identified for special emphasis as the end, happened to fall within my term as Director of Central Intelligence. I'm sure that George Tenet would have a much broader and more interesting perspective. When he called me to tell me that he was not going to be able to make it for dinner tonight and would like me to take his place, I asked him if he was still wearing a beard. I thought perhaps I could wear a beard and pass as George Tenet. But George says he's not wearing that beard anymore, and it's just as well.
I remember going on a highly classified trip to China toward the end of my tenure and they requested that I wear dark glasses, a beard and a mustache. I said I'll do almost anything else but that. So you have to take me as you find me, and I hope that some of my views will coincide with so many of you who worked with me during those memorable years as the Cold War came to a conclusion.
The CIA's study of intelligence and the Center for the Study of Intelligence and the Bush School of Government for Presidential Studies have done a really terrific job in organizing this event. It was their inspired idea to bring those who presided over our national security and intelligence communities in the final phase of the Cold War together with the scholars who can tell us what we were really thinking and doing, or what we should have been thinking and doing.
Each of us have arrived at this conference with unique experiences and strong opinions, and that will make for interesting discussions.
The conference will be even more lively, I think, and enlightening if we also come to it with open minds.
One of the reasons that this conference is so valuable is that it allows us all, especially the intelligence officers and policymakers who intensely lived those fateful years, to view events, judgments and decisions with greater objectivity and clarity.
There is one thing, however, that I see exactly the same way as I did ten years ago. I look with great pride on the men and women of US intelligence who served this country with enormous intellectual integrity, skill and daring, and I will always be grateful to Presidents Reagan and Bush for the privilege of working with such talented and dedicated professionals such as Dick Kerr and Bob Gates at my side, and with other wonderful intelligence officers throughout the community, many of whom are here tonight.
I think I should mention that we're very pleased to have with us an important icon of our profession who was in this struggle from the early days and who has been a great friend and neighbor and mentor to me, Dick Helms.
Historically speaking, a decade is an instant, but now is not too soon to begin systematically discussing and recording for posterity what happened ten years ago and why.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, our Chief of Station gave me a piece of the Wall on a base that was inscribed with the years 1961-1989. By coincidence, 1961 was the year that my youngest daughter was born, and 1989 was the year her daughter was born. My daughter's generation lived for all those years under the cloud symbolized by the Berlin Wall. Now my ten year old granddaughter has grown up in a totally new world. I'm glad that the record of her granddad and others' efforts and those of his colleagues as the Cold War was ending will be available to her and others when she is old enough to have an interest and perhaps learn from it along with others who will have the responsibility for serving and being good citizens in this country.
I've always seen it as a blessing, not a burden, for US intelligence to be an integral part of America's democratic system accountable for our actions and the quality of our work to the elected leaders and ultimately to the American people. An important part of accountability is providing declassified information to fill the gaps in the historical record. The public has a right to know what the intelligence community did during the Cold War and how well we performed.
It was fascinating for me to reacquaint myself with the documents that were declassified for this conference. I know that you have all enjoyed reading them and been reminded of the times in which they came out and the circumstances. Many of these materials, particularly those dealing with military strategic issues, contain data once considered among the most sensitive held by the intelligence community. I understand that many more Cold War era documents have been or will be made available through the National Archives and Records Administration. Never before has the intelligence community voluntarily released Cold War records of such recent vintage. And no other US institution or foreign intelligence community has produced anything comparable.
Ours is indeed the most open intelligence system in the world. We know that there are many things about which we cannot be open, but we are discharging our responsibility to the public where information can be used to inform them and to guide future actions.
I know how difficult it is to launch a project of this kind. Declassification is a painstaking, time and labor intensive process and there will be many who will give arguments about why something should be released when it cannot in fact be released in order to protect sources and methods and our national security.
Before its release, every word must be reviewed and re-reviewed by experts throughout the intelligence community to ensure that nothing precious is compromised. The entire effort requires exceptional judgment and a serious commitment to as much openness as the protection of sources and methods and sensitive foreign relationships will permit.
As I browsed through the documents I was struck anew by how rapidly and profoundly the East-West strategic struggle changed, and the dynamics of it. Admiral Stansfield Turner, who was a classmate of mine at Amherst before the War, was in office at CIA as DCI when I came to Washington with the FBI. He used to give these wonderful talks without using a single crib note. I asked him how he did it. He said it's not hard. I work out a speech and then I give it for six months and then I revise it a little and I give it for six more months.
