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Russia: CIA Analyses Give Insight On U.S. Cold War Intelligence

Another batch of newly declassified analyses by America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) offers new insight into U.S. intelligence during the Cold War. The papers cover far more than the Soviet Union's military capabilities. They also include social, economic, political, and foreign policy issues. Our correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington 14 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released hundreds of previously classified documents dating back to the Cold War. The material sheds new light on the breadth -- as well as the depth -- of American intelligence during the period.

The papers -- 857 documents totaling more than 19,000 pages covering the years 1947 to 1991 -- show how the agency worked to read the intentions of Moscow's leaders. The topics of the reports range from organized crime in the USSR, its space program, its industrial manpower -- even how the Kremlin was refining photographic film to enhance high-altitude spying.

The documents also show that American intelligence was not always accurate, and at times the CIA candidly admitted some of its limitations. This was particularly true when trying to assess Moscow's military capabilities in the period before the mid-1950s. It was not until then that the U.S. began sending the high-altitude U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. One report from 1953 -- before the use of the U-2 -- stated, "We have no reliable inside intelligence on thinking in the Kremlin."

But the intelligence reports were not limited to the Soviet military. They also dealt with social, economic, political and foreign policy issues. Topics included the Soviet space program, its industrial manpower -- even organized crime in the USSR. For instance, there was a report issued in October 1978 on the election of Karol Wojtyla, the bishop of Krakow, Poland, as pope. It concluded that this development would be "extremely worrisome to Moscow."

The four-page analysis expected no problems for the Soviet leadership in the near term. But eventually, it said, the election of a Polish pope would increase nationalism in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It said such attention to religion also would enhance the status of the Uniat and Orthodox churches, weakening the Communist Party's control of the people.

Hillel Fradkin is a specialist in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. He says the CIA's analysis proved to be accurate. Fradkin adds one further way in which Pope John Paul II was able to fight Moscow.

"It was much easier for this pope, as a Polish pope, to lecture the East on liberty and democratic principles than it was, I think, for preceding popes, who would have been understood as somehow coming from the West."

Fradkin said the pontiff's influence emboldened Poles and Catholics elsewhere in Eastern Europe to express themselves beyond religion. In Poland, this was evident in the strength of the Polish labor movement during the 1980s.

Another newly declassified CIA report deals with U.S. President Ronald Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative -- a far more elaborate precursor to the National Missile Defense program being promoted by the current president, George W. Bush.

The document is entitled "Soviet SDI Response Options: The Resource Dilemma," dated 1 November 1987. It said the Soviet Union probably would not try to match SDI because its high cost would cripple the Kremlin's effort on industrial modernization. Instead, President Mikhail Gorbachev would try the far less expensive option of diplomacy.

The U.S. intelligence report seems to have been right: Gorbachev tried to get Reagan to agree at an October 1986 summit in Iceland to scrap the program in exchange for eliminating all ballistic missiles. Reagan refused.

John Spencer -- a foreign policy and military analyst with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank -- says this meeting demonstrates how remarkable U.S. intelligence was.

"Reagan and his advisers were masters of understanding the enemy and understanding the circumstances of the enemy, and that's why SDI was so brilliant."

Spencer told RFE/RL that Reagan's version of missile defense was a two-pronged strategy. First, he says, this anti-missile program would have been very effective in defending America against long-range missiles. Secondly, according to Spencer, just the fact that the Reagan administration was pursuing SDI prompted Moscow to spend even more heavily than before on its own military. This, he says, helped to bring down the Soviet Union economically.

This idea is not shared by all analysts. One who disagrees is Kenneth Allard, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer who now specializes in defense issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Allard says Reagan's pursuit of SDI was not a plot to prompt Moscow to overspend. He says the U.S. military stagnated while America was busy with the Vietnam War. After that war -- throughout the 1970s -- there was a period of military retrenchment in the U.S.

When Reagan became president in 1981, he merely decided it was time to restore the American military for its own good, not to goad the Soviet Union into a struggle to match him.

"You can always find some document or other, you know, in the files that can be pulled out retrospectively to say, 'See? Aha! We saw it all along.' Well, I'm sorry. If you fellows [the CIA] saw it all along, where were the bold predictions that the Russian [Soviet] empire was breaking up?"

In fact, one of the documents supports Allard's thesis. The report, dated October 1991, is entitled "Soviet Defense Industry: Confronting Ruin." It spoke of Soviet military production capabilities early in what it called "the next century" -- in other words, today.

The newly declassified documents -- the subject of a two-day conference at Princeton University in the American state of New Jersey -- may not end analysts' differences over the quality of U.S intelligence during the Cold War. But they do offer insights into the kind of analysis that American presidents relied on in contending with the Soviet Union.