Team B: The trillion-dollar experiment

Two experts report on how a group of Cold War true believers were invited to second-guess the CIA. Did the "outside experts" of the 1970s contribute to the military buildup of the 1980s?


lection years have much in common. They produce a profusion of punditry, media attention, and politically expedient action, quickly forgotten, and with little lasting impact. But not always; sometimes events are set into motion that have long lifetimes. This was the case in 1976 when, as in 1992, an incumbent Republican president faced a strong challenge from the right wing of his own party. Then (as last year) sops were offered to placate the far right and, while it is too early to know which of the 1992 capers will endure, we now know a great deal about one of the most political events of 1976, and its remarkably long-lasting effects on U.S. policy.

Late last year, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released the 1976 "Team B" reports. Team B was an experiment in competitive threat assessments approved by then-Director of Central Intelligence George Bush. Teams of "outside experts" were to take independent looks at the highly classified data used by the intelligence community to assess Soviet strategic forces in the yearly National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs). NIEs are authoritative and are widely circulated within the government. U.S. national security policy on various issues as well as the defense budget are based on their general conclusions. Although NIEs represent the collective judgment of the entire intelligence community, the lead agency is the CIA.

There were three "B" teams. One studied Soviet low-altitude air defense capabilities, one examined Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) accuracy, and one investigated Soviet strategic policy and objectives. But it is the third team, chaired by Harvard professor Richard Pipes, that ultimately received considerable publicity and is commonly referred to as Team B.

The Team B experiment was concocted by conservative cold warriors determined to bury détente and the SALT process. Panel members were all hard-liners. The experiment was leaked to the press in an unsuccessful attempt at an "October surprise." But most important, the Team B reports became the intellectual foundation of "the window of vulnerability" and of the massive arms buildup that began toward the end of the Carter administration and accelerated under President Reagan.

How did the Team B notion come about? In 1974, Albert Wohlstetter, a professor at the University of Chicago, accused the CIA of systematically underestimating Soviet missile deployment, and conservatives began a concerted attack on the CIA's annual assessment of the Soviet threat. This assessment--the NIE--was an obvious target.

In the mid-1970s, the CIA was vulnerable on three counts. First, it was still reeling from the 1975 congressional hearings about covert assassination attempts on foreign leaders and other activities. Second, it was considered "payback time" by hard-liners, who were still smarting from the CIA's realistic assessments during the Vietnam war years--assessments that failed to see light at the end of the tunnel. And finally, between 1973 and 1976, there were four different directors of central intelligence, in contrast to the more stately progression of four directors in the preceding 20 years.

The vehicle chosen from within the administration to challenge the CIA was the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). Formed as the Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Affairs by President Eisenhower in 1956, PFIAB was reconstituted by President Kennedy in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Members are appointed by the president but hold no other government positions (except possibly on other advisory committees or panels). By 1975, PFIAB was a home for such conservatives as William Casey, John Connally, John Foster, Clare Booth Luce, and Edward Teller.

The PFIAB first raised the issue of competitive threat assessments in 1975, but Director of Central Intelligence William Colby was able to ward them off, partly on procedural grounds (an NIE was in progress). But Colby, a career CIA officer, also said, "It is hard for me to envisage how an ad hoc 'independent' group of government and non-government analysts could prepare a more thorough, comprehensive assessment of Soviet strategic capabilities--even in two specific areas--than the intelligence community can prepare." [1]

At a September 1975 meeting of CIA, National Security Council, and PFIAB staff, the deputy for National Intelligence Officers, George A. Carver, noted that since John Foster and Edward Teller, the principal PFIAB members pushing for the alternative assessment, disagreed with some of the judgments made by the intelligence community, "the PFIAB proposal could be construed as recommending the establishment of another organization which might reach conclusions more compatible with their thinking."

