WASHINGTON -- Newly declassified CIA documents reveal that the spy agency warned the Bush administration of the likelihood of a coup attempt by hard-liners in the Soviet Union four months before the August 1991 putsch against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The documents also show that, as early as May 1991, the CIA was advising the Bush administration that Mr. Gorbachev was finished politically even if he survived a coup attempt.
Yet despite the CIA's track record in forecasting events in the Soviet Union, U.S. public policy often failed to reflect the realities of the rapidly shifting political conditions there in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and CIA officials believe they have unfairly borne the brunt of the blame for that failure.
In fact, officials often failed to act on the CIA's secret warnings.
In early 1991, for example, when the CIA reported that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin was the rising star in Soviet politics, Mr. Bush stuck doggedly with Mr. Gorbachev.
The agency has declassified the documents -- containing primarily analysis by CIA Kremlinologists -- to refute the growing criticism in Congress and elsewhere that the CIA failed to anticipate the decline and fall of the Soviet Union.
Shortly after the coup attempt, it was reported that U.S. officials had warned Mr. Gorbachev a coup was imminent.
But the newly disclosed documents offer much greater insight into how early and accurately the CIA began to tell U.S. policy-makers about the likelihood of a coup.
Disclosure of the documents comes as criticism is being used to bolster arguments that the CIA's budget should be cut or the agency should be split into smaller pieces to separate analysis from spy work.
The documents show that the CIA began to predict as early as 1977 and 1978 that growing economic problems in the Soviet Union seemed certain to lead to great political upheaval in the 1980s.
Yet some in the agency now believe that the criticism it encountered over Soviet analysis underscores at least one problem: failure to communicate properly with top policy-makers at the White House.
The agency often failed to provide tightly focused intelligence reports that could catch the attention of the president and his national security advisers, some CIA officials now acknowledge.
Zel,.5 New CIA Director John M. Deutch has learned a lesson from that failure and is demanding that analytical work on Bosnia and other issues be far more concise.
Mr. Deutch has even stationed a CIA liaison officer at the White House to make sure that CIA analytical work quickly gets to the right desks.
Clinton administration officials praise the CIA's current efforts to sharpen previously long-winded and sometimes inconclusive reports.
"This is a lot more user-friendly group," said one White House official, referring to Mr. Deutch's new team.
After the end of the Cold War, congressional leaders were so concerned about what they saw as the CIA's failures that they prodded the CIA to bring in outside experts to review its work on the Soviet Union.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat and leading critic, has complained that "for all our enormous intelligence apparatus, we missed the collapse of the Soviet Union completely."
"No one knew what the deal was."
But CIA officials and their supporters said Mr. Moynihan's charges are baseless.
"It is absolutely wrong to say that the CIA missed it," observed Jack Matlock, who was U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991 -- and who personally warned Mr. Gorbachev in June 1991 of an imminent coup.
"It's become a persistent myth that they didn't see the decline of the Soviet Union," Mr. Matlock said.
"Their analysis was excellent.
"They didn't predict everything, but who can? They didn't predict the day of the coup, but even the coup plotters didn't decide until the last minute.
"Moynihan's charges are crazy."