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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CIA Director's Constructive Self-Criticism

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On March 8-9, the International Studies Center of Princeton University hosted an event titled "The Conference on CIA's Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947-1991." The impetus for the conference was the CIA's declassification of 850 analytical documents totaling about 19,000 pages relating to the agency's assessment of the Soviet Union during this period. CIA Director George Tenet spoke at the conference, as did the deputy director for analysis, John McLaughlin.

The Russian press largely ignored this unusual happening. However, the tone of the Western press accounts that I came across can basically be summarized as: "A chronicle of lapses and failures." And this is the truth. The CIA repeatedly made grossly inaccurate assessments of Soviet actions and intentions that, naturally, led the United States to some plainly inadequate responses and cost America considerable money and anxiety.

One thing that I found particularly interesting was that the CIA had summoned this criticism upon itself and the agency representatives were harshly self-critical. "To this day," Tenet told the audience, "intelligence is always much better at counting heads than divining what is going on inside them."

How can we explain this strange behavior? I put this question to Vitaly Shlykov, a former agent of Soviet military intelligence who analyzed the military and economic potential of the West. Shlykov says that whenever American intelligence came across incomprehensible information, it interpreted it through the prism of its usual categories.

For example, Western intelligence exerted considerable effort to estimating the true scope of Soviet military expenditures as a share of the country's gross domestic product. However, this exercise was futile from the start, since standard concepts like GDP were simply inapplicable to Soviet economics.

In fairness, adds Shlykov, it should be noted that Soviet intelligence suffered from the same syndrome. Interpreting U.S. production capacity through the prism of Soviet central planning, Soviet intelligence came to the conclusion that, in the first six months of emergency mobilization, the United States could produce as many as 50,000 tanks (in reality, the figure was more like 1,500 to 2,000).

But which country was harmed the most by this faulty intelligence? Shlykov thinks that the Soviet Union was. Both the KGB and Soviet military intelligence enjoyed complete monopolies on the information that they analyzed. Naturally, this gave them enormous opportunities to manipulate the data in ways that served their institutional interests. The Soviet political leadership was entirely dependent on these intelligence structures.

In the United States, on the other hand, such a solid monopoly was never institutionalized. The CIA and American military intelligence often offered entirely contradictory analyses of the same information. At the same time, a number of civilian analytical centers existed and national security issues were widely analyzed in popular and specialized media. This meant that politicians often had a choice of which analysis to accept and, consequently, the intelligence services had less opportunity to shamelessly advance their own corporate interests.

However, Shlykov cautions, pluralism is no guarantee of accuracy. Russia and the West do, in many ways, have fundamentally differing mindsets. "I'd like to think," Shlykov said, "that by discussing these issues openly, American intelligence is admitting that there is a problem. Perhaps this is the exact catharsis that any intelligence service needs in these changing times. Russia might benefit as well if it is also able to undertake an open analysis of the work of its intelligence services."

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals ( He contributed this column to Vedomosti.