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Remembering Team B

The most notorious attempt by militarists and right-wing ideologues to challenge the CIA was the Team B affair in the mid-1970s. The 1975-76...

The most notorious attempt by militarists and right-wing ideologues to challenge the CIA was the Team B affair in the mid-1970s. The 1975-76 “Team B” operation was a classic case of threat escalation by hawks determined to increase military budgets and step up the U.S. offensive in the cold war. Concocted by right-wing ideologues and militarists, Team B aimed to bury the politics of détente and the SALT arms negotiations, which were supported by the leadership of both political parties. 1

The historical record shows that the call for an independent assessment of the CIA’s conclusions came from the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB–pronounced piffy-ab ). But the fear-mongering and challenges to the CIA’s threat assessments–known as National Intelligence Estimates–actually started with nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, who laid down the gauntlet in a 1974 Foreign Policy article entitled “Is There a Strategic Arms Race?” 2 Wohlstetter answered his rhetorical question negatively, concluding that the United States was allowing the Soviet Union to achieve military superiority by not closing the “missile gap.” Having inspired the Gaither Commission in 1957 to raise the missile gap alarm, Wohlstetter applied the same threat assessment methodology to energize hawks, cold warriors, and right-wing anticommunists in the mid-1970s to kill the politics of détente and increase budget allocations for the Pentagon. Following his Foreign Policy essay, Wohlstetter, who had left his full-time position at RAND to become a professor at the University of Chicago, organized an informal study group that included younger neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and longtime hawks like Paul Nitze.

PFIAB, which was dominated by right-wingers and hawks, followed Wohlstetter’s lead and joined the threat assessment battle by calling in 1975 for an independent committee to evaluate the CIA’s intelligence estimates. Testimony by PFIAB President Leo Cherne to the House Intelligence Committee in December 1975 alerted committee members to the need for better intelligence about the Soviet Union. “Intelligence cannot help a nation find its soul,” said Cherne. “It is indispensable, however, to help preserve the nation’s safety, while it continues its search,” he added. George Bush Sr., who was about to leave his ambassadorship in China to become director of intelligence at the CIA, congratulated Cherne on his testimony, indicating that he would not oppose an independent evaluation of CIA intelligence estimates.

 

Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush Support Team B Joining in the chorus of praise, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Bechtel’s president George Shultz also congratulated Cherne, implicitly adding their backing for an independent threat assessment committee. 3 Led by several of the board’s more hawkish members–including John Foster, Edward Teller, William Casey, Seymour Weiss, W. Glenn Campbell, and Clare Booth Luce–PFIAB had earlier in 1975 called for an independent evaluation of the CIA’s national intelligence estimates. Feeling that the country’s nuclear weapons industry and capacity was threatened, PFIAB was aiming to derail the arms control treaties then under negotiation.

Shortly after President Gerald Ford appointed Bush to be the new director of intelligence, replacing the beleaguered William Colby, Bush authorized PFIAB’s plan for an alternative review. The review consisted of three panels: one to assess the threat posed by Soviet missile accuracy; another to determine the effect of Soviet air defenses on U.S. strategic bombers; and a third–the Strategic Objectives Panel–to determine the Soviet Union’s intentions. The work of this last panel, which became known as the Team B Report, was the most controversial. As Paul Warnke, an official at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency at the time of the Team B exercise, wrote: “Whatever might be said for evaluation of strategic capabilities by a group of outside experts, the impracticality of achieving useful results by ‘independent’ analysis of strategic objectives should have been self-evident. Moreover, the futility of the Team B enterprise was assured by the selection of the panel’s members. Rather than including a diversity of views … the Strategic Objectives Panel was composed entirely of individuals who made careers of viewing the Soviet menace with alarm.” 4

Team members included Richard Pipes (father of Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum) and William Van Cleave, both of whom would become members of the second Committee on the Present Danger, as well as Gen. Daniel Graham, whose "High Frontier" missile defense proposal foreshadowed President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or "Star Wars." The team’s advisory panel included Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Nitze, and Seymour Weiss–all close associates of Albert Wohlstetter. 5 Although Richard Perle played no direct role in Team B, he was instrumental in setting it up. It was Perle who had introduced Richard Pipes, a Polish immigrant who taught Czarist Russian history at Harvard, to Sen. Henry Jackson, catapulting Pipes into a clique of fanatically anti-Soviet hawks. Pipes, who served as Team B’s chairman, later said he chose Wolfowitz as his principal Team B adviser "because Richard Perle recommended him so highly." 6

