Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cold War Turns Hot?! Part III

Leonid Brezhnev

Periodically, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies jointly compiled studies of key issues called national intelligence estimates (NIEs). Among the most important NIEs was the Soviet estimate, and the one current at this time was NIE 11-3/8-82, approved by William Casey and circulated on February 15, 1983. Among other things, it concluded that the Russians would expect a crisis to precede a war, and during that period would “heighten their surveillance of enemy activity” in addition to shifting to a wartime posture and seeking to carry out deception measures. At the outset of any hostilities, the NIE remarked, “The Soviets would try to implement a theaterwide air offensive [in Europe]” to neutralize NATO nuclear assets. Ominously, the CIA estimate contains this: “If [the Soviets] acquired convincing evidence that a U.S. intercontinental strike was imminent, they would try to preempt.” This would be most likely if conventional war were already under way in Europe, but war out of the blue— for example, a preemptive attack based on a gross miscalculation of the other side's intentions—was not excluded. In short, the CIA's standing estimate in the fall of 1983 mirrored some of the same things that were on the minds of planners in Moscow.

Jack Matlock attended all the White House meetings where Bill Casey was present, and a more conciliatory American approach to the Soviet Union was discussed—including the presidential speech Matlock helped to draft. Matlock himself had presented a briefing in September at which President Reagan sat for a two-hour exposé of the CIA's data on the Russians. Matlock does not recall Casey pressing the president to quell Soviet fears. The CIA director liked Matlock's proposed speech as a token in the propaganda war but did not see a conciliatory gesture as unusually urgent. Matlock's recollections of Reagan's opinion of the first draft are that it contained little new; again there seemed no special urgency.

Something changed between September and December, and not through standard National Security Council channels. Matlock believes that Nancy Reagan, who favored softer rhetoric on the Russians, had much to do with it— or, rather, the First Lady's Los Angeles astrologer did. Intelligence sources say that Bill Casey, no astrologer, approached Reagan through Nancy. In this version, Casey had been won over by warnings from his Soviet analysts and set up a meeting with the president.

Secretary of State George Shultz returned from a European trip in mid-December to find a new tone at the White House. He saw the president on December 17. Reagan specifically referred to the warmer passages in Russian defense minister Ustinov's talk to Soviet veterans, with its appeal for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Robert M. Gates, then the CIA's deputy director for intelligence, records in his memoirs that the Casey-Reagan meeting occurred on December 22. Gates quotes a CIA report presented at the meeting that cited the KGB and Soviet military intelligence alerts, remarking that the Russian posture “seems to reflect a Soviet perception of an increased threat of war.”

President Reagan decided to go ahead with the speech. He delivered it over a global satellite link from the East Room of the White House on January 16, 1984. He added a few homey touches, which turned out to be the phrases people remembered. Secretary Shultz made a speech along similar lines nearly simultaneously in Stockholm. In his memoirs Ronald Reagan writes, “Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans. Perhaps this shouldn't have surprised me, but it did.”

Chairman Yuri Andropov reacted negatively to Washington's sally, but the Russian leader proved to be on his last legs, in rapid decline since before Christmas. Andropov collapsed during the final week of January and died on February 9, to be replaced by Constantin Chernenko, another aged leader. Chernenko also would be wary of the United States, but he lacked Andropov's sense of immediate confrontation. Moscow resumed arms control negotiations in 1984. The following year, when Chernenko passed away, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership and traveled to Geneva for the first Reagan-era summit conference between the superpowers. Soviet sources report that Gorbachev at first tried to compete with the United States but soon realized the futility of the arms race.

Like the leadership, the Russian military remained skeptical of the United States. They continued a vigorous missile testing program. An article in Military Thought, the journal of the Soviet general staff, discussed the danger of war beginning under the cover of normal military exercises, then, paragraphs later, mentioned Able Archer by name. Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov commented, in a May 1984 interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (“Red Star”), “With the quantity and diversity of nuclear missiles already achieved, it becomes impossible to destroy the enemy's systems with a single strike.” Nevertheless, Ogarkov opposed arms control and bore responsibility for the KAL 007 incident. He would be replaced in the fall of 1984, about the time Moscow resumed nuclear arms talks.

