For decades the C.I.A. “approached the Soviet Union as a kind of abstraction–the enemy, a nuclear threat, the moral antithesis. We hadn’t really approached it as a society. And therefore, I think we were really not ready…to deal with the reactions when finally the lid did come up.” This revealing estimate was not produced by one of the agency analysts who came forward during the Robert Gates confirmation hearings to charge that Gates forced intelligence reports to conform to a tough anti-Soviet line. Rather, it was provided by Douglas MacEachin, a Gates loyalist who headed the C.I.A.’s Office of Soviet Analysis in the 1980s. For days, witnesses, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Gates himself quarreled about the intelligence-production process at the agency. Two former analysts credibly maintained that Gates blocked reports that challenged the hard-line view and that he promoted shoddy intelligence that supported the Russians-are-coming position, such as a paper that argued that the Soviet Union backed the 1981 assassination attempt against the Pope.
The hearings disclosed that within the C.I.A., analysts who strayed from the reigning dogma worried about being labeled Communist apologists. Despite this repressive atmosphere, the agency sometimes did produce material inconvenient for the Soviet-bashers of the Reagan Administration that never informed public debate. According to MacEachin, just when President Reagan was urging Congress to fund a new chemical weapons program, C.I.A. analysts reported that the Russians were unlikely to initiate chemical weapons use in a war against NATO. MacEachin also noted that the C.I.A. found that Soviet military spending in the early 1980s was leveling off–a notion contrary to the dire warnings issued by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and others. Harold Ford, a senior analyst, testified that a 1981 national Intelligence estimate, much to Director William Casey’s chagrin, said that there was no proof that Moscow was masterminding terrorism around the world. Lawrence Gershwin, another Gates defender in the C.I.A., divulged that one Reagan-era estimate concluding that Soviet missiles were not as accurate as previously thought “caused a lot of grief” since it implied a “reduced Soviet threat.”
The real politicization, though, is evidenced in the agency’s cast-in-concrete, overarching conception of the Soviet Union as an immutable (and somewhat evil) empire. In March 1986, Senator Bill Bradley asked Gates whether the C.I.A. was examining the prospects for fundamental change in the Soviet Union. Gates said there was no hint that any such transformation was occurring and that “my resources do not permit me to idly speculate.” After Bradley mentioned this at the confirmation hearings, some clerk at Langley dug up a memo written by Gates in October 1986 that noted that the agency might be overlooking “significant change” in the Soviet Union. But when Bradley then asked Gates what he had done to insure that C.I.A. reports detected such change, Gates could not recall taking any steps. And a month after penning that 1986 memo, Gates delivered a blistering speech accusing Moscow of plotting to obtain control of the oilfields of the Middle East, Panama and the canal, and the mineral wealth of Southern Africa. In response to Bradley at the recent hearings, he admitted that he had no data back up those “personal views.” Moreover, MacEachin recalled that “we never looked at the Soviet Union as a political entity” with internal elements that could spur wide reform. Had such a view existed, he confessed, “we never would have been able to publish it.”