They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Chalmers Johnson reviews Tim Weiner’s CIA tome, destined to be this generation’s John Ranelagh’s. We’ve yet to read Weiner’s book for a variety of reasons, just like we feel little motivation to see Bruce Willis die hard, again. Been there, done that. Story known, man.

So let’s underscore the Stiftung has not yet even touched Weiner’s book in the McBookMarts.

Having said all that, if Johnson’s review is an accurate reflection of the book, we doubt its real usefulness outside feeding current public mood’s angina. Despite the interviews and documents reviewed. He really doesn’t tell us much that is not already known. David Wise praised the book but suggested the book’s one-sidedness was a flaw (and Wise exaggerates when he says the rickety nature of the coups in Guatamala and Iran are “news”).

Easy Target In The Rear View Mirror
It’s easy to pick on the Agency for “misrepresenting” in hindsight the size of the Soviet economy or the military. Usually those making the case such as Johnson, like the Neocons from the other direction, do not speak the language, have no significant in-country experience during the relevant time frame and opine(d) from a cubicle or air conditioned office safely this side of the Pond. In fact, Johnson is an Asia specialist mainly. And the Soviet Union wasn’t no Japan, baby. (And if you know the Stiftung, you know we *know* that cold on both counts, too). There certainly was a bamboo curtain. But Mao-ist peasant armies were not the Group of Soviet Forces Germany or the Strategic Rocket Forces.

Please allow the Stiftung to smack reality upside their heads with a two x four. The Soviet Union was the first, truly sealed Counterintelligence State (as the Stiftung noted earlier). Sealed off. As in denied. As in shoot to kill.

We’re Closed, And We Mean It
People today or then who merely watched from the sidelines (or Yokohama/Berkeley) do not understand what this meant. Access of any kind to the Soviet Union was almost totally shut down. Embassy and related personnel were under enormous pressures. Indeed, the Stiftung knows one Embassy attache who later became NIO for the Soviet Union who was physically assaulted by the KGB’s Second Chief Directorate even while within the tight circle of permitted travel inside Moscow. Just to set the rules, so to speak. It’s not like going shopping in the Ginza.

Until 1985/86 or maybe even 1988, unless you were there, on the ground, seeing and feeling the Counterintelligence State in action, you can not possibly grasp the fact that for all intents and purposes the Soviet Union might as well have been on an alien planet. Literally, there were times the Stiftung would look up at the sky and expect to see both Earth and Saturn overhead. It was the ultimate in “E” ticket alien planet rides. Today, North Korea is the closest echo.

So what does this mean? Consider the economic estimates. How can anyone estimate the “cost” of an item in such a closed society that itself did not know what anything cost!. Literally. The Politburo did not know. Factory directors did not know and they churned the stuff out. Particulary after the ill-fated Kosygin reforms collapsed in the late 1960s. There were no real prices because a market did not exist. The GOSPLAN apparatus was so dysfunctional and irrational, Soviet intelligence would grab the old Joint Economic Committee “green books” on the Soviet economy written by Agency and other analysts and academics and send them back to Moscow on the next plane. Same with Aviation Leak. We do not kid. The Soviets relied on our estimates to try and understand their own economy. Then-senior most Soviet officials, industrialists and other governing personnel told this to the Stiftung at the time.

Even at the SALT talks, senior Soviet military personnel often learned more about what their country was up to from American presentations than their own careers. Of all this, Johnson, the Asian specialist, says nothing. Apparently, Weiner doesn’t either.

It is true that the Agency unlike most peoples’ fantasies was the most ‘liberal’ of the Community, especially when compared to the Big Building sinking in the swamp. And from George Carver’s laborious fighting with MACV over estimates then down unto the present time, the Agency has had to deal with manufacturing intelligence to suit a bureaucratic or other interest.

The Stiftung knows personally some of the most famous or senior analysts charged with estimating the Soviet economy. How to manufacture a cost structure for a wholly irrational economy in a Counterinelligence Denied State and then extrapolate those costs into terms the West could understand? It was a metaphysical undertaking of immense proportions. Johnson, who apparently thinks Soviet Counterintelligence State activities are the equivalent of LDP opacity in Japan, slags all this off with self assured invective ala Newt on a sugar rush.

For example, the U.S. at one major university under the direction of one of the Stiftung’s acquaintances created something called SOVMOD as an econometric approach. It was an enormous computerized model trying to understand the reality behind the absurd Soviet input/out matrices. Other Agency and Community analysts tried different analytical devices. But it all came down to trying to outhink an irrational system to determine how many nomenklatura were on the head of a widget in Novosibirsk.

