Price for Witnessing Against War
The funeral for anti-war priest Daniel Berrigan was a reminder of humanity’s need to challenge immoral government actions and the price that one pays for doing so
Fr. Daniel Berrigan’s funeral was being live-streamed Friday, as I started to write this, which seems only fitting. Dan’s witness and writing have been a constantly re-chargeable battery for my moral compass.
Live-streaming (arranged by America magazine) was the next-best thing to being at the funeral in person. And it brought back memories of getting shoe-horned into West Baltimore’s St. Peter Claver church in early December 2002 for an equally moving celebration of the life of Dan’s younger brother, Fr. Phil Berrigan.
Homilist Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J., who has spent more than a decade in this or that prison for non-violent resistance to war began with some Berrigan-style Irish humor: “Let members of the FBI assigned here today validate that it is Daniel Berrigan’s funeral Mass of the Resurrection, so they can complete and perhaps close their files. ‘Death has no dominion!’ to quote Daniel’s friend William Stringfellow.”
Kelly then minced no words in calling out “appointed pastors who collude with structures of domination, blessing the bombs.”
Tears welled as I watched Catholic Worker friends drop a large banner with the words from Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares. Nations shall make war no more,” a charge lived into by all three brothers Berrigan – Jerry, Dan, and Phil.
And I thought back on what I learned decades ago at retreats led by Dan on the prophets Isaiah and Amos.
During the eulogy, Liz McAlister, Phil’s widow, quoted from the “apology” Dan wrote for burning draft cards with home-made napalm in Catonsville, Maryland, in May 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War:
“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house.”
Liz continued to read from the Statement of the Catonsville 9: “The suppression of truth stops here; this war stops here!” (emphasis added by Liz’s own prophetic voice.) Not stopping was the loud, un-church-like cheering that rattled the rafters.
So Liz added a vintage Berrigan admonition for those who “seek ways to exempt themselves from responsibility.” I had the feeling that the affirming crowd would still be making a din, had not Phil’s daughter Frida gently gestured: Please, let my mom finish.
Thanks to the live-streaming, I could discern many of my friends at the still functioning Dorothy Day Catholic Worker houses for men and women in the Bowery. The only folks missing were those doing the daily Martha-work of preparing food for the lunch line. Ringing in my ears was another charge, heard hundreds of times from my Irish grandmother: “Show me your company, and I’ll tell you who you are!”
As the daughter of the late Jerry Berrigan, eldest of the three brothers, added her words to the eulogy, I felt proud to be out on bail, awaiting trial with 11 others of the “Jerry Berrigan Memorial Anti-Drone Brigade” for shutting down the main entrance and exit to Hancock Air Force Base Brigade near Syracuse, New York, on the morning of Jan. 28, 2016. Jerry, who lived in Syracuse, was frequently arrested there for similar protests against drone killings.
‘Whatever His Views, He’s Harmless’
Following people like Dan, Phil, and Jerry can get you beaten up and thrown in jail, but the benefits are out of this world, so to speak. Watching Dan’s funeral, I found myself musing over the words chosen by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s confidant Sidney Blumenthal, reassuring Clinton that she had nothing to fear from the likes of me.
On Feb. 15, 2011, at George Washington University, Clinton had, with callous aplomb, completely ignored my getting assaulted by two security personnel as I silently stood directly in front of her with my back turned.
In a Feb. 18, 2011 email, Blumenthal explained: “Ray McGovern, a former CIA officer who gave the daily brief for President George H.W. Bush, is pretty well known in the intelligence community. He’s become a Christian antiwar leftist who goes around bearing witness. Whatever his views, he’s harmless.”
Harmless or not, I can see my grandmother smiling down at the company I now keep, and whispering in her thick Irish brogue, “If you were really harmless, Raymond, they would not be writing them email things about you.”
It was not so long ago that I moved in circles where the label “activist” was dismissed as misguided but, well, harmless. How fortunate, then, to learn of the definition given to activism by my co-passenger on the U.S. Boat to Gaza, poet Alice Walker: “Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.”
