Published on Thursday, February 13, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
CIA Director Caves In
by Ray McGovern
Wanted: gas masks for CIA’s analysis directorate. Not because of Code Orange, but to stanch the stench and give analysts’ arms some rest. They have been holding their noses ever since CIA Director George Tenet’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 11.
Tenet caved in to political pressure to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Equally important, he retracted key intelligence judgments of barely four months ago on Iraq.
As I watched the TV cameras pan Tenet sitting like a potted plant behind Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN briefing on February 5, the subliminal message came through loud and clear: the CIA stands, or sits, foursquare behind what Powell is saying.
Never mind that most CIA analysts and the president’s father’s former national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, still consider the evidence tying Iraq to al-Qaeda “scant.” Never mind that a “British intelligence” report described by Powell as “exquisite,” was based largely on a 12-year-old paper by a graduate student in California. As he looked on from his assigned seat, Tenet did not wince once.
In briefing the Senators, Tenet demonstrated high tolerance for cooking intelligence to the recipe of policy—a tolerance much higher than that of those analysts taken in by the verse chiseled into the marble at the entrance to CIA Headquarters—“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
With neither embarrassment nor explanation, the CIA director backtracked on key judgments on Iraq that he gave the Senate committee in a letter of October 7, 2002. Those conclusions were call-them-as-you-see-them judgments in the best tradition of objective CIA analysis. But they brought on severe reflux among those at the White House and Pentagon who prefer to damn the torpedoes and press full speed ahead to invade Iraq.
The Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to his credit, included in his written testimony at the Senate briefing a fearful list of the “desperate measures” Iraq is expected to take if attacked. But not wanting to be the skunk at the picnic, he left that part out of his oral remarks.
In his October 7 letter, Tenet had asserted that the probability is low that Iraq would initiate an attack with weapons of mass destruction or give them to terrorists…UNLESS: “Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorists actions.”
An inconvenient judgment, to say the least, for those pressing for the US to conduct such an attack. And an unfortunate coincidence that Tenet’s letter came the very on which the president warned, in a major speech in Cincinnati, that “the risk is simply too great that Saddam Hussein will use instruments of mass death and destruction, or provide them to a terror network.”
Since Tenet has adduced no credible intelligence information warranting change in his October judgment, his decision to blow smoke when questioned on this key point on February 11 was remarkable—and, for CIA analysts, demoralizing in the extreme. Tenet is fortunate that CIA’s Inspector General is a reliable CIA bureaucrat and that so many CIA analysts have mortgages and kids in college. Otherwise, the outrage among analytic ranks might well spell revolution.
With his February 11 testimony Tenet wins the dubious distinction of joining the club of predecessor CIA directors who, in the words of the widely respected CIA alumnus/historian, Harold Ford, “felt they had to adjust what might be called ‘pure’ intelligence judgments to ‘practical’ political considerations, lest they lose their place at the president’s table.”
Who does lose? The integrity of the intelligence process is one important casualty. But the real losers are the young men and women we send off to battle and whose names we later chisel into a wall.
Take Vietnam, for example. In early 1967, CIA analysts, led by a young analyst named Sam Adams demonstrated that there were more than twice as many Vietnamese Communist forces as the US military listed on its books. General William Westmoreland’s staff had reduced the numbers for political reasons.
The general was adamant, so CIA Director Helms caved. In November 1967 Helms signed and gave to President Johnson a formal National Intelligence Estimate enshrining the Army’s count of between 188,000 and 208,000 for enemy strength. My CIA analyst colleagues were aghast; their best estimate was 500,000.
Had Helms told the truth, the war could have ended much sooner. Rather, it dragged on for seven more years, filling the entire left half of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington with the names of those killed or missing in action.
I have a vivid memory of Sam Adams telling me at the time about a comment made to him by one of the most senior CIA officials. “Have we gone beyond the bounds of reasonable dishonesty?” the official asked. “We” had indeed. The question speaks volumes regarding the willingness of senior agency officials to politicize intelligence analysis at a time when it is critically necessary to speak truth to power—a time like now. Déjà vu.
Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years and is a co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He is co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an outreach ministry in the inner city of Washington.