So it is true the Agency and others overestimated the size of the Soviet economy. And it is true that a majority of SOVA and Community analysts did not speak Russian but relied on FBIS. (Like good ol’ Michael Scheuer et al. in a later day — here we agree wholeheartedly should Weiner make that critique). The true smaller size of the Soviet economy became evident to both the Soviets and the U.S. only after the Soviet Counterintelligence State collapsed. An irrational system kept in motion by inertia and ignorance can not withstand glasnost’ and perestroika.

re the DP/DO, Weiner’s book as reconstructed by Johnson seems to cover already known territory with some new details that do not appear to shed dramatically any new light on known events. The Stiftung largely agrees with the assessment here that:

Historians so quick to categorize US post-war covert paramilitary operations as failures too often have failed to adequately consider the critical importance of context in their analyses. The threat of Soviet military forces driving west across Europe was real to US officials and the public at large by the late 1940’s. Embassy reports, reports from military officials in Europe, and CIA threat assessments verified Stalin’s capability to launch such an offensive. The iron curtain had proven virtually impenetrable, preventing Western intelligence agencies from collecting within the Soviet block to assess Stalin’s intent.

The prevailing attitude among American officials by the late 1940’s that doing something is better than doing nothing is somewhat more understandable when we consider the circumstances–or “zeitgeist”– of the time.Left unchecked, there seemed no limits to the expansion of Communism across Europe. The efficiency of Soviet subjugation of indigents in the Baltics, the Balkans, and the Ukraine lent credence to the argument that the remaining free populace of Europe was in jeopardy of suffering a similar fate, powerless to offer any significant resistance to Stalin’s apparent appetite for an enlarged Soviet state. In retrospect, we can legitimately fault US policy makers for not adequately considering the ramifications and long-term impact of covert paramilitary operations.

We must acknowledge, however, that these activities gave the US an opportunity and an “acceptable” means to act at a time when action was deemed necessary. The void of intelligence on the enemy made it impossible for US policy officials to accurately predict results, so why not try covert paramilitary action? The dilemma in judging the merits of US covert paramilitary action in the early Cold War period is deciding whether to accept these arguments as justification for such activity, or dismiss them as mere rationalization.

Even more of a problem 50 years later on when everything is seen through the contemporary effort to rebut the AEI AgitProp prism. Johnson also does not tell us if Weiner notes that many of the deaths and “playback” of those early operations was made possible by the betrayal of Kim Philby et al., and George Blake in the Pacific and Berlin. Or whether Weiner notes that Angleton’s singleminded sick think effectively shut down the entire Western penetration against the Soviet target for some time. (And hence the internal payback with a mediocrity like Ames put there).

Long time readers of the Stiftung know that we do not pull punches re the Agency. Our criticisms, however, are not to our eyes based on any political ideological axe to grind. We called for Tenet’s head long before the Warlord’s reign. For reasons now all too obvious. We have always been critical of the Agency’s lazy reliance on official cover. Again for reasons now too clear. And particularly after the Halloween massacre of ’78, we decried the institutional prostration before, and adulation of, technology as a substitute for getting hands dirty actually understanding the target in its own milieu. James Woolsey took this to even dizzier heights but the Neocons airbrush this inconvenience out in their oral tradition.

We also have always believed that true, meaningul change would come in either two ways, both external: (a) through dilution of the existing culture via a new levee en masse — what’s happening now (and how Stalin kept control through periodic rinse and repeat, both of the Party and the Organs). Or via a very lucky and smart outsider with his own team in place committed to real reform contra Goss. (Schlessinger’s drive-by shootings also don’t count). No matter who was going to be the change agent, the culture’s anti-bodies were going to attack. And leak one sided agenda items to Harpers and all what we saw the last tawdry few years. In that sense, Goss was not necessarily wrong to bring in a team with him. He was just the wrong guy, using especially extra special wrong people and was backed by the ultimate in wrongness over at EOVP.

Damn. A long post just to gloss a review. Perhaps we will sit through the Weiner book, eventually. If that prompts any re-appraisals, we promise to note them here. Please don’t tell us if Harry lives at the end.


  1. Comment says

    Doctor = that Hotel Uzbekistan looks like it was ripped off its foundation on Connecticut Ave and then plunked down in Tashkent

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