Accessibility links

World: Former CIA Heads Urge Post-Cold War Shift

  • Robert McMahon

With the end of the Cold War superpower alignment and the proliferation of new technology, the U.S. intelligence community is moving to recast its capabilities. At a panel discussion this week, four former CIA directors said terrorism and cyber-crime have replaced the former Soviet Union as the major nemesis to the United States and its allies. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

New York, 28 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. intelligence-gathering community is facing a markedly different world than the one defined by the Cold War superpower relationship.

Four former directors of Central Intelligence who served before, during, and after the collapse of the Soviet bloc say the United States now needs to shift its focus to threats such as terrorists, cyber-crime, and the spread of missile technology.

The recommendations come only weeks after President George W. Bush ordered a review of the country's intelligence system which could result in sweeping changes. The four former directors spoke at a panel discussion last week (23 May) hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. They reviewed how successes and failures in intelligence work over the years could shape the future work of U.S. spy agencies.

James Woolsey headed the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, during the first two years of the Clinton administration. He says the top issue facing the U.S. intelligence community is helping the National Security Agency keep pace with technological changes.

The agency is responsible for eavesdropping on electronic communications worldwide. But it faces difficulties because of the growing use of fiber-optic cables, which are difficult to monitor, and the heavy volume of digital telephone traffic.

Woolsey says it is also important for intelligence services to help defend against threats to national security originating in new technology.

"Your [that is, the intelligence services'] problem is the vulnerability of your infrastructure and your networks and your computers. Because encrypting things doesn't protect your computers. Your computers are vulnerable to hackers and denial of service and viruses and all the rest coming in for all sorts of reasons, criminal terrorist and perhaps asymmetric warfare."

Stansfield Turner was director of Central Intelligence for President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. He says any review of intelligence should examine the working relationship between the U.S. military and intelligence communities to make sure they adapt together to the changing threats.

"In the post-Cold War age, the military requirements, while growing in quantity for the military, are of less critical nature to the country, whereas other threats like terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and ecology and so forth are growing in importance."

The former intelligence directors say U.S. spy agencies have proved very effective at collecting information during the past 50 years. But the analysis of that information, they say, has sometimes been faulty. Woolsey joined the other directors in noting that the failure to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union was due to neglect of very clear signs that the Soviet economy was in irreversible decline.

"They were not good at drawing the political implications of the economic doldrums that the Soviet Union continued to collapse into, and as a result they were not as quick in the judgment that the Soviet Union was going to come apart. "

A more recent failure involved the testing of nuclear weapons by both India and Pakistan in 1998, which caught U.S. officials by surprise. John Deutch, who directed Central Intelligence in 1995 and 1996, said analysts should have seen the political changes in India leading toward the detonation of an atomic weapon.

But Deutch says the way the U.S. intelligence community shares information and analysis could have contributed to its failure regarding Indian nuclear tests. He said during his time with the agency, there were widespread leaks of intelligence information. He said this politicized the process of intelligence gathering, preventing thorough analysis and discussion on a number of issues.

"There was a natural tendency to look at it as being more of a political game rather than really trying to find where the evidence was leading and I think that the issue of leaks is what stops the kind of thorough exchange of analysts' information and wisdom that is really needed to make this a successful operation."

William Webster, who was director of Central Intelligence from 1987 to 1991, said one example of a successful use of analysis was the identification of a chemical weapons facility in Libya in the late 1980s. Although described by Libya as a pharmaceutical factory, Webster said the evidence assembled proved overwhelmingly that it was a weapons facility. He said that evidence was presented to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who responded by cutting off what had been considerable German input to the facility.

Webster and the other former directors said the United States has been more and more sparing in its use of covert operations in recent years. But they predicted that presidents will want to retain it as an option in the event of a serious diplomatic or military crisis.

Despite well-known failures with covert operations in Cuba, some of the directors pointed to Afghanistan -- believed to be one of the largest such operations ever conducted -- as a success. Webster dismissed some suggestions that U.S. activity in Afghanistan in the 1980s involved training future terrorists. He said alleged terrorists such as Osama bin Laden -- now living in Afghanistan -- were not trained by the CIA. Webster said the main objective of the Afghan operation -- to undermine the Soviet military there -- was successful.

"It was in my view one of the two major factors in precipitating the end of the Cold War. The impact of getting the mujahideen properly equipped to drive the Soviets out of their country, under such circumstances that it was painful to their military and to their political structure, had a very serious impact inside the Soviet Union and was well worth the effort. "

All four former directors said China should be a main focus of future U.S. intelligence activities. They stressed the need to gauge China's public opinion and monitor its economic signals. They said China presents many more puzzles, on issues such as arms proliferation, than Russia.