I could not be more grateful at having fallen in, better late than never, with such companions. Dan’s funeral served as a reminder of how much my journey has changed – having witnessed power from the inside, and the consequences of challenging it from the outside.
On the Inside
During the first Ronald Reagan administration, it was my job to conduct early morning one-on-one briefings of the Secretary of Defense (Caspar Weinberger), Secretary of State (George Shultz), and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Jack Vessey) and also, depending on their schedules, Vice President George H. W. Bush, as well as a movable feast of Assistants to the President for National Security Affairs.
Another senior CIA officer and I took turns, each of us briefing every other day six days a week. As professional intelligence analysts, we conducted ourselves in a completely non-partisan way, and our services were appreciated. We relied largely on The President’s Daily Brief that we had helped prepare the day before, and we updated and supplemented the material in it, as needed.
Ronald Reagan was given these one-on-one briefings as soon as he became president-elect and put considerable value on them. Once in the White House, however, he ordered that, as a general rule, the early morning briefings be given to his most senior national security advisers whom he would normally ask to brief him directly several hours later.
When I took early retirement at age 50, I was fully aware that few others on “the outside” had the privilege of acquiring a first-hand feel for how intelligence could be used, and power abused.
At the time, however, I had no inkling that the creeping politicization and careerism fostered by senior CIA official Robert Gates on behalf of Reagan’s CIA Director William Casey would corrupt managers and analysts alike to the point they would let themselves be suborned into conjuring up the kind of faux intelligence that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney ordered up to “justify” war on Iraq.
‘Quid Est Veritas?’
What brought this to mind earlier this week was the tenth anniversary of an impromptu, four-minute debate that I had with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Atlanta on May 4, 2006.
It was not hard to prove him an inveterate liar about important matters like the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) he said were in Iraq – but weren’t; and the ties that existed between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein – but didn’t. But my Rumsfeld anniversary brought a painful reminder that things have hardly improved – and that no one has challenged former Secretary Clinton openly about her lies – about Syria and Libya, for example. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “A Need to Clear Up Clinton Questions.”]
The opportunities for such challenge have become fewer; the penalties harsher; the Fawning Corporate Media dumber and dumber.
The mini-debate with Rumsfeld in Atlanta depended largely on luck. Not only had I truth as my breastplate, so to speak, but the stars were nicely aligned. People like Rumsfeld, an accomplished Princeton debater (and, for that matter, Wellesley valedictorian Hillary Clinton), are required to keep careful track of their lies. Those not normally burdened with that extra chore – professional intelligence analysts, for example – enjoy a distinct advantage, even in times like these, when all too many Caesars keep asking “Quid est Veritas?” – “what is truth?” – a phrase attributed to Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus.
As it turned out, I had some success – momentarily, at least – exposing Rumsfeld, who had played fast and loose with the truth, while enjoying the “matinee-idol” label pinned on him by President George W. Bush during the initial weeks of “shock and awe.”
The abundance of evidence notwithstanding, my attempts to expose the lies of Hillary Clinton proved much more difficult (as I was wrestled away by security guards for turning my back on the Secretary of State), and I had zero success exposing Teflon-coated General (and former CIA Director) David Petraeus for the fraud he is (as I was arrested by New York City police at the entrance of a Petraeus speech). Worse still, the violence I encountered escalated with each nonviolent attempt.
With Rumsfeld, none of the media stenographers at Pentagon briefings ever looked up from their pads long enough to ask the Defense Secretary a direct question about his prevarications, so the Pentagon prima donna seemed a bit shocked by a factual question he could not spin.
So, Rumsfeld was not used to fielding “impertinent,” un-self-censored questions. Indeed, it may have seemed to some as though I were unfairly blindsiding the poor Secretary of Defense.
