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DCI Opening Remarks at Conference on CIA's Analysis of the Soviet Union

Remarks of the Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet
Opening The Conference on CIA’s Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947-1991
Princeton University
(as prepared for delivery)

March 8, 2001

Princeton University’s Center of International Studies and CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence have done a great job in organizing this Conference on the Agency’s Cold War Analysis of the Soviet Union. It is just the newest example of Princeton’s famous motto: "Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations." I have no doubt that these discussions will make an important contribution to the understanding of intelligence analysis and of the role it played in shaping policy during the defining conflict of the latter half of the 20th century.


Back in 1997, CIA held its 50th anniversary gala. Dick Helms, a legend in the world of espionage well before he ever became Director of Central Intelligence, delivered the keynote address. I had expected Dick to focus on the operational side, but he surprised me by reminding everyone that analysis — putting all the information together, evaluating it, and warning US policymakers of key elements in the international environment — was in fact the CIA’s original and central mission.

Of course, each Director of Central Intelligence has his own perspective on analysis. William Colby, a Princeton alumn, believed that, while a DCI must juggle many different things at once, his responsibility for substantive intelligence is his most important charge. A DCI should do his homework, discuss with his analysts the basis of their assessments, then be prepared to brief — and defend — the Agency or Intelligence Community views with precision and conviction before the President — or perhaps even more daunting — the likes of a Henry Kissinger. According to Colby, Kissinger had a voracious appetite for intelligence, but he didn’t necessarily believe it. "Bill," Kissinger would tell him, "give me things that make me think!"

Allen Dulles, the only other Princeton graduate to become Director, had his own way of processing analysis. It could be tough to brief him. There were always distractions and phone calls, invariably ops-related. According to one war story, an analyst was ushered into the inner sanctum. Dulles was watching a baseball game from a reclining chair (for his gout, he said) placed directly in front of his TV. The analyst stood facing him from behind the set. As the analyst pressed ahead with his briefing, Dulles would remark "good fielder, can’t hit" or something like that, leaving the hapless briefer totally at a loss. Which is not to say that Dulles was not listening — it was just hard to tell sometimes. For example, when Khrushchev kicked out the anti-Party group in 1957, he evidently took in what everyone said, then dictated his own briefing for the President. By all accounts it was brilliant. He did not miss a single nuance.

This conference coincides with the release of over 850 CIA analytic documents on the Soviet Union, totaling over 19,000 pages of text — all part of a larger effort begun by DCI Bob Gates to illuminate the intelligence component of the Cold War’s history. This latest tranche of documents, combined with the approximately 2,700 CIA analytic products and National Intelligence Estimates on the USSR that were previously declassified, constitutes the largest trove of intelligence analysis on any single country ever released by any nation.

That achievement is significant, but it is not sufficient. I am determined to make more of the analytic record available. And so, the office that does most of our declassification work will be releasing to scholars within the next couple of years a substantial additional amount of CIA analysis on the Cold War and more National Intelligence Estimates on the USSR.

Declassification is not easy. There are no shortcuts. It takes experienced, knowledgeable people sitting down with each document and painstakingly going over it page by page, line by line. There is no alternative. A mistake can put a life in danger or jeopardize a bilateral relationship integral to our country’s security.

Despite the difficulties involved in the declassification process, no other nation’s foreign intelligence agency has voluntarily released as much information about its past as has the Central Intelligence Agency and we will continue to build upon that achievement in the years ahead.

CIA will be as forward-leaning as possible consistent with our security responsibilities. We will be forthcoming for two major reasons: One: because US intelligence is a servant of America’s democratic system. We are accountable for our actions and the quality of our work to elected leaders and ultimately to the American public. The American people are best served by having available the information necessary to understand how their government functions. And Two — because the men and women of US Intelligence are proud of the contributions they made to defending the security of the Free World during the Cold War. We believe that a careful study of our role in that great global struggle will show that, time and again, US Intelligence provided American leaders with critical information and insights that saved American lives and advanced our most vital interests.

Keeping the Cold War from becoming a hot one was the overriding goal of US Intelligence and American national security policy for over four decades. An intelligence effort of such magnitude and fraught with such great risk and uncertainty was bound to have its flaws and failures, both operational and analytical. I believe, however, that the overall record is one of impressive accomplishment.

I know that each of you here tonight has arrived at this conference with deep expertise, unique experiences and strong opinions that should make for interesting discussions. This is, of course, not the first time that we have sought the views of outside specialists. For example, from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, CIA’s Office of National Estimates benefited from the counsel of its "Princeton consultants" — a group of scholars who met at Princeton and exchanged ideas with CIA’s top analysts. Others in universities and think tanks, individuals with family or other ties to Russia and Eastern Europe, diplomats, business people, and others from many walks of life who were interested in and knowledgeable about Soviet affairs helped our analysts greatly. Our products were enriched by their inputs, but any errors that may be found in our products are entirely our own.