In many ways, this was the kind of world we were in when I took office in 1987. Our Soviet experts were listening and looking for telling little hiccups in the Soviet Union that might signal important change such as a standup breakout offensive on the European continent.
By the time I had left office on Labor Day 1991, the Richter scale had gone off the charts. Just the month before, the hard-liners had attempted to overthrow Gorbachev, destroy perestroika, and derail US-Soviet relationships. Gorbachev survived the coup, but soon fell victim to the very forces of reform that he had unleashed. By December the communist party, Gorbachev and the USSR were history. Glacial change had become upheaval. Attempts at reform had unleashed revolutionary change. One overriding threat had dissolved into many competing ones. Dangers of strength had been replaced by dangers of weakness. Central controls had disintegrated. An entire empire had collapsed, pulled asunder by resurgent nationalism. Certainty had turned into uncertainty. Most important of all, totalitarian oppression had given way to a burst of democratic freedom.
What role did US intelligence play in all of this, and did we see it coming? To answer the question, some of it was anticipated very early. For instance, the prediction in the early 1950s: "The Iron Curtain will lift and the captive nations of the East will become a part of a united Europe. Even Russia, purged of its desire to bully and subdue its neighbors, will be a member and a highly respected and valued member. When Europe is truly unified, it will flourish and communism will be shown for what it is -- not the wave of the future at all, but a dead ideology out of a cruel past which has been employed by cynical masters to control common mankind." Those predictions were made by Wild Bill Donovan, the father of modern American intelligence. Bill Donovan is still ahead of events on a few of these forecasts.
Forecasts are difficult for those of us in intelligence. We know what the facts indicate is happening. Trying to predict what will happen and more particularly when it will happen, is far more difficult. Perhaps that is why Dick Helms is remembered for saying that the Central Intelligence Agency is not a for-profit agency.
In all seriousness, I think our analyses do stand up well against 20/20 hindsight. What then do the documents tell us? And more importantly, what difference did they make?
Time doesn't permit me to comment - but I have to make one comment - on how the analysts got the information upon which to make their estimates. It would be wrong for me not to recognize those gallant men and women who served in the field collecting human intelligence throughout the world, and those who worked upon our imagery from products from satellites in the sky to make it possible to provide the information upon which our analysts made important and significant judgments. We owe them all a debt of gratitude.
But tonight we're talking about analysis.
Let me begin by stating that I think the evidence refutes the common charge, a charge that regrettably has already made its way into some history books, that U.S. intelligence failed to apprise policymakers of the Soviet Union's grave economic problems. That we counseled that Moscow would continue indefinitely to wage the Cold War and the arms race. The estimates also refute the allegations that US intelligence failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet power in Eastern and Central Europe, and then in the USSR itself.
We didn't just call it right. We called it as we saw it. I hope those of you who have been looking at the enormous weight of evidence in those materials available for this conference and what they reflect in the even more enormous weight of unclassified material, as Doug MacEachin pointed out, that have always been available. Always available to the public and the press and others with respect to where our thinking was taking us.
The estimates should also allay any suspicions that the intelligence community politicized intelligence or catered to what it perceived as the White House view or the policy of the day.
In some cases you will see open debate, competing hypotheses, and even strong dissents registered in the same estimate. Some generals didn't like that. Others in Congress complained that there wasn't enough of it. But estimates sometimes contained facts and projections that were not always welcomed by senior policymakers, and that is the job of intelligence -- to tell it like it is, as we see it, and let the chips fall.
Case in point. By early 1989, CIA was warning policymakers of the deepening crisis in the Soviet Union and the growing likelihood of an implosion of the old order. Perestroika meant catastroika for the Soviet system -- in other words, Gorbachev's reforms were creating the opposite of their intended result.
Some policymakers complained we were overly pessimistic, alarmist even. Bob Gates, at that time deputy to Brent Scowcroft, took the message seriously. With President Bush's direct approval, he established a top-secret, high-level contingency planning group to prepare for the possibility of a Soviet collapse and its potentially bloody consequences. That group was chaired by NSC Soviet Affairs Director, Condoleezza Rice. Despite their gloom and doom, as Bob Gates said of the estimates, these reports convinced the Bush Administration to move quickly to seal as many advantageous agreements as possible with the Gorbachev government.
It's clear that our estimates played a vital role in defining US defense and national security issues. The series on Soviet forces and capabilities for strategic nuclear conflict, which may be the most important series of all, helped several American Presidents to keep our defenses strong and competently conclude arms control agreements with Moscow.
