Jun 24, 2007

"Hysteria about the enemy as a patriotic duty"

An excerpt from the next installment of Roger Morris' lengthy series on Robert Gates and the Cold War.

1976 would offer the funeral procession that signaled the arrival of a new right-wing order and, with it, Gates' further rise. That March, as part of Ford's defensive response to the Reagan assault, the president brought onto the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (FIAB), a traditionally toothless CIA oversight body, the man who would be the most important patron in Gates' career, a slightly seedy and indefatigably reactionary, Russophobic Long Island lawyer named William Casey.

It was an extraordinarily vulnerable political moment for the CIA, reeling from more than a dozen reports by Watergate-inspired Congressional committees. They had compiled a staggering (if very partial) list of the Agency's lawless abuses: multiple covert interventions, betrayals of clients, assassinations (involving bizarre, often schoolboy-level toxin and dart technologies), and domestic spying as well as mail opening. The revelations prompted the creation of Select Committees in both the House and Senate to oversee covert action, and extracted a Ford presidential order (subsequently renewed by President Reagan) prohibiting CIA assassinations -- "reforms" that would turn out to be far less than expected in both cases.

For William Casey and other members of what was already probably the most hard-line FIAB in history, the agenda was hardly to rein in the Agency's mandate for covert action, which they thought too limited, but rather to escalate the attack on arms control and détente. Supported by Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs, Casey led the Board in pressuring Ford to promulgate a "Team B," a group of outside "critics" who would critique and counter the CIA's assessment of Soviet strength and intentions.

Given Kissinger's still considerable personal prestige, the weakened CIA was obviously an easier entry point for Casey and his cohorts in the assault on détente. But there was grim irony in the charge underlying the formation of Team B -- that the Agency had somehow been "soft" on the Russians or prone to underestimate Soviet strength. Though Gates' 1973 NIE pushed conclusions well beyond the evidence, even the usual CIA assessments, including its analysis of Soviet strategic forces for the SALT talks (in which Gates participated), had not differed significantly from the Pentagon's hawkish ones.

If anything, as it joined the wider bureaucratic revolt against SALT II, the Agency regularly overestimated overall Soviet strength and misread the burden of the arms race on the Soviet economy. Even leaked to Capitol Hill, however, the CIA's cautions and qualifications did not lend themselves quite as readily to demagogic appeal as the counterrevolution now sought.

"Let her fly!! -- OK, G.B." was the flourish with which the new Director, George H.W. Bush, signed off on Team B, though later, when the episode became notorious, he would admit to an aide, "It wasn't my doing." Team B's right-wingers, including Paul Wolfowitz, were chaired, aptly enough, by Harvard's Richard Pipes. He had been handpicked by Richard Perle via Senator Jackson and came, like most of the others, with "little command of scientific [strategic weapons] matters," as Garry Wills put it. The group would form what even hard-line CIA analyst Ray Cline called "a kangaroo court of outside critics all picked from one point of view."

Predictably, their "findings" were a simplistic fantasy: The Soviet Union was intent on starting World War III and an American nuclear "window of vulnerability" made such a Russian attack plausible. This scenario required, of course, an inconceivably perfect Soviet first strike as well as actions and reactions precise beyond any war-planner's wildest dreams.

Once the Reagan regime -- filling posts with Team B members -- took office in 1981, the "window of vulnerability" would mercifully disappear, just as had the budget-plumping 1940s "bomber gap" and the 1950s "missile gap" (both authored, in part, by Paul Nitze). In 1976, however, Team B opened the window wide. News of it, duly leaked by Rumsfeld and others, was imbibed by the press, pundits, and Congress with the usual shallowness, inciting a public mood that Wills termed "hysteria about the enemy as a patriotic duty." (Much the same mood would reappear with the neoconservatives post-9/11, making Washington safe for Pentagon appropriations for generations to come.)

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