A FEW weeks ago, we discussed the results of an internal CIA investigation that found the agency had fed information to senior government officials, including the president, knowing that the Soviet KGB had compromised its sources.
The intelligence exaggerated Soviet military capability. It was developed in the mid-1980s, after CIA officer Aldrich Ames, the Benedict Arnold of our day, began turning over the names of CIA agents to the KGB. The CIA caught on to the bad data in the early '90s, but kept distributing it without warning readers of its questionable origin. The agency report estimated that the bogus intelligence caused the Pentagon to overspend billions of dollars on unnecessary weapons such as the F-22 fighter plane and the Seawolf submarine.
There's no excuse for what the CIA did, as we've noted before. But officials who worked in decisionmaking jobs at the Pentagon during the time in question dispute the report's conclusions. They say the overestimates of Soviet capabilities did not influence their decisions on arms procurement.
Many people believe, wrongly, that the Reagan buildup continued unabated throughout the '80s. Actually, the defense budget in 1985 was about double the 1980 figure and leveled off after that. The F-22 was developed early in the '80s, before Mr. Ames began spying for the Soviets. An official who worked on the program told the Associated Press that it was based on specific, unchallenged knowledge of Soviet fighter aircraft.
Donald Yockey, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer in the late '80s, told the AP his decisions were influenced more by military intelligence than by CIA reports. In addition, he said, he was under pressure to reduce spending, and when the F-22 went into full development, its capability was downgraded.
Traditionally, military intelligence analysts have been under pressure from senior officers who want justification for new weapons programs; outsiders have often seen CIA estimates as less tainted. It would be ironic if in this case military-intelligence estimates were more accurate. A Pentagon inquiry is proceeding, as it should. Much more investigation is needed to determine how the questionable intelligence influenced decisionmaking, if it did at all. One thing should be clear, however: It had no connection to Reagan's first-term defense buildup.