We in US Intelligence never claimed to have had a monopoly on wisdom regarding the Soviet Union. It always pays to have a little humility on that score, particularly here on George Kennan’s stomping ground. In recent years, as you know, Ambassador Kennan has warned American policymakers against (quote) "creating a Russia of our own imagination to take the place of the one that did, alas, once exist, but fortunately is no more." It was no less a challenge for America’s scholarly, diplomatic, military — and intelligence communities — throughout the Cold War to understand the Soviet reality — so that our national leaders could base their decisions not just on fears, but on facts.

Analyzing the Soviet Union was anything but an exact science for all of our communities, and dealing effectively with Moscow was every Cold War President’s ultimate leadership test. Among the first to admit the difficulties for Cold War analysts and policymakers alike was George Kennan’s good friend, fellow Soviet expert and "Wise Man" , Chip Bohlen. Bohlen said (quote): "There are two statements which indicate beyond doubt that the person making them is either a liar or a fool. The first is: Whiskey has no effect on my judgment. The other is: I know how to deal with the Russians.

Bohlen’s statement holds just as true today.

Assessing CIA’s Analytic Contributions

To the men and women of the CIA’s Analytic Directorate — the Directorate of Intelligence — their Cold War mission was very clear: to use all sources at their disposal to gauge the capabilities and intentions of the massive, closed, totalitarian system that was the Soviet Union, and by so doing, to provide the President and other US policymakers with the information and insights they needed to act and plan with confidence.

Allow me to give you only a few examples of the ways CIA analysis informed US decision making toward Moscow. I will draw from a sampling of the Agency products that were released for this conference, but in so doing I do not in any way wish to ignore the substantial analytic contributions of CIA’s companion agencies in the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the armed services, and other parts of the federal government. Of course, intelligence analysts were not the only ones working on the Soviet puzzle. It should be interesting at this conference to explore how our assessments measured up to contemporaneous judgments from other quarters. And, as the former policymakers in the audience will attest, many other factors besides intelligence reports and judgments shaped their thinking and actions.

Those caveats aside, what does the record show?

From the mid-1960s on to the Soviet collapse, we knew roughly how many combat aircraft or warheads the Soviets had, and where. But why did they need that many or that kind? What did they plan to do with them? To this day, Intelligence is always much better at counting heads than divining what is going on inside them. That is, we are very good at gauging the size and location of militaries and weaponry. But for obvious reasons, we can never be as good at figuring out what leaders will do with them. In regard to the "unmeasurables", CIA analysts were keenly aware of the importance of what they would conclude and of the political pressures attendant to the issues on which their judgments were sought. And for a quarter of a century, our national leaders made strategic decisions with confidence in our analysts’ knowledge of the Soviets’ military strength. The record shows that confidence was justified.

In the early — and mid —1980s, for example, a radar under construction in Krasnoyarsk generated considerable debate in Washington. The Intelligence Community's analysts were at center stage, providing policymakers with their assessment of the radar’s true purpose. As it turns out, the Community assessment was on the mark. The analysts maintained — correctly — that the station was to be used primarily for tracking ballistic missiles, not space tracking as the Soviets had claimed. This analysis served as the basis for the Reagan Administration’s policy, which was to declare the radar a clear violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and to call for its dismantling.

Intelligence analysts perform a critical service when they help policymakers think through complex issues, identify possible strategies and project likely outcomes. A case in point is the role CIA played in assessing the potential implications for the United States vis-a-vis Moscow of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Our Office of Soviet Analysis, or SOVA, forecast in late 1987 that Moscow could not effectively counter SDI without severely straining the Soviet economy, discounting Moscow’s assertions that it could do so quickly and cheaply. SOVA maintained that anything more than a modest acceleration of existing offensive and defensive strategic deployments would divert advanced technologies desperately needed to modernize the civilian economy. Indeed, SOVA predicted that Moscow would defer key decisions on deployments and "continue to pursue arms control measures to gain American concessions on SDI." And so it did.

Leadership analysis remains perhaps the most difficult of analytic specialties. Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in the Soviet Union — assessing his evolving thinking and policies, their implications and the chances for their success — posed huge analytical dilemmas. One of the first papers done in the Gorbachev era was devoted to the promises, potentials and pitfalls of his economic agenda. Published in the fall of 1985, it expressed doubt that the economic reforms that Gorbachev had announced would actually be carried out, or that resources could be found to meet his modernization goals. Two years later our analysts were even more doubtful that he would succeed. They predicted that the radical reforms that Gorbachev might be tempted to implement risked "confusion, economic disruption, and worker discontent" that could embolden potential rivals to his power.

It is tough to divine leadership intentions in a secretive, centrally controlled society — particularly if that leadership, as was true under Gorbachev, ceases to be static. Assessing thinking beyond the leadership — identifying other societal forces at work and weighing their impacts, is even tougher. Take nationalist and ethnic pressures, for example. For decades, Moscow’s policies toward minorities had combined gradual modernization with rigid suppression of any hints of separatism. CIA’s analysis reported that this long-standing combination of concessions and coercion had kept a lid on a "potentially explosive source of political instability." Our analysts picked up, however, on signs of change in Soviet policy and rising ethnic tensions under Gorbachev and drew the attention of US decision makers to their far-reaching implications.

