India, the CIA & the Bomb
June 9, 1998
By Robert Parry
As India prepared to shock the world's balance of power with nuclear tests on May 11, the CIA's analytical division went through the bureaucratic routines of daily life: no late-night burning of the candles, no urgent warnings to the White House, effectively no clue.
The Indian explosion caught the CIA and the Clinton administration flat-footed, even though India's new Hindu nationalist ruling party had publicly declared its intention to go nuclear. The CIA analysts apparently lulled themselves to sleep with a reassuring group think that the new government wasn't serious.
But that blindness stands now as possibly the most serious intelligence failure since the CIA largely missed the coming collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The Indian nuclear tests -- followed by similar tests in Pakistan -- mean three bordering states in Asia have the capability to devastate one another with nuclear weapons, with virtually no protection of an early warning system.
The third nation, China, has enjoyed the additional benefit of U.S. free-trade cooperation in the refinement of its missile-delivery systems. Like the Bush administration before it, the Clinton administration bowed to the desires of U.S. corporations which have found Chinese missiles an inexpensive alternative for launching commercial satellites.
In short, the South Asia nuclear club represents the greatest threat to world security since the end of the Cold War, while CIA analysts blissfully brown-bagged-it for lunch, took their coffee breaks and didn't miss their car pools.
On June 2, in a blunt report on the CIA's analytical skills, retired Adm. David E. Jeremiah, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that U.S. intelligence "needs to be scrubbed," from top to bottom, from senior analysts to agents in the field. To avoid the kind of false consensus that had blinded the analysts on India, Jeremiah argued, "you need to have a contrarian view."
But there is a reason why the CIA analytical division has lost that "contrarian view," a proud part of an older tradition in which analysts had the professional confidence to contest the conventional wisdom and bring bad news to policy-makers. That dissent within the CIA was beaten out of the analytical division during the early 1980s when President Reagan insisted that his Evil Empire vision be accepted -- and President Clinton failed to correct the problem when he took over in 1993.
Indeed, the current CIA crisis can be traced to those two major intelligence developments: first, in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration conducted an ideological purge of the analytical division to install compliant bureaucrats, and second, in 1993, when Clinton ignored a clear warning that the CIA's analytical division was in desperate need of reform.
During the Clinton transition, former CIA analysts lobbied the incoming Clinton team to take immediate action. On Dec. 10, 1992, ex-analyst Peter W. Dickson sent a bluntly worded two-page memo to Samuel "Sandy" Berger, who was then a top figure on the national security transition team. (He is now Clinton's national security adviser.)
Dickson recommended that Clinton appoint a CIA director who grasped "the deeper internal problems relating to the politicization of intelligence and the festering morale problem within the CIA. ... This problem of intellectual corruption will not disappear overnight, even with vigorous remedial action.
"However, the new CIA director will be wise if he realizes from the start the dangers in relying on the advice of senior CIA office managers who during the past 12 years advanced and prospered in their careers precisely because they had no qualms about suppressing intelligence or slanting analysis to suit the interest of [CIA director William J.] Casey and [his deputy Robert] Gates. This is a deep systemic problem."
In view of the recent CIA failures, Dickson's memo has the ring of prophecy. Dickson himself had been a "contrarian" analyst who worked on nuclear proliferation issues. He encountered resistance within the Casey-Gates system when he pressed concerns about nuclear developments in Pakistan at a time when Pakistan was assisting the CIA's covert war in Afghanistan. Dickson suffered direct retaliation after refusing to rewrite a 1983 assessment that noted Soviet restraint on nuclear proliferation, when that conflicted with Reagan's propaganda line of a reckless and aggressive Soviet Union.
In the early 1990s, other ex-analysts joined Dickson in decrying the impact of Reagan's "politicization" of the analytical division. Former senior analyst Melvyn Goodman raised the issue publicly during Gates's 1991 confirmation hearings to be CIA director. Another former analyst, John A. Gentry, outlined the decay in his 1993 book, Lost Promise: How CIA Analysis Misserves the Nation.
But Clinton, preoccupied with domestic policy, chose to look the other way. To avoid a confrontation with Republicans, he picked as his first CIA director neo-conservative James Woolsey, who had worked closely with the Reagan-Bush administrations. The Woolsey appointment effectively guaranteed that the Casey-Gates management team would consolidate its power over the analytical division.
To this day, the key officials overseeing the analytical division can trace their rise to power to appointments from Casey and Gates in the early 1980s. This Casey-Gates clique includes John McLaughlin, deputy director for intelligence; David Carey, the CIA's executive director; Winston Wiley, associate deputy director for intelligence; and John Gannon, chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
Over the past 15 years, these senior bureaucrats also have trained a younger generation of analysts who learned quickly the dangers of independent thinking in a "politicized" bureaucracy. "Contrarian" viewpoints were clearly not helpful to a young analyst's career advancement.
According to one former analyst, "the window for trying to fix this mess was open when Clinton came in, but he was scared [to confront the CIA]. Once, he put Woolsey out there, it was lost."
When I interviewed, Dickson, Goodman and Gentry last fall, they were in agreement that Clinton had failed to rebuild the CIA's earlier traditions of analytical independence. "He blew it," declared Dickson. Goodman said: "Clinton missed an opportunity to get the CIA on the right track." Gentry added: "You're 15 years into decay" and all the Clinton appointees have done is "fussed around at the margins."
More recently, Dickson told me that the passage of time and continued bureaucratic complacency also worked against any serious CIA reform. "Unless there's another Pearl Harbor, who cares?" he asked rhetorically.
With the Asian sub-continent now armed to the nuclear teeth, maybe the policy-makers finally will listen -- and admit that the mistakes of the last 15 years were bipartisan. But the tougher question is whether they have the political courage to bring back the analysts purged during the Reagan years and to re-establish the division's once-treasured "contrarian view."
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