Intelligence Lessons of the Cold War

Michael Herman

The paper will discuss the British intelligence effort in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites, drawing on the author’s own experience directing the national Sigint effort on this target and in academic intelligence studies in retirement.  An official history of this effort by another author is due to be published around the time of the conference and it may also be possible to draw on it.   The paper will also speculate on lessons of the Cold War effort for the present coverage of Putin’s Russia.

The Cold War was conducted as threats, fears and actions at three levels:  top national policy, the use of military force, and competition in the Third World.   Intelligence supported national decisions at all three levels, but principally through coverage of the opponent’s military forces.  Action at all these levels reflected the results of the specialized intelligence war in which offensive intelligence on both sides also assisted, sometimes directed, its own side’s communications security and other information defences, and also conducted a counter-intelligence war to negate the opponent’s intelligence attacks, perhaps even deceive him. 

The effort after 1945 drew substantially on GCHQ’s wartime successes at Bletchley Park, but with important differences.   The published history of wartime intelligence has been dominated by the textual evidence available from the extensive decryption of high-level German messages, and a result is some exaggeration of its significance in public memory.  By contrast the  postwar Sigint product on the Soviet Union was largely (though not entirely) non-textual evidence, which had this source’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses.  It was strong on Soviet Union’s capabilities, weaker on the regime’s intentions. It was rich in coverage of ‘things’  - Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces en masse and their materiel – and less so on their information, plans, instructions and other communications content.

With this in mind the paper will discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of British effort (with its transatlantic alliance) and its Soviet opponent, and the changes as the Cold War continued.  It will categorize the British effort under the four headings of peacetime coverage for warning of attack:  peacetime coverage of  present and future Soviet intentions, capabilities and activities: peacetime coverage for intelligence that would be needed in war:  peacetime planning and provision of a survivable wartime effort to meet wartime requirements.  It will describe the British Joint Intelligence Committee’s periodic specifications of ‘requirements and priorities’ though which the effort on these targets was directed.  In conclusion the paper will discuss ‘who won the intelligence war’, and what the extensive British effort and its allies actually achieved.

Sylwia Szyc