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Do Not Bluff

Why did the CIA botch its Iraq-WMD estimate so badly? One factor was appalling tradecraft, some of it touched on in George Tenet’s memoir and all of it explored thoroughly by the Silberman-Robb commission.

Another factor was the unexpected behavior of Saddam himself. Saddam, to state the obvious, knew that he had no WMD program or stocks of any note. He also knew that we suspected him of having them and that we were threatening to take action against him on those very grounds. He also knew that if he cooperated fully with the UN inspectors, they would find next to nothing. But instead of cooperating, he chose a very different course.

Saddam, it would seem, wanted to appear to have the WMD. He evidently did not want hostile powers, like Iran or the U.S., to think that military action against him would go unpunished. It was thus a matter of keeping up appearances. Bluffing was a means of deterrence.

The CIA was surprised by this. Should it have been?

In addition to the CIA’s Family Jewels, which are stealing all the headlines, astonishing cold-war documents—the CEASAR, POLO, and ESAU papers—have been declassified by the spy agency in the last few days. The flood of information summons to mind a peculiarity of the Aldrich Ames espionage case. Ames was promoted repeatedly within the CIA’s counterintelligence division while actually working as a Soviet and then a Russian spy until his arrest in 1994.

Ames and the American agents he betrayed were used to convey disinformation to the United States. The KGB employed this devious channel to create the impression that the USSR’s military prowess was stronger than it actually was. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan characterized the gist of the disinformation campaign, it was designed to create “the effect that the Soviet colossus was growing in economic strength and military might and spoiling for a confrontation with the decadent and divided West.”

Moynihan, writing in 1996, was vastly overstating what the USSR was up to, but he was pointing in the right direction. The CIA’s own review, prepared by a Damage Assessment Team [DAT], put the matter in more measured terms. Ames’s activities, it stated:

facilitated the Soviet, and later the Russian, effort to engage in “perception management operations” by feeding carefully selected information to the United States through agents whom they were controlling without our knowledge. Although the extent and success of this effort cannot now be determined with certainty, we know that some of this information did reach senior decision-makers of the United States. . . .

it is very likely that the KGB, and later the SVR [the KGB successor organization], sought to influence U.S. decision-makers by providing controlled information designed to affect R&D [research and development] and procurement decisions of the Department of Defense. The DAT believes one of the primary purposes of the perception management program was to convince us that the Soviets remained a superpower and that their military R&D program was robust.

So the fact remains that, at least to some degree, the Kremlin was bluffing. But as both the Soviet leaders and Saddam were to find out, this was not a smart strategy.

In the Soviet case, perceptions of Moscow’s military might helped to sustain a U.S. counter-buildup, which the USSR could not compete against without straining itself to the breaking point. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, it broke.

Saddam Hussein, for his part, got himself into a shooting war that he rapidly lost, and he soon found himself hiding for his life in the basement of a hut.

A cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: some authoritarian regimes have a desperate desire to appear strong, even if it means exaggerating their capabilities and risking a tougher or more vigorous response from their enemies.

A second cautionary conclusion for U.S. policymakers: not every authoritarian regime is always bluffing. There is not a shred of evidence that Iran, for example, is bluffing about its growing nuclear program.

A third cautionary conclusion is for foreign dictators: when dealing with the United States, it is generally not smart to bluff.


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