In 1976, when George Bush became the new director of central intelligence, the PFIAB lost no time in renewing its request for competitive threat assessments. Although his top analysts argued against such an undertaking, Bush checked with the White House, obtained an O.K., and by May 26 signed off on the experiment with the notation, "Let her fly!! O.K. G.B." [2]  Why in the world did the Ford administration, gearing up for an election campaign, put prominent outside critics of the CIA on the agency's payroll, give them free access to the classified material, data, and files they requested, and not foresee how damaging the resulting study could be?


By spring 1976, President Ford was in deep political trouble. A January poll showed that his performance had a 46 percent disapproval rating. The president attributed much of the dissatisfaction to the increasing criticism of détente by a conservative coalition in both parties. Moreover, at the time the Soviet Union and Cuba were actively supporting the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, while the U.S. Senate had barred further covert American support to the other contenders.

Nevertheless, early in January 1976 President Ford defended the policy of détente he had inherited from Richard Nixon and said in an NBC News interview: "I think it would be very unwise for a President--me or anyone else--to abandon détente. I think détente is in the best interest of this country. It is in the best interest of world stability, world peace." [3]

But then came the February 24 New Hampshire primary, and President Ford nosed out challenger Ronald Reagan by only one percent-age point. Reagan began to step up his attacks on the "Ford-Kissinger" foreign policy, claiming that the United States had been permitted to slide into second place and that the Soviet Union was taking advantage of détente at the expense of American prestige and security.

In March, three important events took place. During an interview, President Ford abruptly banished the word "détente" from his political vocabulary, much to the surprise of the White House staff. "We are going to forget the use of the word détente," the president said. "What happens in the negotiations . . . are the things that are of consequence." [4]  Then, at a lunch at Washington D.C.'s Metropolitan Club, Richard Allen, Max Kampelman, Paul Nitze, Eugene Rostow, and Elmo Zumwalt, all well-known hawks opposed to détente, agreed to form the "Committee on the Present Danger" (CPD) to alert the public to the "growing Soviet threat." The first draft of the committee's initial statement was circulated to its members within a month. Finally, on March 23, Ronald Reagan won the North Carolina primary--only the third time in U.S. history that a challenger had defeated an incumbent president in a primary. He went on to win the Nebraska and Texas primaries as well.

By now, conservative critics in full swing kept up a steady cry of alarm. Paul Nitze, a CPD and Team B member, testified before the Joint Committee on Defense Production that the Soviet Union was conducting a massive civil defense program that would give it a bargaining edge in the then-deadlocked arms talks. Retired Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Daniel Graham, also a Team B member, wrote in the September 1976 Reader's Digest: "The Soviets have not built up their forces, as we have, merely to deter a nuclear war. They build their forces to fight a nuclear war and [they] see an enormous persuasive power accruing to a nation which can face the prospect of nuclear war with confidence in its survival."

A January 21, 1976, Library of Congress report, "The U.S./Soviet Military Balance, a Frame of Reference for Congress," identified a strong shift in the quantitative military balance toward the Soviet Union over the past 10 years. And the CIA itself revised its estimate of Soviet military spending to 10-15 percent of Soviet gross national product (GNP), as compared to 6-8 percent in previous NIEs. The revision was immediate news.

(This jump did not indicate any great increase in Soviet military spending nor did it change the Pentagon's estimates of actual Soviet troops, tanks, and missiles. Indeed, it reflected the judgment that the Soviet military sector was less efficient than previously believed and therefore the military's economic burden on the Soviet Union was greater than earlier estimates indicated. None of this meant a greater threat to the United States. However, such distinctions, usually made in the next to last paragraph of a long article, were lost on the public, and the message seemed to be that the Russians were spending more on defense and therefore we should too.)

In the summer of 1976, President Ford was rearranging priorities in much the same erratic way as George Bush did 16 years later in an effort to stave off conservative critics. Even the signing of the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty was delayed from May 12 to May 28 because of panic at Ford's loss to Ronald Reagan in the Nebraska primary.


