Cold War Relations: A Brief History Of Team B

Michael Teague  |

The announcement last Wednesday that President Obama would be cancelling scheduled one-on-one meetings with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of next month’s G20 summit in St. Petersburg was the latest high-profile snub to be exchanged between the two parties in the aftermath of Russia’s granting asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

During an appearance on The Tonight Show prior to the announcement, the president explained Russian decision-making to Jay Leno and his audience: “there are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking, and Cold War mentality.”

This, of course, was an oversimplification of the actual reasoning behind Russian handling of the Snowden affair, which is a far more complex matter. Suffice it to say that, at the very least, Putin is currently in no position to be displaying any sort of weakness when it comes to the United States, to say nothing of how interested he might be in whatever information the now-stateless computer analyst may be carrying with him.

The whole incident is another blow to Obama’s attempts to “reset” US-Russia relations upon arriving in office during his first term. The two world powers have already been finding it difficult to come to terms over the conflict in Syria over the past nearly three years, and the Snowden affair has clearly only made matters worse.

Still, the President’s reference to the Cold War is likely overstated. For instance, long gone are the days when American schoolchildren were taught that a nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR was actually possible. Furthermore, Putin’s actions have entirely reasonable political explanations, which is perhaps an indication that Obama’s comments were as much intended for domestic consumption as anything Putin might have to say to Russian viewers.

But the Cold War reference is nonetheless instructive, as it harkens back to a time of Mutually Assured Destruction, when East-West relations were still defined by a bitter ideological struggle, that of capitalism versus communism.

In particular, given that the entire recent breakdown of US-Russia relations is at least in part the result of something that happened on the watch of a private security contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) , as well as the exaggerated rhetoric about Cold War mentality that has accompanied it (and not only from President Obama himself), it is hard not to be reminded of the non-governmental intelligence analysis unit known as Team B.

Team B started out in 1976 as a “competitive analysis” exercise that was commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency, then under the auspices of George HW Bush, in order to obtain a second opinion on the actual threat level from the Soviet Union. The group of 16 experts focused on three aspects of the Soviets that were thought to be crucial: their low-altitude air defense capabilities, the accuracy of their intercontinental ballistic missiles, and strategic policy and objectives.

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Team B found that the National Intelligence Estimate consistently underestimated the threat level coming out of the USSR and was at odds with it from the outset. For instance, while the NIE explained Soviet strategic objectives as ultimately defensive rather than offensive, Team B found the opposite.

This was in keeping with all of Team B’s findings about the enemy’s military capabilities. The group accused the CIA of underestimating Soviet economic strength as well as its military capabilities on virtually all levels.

Up until this time, the consensus in the intelligence community was that the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction would rule out the possibility of any actions on the Soviet side that could lead to nuclear confrontation. The Team B analysts rejected this reasoning outright, however, and accused the CIA of ignoring the fact that the Soviets really did think they could win a nuclear war.

In the intervening years, however, the direst warnings produced by Team B were found to be wildly out of touch with reality. For instance, the notion that the Soviets enjoyed a booming economy that would allow it to surpass the US in military might, or the contention that the dreaded “backfire bomber” plane would be produced in large numbers- both of these were examples of extremely exaggerated interpretations of classified intelligence.

All in all, it was clear that the Team B group was focused on propagating the notion that the Soviet threat was as great as it possibly could be. Indeed, all of their revisions of the intelligence on the USSR were in that direction, and their findings have been criticized over the years for having provoked a more hostile policy towards Russia than was warranted or necessary.

But a look at the members of Team B might provide some explanation for what their motivations were, as well as a stark reminder that history has a way of repeating itself.

One name that should be familiar is Paul Wolfowitz. He was the Deputy Secretary of Defense during the first George W Bush administration, and went on to serve as President of the World Bank from 2005-2007. But in the late 1960’s, Wolfowitz was doing graduate work at the University of Chicago, where he took two courses with Leo Strauss, and completed his PhD dissertation with a professor by the name of Albert Wohlstetter, who would become his mentor.

Wohlstetter was highly critical of what he saw as an underestimation of Soviet power, and in 1969 helped put Wolfowitz in contact with what would become the first inner circle of the neo-conservative movement: Richard Perle, Paul Nitze, and Dean Acheson, and was encouraged to join the Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense.

This group of men would go on to prominent positions in the Reagan/Bush administrations of the 1980s, overseeing a massive arms buildup at a time when the Soviet Union was otherwise collapsing from within. And, as is well-known, Paul Wolfowitz himself was one of the key architects of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, an invasion that was carried out based on exaggerated/non-existent intelligence about Iraqi weapons capabilities.


[Image: Paul Wolfowitz, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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