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

DDCI remarks at the Conference on CIA's Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947 - 1991
Remarks of the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John E. McLaughlin
at the Conference on CIA's Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947-1991
Princeton University

"The Changing Nature of CIA Analysis in the Post-Soviet World"

(as prepared for delivery)

March 9, 2001

When the conference organizers asked me to give its first keynote address, I reminded them that my principal work on this part of the world came after the Soviet Union had broken up. In fact, it was just three months after that breakup that I was put in charge of the Office of Slavic and Eurasian Analysis — the name we gave to the organization that picked up the responsibility for analysis of the former Soviet Union, once it had ceased to exist. Because I had the opportunity to lead our work on this part of the world at that pivotal moment, I thought that is what I ought to talk about rather than looking back at our effort on the Soviet Union. You are going to be doing that non—stop for a day and a half, so perhaps you will welcome a brief excursion into the decade that just passed into history.


This topic is germane to the conference for a number of reasons. First, what I encountered back in March of 1992 was in every way the inheritance of our long focus on the Soviet target. And the experiences we had in those early post—Soviet years were emblematic of the Agency's efforts, successful I believe, to adjust to a new world that no longer had a universally accepted organizing principle for American intelligence.

So let me take you back to the spring of 1992 and tell you something about the journey we have been on since then. Let me begin with an anecdote that I believe says a lot. On my first day on the job in 1992, I made the rounds, shaking hands with my new colleagues. I remember stopping by one officer's cubicle, and there, sitting on top of her computer, instead of the usual souvenirs, was a big can of peas with Cyrillic lettering. When I asked why, she replied: "I'm the canned goods analyst." We also had a timber analyst back in those days.

To me, that anecdote says volumes about Soviet analysis during the Cold War. For reasons that this audience will readily grasp, it was actually important that we understand things like the food processing industry — symbolized by that can of peas — in order to gauge the underlying strength of Soviet society. As you know, we tried every conceivable way to gain insights into that fundamentally closed system — a system whose functioning was opaque in the most basic respects, not only to the rest of the world, but to its own people — even to its leadership, as Vlad Treml will attest tomorrow. Sherman Kent, the founding father of national intelligence estimates, once said: "Estimating is what you do when you do not know." We did a lot of estimating during the Cold War, and we are doing a lot of estimating now. But what we didn't know then about the Soviet Union is different in so many ways from what we don't know now about Russia. Most of what we needed to know then was at least discoverable. Much of what we'd like to know now may not even be knowable.

Today, our Office of Russian and European Analysis does not employ a canned goods analyst, or even a timber specialist. The Russia that our analysts are trying to understand is no longer cloaked from view by a totalitarian regime. But in many ways I think it is even harder to grasp —by us and by the Russians themselves.

It was not always this way. Dick Lehman, the creator of what we now call the President's Daily Brief, once remarked that the basic analytic training he got back in 1949 came down to a single piece of advice from his boss: "Whatever you do, just remember one thing—the Soviet Union is up to no good!" Simple, but that said it. To be sure, there were other targets, but as someone who worked on many of them, I can tell you that our interest was mostly derivative. For something to gain priority attention or command resources, there had to be a connection to the Soviet threat.

Many CIA analysts cut their baby teeth in SOVA — the legendary Office of Soviet Analysis — or in one of the celebrated offices that preceded SOVA's creation in 1981. And young analysts soon learned that the ultimate objective of their collective efforts — whether their expertise lay in peas or trees or tanks — came down to helping us gauge the Soviets' military strength and intentions. Everybody understood the paradigm. Everybody knew what the top analytic priorities were: the frontal threat to NATO, Moscow's first strike capabilities, the Soviet command and control system, arms control monitoring, the capacity of the Soviet economy to sustain military power. As many of you will recall vividly, the butter-guns question of how many dishwashers equals a tank was a serious analytic calculation — also I might add, a difficult proposition from a collection standpoint, considering that Soviet dishwashers actually looked like tanks!

