When future historians look back at the sharp decline of the United States in the early 21st Century, they might identify the Achilles heel of this seemingly omnipotent nation as its lost ability to recognize reality and to fashion policies to face the real world.
Like the legendary Greek warrior – whose sea-nymph mother dipped him in protective waters except for his heel – the United States was blessed with institutional safeguards devised by wise Founders who translated lessons from the Age of Reason into a brilliant constitutional framework of checks and balances.
What the Founders did not anticipate, however, was how fragile truth could become in a modern age of excessive government secrecy, hired-gun public relations and big-money media. Sophisticated manipulation of information is what would do the Republic in.
That is the crucial lesson for understanding the arc of U.S. history over the past three decades. It is a central theme of a new book by former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman, Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.
As a senior Kremlinologist in the CIA’s office of Soviet analysis, Goodman was on the front lines of the information war in the early 1980s when ideological right-wingers took control of the U.S. government under Ronald Reagan and began to gut the key institutions for assessing reality.
One of the target institutions was the national press corps, which came under sustained assault from the Right – with reporters facing accusations of disloyalty and “liberal bias” from both inside the Reagan administration and from well-financed right-wing attack groups. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History or Secrecy & Privilege.]
Another key institution on the Right’s radar scope was the CIA’s analytical division, which was responsible for supplying objective information about the world’s dangers to senior government officials.
However, in the 1970s and early 1980s, CIA analysts were seeing evidence of an accelerating decline in the Soviet Union, especially in its technological capabilities and its economy. Thus, Moscow seemed genuinely interested in détente with the West, especially a winding down of the dangerous and expensive arms race, the analysts concluded.
“A CIA paper warning of the Soviet Union’s impending descent into economic stagnation, ‘Soviet Economic Problems and Prospects,’ was issued in 1977, setting out the reasons why the Soviet economy was in trouble and why its future was so grim,” wrote Goodman in his book.
While many Americans might have thought the Soviet decline would be good news, it wasn’t welcomed by the U.S. right-wing or inside the military industry. They preferred that the American people still perceive an ascendant and implacable communist enemy, all the better to justify brush-fire wars and higher spending on weapons systems.
So, when Reagan captured the White House in 1980, his followers set their sights on purging the CIA’s analytical division of its historical commitment to objectivity, to be replaced by a submissive readiness to deliver politically desirable data.
Robert Gates’s Role
As Goodman’s book explains in impressive detail, the key action officer for carrying out this reversal of the CIA’s analytical role was a young bureaucrat named Robert Gates, who is now George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense.
Goodman recalls the CIA’s analytical tradition of honest scholarship, which was established in the early days of the Cold War by the likes of Harvard professor William Langer, a former intelligence analyst in World War II.
“Langer and his successor, Yale professor Sherman Kent, were keen analysts in their own right and merciless in criticizing the work of their colleagues,” Goodman wrote. “Both Langer and Kent were independent, tenacious, and tough-minded. They made sure that analysts ‘told it like it was,’ even if the conclusions of the estimates were not consistent with favored policy.
“Kent emphasized that he wanted intelligence delivered with the ‘bark on,’ no matter how unpopular the message was to policymakers.”