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How the CIA Got Gorby Wrong

"This is not some Soviet Gary Hart or even Lee Iacocca ..."

When Mikhail Gorbachev rose to become leader of the Soviet Union in March 1985, there was a fair amount of puzzlement about him in Washington. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had spotted him early, and U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz saw promise in him, but others, including then-CIA deputy director for intelligence Robert Gates, were more skeptical.

In the weeks before Gorbachev took power, Gates recalled in his memoir, he wrote a memo to one of the CIA's leading Soviet experts. "I don't much care for the way we are writing about Gorbachev," Gates wrote. "We are losing the thread of what toughness and skill brought him to where he is. This is not some Soviet Gary Hart or even Lee Iacocca. We have to give the policymakers a clearer view of the kind of person they may be facing." Gates said he thought that Gorbachev was the heir to Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief, and to Mikhail Suslov, the one-time orthodox ideology chief. Thus, Gates wrote in his memoir, Gorbachev "could not be all sweetness and light. These had been two of the hardest cases in recent Soviet history. They would not take a wimp under their wing."

The CIA devoted about 45 percent of its analytical manpower to the Soviet Union at the time, but real inside information about the new man in the Kremlin was scarce. Shultz said the intelligence was "thin," and Gates acknowledged "we were embarrassingly hungry for details" from the British and Canadians who had met Gorbachev on his visits, and others. Thus, the first CIA assessment of Gorbachev in June 1985 is an interesting milestone. This report, which I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request while researching my new book, suggests that Gorbachev's style was different, but there were doubts about the substance. "Gorbachev has moved to draw a sharp contrast in style to his recent predecessors, who treated the bureaucracy gingerly and approached change cautiously," the report observed. At home, he was rubbing elbows with workers, dressing down government ministers, and attacking chronic corruption and alcoholism. But in his foreign policy, the report noted, there was no "urgent agenda" to match the domestic activity. Although the paper captured well Gorbachev's early activism, it did not foresee the ambition for radical reform that would become clear in the years ahead.

When Mikhail Gorbachev rose to become leader of the Soviet Union in March 1985, there was a fair amount of puzzlement about him in Washington. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had spotted him early, and U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz saw promise in him, but others, including then-CIA deputy director for intelligence Robert Gates, were more skeptical.

In the weeks before Gorbachev took power, Gates recalled in his memoir, he wrote a memo to one of the CIA’s leading Soviet experts. "I don’t much care for the way we are writing about Gorbachev," Gates wrote. "We are losing the thread of what toughness and skill brought him to where he is. This is not some Soviet Gary Hart or even Lee Iacocca. We have to give the policymakers a clearer view of the kind of person they may be facing." Gates said he thought that Gorbachev was the heir to Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief, and to Mikhail Suslov, the one-time orthodox ideology chief. Thus, Gates wrote in his memoir, Gorbachev "could not be all sweetness and light. These had been two of the hardest cases in recent Soviet history. They would not take a wimp under their wing."

The CIA devoted about 45 percent of its analytical manpower to the Soviet Union at the time, but real inside information about the new man in the Kremlin was scarce. Shultz said the intelligence was "thin," and Gates acknowledged "we were embarrassingly hungry for details" from the British and Canadians who had met Gorbachev on his visits, and others. Thus, the first CIA assessment of Gorbachev in June 1985 is an interesting milestone. This report, which I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request while researching my new book, suggests that Gorbachev’s style was different, but there were doubts about the substance. "Gorbachev has moved to draw a sharp contrast in style to his recent predecessors, who treated the bureaucracy gingerly and approached change cautiously," the report observed. At home, he was rubbing elbows with workers, dressing down government ministers, and attacking chronic corruption and alcoholism. But in his foreign policy, the report noted, there was no "urgent agenda" to match the domestic activity. Although the paper captured well Gorbachev’s early activism, it did not foresee the ambition for radical reform that would become clear in the years ahead.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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