In July 1976, Director of Central Intelligence George Bush let a PFIAB subcommittee suggest members of the three B teams; in August he wrote to the president that "morale at the CIA is improving." [5]

Each B team met in September and October and exchanged drafts with their CIA counterparts during October. The first press leak occurred two days after the first meeting of the CIA and Team B members who were examining Soviet strategic policy and objectives. William Beecher's story in the October 20 Boston Globe contained leaks by at least one Team B member who conveyed to the journalist only his recommendations, not those of his fellow panelists. According to Leo Cherne, then chairman of PFIAB, Director of Central Intelligence Bush was aghast at the leak and stormed into the Old Executive Building accusing members of PFIAB of being the leakers. Cherne assured Bush that this was not the case, and that "members of PFIAB were sufficiently smart to recognize that any publicity would invalidate what had been a serious effort." [6]  The story was not picked up and seemed to fade from view.

However, after the Democrats won the election and President-elect Jimmy Carter had ignored Bush's hint that up to now, CIA directors had not changed with an incoming administration, George Bush, the foe of leaks, agreed to meet with David Binder of the New York Times. The same director who wrote to President Ford in August 1976, "I want to get the CIA off the front pages and at some point out of the papers altogether," now made sure that Team B would become front-page news. [7]

On Sunday, December 26, the lead New York Times story was about Team B. Bush appeared on Meet the Press, and three separate congressional committees vowed to hold hearings on the whole exercise. Although officials within the new Carter administration paid scant attention to the Team B reports, the spadework had been done. In particular, the Pipes panel's major conclusions had been publicly and repeatedly aired.

Meanwhile, back in November, nine days after the presidential election, the Committee on the Present Danger issued its founding statement, "Common Sense and the Common Danger." "The principal threat to our nation, to world peace and to the cause of human freedom is the Soviet drive for dominance based upon an unparalleled military buildup. . . . The Soviet Union has not altered its long held goal of a world dominated from a single center--Moscow." If this sounded similar to the conclusions of Richard Pipes's Team B panel, it was hardly surprising; panel members Paul Nitze, Richard Pipes, and William Van Cleave had leading roles in the committee.

Even before the Team B report was officially presented to PFIAB, Pipes was eager to publicize its findings. He opened a December 7 meeting by discussing the possibility of declassifying the report. After the CIA rejected declassification, Pipes said that "he would urge PFIAB to make the Team B report available to as large an audience as possible. If his appeal to PFIAB were rejected . . . he mentioned . . . the publication of articles on the general subject of the report without reference to classified information. . . . Pipes also raised the possibility of using the Freedom of Information Act to get the report into the public domain." [8]


It took 16 years before Pipes's hopes were fully realized and the documents published. In February 1989, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain Team B documents. After repeated letters, phone calls, and an interview by the chairman of the Intelligence Council produced only two items, I filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court in July 1992. By the first meeting before the judge in September 1992, counsel for the CIA promised that I would receive all the documents before the end of October. The CIA deposited the Team B report at the National Archive, and delivered to me most of the documents I had requested before the end of October 1992.

Today, the Team B reports recall the stridency and militancy of the conservatives in the 1970s. 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 in terms of the Soviet conception of 'strategy' as well as in light of Soviet history, the structure of Soviet society, and the pronouncements of Soviet leaders."

And when Team B looked at "hard" data, everywhere it saw the worst case. It reported, for instance, that the Backfire bomber "probably will be produced in substantial numbers, with perhaps 500 aircraft off the line by early 1984." (In fact, the Soviets had 235 in 1984.) Team B also regarded Soviet defenses with alarm. "Mobile ABM [anti-ballistic missiles] system components combined with the deployed SAM [surface-to-air missile] system could produce a significant ABM capability." But that never occurred.