Ten years ago in a commencement address here at Texas A&M, President Bush stated that "despite the improved prospects for US-Soviet relations, the United States would adhere to the principle of deterrence and mutual assured destruction as the basis of our defense policy." That decision was based in part on a National Intelligence Estimate which concluded that despite political changes and economic pressures, the Soviet Union was continuing to build new missiles and modernizing its strategic arsenal in spite of Gorbachev's peaceful rhetoric.
At the same time, however, our estimates were showing a different picture with respect to Soviet conventional forces. There we noted that as Gorbachev had promised, he was withdrawing troops and weapons from Eastern Europe and reducing by 500,000 Soviet general purposes forces.
In the summer of 1990 during the second Bush-Gorbachev Summit, the Soviet leader took me by both shoulders, looked me in the eye with a twinkle and said, "Watch everything we do and ask a lot of questions." I said, "You can count on it." That is just what we were doing.
Already by September of 1989, we had assessed that a Soviet invasion of Western Europe launched with little or no warning was no longer a realistic threat and outlined the implications of the withdrawal of the massive Soviet military machine aimed at NATO.
Secure in that information, the US was able to withdraw troops, armor and materiel from Western Europe and redeploy them to the Persian Gulf for Desert Storm. As I recall, some 500,000 troops and equipment were taken out because of the estimates that told us where we were and that we could do it safely.
A final point on getting it right, on the eve of the failed coup of August 1991, just a month before my scheduled departure as DCI, the President's Daily Intelligence Brief, the PDB, warned the White House that an attempt against Gorbachev was highly likely. Of course, after the coup there was a flurry of press stories about an alleged intelligence failure. After the coup attempt, many on both sides of the US-Soviet relationship thought that it would be wise to retreat to a pre-Malta "wait and see" posture. Above all, do nothing that would change or disturb the situation.
Instead, President Bush, certain that the Soviet Union no longer posed a direct threat to NATO, initiated a number of important new arms control proposals and took unilateral steps to convince Moscow of our peaceful intentions.
These initiatives, which were based on a series of intelligence assessments, were aimed at convincing the Soviets to shrink their strategic nuclear arsenal to the lowest possible level and eliminate tactical nuclear weapons that in a worst case scenario might end up in dangerous hands.
In sum, I believe that a careful examination of these newly released documents shows that US intelligence contributed key information and insights that helped American policymakers bring the most protracted and most dangerous conflict of the 20th Century to a peaceful end.
Again, we cannot always know precisely when and fix the precise date. Dick Kerr was able to do that 12 hours before Iraq invaded Kuwait, but in general, the important thing is to see it coming in sufficient time to do something about it. I think that's what your review of these assessments and our discussions during the next two days will bear out.
Of course, some of the most interesting things we can explore at this conference are what the documents don't reveal - what they can't tell us - but what the policymakers and professionals who lived through this dramatic period can. Hopefully those who are here will do so.
When I was the DCI, I always reminded my analysts that policymakers could read intelligence estimates. They can tear them up, they can ignore them. They can do anything they want with them except change them. That is the essence of integrity. Did our estimates tell decisionmakers anything new? Anything they couldn't get from other sources? And all of the decisionmakers had other sources, and I recall the many sources in the Gulf War that told them that no Arab country would ever invade another Arab country.
Beyond the intelligence we provided, and hopefully we reached our decisionmakers in time to be helpful, what other factors were driving policymakers' thinking and actions? How did our intelligence judgments measure up to contemporaneous assessments from outside the intelligence community? What important facts or trends did we miss or insufficiently consider? What can we learn from this conference that will help maximize the effectiveness of US intelligence in the future? I, and I'm sure all of you, look forward to spirited discussions on these issues.
A very few closing thoughts. My good friend, the late Sir William Stevenson, better known as the man called Intrepid, told me that when anyone asked him what was the most important attribute of a good intelligence officer his answer was always integrity. He once wrote, "Among the increasingly intricate arsenals across the world, intelligence is an essential weapon, perhaps the most important, but in being secret, the most dangerous. As in all enterprises, the character and wisdom of those to whom it is entrusted will be decisive. In the integrity of that guardianship lies the hope of free people to endure and prevail."
During the bleak Cold War decades, hope did endure and freedom at last prevailed. I believe that the integrity of the facts and assessments in these documents which we will study together, and the personal integrity of the men and women who produced them, played a critical role in that remarkable outcome, and I am proud to have served with you in that effort.