Commentary Magazine


Russia and the CIA

To the Editor:

Several years ago the leadership of the CIA was very upset over demands that the CIA’s budget be revealed. These leaders indicated that revealing the CIA’s budget would aid the enemies of the United States. Yet after reading Lev Navrozov’s article [“What the CIA Knows About Russia,” September], I wonder if their motivation might not have been different: would not revealing the CIA’s budget have caused many people to ask whether we were getting our money’s worth?

Are we?

Bernard L. Albert
Scarsdale, New York

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To the Editor:

. . . Lev Navrozov indicts aspects of the American way of life, not unlike the manner in which Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his address at Harvard, deplored certain contemporary features of life in the U.S. . . .

The author speaks of not being able to “count on” the media, or on the academy, for a clear understanding of the USSR. He implies that this is because of fundamental weaknesses within these two institutions. As for the media, they are in the business of selling entertainment, he says, so nothing substantial will be forthcoming from them. In the academy there seems to be total confusion, or at least pluralism run wild. (Probably Mr. Navrozov would agree with Solzhenitsyn that campuses are hotbeds of left-wing obfuscation.) The intelligentsia displays the “Salisbury syndrome,” attempting to understand another country—in this case, Russia—by means of simplistic shortcuts like listing the “eternal verities about Russia” or attempting to master Russian as a foreign language by setting down the “elements of Russian” on an old piece of cardboard. . . .

Finally, Mr. Navrozov implies that outright stupidity seems to be a chronic illness in contemporary America. . . . Coupled with our stupidity, apparently, is an ingrained naiveté and lack of sophistication. . . .

Now, it is true that the author is careful to attribute the naiveté, the ignorance, the stupidity, and the overall lack of what the Greeks called arete to certain actual institutions—above all, to the CIA. But more than implied is a larger indictment involving . . . national intelligence. . . . And Mr. Navrozov may be right. . . .

It may indeed be true that our over-the-counter culture (and over-the-counter-counterculture) has diminished the national quota of intelligence, and that the performance of the CIA is merely a reflection of this. We may be paying a price for our short-cut, miniaturized, and small-brained approach to many things, be they material or spiritual. . . . To use a Marxist term, we have become “cretinized.” . . . We are aware of this cretinization in the media, despite—or because of—the new TV offerings for the coming year, or any past year, for that matter. . . .

We are also all too well aware of the declining reading and comprehension levels afflicting our society. Needless to say, the effects of this decline in intelligence will be telling upon all institutions, including, of course, the CIA. . . .

Finally, we have permitted a way of life that can only be called amoral. This way of life includes the myths of “me first” and raised consciousness;. . . . the pop-science and pop-culture cheapening of our intellectual coin; and a host of other phenomena that horrify foreign visitors or new citizens such as those who have come from intellectual circles in the USSR. . . .

And so, it appears that Mr. Navrozov’s plaints addressed to the CIA may have been aimed at a wider doorstep—the one at which Solzhenitsyn laid his charges.

Albert L. Weeks
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . In his witty and hard-hitting article, “What the CIA Knows About Russia,” Lev Navrozov . . . notes the 1976 CIA admission that the agency was wrong in estimating Soviet defense spending by a very wide margin indeed. But one has the feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg. What other wrong information about Soviet military and political activities has been passed to our government from our intelligence-gathering services these past years—information on which policies disastrous to American security were predicated? The fact that Senator Proxmire was “puzzled by the way the Soviet rulers have been acting during the last decade,” according to Mr. Navrozov, who quotes from an unbelievable encounter between the Senator and CIA experts, is evidence that something is dreadfully wrong somewhere. If the CIA cannot clarify matters for Senator Proxmire, may one not assume that the puzzlement extends right up to the top of the administration? We know that in one administration after another, Democratic and Republican, there have been presidential advisers who pooh-poohed any information that bared the real scope of the Soviet military build-up and the imperialistic thrust of the USSR, but one always wanted to believe that our intelligence services had their facts straight to begin with. Alas and alack!

Matthew Conroy
News World
New York City

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To the Editor:

Lev Navrozov deserves to be listened to and read by all those who are responsible for our foreign policy—not so much because he questions the CIA projection of egg production in the USSR, or the discrepancies in the use of steel tonnage produced, but because he warns us about the meaning of the language the Russians use to influence us. I do not know why they manipulate egg statistics, but there is no mystery about the steel. The “missing” steel has already shown up in Afghanistan, Angola, Libya, Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, to mention some of the recent recipients of Soviet armaments.

Are people like Mr. Navrozov alarmists, or are they an almost extinct breed of people who . . . know that the information which filters through to our decision-makers is often not the reality? It follows that decisions based on faulty information will be bad, incomplete, and even dangerous to our future. The theory of two CIA’s, one which testifies to congressional committees and the other which “really” knows, could be an amusing scenario for a TV series; but it is a deadly serious assumption, which could put us all to sleep—in more ways than one.

Joseph Gottfried
Flushing, New York

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To the Editor:

So many preconceived and firmly ingrained notions are upset by Lev Navrozov’s “What the CIA Knows About Russia” that we may be tempted to brush it aside. Yet this is too facile a way out. Though the examples he cites may not be fully persuasive, nothing available to an outsider refutes him, and much circumstantial evidence would seem to bear him out.

