The Joint Intelligence Committee: Reading the Russian mindset

  • Themes: Russia

During the Cold War, the British Joint Intelligence Committee was charged with forecasting the actions of states behind the Iron Curtain and the rest of the world. Its record was patchy - the Brits were repeatedly taken by surprise throughout the 20th century.

Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning Soviet tank in Prague, 1968. The JIC failed to foresee Soviet retaliations to the mass protests
Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning Soviet tank in Prague, 1968. The JIC failed to foresee Soviet retaliations to the mass protests. Credit: The Central Intelligence Agency via Wikipedia Commons

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) is one of the longest-serving Whitehall committees. Its origins can be traced back to a decision in 1936 to remedy the lack of co-ordination within the secret world. Sitting at the top of the intelligence pyramid, the JIC comprises the heads of the main intelligence agencies and the leading civil servants in the policymaking departments, including the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, and Home Office. It looks down upon a multibillion-pound intelligence community, setting requirements and assessing performance, and looks upwards towards policymakers, producing an array of intelligence assessments. It is defined by its deliberate mixture of intelligence and policymaking officials, and the fact that consensus lies at the heart of everything it does.

I would like to look at the British experience in producing intelligence assessments of the Russian leadership during the Cold War. In particular I will focus on the difficulties in trying to produce assessments when intelligence is limited and where the analytical paradigm is that those in the Kremlin are irrational actors, yet to provide an assessment on future intentions it is necessary to assume a certain level of rationality. This essay will focus on the balance between assessing intentions and capabilities in producing forecasts of Russian behaviour. To illustrate the difficulties faced in preparing these assessments and in gauging their accuracy, I will use a number of case-studies spread throughout the Cold War. It will conclude with an examination on the lessons that emerge from Britain’s Cold War experience in attempting to read the Russian mindset.

Since its creation, the JIC has been a body principally designed to assess strategic intelligence. During the Cold War its major preoccupation was to identify trends in Soviet behaviour (intentions) and monitor their advances in research, development and deployment of weapons (capabilities). One of the problems in arriving relatively late at a consensus that the Soviet Union was now priority number one, was that the intelligence coverage of Russia was seriously limited. This was an issue that the JIC frequently addressed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. One result was a study produced in December 1951, in which the JIC reviewed its assessments of Communist intentions that it had made since January 1947. In the period 1947–51, the study concluded that 33 different assessments had either proved to be correct, or at least not yet proven to be incorrect. In comparison only three had proved to be wrong, and for these the JIC considered what had caused the errors.

So what had gone wrong? In the example of the Korean War, the JIC had concluded that the Chinese would not ‘embark on operations’. The reasoning behind this conclusion, supposedly based not on intelligence but rather a reading of the Communist leadership, was that the Chinese would not dare risk war with the UN. In reality, just a few weeks after the assessment was approved, the Chinese army swept into Korea and attacked the UN forces based there. How had the JIC managed to get their assessment completely wrong? Once more the 1951 review was very honest in its examination of the intelligence community’s failings, and in which two factors were prevalent: That our intelligence about Communist intentions in the Far East is even less adequate than our intelligence about the Soviet Union, largely due to the fact that we obtain less intelligence on China. That we do not yet understand the mind of the Chinese Communist leaders.

How, the JIC wondered, could you produce a forward-looking assessment, which had to be based on some level of rationality, when you believed that the focus was essentially an irrational actor? One event in 1968 served to highlight the JIC’s warning role. The JIC had always produced assessments of Soviet intentions towards both Western and Eastern Europe. In September 1967, the JIC issued the latest revision to its regular paper on ‘Warning of Soviet Attack on the West’. As the committee had concluded over the preceding two decades, the paper began with the unequivocal view that ‘the Russians will not deliberately initiate general war’. This conclusion was not based on any hard and fast intelligence, but rather a reading of the ‘Russians’ political and military posture and the disadvantages to them of taking such action’.

