Skip to content
CIA chief historian David Robarge on pivotal global events – “Intelligence Matters”


In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with David Robarge, chief historian at the CIA, about the agency’s performance during some of the most important global events of the last 50 years. Morell and Robarge discuss the insight and warnings CIA provided at pivotal moments during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first Gulf War, and the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Robarge explains why the CIA has at times struggled to provide adequate tactical warnings of significant developments.  

HIGHLIGHTS:  

  • Providing strategic v. tactical warning: “This brings us to what has been a perennial problem for the agency, both in the intelligence sense and in the policy sense, which is the difference between tactical and strategic warning. We can go all the way back to the Korean War with this issue, where you have indications that the agency provides a larger strategic view that an adversary has the capability and possibly the willingness to do something, but we don’t have particular evidence to indicate when they are going to do whatever the bottom line leads to. That is the tactical warning.” 
  • Acquiring exquisite intelligence: “Unless you have a penetration of the highest levels of the adversary’s decision making that is, in effect, the person sitting in the room with the Politburo or whatever, or you have a signals intercept that is indicating a conversation about the major decision, the ‘Go’ order in effect, you’re never going to have that kind of tactical warning that the policymakers seem to demand. They’re always expecting that the CIA, the intelligence community, are a bunch of seers, a bunch of prognosticators who can forecast the future with unerring inaccuracy. That’s not our business.”    
  • Balancing delivery of hard truths with access to policymakers: “[T]hat puts us in this difficult situation that we face throughout our history of, how do you balance the need to inform policymakers about what they need to know, even if it’s what they would prefer not to hear, with maintaining your access and, one hopes, your ability to wisely inform the policy making decisions? That continual tradeoff occurs in practically any major scenario that we’ve been through in our history.” 

Download, rate and subscribe here: iTunesSpotify and Stitcher.


INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – CIA HISTORIAN DAVID ROBARGE TRANSCRIPT

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: David, thank you for joining us on Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you and I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

DAVID ROBARGE: Thank you, Michael, for the invitation. I’ve enjoyed your program and I’m very glad to be part of it.

MICHAEL MORELL: So when it comes to the CIA’s performance, David, I think there’s a couple of myths that are out there. One is the the kind of James Bond myth, that there’s nothing we don’t get right and there’s not a piece of information on the planet that we can’t get and there’s not a judgment we don’t get right. And that myth that’s been built up over a long period of time because of movies like that.

And then there’s the opposite of that, right? There’s the Legacy of Ashes myth that there’s nothing we get right and everything we touch goes wrong in some way. So I think that folks are going to emerge from this discussion with you with a much better understanding of reality. And I I think that’s really important.

But before we get to that, let me ask you a couple of questions about you and about the program that you run at CIA. So the first one is how did you end up at the agency and what did your career trajectory look like in terms of the kinds of jobs that you’ve had?

DAVID ROBARGE: I joined the CIA in 1989. I was finishing up my graduate work at Columbia, a Ph.D. in American history. I had a couple of jobs up in New York City and they ended abruptly. So I cast around looking for teaching jobs, jobs in the think tanks, analytic organizations, any place that would use a historian’s skills. CIA was one place I applied to in the U.S. government and I did get an acceptable offer, not one as ideal as I would have liked, but I figured a foot in the door and you never know what’s going to follow.

And that was certainly the case. I stayed in my beginning job as a documents indexer for about a year and a half, and then the first Gulf War broke out and a lot of vacancies opened up for analysts. So I moved over to the Counterterrorism Center, where I worked for about three years and a few interesting branch chiefs while I was there. John Brennan, future director, was running the Terrorism Assessment Branch. His successor was Mike Scheuer, and his successor was Paul Pillar.

And then in ’93, roughly, I moved on to the Near East office, where I was technically located on rotation to Counterterrorism Center and worked as a leadership analyst covering some Middle Eastern issues. And that lasted a few years. It was a pretty high-pressure job. I was the lead leadership analyst on these accounts, and by a few years I had decided I wanted a break. I’d finished my Ph.D. and then promoted a couple of times, so I met the basic qualifications to go to the history staff.

And that position opened up in late ’96. I worked as a staff historian until 2005 and then applied for and was appointed the Chief Historian where I’ve been ever since. So I have roughly 25 years on the history staff and several years before that at the agency.

MICHAEL MORELL: And David, for our listeners, could you tell him what a leadership analyst is?

DAVID ROBARGE: I got into that job because I was a biographer by training, so a leadership analyst studies living people, a biographer usually studies dead people. That’s pretty much the difference there. Leadership analysts, using all source information, prepare a basic art form called a leadership profile that is used all over the government and very much valued at the White House. As a quick look at a foreign leader of various levels, it could be a head of state and head of a service, a military general or something like that. And those are used for briefing before meetings or for atmospherics at a conference. Things like that. They were always very highly valued by the policymakers.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, I’ve always thought that too, and I thought that they would actually pay for them if they had to. They were so valuable.

OK, David, can you talk about the history program at the agency that you run? What’s its purpose? What do you guys do? Can you walk us through that?

DAVID ROBARGE: The agency has had a history function since 1950, which only three years after it was founded. So we’ve always had a sense, with some ebbs and flows, that documenting the agency’s history and using it to inform decision-making has been considered important. The current iteration of the history staff really goes back to 1991, when DCI Robert Gates started a big openness and transparency initiative, and he beefed up the history staff to include several scholars, some from the outside, some internal. And they got involved in documenting the agency’s history through books and articles and presentations, running a history of CIA class. That’s pretty much the way it was when I joined it in ’96.

It also, over the years, had become a little bit ivory tower-ish, a little bit out of the mainstream and not particularly well=-connected. So we’ve made a big effort in the past decade and a half in particular to reconnect with the mainstream business of the agency.

That is, instead of writing books that nobody reads and things like that, we try to connect very much with analytic, operational, managerial and technical issues, providing tailored products, briefings, a quick turnaround items. We’re involved in most of the internal education programs at the agency. We do a lot of teaching and briefing. Last year, we ran about 120 different presentations – and I only have a small staff, just a handful of historians, couple of contractors who work on specific projects. And then I oversee all of them. Plus I work on my own projects as well, when I have the time.

MICHAEL MORELL: You know, I remember, David, that after the bin Laden operation, I asked you guys to put together a history of that immediately to get people’s memories while they were fresh sort of as a first draft of history. And I remember that turned out exceptionally well and it was highly valued both in the building and outside the building. So, you know, it’s not only looking looking way back, but it’s looking at some recent developments as well.

DAVID ROBARGE: That’s right. And I should point out that the history staff is just one program in the agency Center for the Study of Intelligence, which we like to think of as CIA’s think tank. It looks at the past of our history through our staff and the museum. It looks at more contemporary events through a Lessons Learned program, and then it has an emerging trends program that looks at the future of intelligence, as various trends in society and the economy and the business world and technology affect it. So we try to hit all aspects of the business: past, present and future.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, David, let’s get to the meat of our discussion. What I would love to do is to throw out an issue and let you talk about it for three to four minutes or so. Basically, how well CIA performed on that issue. What did we get right? What did we not get right? What’s not true about the conventional wisdom that’s out there? What’s not in the conventional wisdom that should be? So let’s dig into that, and let me start with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

DAVID ROBARGE: Now, the missile crisis has been written about more than any other event of the Cold War and overall, the agency’s performance in it, I think was pretty admirable – though the public record and the writings about it miss a couple of important themes, I would say.

We all know that the 13 days of October, as they come down in legend known as, began on October 16, when John F. Kennedy first convened the Executive Committee or the EXCOMM of the National Security Council. And what prompted that was a U-2 overflight of the eastern part of Cuba that returned photography that was very quickly identified through photo interpreters’ efforts as medium-range ballistic missiles – in other words, nukes. And this certainly set off a major effort to analyze and anticipate what the Soviets were up to.

There you have a bit of a problem if you look back a few months because, in the first place, we missed the arrival of the missiles because the U-2 overflights had been canceled or cut way back. I should say that was because of concerns that one of them might get shot down. One had recently been shot down over China. So Secretary Rusk put a squelch on those missions.

And so consequently, you have what one writer has referred to as a photo gap, a several-week period in which we were not taking photography of the island. You also have a problem of interpretation of HUMINT reports that had been coming in steadily over the preceding one or two years, suggesting that the Soviets were deploying some major weaponry there. But none of those was either considered reliable or any indicator that what was being reported on was a nuclear missile. They were just conventional weapons.

And indeed, throughout that period of time, the Soviets were beefing up their conventional military presence in Cuba by deploying aircraft, tanks, land craft and so-called advisers. We were watching that very carefully, as were other agencies of the U.S. government. We had a lot of SIGINT, for example, about what was going on, but nothing definitive.

