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Team B

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Most people who closely follow security and intelligence issues have heard of “Team B”, a group of conservatives and soon-to-be neoconservatives who argued that the CIA had vastly underestimated the Soviet threat in the 1970s, and who decided that they could do a better job. This group did something called “inferring capabilities from intentions,” meaning that they decided they knew what the Soviet Union wanted, and thus could infer what it had. This led to a vast over-estimation of Soviet capabilities, leading in some part to the Carter-Reagan military buildup of the late 1970s and early 1980s. For the full story, check out these articles, by Anne Cahn and John Prados. The trick was to posit that the Soviets were hostile, then, knowing a few things about basic Soviet economic output, assume that they were building full tilt. Attempting to actually count Soviet weapons was viewed as rather quaint. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we discovered that the CIA had significantly overestimated Soviet capabilities, and that Team B wasn’t even in the ballpark.

There’s a reason this reminds you of Iraq. Our intelligence organizations determined that Iraq could produce chemical and biological weapons, then assumed (inferring from our assessment of Hussein’s intentions) that the Iraqis were manufacturing WMD. This allowed the intelligence agencies to produce all of the glossly and semi-solid numbers that Colin Powell could pass off as facts to the UN and to other audiences. It turned out that while Saddam desired WMDs, he desired survival more, and didn’t manufacture any after 1991. Because we inferred capabilities from intentions, we once again vastly overestimated the capacity of an opponent.

The most troubling thing about this is that the people who were in charge of Team B are in charge today. They evidently failed to learn their lesson when the Soviet Union collapsed and we got hard data on Soviet capabilities. If the arguments they’re making now are any indication, they have once again failed to learn from the Iraqi debacle.

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