Conference examines CIA's Cold War analysis

March 9, 2001, 5:47 p.m.

United States has entered an era in which the "potential for unwelcome surprise" is greater than at any time since the end of World War II, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John E. McLaughlin said at Princeton Friday.

McLaughlin spoke during a two-day Princeton conference examining CIA intelligence during the Cold War, focusing on the waning years of the Soviet Union. The conference, "CIA's Analysis of the Soviet Union, 1947-1991," is co-sponsored by Princeton's Center of International Studies and the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence. It ends Saturday.

In a keynote address, McLaughlin described the period of transition at the CIA coinciding with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Analysts who once had gained insights into the Soviet system by studying things like its canned-goods or timber production were suddenly enrolling in Uzbek language classes or brushing up on Ukrainian politics.

Today, the potential for surprise is especially high, McLaughlin said. Globalization and the "crumbling of Cold War constraints" ultimately can unleash regional violence, as has occurred in the Balkans, East Timor and the Congo. Technology can provide enemies access to "new shields and new swords." American power, water, transportation and communications systems are vulnerable to new dangers. Countries in volatile regions are undergoing major transitions that could have consequences for the U.S., he said.

"From the perspective of an intelligence officer, it seems that America's next move these days must always be calculated on a three-dimensional chessboard," McLaughlin said.

The Princeton conference brings together security practitioners and scholars to critique a sampling of 859 just-declassified documents related to what the CIA knew of military, political and economic developments in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The issues covered in the documents -- and expected to be discussed through Saturday at Princeton -- range from the CIA's 1987 assessment of possible Soviet responses to the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative, to the impact of a Polish pope on the U.S.S.R.

Analyzing the impact of Pope John Paul II, a 1978 memorandum suggests that his selection "will make even more difficult Moscow's traditional attempts to bind culturally Western Poland more closely to the East, to integrate the Poles more closely into a Soviet-dominated bilateral and multilateral system of alliances, and to foster greater social and political discipline in Poland..."

Frederick Hitz, a Princeton lecturer in public affairs and former inspector general of the CIA, said the conference will provide "interesting new insights into what the intelligence community knew about what was going in the Soviet Union in those final days. I think it's terribly important for the historical record to be as complete as it can be on matters of what we knew and when we knew it during the Cold War."

At a pre-conference address Thursday evening, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet said the CIA has a positive record in its analysis record of the Soviet Union, while acknowledging that it is not error-free. Between 1974 and 1986, he said, the agency overestimated the rate at which Moscow would modernize its strategic forces.

"But there is an important difference between getting it wrong despite thoughtful analysis and deliberately exaggerating the threat," Tenet said. "I think that an honest review of the documents shows that our analysts made a good-faith effort."

Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601