A Business Built on Uncertainty, Analysis Based on Judgment

Obviously our record was not perfect. Intelligence analysis — even the most rigorous — can never be error-free. Our analysts may have the best information available, but they seldom have the luxury of complete information before making a judgment. The glints and glimmerings of insight that they get from examining shards of information help them peer into the unknown. But getting some forecasts wrong is an unavoidable part of the intelligence business — a business built on uncertainty.

Although we could fairly accurately count how many they already had, projecting the future development of Soviet military forces, for instance, proved to be one of the most difficult problems for the Intelligence Community during the Cold War. Every National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) written on the subject from 1974 to 1986, to which CIA analysts contributed, overestimated the rate at which Moscow would modernize its strategic forces.

But there is an important difference between getting it wrong despite thoughtful analysis, and deliberately exaggerating the threat. I think that an honest review of the documents shows that our analysts made a good-faith effort. I would also note that, in many cases, the very same analytic teams that overestimated future Soviet procurement also published volumes of analysis about existing Soviet nuclear missiles and warheads and other weapons programs that Moscow very much wanted to keep secret. It was their painstaking analysis that gave successive American Presidents and Senators the confidence to pursue, sign and ratify arms control agreements — agreements that helped contain and mitigate the very real dangers of the Cold War.

The fact that some of our analysis became controversial — and remains the subject of heated disagreement today — does not necessarily mean that the judgments were wrong. The Agency’s work in assessing the state of the Soviet economy, for example, has come under criticism since the Soviet collapse. This topic will be debated at the conference, and that is all to the good. I will only note that it is all but forgotten — and the declassified studies are there to remind us — that CIA analysts reported a deceleration in Soviet economic growth as early as 1963. President Lyndon Johnson thought this analysis so important that he dispatched a delegation to brief the findings in West European capitals. American academics and the national press, however, were skeptical of CIA’s analysis. Indeed, many economists of that era believed that the Soviet Union’s command economy possessed inherent advantages over the market-based systems of the West. But whatever the prevailing currents of popular thinking may be, it is the responsibility of our analysts to call it like they see it, whether the evidence supports the conventional view or not.

We can even point to an instance where CIA analysts helped to shape not only US policy, but even may have helped to shape Soviet policy as well. We now know that the Kremlin monitored economic studies done in the West on the Soviet Union, especially CIA reports published by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. President Jimmy Carter drew particular attention to such a CIA study when he declared to a surprised world that the Soviet petroleum industry was beset by serious problems. The Agency had projected that Soviet oil production was likely to plateau by the early 1980s and then decline to the point where the USSR would become a net importer of oil. As it turned out, CIA was right on the fundamental problems that eventually brought about a fall in production. But our analysts underestimated the Soviets’ ability to avert the worst by shifting investment in favor of the energy sector and changing the USSR’s extraction and exploration policies — changes that perhaps resulted from Moscow’s reading of the Agency’s published assessment. And those changes have real implications for Russian energy production today.

US Intelligence capabilities clearly were not omniscient during the Cold War, and we are not all-seeing now. Our Soviet analysts were not prescient then and our Russia analysts are not all-knowing today. Our analysts continue to work in a climate that President Kennedy described in his day when he said that intelligence successes are often unnoticed while our failures are paraded in public.

And that is fine. Our analysts are not in this business for headlines or kudos. They are in it to make a critical difference — to advance our nation’s interests and values. And that is what they do every single day. I make it a point to remind them that the fear of sometimes getting it wrong should never, ever get in the way of them doing their job. And when my analysts do call it wrong, they take responsibility and they learn from their mistakes. That means taking apart the evidence or the assumptions that got them off track. It can be a painful process, but it makes for better analysis.

What, then, if not infallibility — should our national leaders, and ultimately the American public, expect of our analysts?

  • First and foremost, they should expect our analysts to deliver intelligence that is objective, pulls no punches, and is free from political taint.

  • Next, that our analysts think creatively, constantly challenging the conventional wisdom, and tapping expertise wherever it lies — inside the Intelligence Community or in the private sector and academia.

  • That our analysts always act with the highest standards of professionalism.

  • That they take risks — analytic risks — and make the tough calls when it would be easier to waffle.

  • That they respond to the President’s and other decision makers’ needs on demand — juggling analytic priorities and capabilities to meet the most urgent missions.

  • And lastly, that our analysis not only tell policymakers about what is uppermost on their minds — but also alert them to things that have not yet reached their in-boxes.

Making a Critical Difference, Then and Now

In closing, I will only say that more that a decade after the Soviet Union’s demise, we live in a world still in transition from something that was well understood — the bipolarity of the Cold War — to something that has yet to crystallize. In such a world, our country needs a strong analytic intelligence capability more than ever to help the President separate fact from fiction, avoid danger, seize opportunities and steer a safe course to the future.

On behalf of CIA’s analytic community, I want to thank you for your participation and interest in this conference and in our work — past, present and future. As always, we welcome and value your insights, and we hope that you will find the discussions stimulating.

Historical Document
Posted: Apr 03, 2007 08:58 PM
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2008 08:30 AM