An Exchange with Power
The setting for Rumsfeld’s talk was a little-known, defense-secretary-friendly-Southern-white-male-upper-crust “think tank.” There was no advance notice of Rumsfeld’s talk on its website, but some women friends from the World Can’t Wait figured out a way to get me a ticket (for $70!).
The impromptu debate went as follows:
RAY McGOVERN: And so, I would like to ask you to be up front with the American people. Why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary and that has caused these kinds of casualties? Why?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, first of all, I haven’t lied. I did not lie then. Colin Powell didn’t lie. He spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence Agency people and prepared a presentation that I know he believed was accurate, and he presented that to the United Nations. The President spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence people, and he went to the American people and made a presentation. I’m not in the intelligence business. They gave the world their honest opinion. It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.
RAY McGOVERN: You said you knew where they were?
DONALD RUMSFELD: I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were, and we were —
RAY McGOVERN: You said you knew where they were, “near Tikrit, near Baghdad, and northeast, south and west of there.” Those were your words.
DONALD RUMSFELD: My words — my words were — no, no, no, wait a minute! Let him stay one second. Just a second.
RAY McGOVERN: This is America, huh? Go ahead.
DONALD RUMSFELD: You’re getting plenty of play, sir.
RAY McGOVERN: I’d just like an honest answer.
DONALD RUMSFELD: I’m giving it to you.
RAY McGOVERN: We’re talking about lies and your allegation that there was bulletproof evidence of ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Was that a lie or were you misled?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Zarqawi was in Baghdad during the prewar period. That is a fact.
RAY McGOVERN: Zarqawi, he was in the north of Iraq, in a place where Saddam Hussein had no rule. That’s where he was.
DONALD RUMSFELD: He was also in Baghdad.
RAY McGOVERN: Yeah, when he needed to go to the hospital. Come on, these people aren’t idiots. They know the story.
DONALD RUMSFELD: You are — let me give you an example. It’s easy for you to make a charge, but why do you think that the men and women in uniform every day, when they came out of Kuwait and went into Iraq, put on chemical weapon protective suits? Because they liked the style? They honestly believed that there were chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons on his own people previously. He had used them on his neighbor, the Iranians. And they believed he had those weapons. We believed he had those weapons.
RAY McGOVERN: That’s what we call a non-sequitur. It doesn’t matter what the troops believe. It matters what you believe.
MODERATOR: I think, Mr. Secretary, the debate is over. We have other questions, courtesy to the audience.
‘Let Him Stay’
Early in the exchange, the black-hatted point man from Rumsfeld’s SWAT Team (clearly seen in the video) put his elbow in my solar plexus as I was speaking and started to pry me from the microphone to which I was adhering like permanent glue.
However, after a glance in the direction of the TV cameras, Rumsfeld waved him off, with a “no, no, no, wait a minute! Let him stay one second. Just a second.” It was a snap decision to continue the debate, with Rumsfeld convinced he could put me in my place. After all, I had identified myself as a former CIA analyst, and Rumsfeld had had an easy time intimidating CIA directors George Tenet and Porter Goss, as well as those of my former colleagues badgered into dancing the Cheney/Rumsfeld fraudulent tango on Iraq.
The event also took place early enough that afternoon to make the evening news. Better still, the event was aired live on C-Span and CNN. All this together made it very difficult for TV producers, anchors and pundits to brush off my challenges to Rumsfeld as inconsequential. Besides, there was very little happening that was newsworthy on May 4, 2006, which put icing on the cake.
In any case, the tense scene of a citizen challenging the great and powerful Rumsfeld with real questions was so unusual that even the corporate media recognized it as “news” and gave it at least fleeting attention on the evening news shows.
But my unmasking of Rumsfeld’s Iraq War lies also created a highly unwelcome precedent that I would be made to pay for by soon being pigeonholed as a disgruntled stalker.
CNN anchor Paula Zahn’s first questions that evening were (1) “How long have you harbored this animus against Donald Rumsfeld?” and (2) why was I “following the Secretary of Defense all the way down to Atlanta?”