The three elements to this assessment – gauging intent, monitoring capabilities, and reading the Russian mindset – would be central to the intelligence process in assessments of the Czechoslovak crisis the following year. Attempts to assess all three aspects, as the JIC readily conceded, were tremendously difficult, and intelligence of one could not be used to impute another. In Czechoslovakia the first stirrings began with the economy: specifically in attempts to liberalise it from the strictures of central, Communist planning. In the spring of 1968 Alexander Dubcek, the First Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, took things further with a widespread change in the senior echelons of the party and the publication of the ‘Action Programme’, which referred to the necessity of reforming the entire political system in Czechoslovakia.

For the leaders of the Soviet bloc, this was a step too far. Beginning in late March, the leaders of East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and the USSR held a series of meetings to discuss Dubcek and to pressurise the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev into doing something to bring him under control. The four satellite states urged the Soviet Union to intervene to halt the Czech liberalisation. Initially this pressure was to be felt in a series of Warsaw Pact military exercises, culminating in a large command-post exercise on Czech territory in late June 1968. Prior to the start of deployments there had been no Soviet troops based on Czech soil. By its culmination the military manoeuvres were to result in the arrival of over 25,000 troops. Most, but by no means all, of the Warsaw Pact forces withdrew from Czech territory by July 19, with the final divisions leaving on August 3.

These moves were complemented by a widespread KGB disinformation campaign. Monitoring the political and military developments, the JIC concluded that ‘while the possibility of Soviet military intervention cannot be altogether excluded, we consider it unlikely’. In the absence of direct intelligence, the JIC could only apply its logic to the situation: in hindsight it would be a classic case of applying transferred judgement and mirror imaging. While Brezhnev had the means to crush the Czech counter-revolution, there was no intelligence to suggest one way or the other whether he would do so. The JIC’s conclusion, which was mirrored by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (itself newly formed in 1968), was that a military response was a less viable option, on the grounds that it would generate a negative reaction worldwide. What the JIC did not consider in its assessment was whether Brezhnev would be forced to choose this option and disregard the possible worldwide reaction if reasserting control was deemed more important.

In late July, Dubcek was given one final chance to stop the ‘counter-revolution’. Meanwhile, new Warsaw Pact exercises began. The troops that had taken part in the exercises of the previous month in Czechoslovakia had been withdrawn, though they remained stationed on the periphery of the Czech border. Joining them were a number of additional troops; the result was a vast array of military force concentrated around Czechoslovakia. For the JIC the military exercises were part of the continuing war of nerves, a means of exerting psychological pressure on Dubcek. The final decision to invade was taken by the Politburo on August 17, 1968. The following day preparations were made to start the attack.

The timing was significant: it was a Sunday, when Soviet military activity was normally light; in addition, August 18 was Soviet Air Force Day, traditionally a holiday within the air force. The invasion itself began at 2030 local time on August 20, 1968. Within a few hours a quarter of a million Soviet bloc troops crossed the border and marched into Czechoslovakia. The Czech army, whose leadership had been changed by Dubcek months earlier, offered no resistance. Dubcek was arrested and, together with a number of other leaders, transported to Moscow. Within 24 hours the Soviet Union had achieved the total military occupation of Czechoslovakia and, within no time, the liberal changes wrought by Dubcek were slowly but surely reversed, and Czechoslovakia returned to its former position as a faithful ally of the Soviet Union.

Immediately afterwards the JIC conducted a post-mortem into what had gone wrong. The JIC found it tremendously difficult to grasp the perspective of those in the Kremlin, judging that the likely public response would be too damaging to allow that an invasion might be a realistic prospect. This, together with the assessment that Brezhnev’s overall outlook prioritised détente with the West, led to a belief that a military option would be unlikely. Thus the JIC underestimated the lengths to which the Soviet Union would go to maintain its control of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe.

A separate study by the Ministry of Defence concluded that if evidence of military capabilities had been considered in isolation, then the novel and unusual nature would have suggested that this was more than just a troop exercise, but this view was tempered by a judgement of the political intentions. It would be interesting to compare this episode, for instance, with the more recent mistakes in the run-up to the Russian annexation of the Crimea. Failures like this led, in 1980, to the secondment of Douglas Nicoll, a veteran of the British intelligence community, to produce a series of case-studies involving foreign acts of aggression, and to assess how well the intelligence community had done in predicting and monitoring the progress of events.