Team B found the Soviet Union immune from Murphy's law. They examined ABM and directed energy research, and said, "Understanding that there are differing evaluations of the potentialities of laser and CPB [charged particle beam] for ABM, it is still clear that the Soviets have mounted ABM efforts in both areas of a magnitude that it is difficult to overestimate." (Emphasis in original.)

But overestimate they did. A facility at the Soviet Union's nuclear test range in Semipalatinsk was touted by Gen. George Keegan, Chief of Air Force Intelligence (and a Team B briefer), as a site for tests of Soviet nuclear-powered beam weapons. In fact, it was used to test nuclear-powered rocket engines. According to a Los Alamos physicist who recently toured Russian directed-energy facilities, "We had overestimated both their capability and their [technical] understanding."

Team B's failure to find a Soviet non-acoustic anti-submarine system was evidence that there could well be one. "The implication could be that the Soviets have, in fact, deployed some operational non-acoustic systems and will deploy more in the next few years." It wasn't a question of if the Russians were coming. They were here. (And probably working at the CIA!)

When Team B looked at the "soft" data concerning Soviet strategic concepts, they slanted the evidence to support their conclusions. In asserting that "Russian, and especially Soviet political and military theories are distinctly offensive in character," Team B claimed "their ideal is the 'science of conquest' (nauka pobezhdat) formulated by the eighteenth-century Russian commander, Field Marshal A.V. Suvorov in a treatise of the same name, which has been a standard text of Imperial as well as Soviet military science." Raymond Garthoff, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has pointed out that the correct translation of nauka pobezhdat is "the science of winning" or the "science of victory." All military strategists strive for a winning strategy. Our own military writings are devoted to winning victories, but this is not commonly viewed as a policy of conquest.

Team B hurled another brickbat: the CIA consistently underestimated Soviet military expenditures. With the advantage of hindsight, 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 SALT." In 1983, then-deputy director of the CIA, Robert Gates, testified: "The rate of growth of overall defense costs is lower because procurement of military hardware--the largest category of defense spending--was almost flat in 1976-1981 . . . [and that trend] appears to have continued also in 1982 and 1983."

While Team B waxed eloquent about "conceptual failures," it was unable to grasp how the future might differ from the past. In 1976 mortality rates were rising for the entire Soviet population, and life expectancies, numbers of new labor entrants, and agricultural output were all declining. Yet Team B wrote confidently, "Within what is, after all, a large and expanding GNP . . . Soviet strategic forces have yet to reflect any constraining effect of civil economy competition, and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future." (Emphasis in original.) And When Ronald Reagan got elected, Team B became, in essence, the "A Team."

For more than a third of a century, perceptions about U.S. national security were colored by the view that the Soviet Union was on the road to military superiority over the United States. Neither Team B nor the multibillion dollar intelligence agencies could see that the Soviet Union was dissolving from within.

For more than a third of a century, assertions of Soviet superiority created calls for the United States to "rearm." In the 1980s, the call was heeded so thoroughly that the United States embarked on a trillion-dollar defense buildup. As a result, the country neglected its schools, cities, roads and bridges, and health care system. From the world's greatest creditor nation, the United States became the world's greatest debtor--in order to pay for arms to counter the threat of a nation that was collapsing.


1. William E. Colby to President Ford (Nov. 21, 1975), author collection. Obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Anne H. Cahn.

2. George A. Carver, Jr., "Note for the Director," May 26, 1976.

3. Raymond Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations From Nixon to Reagan (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1985), p. 548.

4. Ibid.

5. Director of Central Intelligence George Bush to President Ford (August 3, 1976), author collection.

6. Leo Cherne, interviews with author May 23, 1990; August 2, 1990.

7. Leo Cherne, May 23, 1990.

8. Donald Suda, note to file (December 7, 1976), author collection.



Anne Hessing Cahn, a visiting scholar at the Center for International Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park, is a former official at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Defense Department.

April 1993 pp. 22, 24-27 (vol. 49, no. 03) © 1993 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists | Copyright 2006 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
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