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the nature of our analytic questions changed. Before, threats emanated from Soviet strengths. Now, dangers stemmed largely from Russia's weaknesses or simply from the uncertainties associated with its transformation. Now, we were not much concerned about a deliberate, surprise attack by Moscow or the sheer numbers of military forces and equipment. Instead, we worried about instability in 15 sovereign states instead of one, about the cohesiveness of Russia itself, about whether it was reconciled to the independence of the other fourteen states, about the safety and security of weapons, about proliferation fueled by Russia's economic straits, and about how to maintain momentum in arms control when your original partner no longer existed.

And this was a time of wrenching change for our analysts. Economists who had worked their entire professional lives on a command economy were suddenly confronted with free prices and privatization. And it was not enough just to apply the tried-and-true lessons of macro-economic and micro-economic theory, for this was an economic transition unlike any that preceded it. We quickly discovered that no one had the market cornered on analyzing such a thing, and we had to actually devise from scratch methodologies to do things like gauge the size of the private sector.

Our political analysts, meanwhile, had to plunge into real electoral politics while our military analysts, sharply reduced in numbers, could stop worrying about the cost of Soviet defense while they refocused on more qualitative questions such as whether the military would play a stabilizing role in the new Russia. For their part, the canned goods and timber specialists were retooling in Uzbek language class, brushing up on Ukrainian politics, or starting to focus in detail on places like Chechnya.

While we were wrestling with these challenges, outside the Intelligence Community, in the world of politics, the pundits and the press, there was expectant talk of a "Peace Dividend." The "End of History" had come — the last, great ideological conflict was over. Skepticism was rife about the need for the US to sustain a global presence — diplomatic, military and intelligence. There was talk of a US-Russian strategic partnership and after a protracted post-Tiananmen policy rollercoaster, Washington and Beijing were getting back on track. Osama bin Laden and the missile threat hadn't made headlines — yet. Sanctions had put Saddam in a straitjack. The world seemed like a much less dangerous place.

When DCI Woolsey talked about the proliferators, traffickers, terrorists, and rogue states as the serpents that came in the wake of the slain Soviet dragon, he was accused of "creating threats" to justify an inflated intelligence budget.

As was the case with the State Department and the Defense Community, the Intelligence Community was downsized. By 1995, CIA's analytic ranks had shrunk by 17% from what they were in 1990. By the end of the 1990s, we were down by about 22%. I reduced the office I headed by 42% in the space of three years. Overall, our Russia effort decreased by 60%, as personnel were justifiably shifted in the ways I've described and to non-Russian areas.

Well, almost a decade has gone by since the Soviet collapse and even though there still is no organizing principle that pulls our priorities into an alignment comparable to the Soviet period, there is no shortage of work for the Intelligence Community. If anything, the list of issues the Director must discuss in the threat assessment he delivers annually to Congress grows longer and more complex each year. Those thirsting for the clarity of the Soviet period may have to live with the likelihood that what we see is what we may continue to get for a long time: a kaleidoscopic world of rapidly shifting, interconnected problems — the kind of world that presents the toughest challenge to an analyst trying to help decisionmakers minimize the risk of strategic surprise.

The future-ologist Peter Schwartz believes that we have entered an era of what he calls "fundamental discontinuity" which will go on indefinitely due to globalization and the accelerating speed of technological innovation. I think he is right. Maybe because our analysts are used to thinking in geopolitical terms and five to ten years out, they tend to refer to this post-Cold War period as a "strategic pause" — or what Paul Kennedy might call the gap between "strategic epochs." Policymakers used to worry about a missile gap — until our reconnaissance and imagery pioneers proved it didn't exist. Now, it's an "epoch gap", but I'm not so sure we can help with that!

My point is that after any great upheaval — in this case the Soviet collapse — there has usually been a period of confusion, uncertainty, and turbulence while the world sorts itself out.

Think back on the last time empires disintegrated on anything like the scale we witnessed when the Soviet Union came apart and imagine the challenge it presents to our intelligence analysts.


  • For example, if we had had a US Intelligence Community when the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires collapsed after World War I, could it have predicted the enormity of what came next: the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, Stalin's purges, World War II, the atomic bomb, the Cold War?


