Covering the Summit: a Retrospective

By Ray McGovern

I have been musing — and have mixed emotions — about whether the June 16 Geneva summit will turn out to be the last U.S.-Russia summit I shall opt to cover — in essentially the same way I covered/supported earlier ones as a intelligence analyst in CIA’s Office of Current Intelligence. Will it perhaps turn out to be my Last (summit) Hurrah?

As a CIA specialist on Russian foreign policy, it was my privilege to help prepare presidents for summits with Moscow’s leaders — from Glassboro (June 1967; Johnson & Kosygin) to Reykyavik (October 1986; Reagan & Gorbachev).

During the early 70s when I led CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, I detailed three of our most talented analysts to support the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT): one with the negotiating delegations in Vienna or Helsinki, one with high-tech military analysts, and one to analyze/report on what was going on for senior officials in Washington.  This helped win me a catbird seat in Moscow in May 1972 where several key arms control agreements were signed at the Nixon-Brezhnev/Kosygin summit.

The May 1972 Summit

These agreements included the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (freezing their numbers at 1972 levels for five years), and the Incidents at Sea Agreement.  As I explained in my most recent interview with Regis Tremblay (link below), CIA’s work on verification was THE sine qua non for progress — in a word, we were responsible for the second half of “Trust but Verify”.

Each U.S.-Russian summit is sui generis. In late May 2021, however, when, amid very high tension involving Ukraine, a June 16 date was abruptly set for a Biden-Putin summit, it struck me that this one was, well, in a sui generis class by itself, if you will. There would be a premium on trying to piece together the whys, wherefores, and results. And this would present a daunting challenge to analyze and report on, knowing all the while that the hired hands at the NY Times had probably already written their “analyses” before the summit even began (see below).

Back in the Day

It struck me that I might try to provide insights drawn from on my own professional experience with U.S.-Russia summits, drawing largely on the non-arcane but high-value discipline of media analysis.  I decided to transport myself to “back in the day” when U.S. taxpayers were paying me to do such work — or supervise it — without fear or favor.

I spent three pretty intensive weeks trying to figure what was going on, what was likely to happen, and what to expect post-summit. It turned out to be a high — not least because I was completely free to prescind from any and all political agendas (as we CIA analysts were normally able to do during those halcyon pre-William-Casey/cum-clone-Robert-Gates years).

Early returns on the June 16 summit are now in. I can only hope that readers/viewers of the old current-intelligence-style reporting (aka, journalism with reality-based analysis) were provided with helpful insight. 

My guess at this point is that the confused and somewhat urgent circumstances that prompted Biden to request a summit are not likely to be replicated in the next few years.  I probably should pass the baton to younger folks, now that I have reached what my attorney father used to call, jokingly, “the age of statutory senility”. But before I go …

… if any of you would be interested in how an independent, current-intelligence, reality-based analyst might approach a challenge like a high-stakes summit, I invite you to peruse the list of links below. They are arranged in reverse chronological order.

And for a touch of comic relief, I shall tack on a tweet I posted this morning:

Putin-bashing on steroids by acclaimed NYT story-teller – a baker well aware which side his bread is buttered on. For readers able to hold nose and stomach it, a prize for her/him who can find the most outright lies in Peter Baker’s 1st post-summit piece.

(The link to Peter Baker’s article is, I think appropriately, at the very bottom.) 
(Regis Tremblay post-summit interview)
(By Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity)
(Regis Tremblay pre-summit interview)
(It turned out — See link at top of this list — China did form the backdrop, but Biden got it 180-degrees wrong.)


Peter Baker: