Team B Strategic Objectives Panel
last updated: November 1, 2007
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Arguably the most notorious attempt by right-wing figures to challenge the authority of the CIA ("Team A") over intelligence—similar to the effort by the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans in the lead up to the Iraq War—was the "Team B" affair of the mid-1970s. The 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.
As historian and expert on Team B Anne Hessing Cahn, author of the 1998 book Killing Détente: The Right Attacks the CIA, reported in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: " 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 [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] process. Panel members were all hard-liners. The experiment was leaked to the press in an unsuccessful attempt at an ‘October surprise’ [to derail Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential bid]. 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 [National Intelligence Estimate]—was an obvious target" (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1993).
The call for an independent assessment of the CIA’s conclusions came officially from the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). But the fear-mongering and challenges to the CIA’s NIEs actually started with nuclear strategist Wohlstetter, who laid down the gauntlet in a 1974 Foreign Policy article entitled "Is There a Strategic Arms Race?" 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.
Shortly after President Gerald Ford appointed George H.W. Bush to be the new director of intelligence, replacing the beleaguered William Colby, Bush authorized PFIAB’s plan for alternative threat assessments compiled by panels of non-intelligence experts—the Team B project. In November, Jimmy Carter beat Ford in the presidential race, but Team B had already done its damage: "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," as Cahn reported (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1993).
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" (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 1999).
The Team B activities coincided with the founding of the second Committee on the Present Danger (CPD). The CPD’s first major policy statement, titled "What Is the Soviet Union Up To?" was written by Team B leader Pipes, who along with other participants in the Team B exercise—including Foy Kohler, Paul Nitze, and William Van Cleave—were founding CPD members. Gen. Daniel Graham, whose "High Frontier" missile defense proposal foreshadowed Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") was also a Team B member. The team’s advisory panel included Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Nitze, and Seymour Weiss—all close associates of Wohlstetter. Although Richard Perle played no direct role in Team B, he was instrumental in setting it up. It was he who had introduced 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" (Cahn, Killing Détente).
The Team B report argued inaccurately 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 Soviet Union had been expanding its military capacity in the early 1970s, Soviet 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.
But as Cahn establishes in Killing Detente, 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 [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" (Cahn, Killing Détente).
Right-wing ideologues and militarists frequently cite the example of Team B as a successful model for challenging moderate threat assessments by the fore
ign 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.
Nearly three decades later, manipulation of intelligence by "outside experts" again played a role in taking the United States to war—this time in Iraq. The success of Team B could be linked directly to the creation of the Office of Special Plans by Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith immediately after 9/11. Ideologues and militarists, following the Team B model, insisted on the primacy of strategic intelligence on Iraq. 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.
Military historian Richard Rhodes "sees a clear parallel between Team B’s triumph and the push by ‘Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their associates in the administration of George W. Bush’ to get the CIA ‘to inflate the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.’ Some of the same names pop up in both episodes. Rhodes notes that Cheney, then Ford’s chief of staff, was supportive of Team B and that Rumsfeld protégé Paul Wolfowitz was part of the team itself—though Cahn, for one, doesn’t think Wolfowitz was an important player," reported the Washington Post (October 29, 2007).