Just as there was high potential for surprise in that period of transition, I believe that our nation has entered an era when the potential for unwelcome surprise is greater than at any time since the end of the Second World War. There are a number of reasons for this:


  • As we have seen in places as diverse as the Balkans, East Timor, and the Congo, the crumbling of Cold War constraints and the surge of globalization have unleashed forces that rapidly spill-over into open violence that can engulf entire regions.

  • Second, the revolution in technology enables, drives, or magnifies dangers to us. DCI Gates has said that after the 1960s, the US was never surprised by a Soviet weapons system. We cannot be as confident today that we know about our adversaries' capabilities, because paradigm-busting advances are occurring simultaneously in so many scientific and technical fields. As we point out in our report on the world in 2015, in science and technology, the time between discovery and application is shrinking every year.

  • Third, the advanced technologies that once were the preserve of the superpowers have passed into other hands. Access to advanced technology gives hostile states and non-state actors new shields and new swords. Greater power and longer reach. In today's networked world, they have easier access to information, finances, deception-and-denial techniques, and to each other. And the perception of America's so-called "hegemony" has itself become a lightning rod for the disaffected. Related to all of this, America's sole superpower status has created a global climate conducive to what I would call "experimental alliances", as various aspiring powers search for common cause, usually with the aim of off-setting American preeminence.

  • Fourth, the American public — for the first time — has to face the fact that the territorial United States — our power grids, our water and transportation systems, and our public communications networks are vulnerable to new and unconventional dangers like chemical and biological weapons and cyber attacks, and also to some older conventional threats like ballistic missiles.

  • Last but not least, Russia and China and other key countries in volatile regions — Iran, and the Korean peninsula — are undergoing political, economic, demographic and strategic transitions whose outcomes could have widely varying national security consequences for the United States.


From the perspective of an intelligence officer, it seems that America's next move these days must always be calculated on a three dimensional chess board.

Given such a world, I tell our analysts that I do not belong to the Peter Schwartz School of "fundamental discontinuity" or the Paul Kennedy School of "epochal gaps." I belong to the Monty Python School of "Now for Something Completely Different." I am conscious every day of how important it is for our analysts to challenge the conventional wisdom, to separate what we really know from what we merely think, to consider alternative outcomes — in short, to not fall victim to mindset, overconfidence, or anyone's pet paradigm. Our country and its interests are at their most vulnerable if its intelligence professionals are not always ready for "something completely different."

On that score, today's Russia seldom fails to disappoint. Our Russia analysts would be the first to admit that at times they have had to struggle hard to anticipate what is coming next. But they have found some consolation in the thought that Yeltsin and Putin have probably felt the same way.

That said, I think when someday we have a conference about this latest decade, our analytic record on Russia will stand up well. Among the things I think it will show:


  • We got an early grip on the newly independent states and their likely evolution along different paths. In March of 1991 — nine months before the Soviet breakup — a new division was created in SOVA to devote more attention to the republics.

  • Our analysts anticipated the violent crisis in the fall of 1993, when Yeltsin dissolved the Communist-dominated Supreme Soviet to break the constitutional gridlock that paralyzed the country.

  • In 1994, we warned of the first Chechen War.

  • We were forward-leaning on the outcome of the presidential and parliamentary elections in 1995-1996 and 1999-2000, and we published and briefed extensively on corruption and the rise of Russian organized crime, long before it became such a prominent issue.

  • In the economic sphere, we warned policy makers of the looming economic crisis two months before the August 1998 ruble crash and called the rebound in the economy long before business and academic experts did.

  • And we were frequently able to stay ahead of the curve in anticipation of Yeltsin's frequent government shake-ups.



On the things that can inflict harm on Americans or America's vital interests or those of our allies — such as loose nukes, proliferation and efforts to stymie NATO enlargement — we didn't know everything, but we put together a pretty good picture because we had a strong factual base from which to speculate.

But there were many "softer" issues — subjects which don't lend themselves to measurement — that were more difficult for us to assess with high levels of specificity. Putin's meteoric rise to the presidency is a case in point. When he was plucked from obscurity to become Premier, we would not have told you with confidence that he would rise to the Presidency — until his handling of the Chechen war dramatically increased his popularity. But in early 1999, Putin probably did not foresee this either. On such "unmeasurables," analysts must operate with greater degrees of uncertainty — they must work in the realm not just of the unknown, but of the unknowable.

