National Security & Defense

CIA Contrarian Herbert E. Meyer, R.I.P.

CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Va. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
A perspicacious observer of foreign threats and weaknesses has passed away.

It is now well understood that the fall of 1983 was a moment in the Cold War that was as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The United States was beginning to install long-planned intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe to match the menacing and relentless growth of the Soviet missile arsenal amid already high tensions. U.S.–Soviet arms talks had broken off completely; the Soviets had shot down a civilian airliner, KAL Flight 007, in early September; the U.S. had invaded Grenada, a Soviet-Cuban client island in the Caribbean, and Poland was under the boot of Soviet-managed martial law. The Soviets went on high alert, and rumors persist to this day that a preemptive first strike was contemplated.

Against this gloomy backdrop, in late November 1983 CIA director William Casey forwarded to President Reagan a vivid and tightly argued eight-page, single-spaced classified memo titled “Why Is the World So Dangerous?” Toward the end of the memo’s review of what the Soviets liked to call “the correlation of forces,” the memo made a bold judgment: “If present trends continue, we’re going to win the Cold War . . . It has long been fashionable to view the Cold War as a permanent feature of global politics, one that will endure through the next several generations at least. But it seems to me more likely that President Reagan was correct when he observed in his Notre Dame speech that the Soviet Union — ‘one of history’s saddest and most bizarre chapters’ — is entering its final pages.”

The author of this heterodox and astonishing contrarian judgment was Herbert E. Meyer, who passed away last weekend at the age of 73 after a tragic bicycle accident last fall left him in a deep coma. Meyer was the vice-chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, but in effect the aide-de-camp to the CIA’s controversial director, William Casey. Herb’s background was in journalism rather than intelligence, and his distinctive feature stories in outlets such as Fortune magazine had caught Casey’s eye in the 1970s, when Casey was working on Wall Street. It was precisely because Meyer wasn’t a product of the conventional foreign-policy and intelligence establishment, which consistently misestimated the Soviet Union, that he could bring fresh eyes to the scene. He was one of Casey’s first recruits in 1981.

At the CIA Casey and Meyer asked field agents and analysts to start looking at the Soviets’ vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. This accorded with Reagan’s intuition that the Soviet Union, while militarily strong, was socially and economically sclerotic. No one had asked our intelligence apparatus to examine this question systematically before. Herb’s 1983 memo, which grew in part out of this work, caused a firestorm inside the CIA and the National Security Council. Some high-ranking foreign-policy potentates tried to get Meyer fired, and within days the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Hal Ford, produced a spirited rebuttal memo disputing Meyer point by point. The Soviet Union “is going to be with us for years to come,” Ford wrote. “I would hazard a guess that the U.S.–Soviet Cold War may still be confronting our grandchildren.” Though politely worded, the conclusion was clear that it would be more dangerous “in the event senior policymakers should subscribe to many of the views Herb advances.”

Everyone knows the rest of the story. Herb, ever the generous soul and complete gentleman, would never dish on the people who attacked him, even off the record. About one of his harshest critics — a person who much later became secretary of defense — Herb would only say how supremely bright and dedicated this person was. He also refused to disdain the rank-and-file career intelligence staff for their conformist backgrounds and resulting groupthink, arguing instead that our intelligence failures up through and past 9/11 owe more to the failure of senior management to ask the right questions. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for,” Herb liked to say, “you’re not going to find it.” Yogi Berra couldn’t have put it better.

After his CIA years, Herb settled down as a corporate consultant and speaker. Look up any of his many appearances that are available on YouTube. They are riveting. Herb published a number of short books and articles applying his insights to the business world as well as current world affairs. He was an optimist like Reagan, but also a realist like Reagan. In 2016, he returned to the grand theme of his famous memo with a 19-page pamphlet on “Why Is the World So Dangerous?” While not mentioning President Obama by name, it gets to the heart of why there was so much folly:

We’ve gone from being a culture that values hard thinking to a culture that tolerates and even celebrates soft thinking. Hard thinking means that when you are faced with a new problem or issue, you look squarely at it. You get the facts, sort through them, and decide how best to move forward based on what makes the most sense and what is actually likely to work . . . Soft thinking means that your emotions matter more than your intellect; you decide how to move forward based on your feelings rather than on the facts. And when your plan collides with reality — as it always will — instead of making adjustments, or just admitting you were wrong, you find someone else to blame and you keep on going down the same mistaken path. . . . The same kind of soft thinking that’s infected our domestic policies has spread to our foreign policies.

It may not be true to say that “we don’t make ’em like that anymore,” but unconventional minds like Herb’s — and Casey’s and Reagan’s — don’t come along very often. R.I.P.


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