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Post-Iraq-War US Intel Chief Praised
Thomas Fingar, former Director of the National Intelligence Council, will receive the annual award from Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence in recognition of Fingar’s work from 2005 to 2008 restoring respect for the battered discipline of U.S. intelligence analysis after the fraudulent assessments on Iraq’s non-existent WMD.
In 2007, as chief of intelligence analysis, Fingar managed a thoroughly professional – and unsparingly honest – National Intelligence Estimate on the live-wire issue of Iran’s nuclear program. That NIE was instrumental in thwarting plans by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to attack Iran before they left office.
At the time, it was widely believed in the Official Washington that Tehran was developing a nuclear weapon but, as a seasoned intelligence professional, Fingar was allergic to “group think.” He recruited the best experts and ordered an empirical, bottom-up approach to the evidence. And, as luck would have it, some critical new intelligence became available in 2007 during the drafting.
Thus, in the Iran NIE of early November 2007, all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies judged “with high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapon design and weaponization work in 2003. That key judgment has been revalidated in testimony to Congress every year since.
Fingar, now a professor at Stanford, is teaching in its overseas program at Oxford in the United Kingdom. The award – named for the late CIA analyst Sam Adams who challenged the U.S. military’s overly optimistic claims about Vietcong and North Vietnamese troop strength during the Vietnam War – will be presented to Fingar at the historic Oxford Union.
Discussing his upcoming award with Sam Adams Associates, Fingar showed little patience with the nonsensical charges that he and his analysts had to endure after the NIE on Iran hit the streets. He reminded us:
“The whole purpose was to provide as accurate and objective a picture of what we knew at the time. To have done otherwise would have been unprofessional and inconsistent with the reason we have an intelligence establishment.
“Every other characterization of security-related affairs provided to decision makers has, or is assumed to have, a policy agenda. The Intelligence Community exists not just to provide analyses based on ‘all’ the information available to others – plus, when it can get it, information not available to others – but also, and more importantly, to assemble and assess the information as objectively as possible.
“The job of the Intelligence Community is to help decision makers to make better-informed decisions. It most emphatically is not to lead or pressure them to decide issues in a particular way. … It is also the reason we spend billions of dollars on intelligence analysis. … In a fundamental way, we were simply ‘doing our jobs’ when we produced the Iran NIE.
“Those who did not like the conclusions knew or soon realized that they could not challenge our findings by disputing the existence or meaning of our evidence, so they pursued a different course. The ploy was completely transparent: allege that those who wrote the NIE were intelligence amateurs who had a political agenda, and claim that the alleged principal authors had been career-long opponents of President Bush.
“There are many ‘problems’ with this line of attack – problems that were overlooked by a remarkable number of journalists. … I didn’t write the NIE but, at the time, I had 37 years of intelligence experience – probably no longer an amateur.
“Neocon critics never explained why, if I had been a career-long opponent of George W. Bush, he had nominated me to be an assistant secretary of state, endorsed my selection as the first Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, and approved my selection to supervise preparation of materials for his daily briefing.”
Blocking a Dash to War
Without doubt, the NIE on Iran’s nuclear program made another rash decision to go to war in the Middle East untenable.
I myself have been involved in intelligence analysis for 50 years – 27 at the CIA; two as an Army infantry/intelligence officer, and the rest as a close observer. Yet, the November 2007 NIE is the only one I know of that deserves unambiguous credit for stopping an unnecessary war, one that could have been even more disastrous than the Bush administration’s excellent adventure in Iraq.
Don’t take my word for it. In his memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush acknowledged that the “eye-popping” findings of the 2007 NIE “tied my hands on the military side. … After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?
“I don’t know why the NIE was written the way it was … I certainly hoped intelligence analysts weren’t trying to influence policy. Whatever the explanation, the NIE had a big impact – and not a good one.”
As Bush’s comment made clear, intelligence analysts do not operate in a political vacuum. The real professionals, however, construct a protective shield against political influence, bias and an understandable-but-anathema eagerness to please superiors in the White House.
When I tell Washington cognoscenti that this shielding can actually work, and that the debacle with “intelligence” on Iraq was the “Cheney/Bush exemption to the rule,” their eyes roll in disbelief. Everyone in Washington is perceived to have a political agenda. It takes guts for senior intelligence officials to avoid playing into that perception.