What is knowable is that Russia's efforts to find its identity at home and its place in the world cannot be divorced from larger 21st century realities — the realities of a world in which countries globalize or get left behind, where national strength is measured not just in a military's access to hardware but in civilians' access to software — an increasingly borderless world of hope and hazard and unremitting change — realities which all countries confront, including our own.

Just like their targets, to be successful in this new century, our intelligence analysts must adapt. US Intelligence must find new ways of doing its analytic business. And that is exactly what we are doing. Let me briefly describe some of the steps we are taking:

First, we have repositioned institutionally to meet the changing nature of the threats. Today we devote only a fraction of the effort we once did to Russia. In the old days, SOVA was the largest office in the Directorate of Intelligence; today, given the cross-border nature of many current and emerging threats, that distinction goes to the Office of Transnational Issues.

We also have channeled substantial analytic resources to specialized centers staffed by experts from across the Intelligence Community to deal with Nonproliferation and Crime and Narcotics issues.

And, as the National Intelligence Council's 2015 report demonstrates, we are paying increasing attention to non-traditional areas such as demographics, disease and water scarcity while continuing to chart trends in energy, economic development, and weaponry. We are spending more time on how these factors inter-connect and on how they affect security and stability.

Next, we have placed a high priority on getting our analysts the technical tools they need to deal with the growing problems of volume and speed. Information increases by about a million documents per day, and that's just on the web. Five years from now, our all-source analysts will have to deal with ten times the amount of information that they now receive from open sources and clandestine collection. One analyst recently told me that the way she does her job has changed more in one year than in the preceding nine due to her desk top links with the Internet and classified intelligence networks. Today, providing vital "value added" analysis to consumers sometimes depends as much on our analysts' ability to pluck key information out of the flood and move it quickly as it does on the analysis itself. Information-mining technologies and connectivity among our analysts within CIA, across the Intelligence Community and with our customers will help us stay ahead of the competition — I don't mean our commercial competitors, but the hostile actors who can — and will — exploit what is commercially available.

But being smart about how we configure ourselves, allocate resources and use technologies will not be enough. As Sherman Kent put it decades ago: "There is no substitute for the intellectually competent human — the person who was born with the makings of critical sense and who has developed them … through firsthand experience and study."

With that in mind, we have over the last several years begun very aggressively to strengthen our analytical ranks that were so dangerously thinned after the Cold War. CIA, for example, is engaged in the largest across-the-board recruiting drive in a decade, and we are bringing in first-rate talent. We have established a new Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis to intensively train the new recruits. Beyond increasing our bench strength against key targets, we are going all out to achieve greater analytic depth. We are providing incentives for analysts to stay on their accounts longer. We are affording our analysts greater opportunities to travel and to broaden their experience. Because we claim no monopoly on wisdom, we are bringing in outside experts for short tours as scholars-in-residence. We also are encouraging our analysts to expand their contacts with specialists elsewhere in government, in the private sector and in academia.

Our objective is a vigorous, creative, agile analytic capability that is equal to 21st century challenges and second to none.

I will close my comments on all that has changed in the analysis business by talking about what hasn't changed at all. I've mentioned Sherman Kent frequently, and let me say that today's analysts have the same three wishes that he used to talk about in his day: "To know everything. To be believed. And to exercise a positive influence on policy."

Of course, today's analysts don't know everything — that's why they still call 'em estimates. And they realize, as did their predecessors, that they won't always be believed, in spite of the rigor of their analysis. As to whether our analysts have a meaningful influence on policy, we will soon hear from former decision makers on that score. As for the decade I've just discussed, I can tell you that if the volume of questions we answer is any indication, our analysts have been very influential indeed. I am very proud of what they've accomplished.

Thank you. I would be happy to hear your thoughts and take your questions.


Historical Document
Posted: Apr 03, 2007 08:58 PM
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2008 08:29 AM