Surveying seven detailed case-studies, Nicoll identified the central role of the JIC in both intelligence and wider governmental responsibilities, commenting that ‘the provision of warning of possible aggressive action by the USSR against the West must be the highest priority requirement laid upon the JIC.’ The major importance of Nicoll’s study was his examination and depiction of the various traps awaiting analysts – of which they needed to be constantly aware. In doing so he highlighted six different pitfalls which could lead to errors of assessment or judgement, and which are just as important now as they were in the early 1980s:

• Mirror-Imaging – the view that your adversary would act in the same way as the UK would if faced by exactly the same scenario.

• Transferred Judgement – the assumption that a foreign aggressor would make the same calculation of the military balance, and therefore of their chances of victory, as the UK would in the same position.

• Perseveration – the likelihood that assessments made in the first stages of an event will affect subsequent judgements, even when evidence to the contrary is discovered.

• War as a Deliberate Act – countries do not simply slide into war, at some stage a conscious decision is taken to initiate hostilities.

• Coverage – assessments are difficult to produce in areas where the intelligence priority is low.

• Deception – the adversary will be doing everything possible to sow seeds of doubt and confuse you.

The Nicoll Report was discussed by the JIC at its meeting on March 4, 1982, declaring itself ‘alert to the lessons to be learnt’. Within a few weeks a copy of the report had been sent and received by the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The timing was critical: just a few days later the Argentine military junta authorised the invasion of the Falkland Islands. The subsequent review by Lord Franks as to what had gone wrong led to considerable criticism of the JIC for its failure to warn of possible Argentinean intentions. One of the impacts of the Falklands War was to lead the JIC to create a new Deputy Chief of the Assessments Staff role focused on early warning. That person would prove to be instrumental the following year in spotting that the Russians had over-reacted to a Nato exercise – Able Archer.

The main topic concerning the JIC throughout the late 1980s was the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms. Towards the end of the period, change in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had reached bewildering proportions. Much of the analysis in 1989, for example, was on whether perestroika (his restructuring reform programme), and indeed Gorbachev, would survive. The judgement on Eastern Europe was that although there was a long way to go before stable democratic systems were in place, most countries were firmly on a reforming path. And all of a sudden the Cold War ended.

In this last point, I’d like to consider what lessons emerge from the JIC’s warning function, arguably its most important one. To predict any event, several key questions need to be addressed: what, when, why, where, and how. As a predominantly strategy-focused body, the JIC faced an unenviable task: analysts had to issue a strategic warning far enough in advance of the feared event for officials to have the opportunity to take preventive action, while also imbuing the warning with enough credibility in order to motivate them to do so.

Perhaps even more difficult is to provide a detailed, tactical warning, not least given the limitations of intelligence. The JIC had to be satisfied by three factors to conclude that a country was preparing for an act of aggression: That the country would have the political will to undertake such action. That military action would achieve a desired political end. That specific military preparations to that end have begun. But high-level, reliable intelligence in these areas was almost always lacking, so analysis and interpretation became vital.

Consideration must also be given to the JIC itself in assessing its performance. One underlying issue is that of consensus: the JIC system is predicated on producing a unified, agreed report, yet it is not always possible to reach consensus. This can lead to a report with the lowest common denominator, often offering the blandest, most vague assessment; another outcome is that a paper might be issued in the JIC’s name but without the unanimous agreement of the committee members. Related to this – and something that Lord Butler commented upon in his report on Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – is the tone of the assessments themselves.

The majority of the JIC’s Cold War strategic assessments are so equivocal in content and tone that any number of events would have been possible within their parameters; very rarely are explicit statements or points of view expressed. I don’t have any prophetic words to end on, so let me finish with a quote from one of the Foreign Office’s research analysts, who worked there for most of the first half of the 20th century: ‘Year after year the worriers and fretters would come to me with awful predictions of the outbreak of war. I denied it each time. I was only wrong twice. It’s just a shame that those two errors were in 1914 and 1939.’

This essay originally appeared in ‘Knowledge and Information – Perspectives from Engelsberg Seminar, 2018’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.


Michael Goodman