The CIA's Biggest Bloopers
So the CIA got it wrong on Iran's nuclear program in the last National Intelligence Estimate, back in 2005. But does that mean they have got it right this time? Not necessarily. The history of the CIA is littered with spectacular intelligence mistakes. Sometimes, the correction of one error can lead to a new error, as analysts atone for past mistakes by moving too far in the opposite direction.
In the spirit of caution and skepticism, here is the official Fact Checker list of the CIA'S Biggest Bloopers, over six decades of intelligence-gathering. I have compiled it with the assistance of researchers at the indispensable National Security Archive, a non-profit group that has published more than half a million government documents. A disclaimer: the Agency has had some successes too, but I will let their public relations operation draw up that particular list.
Note: National intelligence estimates are issued on behalf of the entire intelligence community, not just one agency. Up until 2005, the CIA director was also director of national intelligence.
Getting it Wrong
Soviet control over Eastern Europe. In an NIE released in January, the CIA said that Moscow would remain in full control of Eastern Europe through 1960 at least. Five months later, there were riots in Poland, followed by a revolution in Hungary in October/November that had to be put down by a Soviet invasion.
The "Missile Gap." NIE 11-5-58 predicted that the Soviet Union would have 500 intercontinental missiles "sometime in 1961, or at the latest in 1962." After the U.S. launched a spy satellite called Corona in 1960, the estimate was downgraded to 10-25 ICBMs. The Soviets actually had four ICBMS in 1961. To be fair to the CIA, this is an example of where they get it wrong, but they also thought up the technological solution, in the form of Corona.
The Bay of Pigs. The CIA knew that a planned invasion of Cuba by 1,500 Cuban exiles had little chance of success without the participation of U.S. forces, but failed to inform President Kennedy.
The Cuban Missile Crisis. On September 19, the CIA told Kennedy that the establishment of a Soviet missile force on Cuban soil was "incompatible with Soviet policy as we presently estimate it." A month later, an Air Force U-2 took photographs of Soviet missile sites. This is another case where the CIA got it wrong, and then partially rectified the mistake. (The U-2 was a CIA program.) They still missed a hundred or so battlefield nuclear weapons on Cuba, and underestimated the number of Soviet troops on the island by a factor of three.
The Soviet ICBM buildup. The CIA missed the Soviet missile buildup, partly in response to the humiliation of the Cuban missile crisis. A subsequent CIA director, Robert Gates, later wrote that the Agency "did not foresee this massive Soviet effort to match and then surpass the United States in strategic missile numbers and capabilities -- and did not understand Soviet intentions." This seems to be a case where the Agency swung from one extreme to another. Having overestimated the Soviet missile buildup in the Fifties, they underestimated it in the Sixties.
The Iranian revolution. In August 1978, CIA issued an NIE that said Iran "is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation." The Shah fled Iran six months later.
Two blunders on Iraq. On July 31, The CIA dismissed the likelihood of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein invaded two days later. The CIA also significantly underestimated the scale of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program.
The Indian bomb. The CIA failed to predict the testing of an Indian nuclear bomb in May 1998. The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Richard Shelby, bemoaned "a colossal failure of our nation's intelligence gathering." The CIA was better prepared for the first Pakistan nuclear test a few days later.
Iranian missiles. A September 1999 intelligence forecast said that Iran could test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting U.S. territory "in the next few years." Eight years later, Iran has made little progress toward acquiring an ICBM. In a January 2002 article for the Post, I argued that the upgrading of the Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile threat came at least partly in response to political pressure from the missile defense lobby.
Iraqi weapons of Mass Destruction. The CIA, in NIE 2002-16HC, said that Iraq had "continued its weapons of mass destruction program," and could build a nuclear bomb "within several months to a year" if it obtained the necessary fissile material. Evidence for such a program was never found and it subsequently turned out that a key CIA source, a defector codenamed Curveball, had lied extensively. As with the October 1962 NIE issued just prior to the Cuban missile crisis, the 2002 NIE illustrates the corrosive power of conventional wisdom. Since Iraq previously had a WMD program, the operating assumption was that it still had one.
Iranian nuclear weapons. An NIE predicted "with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons." In December 2007, a new NIE judged "with high confidence that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program."
My thanks to Malcolm Byrne, John Prados, and Jeff Richelson of the National Security Archive and John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org for helping me compile this list. I am responsible for any errors. Please use the comments section to nominate your own favorite CIA blooper. I will select the best (i.e. worst) ones, and add them to my list.
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