- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

Strip away all the hugger-mugger stuff, and the function of American intelligence during the Cold War can be refined to two key purposes: to find out what weaponry the Soviet Union had in its arsenal, and the prospects of it being put to catastrophic use. Such were the tasks both of human intelligence operators (HUMINT) and the multi-billion dollar aerial reconnaissance programs.

So how did our intel agencies perform? Did they supply our policy makers with the information they needed to deal with the USSR? A report card is given in Jeffrey T. Richelson’s Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence From Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (W. W. Norton, $34.95, 702 pages, illus.).

In terms of collecting and annotating vast amounts of previously classified material on intelligence, the energetic Mr. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, is sui generis. His prose style, alas, is another matter indeed, so non-specialists might find this highly detailed history to be tough reading.

As the subtitle states, the account ranges from the last days of World War II to the present. In tracing the Soviet atomic program, Mr. Richelson gives deserved credit to Henry S. Lowenhaupt, long the CIA’s dean of nuclear intelligence, who did several now-declassified articles on his work for the Studies In Intelligence, the Agency’s in-house journal. Lowenhaupt died in February at age 87, and many will wish that a man who spent 60 years in the shadows had lived to see his work receive such public recognition.

Given the relative newness of the post-war intelligence community, there were glitches. CIA’s first estimate, in December 1947, considered any Soviet bomb test “doubtful” before 1953. The Congressional Joint Atomic Energy Committee opined that a Soviet bomb “cannot be completed before mid-1951.” An air force intelligence group on Sept. 1, 1949 put the “earliest date” for a test at 1951, and “most likely 1953.” Less than 24 hours later, the USSR dashed all these estimates with a successful test.

With wide speculation that President Bush might launch a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear works, Mr. Richelson has a timely discussion of how the Kennedy Administration groped for a “what to do” scenario regarding the Peoples Republic of China in 1963. Satellite photos showed that the Chinese were working actively to develop nuclear weapons, to the understandable alarm of Taiwan.

In September, Gen. Chiang Ching-kuo — Chiang Kai-shek’s son and defense minister — met with John McCone, the director of central intelligence, and other CIA officials, including Ray Cline, former station chief in Taipei, and “raised … the issue of attacking China’s nuclear facilities.” The CIA men thought enough of the idea to take Chiang to see McGeorge Bundy, President Kennedy’s national security adviser. Bundy told him that the US “is very interested in whether something could be planned” that would have a “delaying and preventive effect on the nuclear growth of China.”

Chiang then had a direct meeting with President Kennedy, who asked “whether it would be possible to send 300 to 500 men by air to such distant … atomic installations.” At Bundy’s behest, the Joint Chiefs of Staff worked on a contingency plan “to inflict severe damage” on the Chinese project. There was talk of using nuclear weapons on the facilities. President Johnson also toyed with the idea. But, in the end, these plans came to naught, and China detonated its first nuclear weapon in October 1964.

Mr. Richelson is skeptical — correctly, in my view — about prospects of talking North Korea and Iran out of pursuing nuclear weaponry. He writes that “it may well be that European-style pragmatism, when dealing with rogue regimes, is nothing more than a doomed attempt at appeasement.” Any agreements reached with these nations would have to provide loopholes “allowing them to pursue their nuclear dreams.” He does not challenge the possibility that military action ultimately might be necessary. In any event, he maintains, “continued aggressive and inventive intelligence collection” must continue.

For 16 chapters, Derek Leebaert of Georgetown University tells a soundly-researched and sprightly story in To Dare and To Conquer: Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations, From Achilles to Al Qaeda (Little, Brown, $29.95, 688 pages). He traces the evolution of shadow warriors over three centuries — guerrillas, commandoes, raiders, whatever — and how they “succeed by being able to detect the hairline cracks in the forbidding wall of enemy might.” Even a reader familiar with the vast, and growing, literature in this field will find exciting yarns.

I particularly enjoyed Mr. Leebaert’s account of how the British privateer Henry Morgan found himself cornered by Spanish ships after a raid on Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 1667. His men spent a week converting a clumsy merchantman into what appeared to be a heavily armed battleship. He deliberately rammed the Spanish flagship, whose crew gleefully swarmed over in a boarding exercise.

Not until they were on the decks did they realize they had “captured” a ghost ship, “its decks lined with logs dressed up to look like English ruffians.” It was also “packed with all the gunpowder, tar, pitch and brimstone to be found in Maracaibo.” BOOM, and the battle ended with Morgan fleeing to safety with his booty.

Unfortunately, Mr. Leebaert lingers for three chapters too far. His concluding section is more political rant than objective history. At times he seems to be settling some old political scars with the national security bureaucracy (the jacket blurb says he is a “consultant to US government agencies”), and he makes some snide attacks on unnamed adversaries who apparently had the temerity to disagree with him. His stridency on the CIA and the Pentagon (and the Bush Administration) is downright … well, blogish … and adds nothing to his story.

One statement by Mr. Leebaert caused my eyebrows to twitch. In discussing the selection process for Delta Force, he states, “the men able to pass do not come predominantly from initial military occupational specialities in infantry or airborne, as one might expect: they are drawn from earlier service in the army’s personnel departments and in its maintenance/mechanics shops.”

My own observations over the years suggest otherwise, so I ran the quote by four special ops experts (including a retired Navy SEAL captain and an Air Force colonel). They were unanimous in disagreeing, one writing me, “the predominant backgrounds [for Delta Force] are Special Forces and Ranger infantry.” Another stated, “Delta has neither the time nor the cadre to recruit beginners.”

Those quibbles aside, an overall good read. My advice: Enjoy the first 16 chapters, then rip out the last three and save them for fire-starter material next winter.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894 @aol.com.

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