THE Central Intelligence Agency has adopted a full court press to convince the American public that it predicted the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, and provided US decisionmakers with strategic warning.
The CIA commissioned a study at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., that concluded that the agency got it right on the Soviet collapse. The CIA then assigned a senior Soviet analyst (and former deputy director for intelligence), Douglas MacEachin, to the Kennedy School to convince the academic community of the CIA's success. (The Kennedy School has received several million dollars in CIA research contracts over the past several years.)
Carefully selected CIA congressional testimony and intelligence memoranda have been distributed to convince the journalists that the CIA's analysis was right. A former agency analyst cited the Harvard case study and the CIA documentation in a recent journal article and concluded that the CIA had been vindicated. The Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun agreed.
The Rand Corporation's leading economist on the Soviet Union, Abraham Becker, a CIA consultant who relied on CIA data and funding for several decades, defended the CIA's track record and dismissed the notion that the CIA ''cooked the books'' on the Soviet economy. Harvard, Rand, and the American people are being hornswoggled.
CIA analysis on the former Soviet Union cannot be judged on whether it predicted a coup in 1991 but only on its assessments of America's major adversary during the 1980s and whether it provided US leaders with timely and urgent warning of Moscow's vulnerability. The CIA failed on both counts because it provided no strategic warning of the collapse.
President Bush announced that he had no idea that the Berlin Wall was coming down, and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, could not recall receiving any warning from the CIA about the Soviet demise.
In fact, the CIA exaggerated the strength of the Soviet economy and military, underestimated the burden of Soviet defense spending, and ignored Mr. Gorbachev's efforts to conduct a strategic retreat and to engage the United States in a series of disarmament agreements.
The memoirs of Secretary of State George Schultz and Gen. Colin Powell demonstrate the CIA's lack of credibility on the Soviet problem. Mr. Shultz concluded that the CIA was ''usually wrong'' about Moscow and warned the White House that the agency was ''unable to perceive that change was coming in the Soviet Union.'' His memoirs record his distrust of CIA analysis and accuse CIA Director William Casey with providing ''bum dope'' to the president. Mr. Powell added that CIA specialists ''could no longer anticipate events much better than a layman watching television.''
Robert Gates, CIA deputy director in the 1980s, admitted that he watched Casey ''on issue after issue sit in meetings and present intelligence framed in terms of the policy he wanted pursued.'' Mr. Gates's own confirmation hearings in 1991 provided testimony of his efforts to slant intelligence on Soviet defense programs and expenditures to make the Reagan administration's case for the Strategic Defense Initiative and his efforts to manufacture a bogus assessment on Soviet involvement in the attempted assassination of the pope in 1981 to make Casey's case against detente.
An internal CIA postmortem concluded that the papal assessment had ''stacked the deck'' and ''circumvented'' the coordination process; the document was described as ''deliberately skewed.'' The assessment reads like a novelist's fantasy of communist conspiracy, but Gates's covering note to Reagan and Bush described the report as a ''comprehensive examination'' that ''we feel able to present with some confidence.'' The CIA has not declassified ''Agca's Attempt to Kill the Pope: The Case for Soviet Involvement,'' although the co-author of the assessment, Kay Oliver, is now the CIA historian and is responsible for declassification matters.
Throughout the '80s, the CIA exaggerated nearly every aspect of Soviet military capabilities, thus contributing to justifications for increased defense spending in Reagan's first term and a reduced interest in arms control. The CIA distorted the military power of the Warsaw Pact, ignored Moscow's lack of confidence in non-Soviet forces, and never anticipated that the pact itself would dissolve. As late as 1990, only several months before the dissolution of the pact, the CIA concluded that Moscow had matched or exceeded NATO's capabilities in all ground-force weapons and would keep pace with NATO's modernization programs.
The linkage between CIA military estimates and the slow pace of disarmament negotiations in the 1980s needs to be examined. The CIA consistently exaggerated both Soviet manpower in Europe, a key issue in negotiations for force reductions, and Soviet chemical weapons stocks, particularly deployments in East Europe. The CIA overestimated the accuracy of the SS-19 ICBM and the range of the TU-22 Backfire Bomber, which complicated strategic arms negotiations.
All of these errors found their way to a propaganda vehicle for the Department of Defense, ''Soviet Military Power,'' which overstated Soviet military capabilities in order to gain congressional authorization and appropriation for desired military programs. This was the conclusion of the General Accounting Office in 1993.
The CIA's primary mission is to reclaim its credibility in the eyes of the American public and the Congress. Former CIA Director James Woolsey missed a major opportunity to do so last year when he refused to punish leading CIA officials responsible for missing the betrayal of Aldrich Ames.
A step was taken in the right direction last month when CIA Director John Deutch demythologized the work of the clandestine services and admitted that the CIA withheld information from the White House, the State Department, and Congress about its despicable relationship with the Guatemalan military.
Now, isn't it time for the CIA to stop playing games with the intelligence record and to begin declassifying intelligence assessments from the 1980s on the Soviet Union?