And then in August of 1962 you have photography showing the deployment of surface to air missile sites, which caused a bit of an uproar. Why are they doing that? What are they trying to accomplish? And the conventional wisdom there, which turned out to be quite wrong, was that the SAMs sites were there to shoot down attacking American aircraft.

We had been indicating clearly that a conventional attack on Cuba was not out of the possible range of possibilities. And so Khrushchev and Castro thought that would be a good thing to defend against having the same sites there. But you have one person in the mix, the director at the time, John McCone, who says, ‘No, I think what Khrushchev is up to is that he’s trying to right the strategic imbalance,’ that is, we were much stronger in strategic weapons than the Soviets. But one way they could offset that imbalance was to forward-deploy some of those to Cuba, 90 miles off our shore, and that would, in effect, give him a nuclear gun to point in our heads. And then he could say, ‘Let’s talk about Berlin and some of your new military deployments overseas, et cetera.’ That was McCone’s analysis, but it was purely intuitive. He was doing what a good leadership analyst does, putting himself in the adversary’s place.

But he had no evidence to support his assessment. And consequently, he could make no inroads in the policy community with it. So despite the fact that he turned out to be right, you have this analytic error that was embodied in a very controversial after the fact National intelligence estimate in which the tradecraft was perfect. It looked at the past, it looked at the present and said, we have no evidence that the Soviets have done this before. We don’t see any evidence that they’ve done it now and, looking to the future, if you will, we think it would be a very provocative act; it would make no sense. And so there you have a classic example of good analytic tradecraft leading to the entirely wrong conclusion. McCone was the only one who got it right, but he didn’t have the evidence until those photographs came in.

And another point that’s been missed in the literature is the fact that it was finally HUMINT reporting from more reliable sources with more definitive evidence that nuclear missiles had been deployed. That was the information that informed the U-2 flights on October 14, which returned the photography that then set off the 13 days of October.

During that period of time, the information we had collected from Oleg Penkovsky, our premier agent inside Soviet military intelligence, proved to be exceptionally valuable. Up until then, it had been useful reference material. That is, it provided military analysts with a sense of what the weapons were like, how long it would take them to deploy and so forth. But suddenly, in the midst of this crisis, that’s the information that gives John F. Kennedy and the EXCOMM the wiggle room to seek a diplomatic solution.

They knew that they had several days before the medium range missiles would be fully deployed and usable against the U.S., to reach a negotiated conclusion. And as we all know, that’s eventually what happened 13 days later.

Overall, I would say the agency’s work in the missile crisis was very good. The president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board looked back on it and slammed us for not giving enough credence to the HUMINT reporting. I think that was partly understandable that we didn’t because it simply didn’t seem reliable and we didn’t have the specificity until those later reports that informed the U-2 flight. So overall, I would probably give it an A-minus.

MICHAEL MORELL: David, what about Vietnam? And this one might be tough.

DAVID ROBARGE: You’d have to divide this into two parts, really the operational side and the analytic side.
On the analytic side, I think we were exceptionally accurate. The two big issues in the 1960s, particularly, were enemy order of battle and the will to fight. And in both of those cases, the agency got the analysis exactly right. But they wound up becoming extremely politically controversial because they ran up against the military assessments, which were taking priority in the Johnson administration. 

What the difference was in the first case, the order of battle, was that the military was counting principally conventional forces, which meant a lower number. The CIA essentially said, ‘Because we’re dealing with an insurgency situation, much of the population is the enemy, so we need to count unconventional forces as well the guerrillas.’ And that led to a higher number. So if you’re in the policymaking community and you’re trying to track the trajectory of the war by attrition of the enemy, and then CIA comes in with figures that are much higher than the military’s and says, ‘You’re really not accomplishing a whole lot because the numbers aren’t shrinking,’ you’re going to get a lot of pushback. And indeed, that’s what happened. The military assessment wound up prevailing in the policy discussions.

The other big issue was the will to fight or the will to persist, something that obviously has contemporary resonance with Afghanistan. Here, the agency flat out said the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were not losing their will to fight despite high body counts and bomb damage, such that they were in it for the long haul. They were going to wait us out. They knew that the American public and the American political leadership would eventually lose heart. And indeed, they were correct on that.

On the operational side, it’s a quite mixed picture. We have, in one type of operation that was a flat out failure, the effort to infiltrate operatives into the North. Every one of them was rolled up. Some of them were doubled back against us. The military eventually took the program over, but didn’t do it any better in a covert action realm. It’s a mixed picture.

