President Nixon and his top national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, thought the reports they received from the Central Intelligence Agency suffered from “serious defects,” newly declassified documents show, and prompted them to complain repeatedly about the caliber of the reporting to then-CIA Director Richard Helms.
The Nixon White House’s chronic dissatisfaction with CIA work product was among the revelations contained in some 123,000 pages of Nixon-era documents released to the public this week by the National Archives. In ways that bear striking similarities to the difficulties today’s intelligence professionals face in analyzing the war on terror, the newly released documents record the intelligence community’s struggles to assess accurately a variety of cold war threats from across the globe.
A six-page memorandum Kissinger sent to Nixon, dated Feb. 16, 1971 and marked “Top Secret,” reminded the president of the “weaknesses” present in the 47-page 1969 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the “strategic attack capabilities” of the Soviet Union. NIEs are prepared by CIA analysts on subjects of high national security concern and are supposed to be based on the consensus views of the nation’s multiple intelligence agencies.
“Most serious,” Kissinger wrote, “was a lack of sharply defined, clearly-argued discussions of the characteristics and purposes of Soviet strategic forces. It was too often satisfied with reciting facts and reluctant to raise fundamental questions about their significance. Judgments and background which often underlie conclusions were not made explicit.”
Kissinger told Nixon the following year’s NIE, dated Nov. 8, 1970 and 159 pages long, marked a “major improvement,” but the national security adviser said he still found the reporting “ponderous…almost fatuous,” and concluded “the gaps are many…considerably more work is required.”
“It still fails to draw on all sources and research methods which could advance the analysis,” Kissinger wrote. “The greatest emphasis is still heavily on observed activity at test ranges, construction sites, and operational bases. However, a variety of other material could be useful — e.g., Soviet doctrinal and strategic writings, economic information, analysis of Soviet institutions…The NIE fails to estimate Soviet objectives and strategies, yet such information is fundamental to understanding present Soviet programs and estimating future ones.”
As head of the National Security Council at a time when the U.S. was embroiled in a superpower struggle with the Soviets for military superiority, Kissinger felt disadvantaged by the “gaps” in the intelligence community’s analyses of the Kremlin and its intentions.
“We know very little about the purposes of the Soviet force. All agree that the Soviets seek, at a minimum, a position of acknowledged strategic parity with the U.S.,” Kissinger told Nixon. “But how they are most likely to define 'parity' and how likely it is that they might seek some quantitative edge is unclear. Moreover, little is known about Soviet perception of U.S. intentions, command and control, and war-fighting strategies.”
At Kissinger’s urging, Nixon sent Helms a letter on White House stationery on March 8, addressed “Dear Dick” and signed “RN,” in which the president complimented the CIA director for the “large and imaginative effort” the intelligence community had invested in the 1970 NIE.
“It is a considerable improvement over last year’s version,” Nixon wrote. But Kissinger remained resolved to revisit the issue of the “defects” in the NIEs with Helms. According to Kissinger, the CIA director, “recognizing the weaknesses in last year’s product…asked for comments from intelligence consumers.”
“I will indicate that more can, and must, be done,” Kissinger said of his impending meeting with Helms, adding: “I will also continue to work with the intelligence community over the next year to insure that improvements are made.”
Nixon held the CIA in famously low regard. As vice president, he partly blamed the Agency for his loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, believing Langley had wrongly supplied Kennedy with classified information that the Democratic senator used to attack him.
“CIA isn’t worth a damn,” Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, in the Oval Office on July 23, 1971, five months after receiving Kissinger’s critique of the latest NIE, Haldeman’s notes show. “CIA tells me nothing I don’t read three days earlier in the New York Times.”
The documents declassified by the National Archives this week included several NIEs from the Nixon era, among them one dated June 7, 1973 and entitled “Problems in the Persian Gulf.” Different chapters assessed the “Radical Challenge in the Gulf,” “Revolutionary Organizations in the Persian Gulf Area,” and “Security Conditions in Individual Countries” — but nothing in the report anticipated the tumultuous upheavals that would rock the region within a few short years, including the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the rise of fundamentalist Islamic movements, and their increasing use of terrorism in and out of the region.
To its credit, the NIE predicted that “discontent seems likely to grow” among “increasingly educated and politically aware elements” of the Arab population, and that Palestinian groups showed “the potential for terrorist activity against Western interests, including American oil installations.”
It also warned, three months before the 1973 Yom Kippur War triggered an Arab oil embargo against the United States, of “the specter of oil being used for political purposes — something occasionally threatened but not attempted on a large scale before.”
However, the NIE found “the present situation in the gulf is relatively favorable to the U.S.” and it concluded the prospect of Iran undergoing “an upheaval which brought revolutionary forces to power” was “unlikely.”
“[A] coalition of forces based on the military and the Shah’s loyal subordinates is a good bet to run Iran for some time after he leaves the scene,” the NIE added. “[T]he chances of a radically different successor taking over are not great…[The Shah] is very well informed about the workings of his country and is not likely to be caught by surprise by dissidents.”
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).