I explained that, in fact, I had gotten to Atlanta first – to receive, that same evening, the ACLU’s National Civil Liberties Award (won the previous year by Coretta Scott King).
I could not remember how long I had had “this animus” toward Rumsfeld. Were I quicker on my feet, I would have said something like — since his lies got thousands of human beings killed in an unnecessary war. But you don’t get a do-over.
After the Zahn interview, CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s first question, asked of me haltingly as I was exiting the auditorium, was much less hostile but, in its own way, far more revealing: “Weren’t you afraid?” he asked. Think about that for a while.
No Such Luck With Hillary
Five years later, with some slight hope for an encore during a possible Q & A – this time with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – I wangled a ticket to hear her speak at George Washington University on Feb. 15, 2011. After several minutes of fulsome praise from the university president and prolonged, standing, adulatory applause from the carefully chosen audience, before Clinton even uttered a word, I decided to remain standing in silence with my back to her.
Unlike Rumsfeld in 2006, Secretary of State Clinton was taking no chances. True, her speech focused on the need to respect dissent, but she was talking about the authorities in Iran, not in Washington. She missed not a syllable as she watched me brutalized directly in front of her and then dragged down the main aisle (with Clinton seeing-no-evil and nary a peep from the Hillary-friendly audience of by-standers/by-sitters).
Once outside the auditorium, a Clinton security-woman interrogated me at some length, after two sets of steel handcuffs were put on my wrists. I was then arrested and dumped into jail.
Perhaps Clinton thought her tacit condoning of this pre-emptive strike by her security folks would provide a useful deterrent to others who might choose nonviolent but highly visible ways to express dissent – or, God forbid, ask an impertinent question of the kind asked of Rumsfeld in Atlanta.
Unlike my encounter with Rumsfeld and even though multiple TV cameras caught the brutal way I was seized and thrown out directly in front of Hillary Clinton (“escorted out” is the gentle way Fox News put it), there was almost no further mention in mainstream media.
The Clinton incident happened at the same time of day as my mini-debate with Rumsfeld, so its absence from the evening news had nothing to do with the news cycle. Still, one would have thought the Kafkaesque nature of my brutalization at the very moment Clinton waxed eloquent about respecting dissent – in Iran – might have provided irresistible grist for a news story or commentary.
But in the five years that had passed since the Rumsfeld event in Atlanta, the media had grown five years-worth tamer. And, in contrast to Rumsfeld’s quick calculation as he looked at the cameras in the back, Clinton apparently believed she could count on the TV outlets and pundits NOT to give much coverage to the assault. In any case, she calculated correctly.
A number of Washington media stenographers were there, of course, as well as the cameras, but the evening TV producers and anchors chose the safer path. After all, no “sensible” commentator or outlet will gratuitously put out of joint the nose of a probable heiress to the presidency.
Less Tolerance of Dissent
If my understandable chagrin at the way Hillary Clinton ignored the assault right in front of her leaves me open to charges of having an “animus” toward Hillary Clinton, so be it. That is very small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.
My “animus” was substantive – her share of responsibility for all manner of death and destruction because of her vote for the Iraq War and the benighted escalation/surge in Afghanistan, for example. It would be only another couple of months after her GWU speech before she helped create equal tragedies in Libya and Syria.
I suppose I should thank my blessings in having avoided the far more brutal, fatal treatment accorded Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Although I had a ticket to hear David Petraeus speak at the 92nd Y in New York City on Oct. 30, 2014, I was barred from even entering, roughly treated, whisked away by NYPD cops already on the scene and jailed overnight in the infamous “The Tombs” beneath the Criminal Court in lower Manhattan.
Although my arrest occurred in the so-called “media capital of the world,” the incident was almost completely ignored at least in the mainstream media. [See Consortiumnnews.com’s, “When Silencing Dissent Isn’t News.”]
The trend seems to be more violence from the “organs of state security,” as they were known in Soviet parlance, and more silence in the mainstream media.
All the more need to follow the example of the Berrigans.