The Russian answer to the so-called decapitation threat posed by the Pershing II came in the form of a new technology. On November 13, 1984, a command post at Leningrad sent a missile launch order to a military radio facility near Moscow, which rebroadcast it to an SS-20 intermediate-range missile that had just taken off from the Soviet test center Kapustin Yar (now in the Ukraine). The rocket itself then transmitted a launch order to an SS-18 heavy ICBM, which fired from its silo in Kazakhstan. Here the Russians demonstrated the ability to execute an automated launch of their missile force. Without knowing exactly which rockets were configured as airborne launchers (and destroying them), or blanketing all of Russia with high levels of radio interference (physically very demanding), there would be no way to preclude a Russian missile launch. In effect, the Russians had created a “doomsday machine,” an automatic system capable of wreaking destruction even after the immolation of the Soviet Union.

Despite numerous subsequent arms control treaties and the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union, as well as the end of the Cold War, the existence of the doomsday machine is troubling. As recently as 1993 the Russian automatic launch system continued in service; insofar as we know, it remains active today. This kind of automaticity inherently increases the danger of war by accident or miscalculation. It is sad that the security pressures of the early 1980s made such a system seem desirable to Moscow.

Meanwhile, the KGB's Operation RYAN did not simply disappear. Annual reports of the Russian intelligence service discovered in a Moscow archive show the KGB continued to report on RYAN indicators until at least 1987. Documents published by Gordievsky show KGB orders concerning RYAN still flowing as late as 1984. Russian fears apparently continued throughout Gor-bachev's rule; RYAN ended in 1991.

In Washington, Ronald Reagan would not be the only American surprised by the depth of Russian anxiety. The CIA, acknowledges Robert Gates, failed to appreciate the dangers in spite of its own people's warnings. Only in March 1984, when Gates read a British compendium of reporting from double agent Gordievsky, did he realize that Soviet leaders must have really been alarmed. Two points stand out. First, since the British share information with the CIA, the Gordievsky data on RYAN must have been of concern to the CIA's Directorate of Operations. Either the CIA spooks discounted the reports, the operations people would not share them with CIA analysts, or the British never passed along some of the Gordievsky data. Significantly, Gates writes that his agency finally went to President Reagan only after it learned that Soviet military intelligence had received the same sort of alert order as Gordievsky claimed for the KGB. Apparently, the KGB's move to a “war footing” was insufficient for the CIA to spring into action.

Second, in its heart, the CIA still did not believe the war scare had been real. People remember details of what they were doing and where they were at critical moments, and the discovery that the world had come close to a nuclear war has to be classed as such a moment. Robert Gates, however, does not recall where he was when he read the British retrospective on Gordievsky. Even more concrete, in 1984 the CIA commissioned a special national intelligence estimate (SNIE) on whether American intelligence had been missing the point. The paper was drafted by National Intelligence Council chairman Fritz W. Ermarth, a Russian specialist who had been brought back to the CIA from the RAND Corporation, and was a veteran of the National Security Council staff. The paper, SNIE 11-10-84/JX, titled “Implications of Recent Soviet Military Political Activities,” held that each of the unusual Russian actions (for example, the bomber alert) could have had an innocent explanation, short of Moscow's succumbing to a war scare. The actual deployment of Euromissiles, not Able Archer or anything else, was taken to be the stimulus for Russian fears. Interestingly, the CIA paper conceded what some American propagandists liked to deny—that the advent of the Pershing IIs had to be worrisome for the Russian leadership.

Intelligence analysts remained divided on the issue for over a year before the press of other matters laid this one to rest. But Bob Gates remained disturbed, however, and followed up in 1990, when he was on the NSC staff as deputy national security adviser. The president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board revisited the war scare. Its study, still not made public, reportedly concluded that U.S. intelligence had missed the boat on an actual crisis.

Looking back at the Cold War, Americans have had a temptation to gloat over supposed victory. Those who do for the most part have no idea how close hysteria came to ending it all in the early 1980s. Moscow's fears cannot be dismissed as self-induced—a result of the hype the Soviets had been putting out about America's Euromissiles. “It's not reducible to that,” says Raymond Garthoff, “not by a long shot.” Able Archer, writes CIA chieftain Robert Gates, marked “one of the potentially most dangerous episodes of the Cold War.” Worst of all is the understanding that the United States, dedicated to its own war of words, dismissing the views of the other side as mere propaganda, remained oblivious to a brush with Armageddon. That was one hell of a game of chicken.

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