 

Committee on the Present Danger Follows Team B The Team B Report, released as an “October surprise” in an attempt to derail Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential bid, argued that “Soviet leaders are first and foremost offensively rather than defensively minded.” The team had arrived at this conclusion of Soviet intent from an assessment of the USSR ‘s capabilities, but they ignored evidence pointing to an opposite conclusion. Although it was true that the Soviets had been expanding their military capacity in the early 1970s, the USSR ‘s military production–along with the Soviet economy in general–began to stagnate by the mid-1970s. Dismissing this new trend, Team B accused the CIA of consistently underestimating the “intensity, scope, and implicit threat” posed by the Soviet Union. By relying on technical or “hard” data rather than “contemplat[ing] Soviet strategic objectives,” charged the panel, the CIA was setting up the United States for defeat in the cold war. 7

But as Anne Hessing Cahn establishes in her history of the Team B affair, some of the CIA estimates critiqued by Team B were themselves exaggerations, particularly the estimates of Soviet military spending. “With the advantage of hindsight,” she explains, “we now know that Soviet military spending increases began to slow down precisely as Team B was writing about an ‘intense military buildup in nuclear as well as conventional forces of all sorts, not moderated either by the West’s self-imposed restraints or by the [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT)]’.” “But even at the time of the affair,” continues Cahn, “Team B had at its disposal sufficient information to know that the Soviet Union was in severe decline. As Soviet defectors were telling us in anguished terms that the system was collapsing, Team B looked at the quantity but not the quality of missiles, tanks, and planes, at the quantity of Soviet men under arms, but not their morale, leadership, alcoholism, or training.” 8

The Team B report paved the way for the second Committee on the Present Danger, which formed weeks after Team B had released its findings. The committee’s first major policy statement, titled What Is the Soviet Union Up To? was written by Team B leader Richard Pipes, who along with other participants in the Team B exercise–including Foy Kohler, Paul Nitze, and William Van Cleave–were founding members of the Committee on the Present Danger.

 

Team B as Model for Post-Cold War Intelligence Right-wing ideologues and militarists frequently cite the example of Team B as a successful model for challenging moderate threat assessments by the foreign policy establishment, particularly the CIA and the State Department. In prevailing over the CIA, Team B demonstrated that “strategic intelligence” based on a policy-driven analysis of an adversary’s perceived intentions could triumph over fact-based intelligence. Through adroit organizing by hawks inside and outside of government, the Team B effort helped re-launch the cold war.

The end of the cold war did not bring to a close the long-running dispute between the national security alarmists on the right and the more conservative analysis of security threats by the CIA, the State Department, and the military itself. In the case of Iraq , the ideologues and militarists, following the Team B model, insisted on the primacy of strategic intelligence. Once again the U.S. government allowed a militarist policy by ideology and fear-mongering to trump facts and reason–at a tremendous cost to U.S. taxpayers as well as a mounting casualty list in the case of the Iraq invasion and occupation.

Endnotes

  1. See a special report on Team B titled “Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment,” with articles by Anne Hessing Cahn and John Prados in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1993.
  2. Albert Wohlstetter, “Is There a Strategic Arms Race?” Foreign Policy, Summer 1974.
  3. Anne Hessing Cahn, Killing Détente: The Right Attacks the CIA (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), pp. 53-54.
  4. Paul C. Warnke, “The B Team,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 1999.
  5. Other team members and advisers who did not sign the Team B report authored by Pipes were Foy Kohler, John Vogt, Jasper Welch, and Tom Wolfe.
  6. Hessing Cahn, Killing Détente, p. 150.
  7. Hessing Cahn, “Team B: The Trillion-Dollar Experiment.”
  8. Hessing Cahn, Killing Détente, pp. 167, 194.

Tom Barry is policy director of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (online at www.irc-online.org).

 

Citations

Tom Barry, "A History of Threat Escalation: Remembering Team B," IRC Right Web (Somerville, MA: Interhemispheric Resource Center, February 12, 2004).

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