Perhaps President Bush and Vice President Cheney can be forgiven for assuming that all senior intelligence officials are as eager to politicize their work as were former CIA Director George Tenet, his deputy John McLaughlin, and the senior managers who had bubbled to the top – with disastrous consequences for Iraq.
More than two decades had gone by since Director William Casey and his protégé, Robert Gates, began politicizing intelligence big-time. That is usually enough time to corrupt thoroughly any institution – and that proved to be true for the CIA. However, after the Iraq WMD catastrophe, professionals like Fingar stepped in to begin righting the intelligence ship.
The November 2007 NIE landed like a dead fish on the White House doorstep, causing the neocons and other war hawks to challenge the unanimous judgment of all 16 intelligence agencies as naïve. The drafters were pilloried with charges that they were soft on Iran and just trying to stop a war! But the deed was done; and we were spared another unnecessary bloodletting.
Oxford Site for Award
The Oxford Union will be hosting the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence award ceremony on Jan. 23. The ceremony will feature several individuals well known in the field of intelligence and related topics, including an exclusive address via videolink from Julian Assange, who won the award in 2010.
The award is one of the few accolades for high-level whistleblowers who have taken risks to honor the public’s need to know. Also at the Oxford ceremony will be several previous Sam Adams awardees, including Coleen Rowley, Katharine Gun, Craig Murray, and Thomas Drake. The acceptance speech by Dr. Fingar will be followed by briefer remarks from a few previous Sam Adams awardees.
Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence was established in 2002 by colleagues and admirers of the late CIA intelligence analyst Sam Adams to recognize those who uphold his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power. In honoring Adams’s memory, SAAII confers an award each year to someone in intelligence or related work who exemplifies Sam Adam’s courage, persistence, and devotion to truth — no matter the consequences.
It was Adams who discovered in 1967 that there were more than a half-million Vietnamese Communists under arms. This was roughly twice the number that the U.S. command in Saigon would admit to, lest Americans learn that claims of “progress” were bogus. As proven later in court, Gen. William Westmoreland had simply limited the number Army intelligence was allowed to carry on its books. His deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams revealed the deception in a cable from Saigon:
A SECRET/EYES ONLY cable from Abrams on Aug. 20, 1967 stated: “We have been projecting an image of success over recent months,” and cautioned that if the higher figures became public, “all available caveats and explanations will not prevent the press from drawing an erroneous and gloomy conclusion.”
The Communist countrywide offensive during Tet (January/February 1968) made it clear that the generals had been lying and that Sam Adams’ higher figures were correct. Senior officials of the Washington Establishment were aware of the deception, but lacked the courage to stand up to Westmoreland. Sam Adams himself was too much a creature of the system to go “outside channels.”
A few weeks after Tet, however, Daniel Ellsberg rose to the occasion. Ellsberg learned that Westmoreland was asking for 206,000 more troops to widen the war into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam — right up to the border with China, and perhaps beyond. Someone (we still don’t know who) promptly leaked to the New York Times Westmoreland’s troop request, emboldening Ellsberg to do likewise with Sam Adams’ figures.
It was Ellsberg’s first unauthorized disclosure. He had come to the view that leaking truth about a deceitful war would be “a patriotic and constructive act.” On March 19, 1968, the Times published a stinging story based on Adams’s figures.
On March 25, President Johnson complained to a small group, “The leaks to the New York Times hurt us. … We have no support for the war. This is caused by the 206,000 troop request and the leaks. … I would have given Westy the 206,000 men.” On March 31, 1968, Johnson ordered a bombing pause, opted for negotiations, and announced that he would not run for another term in November.
Sam Adams continued to press for honesty but stayed “inside channels” — and failed. He died at 55 of a heart attack in 1988, nagged by the thought that, had he gone to the media, thousands of lives might have been saved. His story is told in War of Numbers, published posthumously.
The annual Sam Adams Award has been given in previous years to truth tellers Coleen Rowley of the FBI; Katharine Gun of British Intelligence; Sibel Edmonds of the FBI; Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan; Sam Provance; former US Army Sgt at Abu Ghraib; Maj. Frank Grevil of Danish Army Intelligence; Larry Wilkerson, Col., U.S. Army (ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell at State; Julian Assange of WikiLeaks; and (ex aequo) to Thomas Drake, former senior official of NSA and Jesselyn Radack, Director of National Security and Human Rights, Government Accountability Project.