Double take: CIA Web sites revisit old battles

In the fast-paced World Wide Web environment of streaming video, push technology and Java animation, the Web site of the CIA (www.odci.gov) does little to attract the attention of the casual surfer with its plain graphics and text-heavy offerings.

But if you're looking for additional insights into the Cold War to go along with Ted Turner's series on CNN, the CIA site delivers some interesting insights into two controversial subjects: the U-2 spy plane and the Vietnam War.

For a tantalizing look at the intelligence derived from the high-flying U-2— which cruised unscathed over the Soviet Union 24 times at an altitude of 70,000 feet until one piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down in 1960— click on the What's New button on the CIA's main page and pop up a speech given by agency director George Tenet at the U-2 Conference earlier this month at the National Defense University.

The U-2, Tenet said at that conference, saved the United States billions of dollars in an arms race with the Soviet Union by proving to President Dwight Eisenhower that "we had no bomber gap and no missile gap with the Soviet Union, all Soviet boasting to the contrary. By any measure, that was an intelligence triumph."

From the main page you can fast-forward to a new study of CIA intelligence operations in Vietnam on the Center for the Study of Intelligence Web site (www.odci.gov/csi/index.html), which revives one of the key controversies of the Vietnam War: whether Gen. William Westmoreland accurately estimated the size of enemy forces in Vietnam. Click on What's New and look under Items of Interest for CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes 1962-1968. Then click on Episode 3, 1967-1968, the Order-of-Battle Controversy, and the Tet Offensive.

The Order-of-Battle Controversy was explored by CBS News in a 1980s documentary that said Westmoreland and his staff deliberately underestimated the enemy troops in order to show progress in the war in the face of CIA estimates that put the number of enemy troops at more than double the number estimated by Westmoreland and his staff.

The CIA Order of Battle study— extracted from CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes, 1962-1968, a new book written by agency historian Harold Ford and published by the Library of Congress— comes to the same conclusion as the documentary, putting an official stamp on the CBS conclusions.

Westmoreland and his staff "were under a strong obligation to keep demonstrating 'progress' against the Communist forces in Vietnam.... It would be politically disastrous, [Westmoreland and his staff] felt, suddenly to admit, even on the basis of new or better evidence, that the enemy's strength was in fact substantially greater than...[Westmoreland's] original or current estimates."

Westmoreland, who sued CBS for libel for essentially broadcasting the same conclusions in its documentary, said in an interview that he was "surprised" that the CIA decided to revive the debate now. But, as in the documentary and the subsequent libel trial, Westmoreland sharply criticized the CIA's methodology for estimating of the size of the enemy force.

The CIA study also offers new but tantalizingly brief insights into the role that the National Security Agency and signals intelligence played in forecasting the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

"The National Security Agency stood alone in issuing the kinds of warnings the U.S. intelligence community was designed to provide" about the impending offensive, the study said. "The first [signal intelligence] indicators of impending major enemy activity began to appear in the second week of January 1968. In the following days, NSA issued a number of alerts, culminating in a major warning it disseminated widely in communications intelligence channels."

Ford, author of the study, said he derived this information from previously classified NSA documents, adding that previous "open" reports about the NSA's Tet warnings were but "blips" compared with the information in the new report.

The Center for the Study of Intelligence Web site also offers other sections of Ford's book, including a sharply critical look at the troop and bombing escalations ordered by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

- FCW editor at large Bob Brewin co-authored (with Sydney Shaw) Vietnam On Trial: Westmoreland vs. CBS, Atheneum, 1987.

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