Also, partly because we had several missions, as the war evolved, we went from regime support to pacification in the countryside to aggressive counterinsurgency with the Phoenix program and then somewhat back to political action to prop up the regime. Toward the end of the war, covert action that swings back and forth between strategic purposes like that is not going to work because you don’t have enough time to apply all of your capabilities to those different changing environments. And we had some localized successes with pacification. The military copied some of them or took them over.

But the main problem there was that the covert actions, instead of being allowed to operate themselves, became adjuncts to conventional operations rather than counter insurgency operations. And that’s one reason why they eventually petered out and didn’t accomplish a whole lot of it anymore. As you can see, is a quite complicated picture from CIA. Very good on analysis, quite mixed on the operations side.

MICHAEL MORELL: David, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

DAVID ROBARGE: This brings us to what has been a perennial problem for the agency, both in the intelligence sense and in the policy sense, which is the difference between tactical and strategic warning. We can go all the way back to the Korean War with this issue, where you have indications that the agency provides a larger strategic view that an adversary has the capability and possibly the willingness to do something, but we don’t have particular evidence to indicate when they are going to do whatever the bottom line leads to. That is the tactical warning.
You find a replay of this with the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia in 1968, when for various analytic reasons – such as thinking the Soviets wouldn’t do anything that would sabotage emerging detente, that they simply wouldn’t invade Czechoslovakia. Plus, we didn’t have again the tactical warning. We assessed that they did have the strategic capability and that they were building up forces around the Czech border, but that they wouldn’t really spring the invasion for high-level policy reasons. Again, we were wrong, and that’s somewhat the case with the Afghan invasion.

We were to some extent in that same mindset of Czechoslovakia that the Soviets would not do anything so daring that even though you were talking about a communist regime right next to them that was being undermined by a Muslim rebellion supported by the U.S. and Pakistan, that the Soviets simply wouldn’t do anything as drastic as a full-scale invasion; they might engage in some low-level conventional security-related activities. And that pretty much was the way the gradual build-up was interpreted.

And in a sense, the analysts at the time got themselves in a model trap. They had some fairly intricate methods of analyzing incoming intelligence that would explain this movement or this buildup, or this activity in a fashion that enabled them to fit it into their model. But increasingly, what was going on on the ground didn’t fit the model. But the analysts seemed to be wedded to their prior interpretations, and that’s the way it went.

It wasn’t really until almost too late for any of the analysis to be useful that it came around to recognizing that the Soviets were going to invade. You see a gradual increase in the sense of urgency in the analysis, but fundamentally it doesn’t emerge from that basic analytic line that these conventional activities were for security reasons. And of course, analysis that informs policymakers is something of a drastic nature so late has little actionable value.

MICHAEL MORELL: The collapse of the Soviet Union. This is one where I’ve often thought the conventional wisdom just doesn’t doesn’t come close to the reality.

DAVID ROBARGE: Yes, this is a good example of an interpretation that one of my former colleagues made about how the CIA is portrayed in the popular culture. He said, “We are considered either evil geniuses or incompetent adults.” And in the case of the Soviet collapse, you have both of those interpretations being advanced. Either we are overstating the Soviet threat because we’re evil geniuses and we’re part of the military industrial complex and we need an enemy to justify our our budgets and activities, or the other one is we’re incompetent dolts. We inflate the threat because we don’t know any better.

And you’ll see this in the literature on the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly the latter with Tim Weiner, but many others. And it’s regrettable because so much evidence has been out there for years, that CIA analysis on the decline of the Soviet Union was spot-on for many, many years. We were analyzing, for example, the decaying economy very accurately well back in the early ’80s. We said that, at some point, some kind of major leadership shakeup was going to have to occur – hence, Gorbachev – but that he would encounter major difficulties from traditionalists.

And you can track a lot of this material, even in the public domain, some time ago through public hearings where we were saying the same thing.

Part of the problem seems to be that a contrary line of interpretation got established very early on after the end of the Cold War, particularly by, for example, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was quoted as saying the CIA, ‘failed in its single overriding defining mission, which was to chart the course of the Soviet Union.’ And this has been reiterated numerous times in other literature.
But as I say, if you look at the analysis, and here, I would flag a very important product from former Director of Analysis at the agency, Doug MacEachin, who Michael, you know, quite knew quite well. He came out in 1996 through the Center for the Study of Intelligence’s CIA Assessments of the Soviet Union, and it’s very clear between 1977 and ’91 that we were saying the economic decline was inevitable, that societal deterioration will result, and that it will lead to political destabilization.