Paul W. Freedman
New York City

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To the Editor:

In “What the CIA Knows About Russia,” Lev Navrozov has overstated his case to the detriment of what seems to be his prime objective: to encourage a stronger U.S. response to the USSR. It is possible to be alarmed at the Soviet military and naval build-up of recent years, to be concerned with the need for an enlarged and more determined U.S. reaction to it, without taking the roundhouse swipes that Mr. Navrozov does at non-Russian expertise on the USSR. No doubt those who have lived under Soviet power during the past sixty years, who have suffered at its hands and managed to escape, have a different view of it and the world than the rest of us do—with good reason. And their opinions and insights should be considered. But, as Mr. Navrozov’s article indicates, in his case and in the case of many other recent Russia-leavers, their dread and detestation of the Soviet regime is so intense that their views of the USSR, its past as well as its present and future, have become distorted. They seem to have difficulty in accepting the fact that contemporary Russia is not to be explained only by the post-1917 experience, but also in great part by the two-thousand-plus years of national experience antedating the Bolshevik coup. The Mongol invasion, particularly as it cut Russia off from the Renaissance and the Reformation, has played a significant role in producing today’s Russia. And Russians do have a “national historical fixation on the problem of invasion.” What else is to be expected when there has rarely been a quarter-century during the last two-and-a-half millennia when Russia has not been invaded? It is not necessary to know what takes place in the “consciousness of the average Soviet citizen” (how can we know what takes place in the “consciousness” of anyone except ourselves, and even there we may have doubts?) to be quite certain of that.

The immediate military threat from the Soviet Union is real, and we should be greatly concerned about it. But it is also necessary to be calm and objective in gauging that threat and in determining the best methods of meeting it.

Dan N. Jacobs
Department of Political Science
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio

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Lev Navrozov writes:

Bernard L. Albert’s concern is long overdue: the taxpayers’ money intended for defense and survival has been used as a kind of fraud or hoax. But who is to blame? The taxpayers. The Soviet regime is owned by a single omnipotent group which has a vested interest in the regime’s expansion and hence in securing the best intelligence data. No such group, in fact no group at all, “owns” the United States. The White House consists of temporary, moderately paid officials who can easily avoid doing anything difficult, and can actually do harm. If the taxpayers simply pass their money on to their elected or appointed representatives, be they the White House or the CIA, but refuse to be interested in what their representatives are doing with this money in the field of defense and survival, what can the taxpayers expect in return? Just what they have been getting. If American patients automatically paid all medical bills sent by whoever cared to take their money, American medicine would regress centuries within two generations. Why should the field of defense and survival be different?

Albert L. Weeks’s letter is a case of mind-reading: the problem he poses is a subject I am now working on. At the moment, I would only like to make a brief comment. In any free society, some individuals become more intelligent and creative than the most intelligent and creative people in any totalitarian society. Others, however, become “cretinized” because they find happiness in being so, and this is their inalienable right. In this respect, there is nothing we can rail against except human nature in its infinite variety. The tragedy we can and must avert lies elsewhere: talent and intellect in the West are absorbed mostly by “serious” (usually commercial) fields, while fields like defense and survival are considered to be a kind of high-class welfare for well-bred gentlemen. These fields, therefore, get mostly the leftovers—a few talented and intelligent individuals and an ocean of “cretinism” in which these individuals sink.

Matthew Conroy, Joseph Gottfried, and Paul W. Freedman bolster my optimism and confirm my belief that it is possible to change the situation by rallying intellect and talent to the defense and survival of the non-totalitarian world. After all, thirty-five years ago Goebbels said with disdain that the United States had only one opera house, and even that consisted of imported singers. What would Goebbels say now? The fact that the science and art of Western survival do not yet exist in the West (few individual exceptions notwithstanding) does not mean that they will never flourish, given will and awareness.

Dan N. Jacobs’s letter is of value because it is the standard response of academic and government experts on Russia to a Russian analyst’s probe of their work. Mr. Jacobs objects to my taking “roundhouse swipes . . . at non-Russian expertise on the USSR.” I do contend that a very great deal of the output of Western experts on Russia is worthless, if not fraudulent. Given elementary research opportunities, I could show this, as I have shown it for the CIA’s expertise on Russia. Take a single example. In 1974, American newspapers published the CIA’s figures for “Soviet defense spending,” figures which were absurd. More than a thousand institutions in the West are concerned with the study of Russia, but not a single one of them ridiculed or even questioned these figures. Those experts on Russia who did question them account for a tiny fraction of the total. What is the value of more than a thousand institutions if none of them can notice ridiculous elementary mistakes in their professed field?

Characteristically, Mr. Jacobs does not say a word on the subject of the article: the ineptitude of the CIA. It is not even clear whether he agrees or disagrees that the CIA is inept. Instead, he argues ad hominem: since I “lived under Soviet power,” and “suffered at its hands,” my “views of the USSR, its past as well as its present and future, have become distorted.” By implication, those experts at the CIA or Miami University who have not lived under Soviet power are “calm and objective.” Now, as it happens, I personally never suffered under Soviet power. On the contrary, financially I belonged to the very top in Russia. For another thing, my article is not “overstated” (whether on account of my supposedly unbearable suffering or from some other cause), but is actually understated. Mr. Jacobs can pick any section in the article and I will be glad to supply the rigorous and complete demonstration on which the section in question rests.

Finally, Mr. Jacobs’s excursion into Russian history says very little—although it says it with an air of sloganeering finality—about the real history of the more than one hundred nations of Russia, but a great deal about the spread of what Mr. Weeks justly calls the “Salisbury syndrome” among American experts on foreign affairs.

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