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12 March 2008

The intelligence community and technological surprise in the Cold War

It has long been a maxim in the intelligence community that despite other types of intelligence failures – created by both collection shortfalls and analytic errors – the one remarkable area of success was the “fact” that no Soviet weapons system was deployed during the latter period Cold War without the US being aware of it in advance. In this version of the telling, the initial period of uncertainty regarding Soviet capabilities was ended by new technical collection methods, and the analysis to derive insight from those collection systems. From that point forward – usually dated to around the time of the introduction of the U-2 platform – the US intelligence community allegedly never again faced strategic technological surprise.

This story has been repeated so often that it is no longer even questioned, particularly given the fact that multiple DCI’s and their deputies have also supported the statement. Despite this, a recent conversation regarding certain the post-Cold War discoveries regarding certain historical intelligence controversies gave us reason to revisit this old success story. The public history regarding the IC’s true knowledge of the main enemy’s scientific and technical intelligence advancements has become more clear as declassification continues to bring these topics back into the realm of academic discussion. One can also now make far more useful comparisons the increasingly public statements of former Soviet scientists, defense planners, and other professionals that are now recording their own services’ histories.

And from these comparisons, we find the old maxim gravely wanting in the revised judgment of history. Perhaps the most serious area of strategic surprise were the revelations first made public by Ken Alibek, the defector who formerly headed the Soviet Biopreparat program, of an unsuspected strategic biological warfare capability. This capability included weaponized anthrax and smallpox warheads deployed on R36 / SS-9 SCARP and R-36M / SS-18 SATAN ICBMs. This surprising revelation was however preceded by an earlier intelligence failure regarding Soviet BW programs, which missed the development and first operational deployment of T2 mycotoxins - yellow rain - in Laos and Cambodia. That alone should have provided warning that all was not well with the IC’s supposed scientific and technical intelligence superiority, as also should have the Sverdlovsk anthrax release accident. However, the rapidly and intensely politicized public debate over these latter two cases in particular serves to illustrate well the long term damage that can be done to the community by the failure to remain objective, independent, and apart from the media-led scrum.

US technical intelligence regarding Soviet chemical weapons programs also allegedly suffered from similar surprise, failing to initially detect the development of the entirely new class of Novichok nerve agents – again learning about the capability only from post-Cold War defector reporting. What might have been in this matter is far less clear, but as an exception it certainly disproves the rule.

It is important that when holding up a standard for new intelligence professionals to emulate that we choose one that has actually been met before. Absolutely avoiding all forms of strategic surprise in the scientific and technical area is a laudable goal. But that is not the bar that was set by the Cold War era – despite what others may claim - and measuring today’s efforts through that prism does a great disservice to those who are responsible for chasing an impossible mission under what are arguably the far harder circumstances of the contemporary operating environment.

This does not in any way detract from the excellent service given by those responsible for the assessment of Soviet weapons programs, and for the countless successes which initially gave rise to the myth. While the IC does not need aggrandizement, it does have ample legends that have more than earned bragging rights never exercised in a quiet profession. History owes those that never sought recognition in their own time an accurate accounting of the deeds of their day.

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