So in effect, we’re saying that ultimately, even if the Soviet Union changed, it wasn’t going to change enough. And if it started to move in a direction that challenged communist rule, it would have an immediate counter reaction to that, which indeed happened with the coup in early 1991, which we did anticipate, again, not tactically but strategically.

Consequently, I would say you’re right, this is one of those issues in which the mythology just predominates in the public literature. Now some people have written contrary assessments to that. I mentioned MacEachin’s, but also DCI Bob Gates in his memoir very clearly lays out the fact that we were doing quite well on the analysis. And then a couple of scholars later on, Bruce Berkowitz and Jeffrey Richelson wrote a couple of important articles that clearly indicate that we got it right.

And the question then becomes, why does the interpretation persist? And some of it has to do with the fact that people aren’t looking at the available documentation. Some of them are wedded to the notion that either the CIA is the evil genius or the incompetent dolt, and they simply don’t do their homework. Eventually, we hope that the reality will catch up with the mythology, but in some cases we in CIA history, we found out that that’s really almost a dream that will not be realized.

MICHAEL MORELL: David, I’m going to skip over something I was going to ask, which was the first Gulf War and ask you about 9/11, which I’m sure you’re going to Tell the same story about strategic and tactical [warning].

DAVID ROBARGE: Yes, and I thought your program recently went over that exceptionally well; that we had been watching bin Laden emerge as an increasing threat for a number of years, and were gradually collecting intelligence about him and al Qaeda and the threat that it posed. But once again, we wind up falling into the trap of not having tactical warning.

And in all of these events we’ve been talking about today, and we can even recur to the first Gulf War if we have a few minutes toward the end of the program, because I do think a couple of important points need to be made about it, is that unless you have a penetration of the highest levels of the adversary’s decision making that is, in effect, the person sitting in the room with the Politburo or whatever, or you have a signals intercept that is indicating a conversation about the major decision, the ‘Go’ order in effect, you’re never going to have that kind of tactical warning that the policymakers seem to demand. They’re always expecting that the CIA, the intelligence community, are a bunch of seers, a bunch of prognosticators who can forecast the future with unerring inaccuracy. That’s not our business.

And the best we can do, as you well know from your own experiences as an analyst and an analyst manager and a policy briefer, is to explain to them the likelihood of various scenarios and the implications thereof, particularly if the US takes certain actions against those scenarios. And beyond that, we shouldn’t be expected to do anything more.
However, policymakers, when we’re talking about warning, have a twofold problem. First, as I say, they expect us to be able to tell them that something is going to happen definitively tomorrow at noon, but more so they have a tendency not to accept the fact that they have been warned. Now here, I don’t mean that we have to put a red border on any document that talks about a warning as if to say, ‘Read this, because dire things will happen if you don’t act on it.’ And sometimes we have been a little too inferential in the way we have warned.

But in the case of a number of these scenarios, and certainly I think with 9/11, we have a clear-cut record of providing very obvious strategic warning that in retrospect should have mobilized a lot more policy interest and possibly would have caused some procedures and activities to be implemented that might have forestalled that attack.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, let’s jump back to the first Gulf War.

DAVID ROBARGE: Yeah. Two main issues here. The warning, again, and then the bomb damage assessments, which caused a lot of heartache at CIA and actually helped probably cause a leadership change in the case of the warning.

Again, it’s the strategic warning. We’re clearly tracking what the Iraqis were doing to build up their forces around Kuwait. We were giving clear indications that they had the capabilities to attack. And increasingly, it became likely that that’s what they were going to do. But again, lacking that, in effect, fly on the wall or listening end of the conversation, we had no particular idea that Saddam was going to send up the balloon at any particular time.
And again, this is why some of the Bush administration leaders in retrospect said, ‘Well, that was a surprise to me. I wasn’t anticipating that we didn’t get clear cut warning.’ I think the paper trail indicates just the opposite. The bomb damage assessment controversy arose over the fact that the head of CENTCOM, who was running the Desert Storm Desert Shield, was Norman Schwarzkopf, who insisted that a certain amount of bomb damage be inflicted on the Iraqi forces, particularly their tanks, so that he could run a very clean invasion.

