Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan administration as special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence, and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. He is widely credited as having been the first senior official to predict the fall of the Soviet Union. He’s also, written a number of good books (including How to Analyze Information: A Step-by-Step Guide to Life’s Most Vital Skill, and The Cure for Poverty: It’s the Free Market: History’s Greatest Invention), plus he often speaks to groups of business executives.
Recently he took time out of his busy schedule to sit down across a Skype connection with me, at the hinge point between 2012 and 2013 to reflect on intelligence, forecasting, what he saw in the 1980s which others did not, and what he sees coming next, which might be even bigger than the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I suggest you set aside some time to listen to the whole discussion (more of a thinking session than an interview), but in case you don’t have time, I jotted down some notes hitting just a few of the highlights from the conversation. These are notes, not perfect transcriptions, so they sometimes paraphrase a bit. For the real unfiltered thing click on this link.
Regarding the CIA and its inability to see the fall of the Soviets:
- They (that is most of the intelligence community) saw the Cold War as a permanent feature of the world. But Reagan came along and said, ‘wait a minute, the Soviet Economy is on the verge of implosion.’ The ‘establishment’ said the Soviet Economy would go on forever.
- The CIA had been built to monitor Soviet strengths, but nobody was looking at Soviet weaknesses.
- The key to it is to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. Until we asked ‘can the Soviet Economy be sustained?,’ nobody was looking in that direction. We had our people look for intelligence about Soviet weaknesses. The weaknesses were overwhelming the strengths.
- It never occurred to anyone that the Cold War would end, so we were playing defense. From the end of WWII to the 1980s the world was playing defense.
- Reagan came in and said we don’t want just not to lose the Cold War; we want to win the Cold War.
- “In the Cold War, we instructed our spies: ‘If you find something like this (whatever we thought was important to identifying signs of Soviet vulnerability), don’t throw it into the wastebasket, send it to us fast.’ We knew that if nothing comes in through that channel, either our theory was wrong or our collectors were incompetent. They got us all kinds of stuff that no one was looking for. If you’re back channel becomes crowded, then your theory is probably right.”
- It just never crossed these people’s mind that the Soviet Union was unsustainable. They had those ideological blinders on. They viewed President Reagan as so stupid because he felt intuitively that their system could not be sustained.
- Gorbachev gave it his best shot; it couldn’t be reformed, and that was his great failure. He said it could be made to work better and that simply was not true.
- At one point Reagan had said that he wanted a private conversation with Gorbachev…he said to Gorbachev, “What’s the difference between a communist and a scientist?” “I don’t know,” responded Gorbachev. Reagan smiled and said, “A scientist would have tried it out on rats first.” I think that’s when we won the Cold War, when Gorbachev realized he wasn’t sitting across from the idiot he’d been told he would be dealing with.
Regarding intelligence gathering in general:
- Before 9/11 intelligence services never made a list of things to look for as if Al Qaeda were in the U.S. and trying to attack us. When the FBI noticed young men learning to fly planes but without learning how to land, there was no one waiting for that.
- The crucial intelligence skill is the ability to spot a pattern with the fewest possible facts. You’ve got to have people who can make that intuitive leap. They’re all over the place…they’re not in our intelligence services.
- The key intelligence skill is that you have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. The notion that you have to keep looking at data endlessly waiting for something to pop up is nonsense; it’s just noise.
For the second part of this interview, “The Biggest Under-Reported News Story in the World,” click here.