Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's long-term hold on power is an open question. Widespread political unrest can be expected in Eastern Europe, perhaps in the coming decade. And the weapon with the most potential in the Western arsenal aimed at the Soviet Union is small, cheap, and plastic: a videocassette. Those are some of the forecasts of American intelligence specialists who met here recently to survey United States intelligence needs for the 1990s.
These experts - including present and former officials of US intelligence agencies, consultants, and academic experts - held a three-day conference here to pinpoint where and how the US should direct its intelligence assets. The conference, sponsored by the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, sparked some provocative debate.
The experts agreed that one of the greatest challenges facing Moscow is the ``information revolution'' that is sweeping the West. It will inevitably wash into the Soviet Union, according to some analysts, with potentially far-reaching consequences.
Modern technology has already helped to bring down one government: Ayatollah Khomeini's urgings to overthrow the Shah of Iran were smuggled into Iran on audio cassettes.
Could videocassettes shake the foundations of Soviet society? As videocassette recorders proliferate in the Soviet Union, can cassettes be used to introduce Western images and ideas into a heretofore closed society? Should Western intelligence agencies become involved in the process? Indeed, have they already? (A videotape calling attention to the lavish spending and expensive fashions of Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the Soviet leader, is now being clandestinely circulated in the Soviet Union.)
``The political leadership knows they have to bring on board that thing [information technology] that has fueled the economic revitalization of the West,'' says a senior analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency. ``I don't think they know how to handle it.''
The strength of Mr. Gorbachev's grip on power is a matter of endless speculation among America's intelligence agencies. Some US experts apparently believe that his hold on power could become shaky if he fails to deliver promised economic reform and revitalization in the next three to four years.
Although there has been an uptick in the Soviet economy since Gorbachev came to power, some officials think that is merely the result of pulling in slack rather than of fundamental structural change. Consequently, they say, the upward movement could be halted abruptly.
``If they [Kremlin leaders] lose the momentum,'' says Richard F. Staar, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, ``it seems to me things will be a shambles.''
``I'm suggesting that he [Gorbachev] may be out before the next party congress [in 1991],'' Dr. Staar says.
A number of experts predict major upheaval in Eastern Europe before the end of this century - not in spite of, but precisely because of, the kinds of economic change that Gorbachev is trying to bring about in the USSR.
The Soviet Union is demanding higher-quality goods from Eastern Europe. Experts say that means fewer of those goods will be available for sale in the West, which means less hard currency for East-bloc countries. That, in turn, makes it harder for these countries to import new machinery for their own efforts to modernize. And that, according to some experts, is likely to cause growing resentment against Moscow.
Already, one analyst says, economic growth rates in some Eastern European countries are flattening. At the same time, the party leaders are growing older, making a generational change in leadership inevitable in many East-bloc countries. Moreover, while Moscow is calling for greater economic cooperation from Eastern Europe, it is also calling for greater openness (glasnost) and freer criticism.
``What if [the Eastern Europeans] take glasnost seriously?'' asks Dimitri Simes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The result, he says, could be major political upheaval.
``I'm very pessimistic about the future in Eastern Europe,'' says Alexander Alexiev, a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation. ``Sooner or later, we'll have a political earthquake there.''
Dr. Pedro Ramet, a scholar at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Research Studies, agrees, predicting that ``such a political earthquake should be expected to dwarf what happened [in Hungary] in 1956 or [in Czechoslovakia] in 1968.''
Other problems - such as growing ethnic tensions, an upsurge in the number of religious believers, and environmental degradation - will also create problems for the Soviet Union and its East-bloc allies, according to a number of experts.
But some admit that there remain significant gaps in their understanding of present trends in the USSR and, therefore, major shortcomings in their ability to predict Soviet behavior.
One key question, according to a senior US intelligence analyst, is whether or not Gorbachev will emerge as a ``risk taker.'' The answer to that question could give some hint as to how adventuresome the USSR will become, both at home and abroad, in the years ahead.