And the reports he was getting, particularly from pilots, was that the attrition, the damage of the Iraqi forces was much higher than in reality it was. Imagery was not indicating that, for example. And so you had the controversy there about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Eventually, in the policy community and in the popular literature, it seemed to be that the agency was underestimating the damage and that we were inhibiting the prospects for a successful invasion and that eventually led to some changes at CIA. You had an office of imagery analysis that eventually was attrited and turned over entirely to the military. You also had the reputation of our director at the time, William Webster, somewhat besmirched because he was not apparently forceful enough in pushing both the warnings and in defending the agency from the criticisms over bomb damage assessments. And he was eased out later on after the war.

MICHAEL MORELL: David, we talked about this a little bit, but when you take all these together, all of these issues we’ve discussed, are there broad themes that jump out to you? Are there lessons learned here that the analysts of today and the operators today should pay attention to?

DAVID ROBARGE: Yes, and it’s important to look back on these episodes, which we do in some of our analytic training classes, to figure out where we got it right and where we got it wrong. One of the things that we have tended over the years to do is fall into a couple of analytic fallacies with which I know you’re very familiar, a rational actor and mirror-imaging, thinking that just because something doesn’t make sense to us, it’s not a sensible move on the part of the adversary.

Classic example here is the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when, having been beaten up badly six years earlier by the Israelis, why would it seem sensible to Anwar Sadat to launch a surprise attack? And in that case, we were caught flat-out flat-footed, if you will, and that’s a case of us not thinking through entirely that it would make perfect sense from Sadat’s perspective to shake up the diplomatic logjam and get something moving in the hopes of a favorable resolution.

We also sometimes underestimate the willingness of policymakers to accept bad news and to push back against our analysis when it doesn’t conform to their policy preferences. A good example of this goes back to Vietnam, when director John McCone was presenting to the Johnson administration lots of pessimistic assessments, and this is in ’60 or ’65, before the big ground war even started. So the agency is out front, if you will, in forecasting, if that’s the right word, the ultimate outcome of the war. And at this point, Johnson just got tired of hearing the bad news and tuned director McCone out, which is one of the reasons why he resigned in April 1965. He had just lost his access to the White House.

So that puts us in this difficult situation that we face throughout our history of, how do you balance the need to inform policymakers about what they need to know, even if it’s what they would prefer not to hear, with maintaining your access and, one hopes, your ability to wisely inform the policy making decisions? That continual tradeoff occurs in practically any major scenario that we’ve been through in our history.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, the other one you talked about is this strategic / tactical right, and I think you captured it exactly right, which is it’s the analysts who are doing the strategic warning largely, often based on operationally collected information. But it’s the analysts who are doing the strategic warning, but you only get the tactical right if you have that nugget. And I wonder to what extent we historically hold the bar too high. Let me get your reaction to this. Hold the bar too high for analysts and hold it a little too low for operators. Is that a fair critique or not?

DAVID ROBARGE: I think it makes sense in particular scenarios, but you have to keep in mind the likelihood, given the fact that most of those targets we’re assessing are very hard to penetrate, the feasibility of finding that nugget. How are you going to put a mole inside the Soviet decision-making apparatus? How are you going to plant a bug in the conference room where the decisions are being made? They did that to us, but we have not been able to do it to them particularly well.
We had a good insight into their leadership decision-making back in the early ’70s when we were listening in to the telephone conversations from their automobiles. But then that was disclosed through a press leak and that was the end of that capability. That would have been exceptionally valuable, for example, a year later in 1973, when the Soviets were heavily involved in some of the decision-making surrounding the Yom Kippur War.

And I think you’re right, the the analysts have a function to carry out, which is principally the strategic warning, and we don’t want to set that too high. We’re not talking about grand things over a 10-year period. Strategic warning can be something that is relatively short fuse, like will the North Koreans invade South Korea in 1950?

But on the collection side, we always have to factor in the difficulty of finding that crucial bit of information, whether it’s through HUMINT or tech. And that’s always been a real, nearly insurmountable challenge, to have that capability to listen in on the ‘Go’ decision.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, I’ll just tell you one thing, though I’ve just had I had this conversation once with with President Bush, and he said, “Michael, I know it’s hard, but I still expect you to do it.” Which is, I guess, the right place for a president to set his expectations for his intelligence community.

David, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been fascinating to hear your views on these topics. And I learned a lot, so I’m sure our listeners will as well. But thank you so much for taking the time.

DAVID ROBARGE. Thank you very much, Michael. It’s been a pleasure.