The Skeptical Spy

Ray McGovern is tearing away at the nation’s mismanaged and malfunctioning intelligence apparatus, all in an effort to save it.

Photo: Associated Press/Wide World Photos

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When David Kay, the CIA’s former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, announced earlier this year that his team had found no stockpiled weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he touched off an explosion of blame, finger-pointing, denial, and hasty “clarifications” about the extent and accuracy of the intelligence that the Bush Administration used to buttress its decision to invade Iraq. Kay’s startling conclusion, though, came as no surprise to many analysts in the U.S. intelligence community — particularly the members of a self-described “movement” of some 35 retired and resigned high-level U.S. intelligence operatives.

The group, “Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity,” has produced some of the most credible, and critical, analyses of the Bush Administration’s handling of intelligence data in the run-up to the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq. Starting with a next-day analysis of Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003 speech to the Security Council of the United Nations, the group’s steering committee of a half-dozen intelligence veterans has published eleven detailed analytical memoranda directed to President Bush, Colin Powell, and Kofi Annan, among others, assessing what the Bush Administration knew about Iraq before, during, and after the war, and how that intelligence has been used–and misused. spoke with Ray McGovern, a member of the VIPS steering committee and a 27-year veteran of the CIA who prepared and delivered daily presidential briefings during the Reagan years. McGovern participated in the drafting of all but one of the group’s 11 memoranda, and has written over 20 op-ed pieces in the past two years for such venues as the Miami Herald and First, the obvious question. Why should anybody listen to what VIPS has to say?

Ray McGovern: Well, two things on that. First, the proof is in the pudding. Read what we’ve written. Well before the war started, we were saying that there certainly weren’t enough weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to warrant a war, that there weren’t any weapons there that were even a threat to other countries in the region. Second, believe it or not, 85 percent of the material one needs to analyze these crucial problems is available publicly. This has always been the case. With the incredible amount of information available on the Internet, I can by ten o’clock in the morning, be morally certain that I have 80 to 90 percent of the information that’s available on a given subject.

I spent 27 years analyzing top officials and their pronouncements, and the media that they control, or the media that was existing in their countries at the time. So media analysis, which is a sub-discipline of political science, is something that one picks up very quickly. The more so when one works on areas like the old Soviet Union or China. So, it’s a piece of cake to sit down and look at what Condoleeza Rice said, and what Colin Powell said.

This is a case in point. On February 24, 2001, Colin Powell said, “Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. Containment has worked. The sanctions have worked. It poses neither a strategic threat, nor a threat to countries within its own region.” Rice said pretty much the same thing in July of 2001. What happened? Well, what did happen? Is the intelligence community being scapegoated by the Bush administration for its own mistakes about Iraq?

RM: That’s too simple. The intelligence community screwed up big time. And it’s also been politicized from the top. The best example of that is the National Intelligence Estimate of October, 2002, You’re talking about the estimate that was released in a sanitized version by the White House on July 18, 2003?

RM: Yes. The important thing here is that in one very key sense, that estimate was irrelevant. That estimate was an ex-post-facto paper, coming several months after the decision for war. It is amply demonstrated that the Administration decided to go to war against Iraq in the spring of 2002, at the latest. Now at that time — and this is the important point — there was no intelligence estimate. That’s a perversion of the process: The estimate comes first, for obvious reasons. You do the estimate and you figure out what the best policy is. In Vietnam and other key junctures in U.S. foreign policy, we always did an estimate first.

Why was there no estimate this time? Because an honest estimate would have come up with the “wrong” answer. It would have been very unwelcome, because the honest estimate would have said, ‘we don’t know diddly about what’s going on in Iraq, and we can’t confirm anything, and it’s very very doubtful that they have anything that’s a real threat to us.’

But then somebody asked Bob Graham, on the Senate Intelligence Committee, whether he had seen an estimate. Graham said, no, and that maybe we ought to order one up. He wrote to George Tenet, saying ‘I find it curious that there’s no estimate. Do you think you could do one before we are asked to vote?’

But Tenet’s marching orders from the White House were very clear: Dick Cheney had set out the case on the 26th of August in the most hard-line speech to date, saying that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, and that U.N. inspections weren’t worth diddly. So Tenet produced an estimate that dovetailed nicely with what Cheney said. It circulated in draft and was briefed to the various Senate and House committees.

And then, on October 10 and 11, the Congress voted to cede their power to make war to the Executive branch. This was the first time that I know of in American history, where one branch of government deliberately set out — and succeeded — in deceiving another branch into forfeiting its Constitutional duties. When did you and the other retired/resigned intelligence officers begin to think that the intelligence was being distorted or misused by the Bush administration?

RM: It was pretty clear early on, certainly in 2002.

We established our group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, in January of last year. Before that several of us had been writing op-eds, and we had been giving each other sanity checks, because the conclusions we were coming up with were pretty far out — that the President and the Secretary of State were lying through their teeth. How many members does VIPS have now?

RM: Thirty-five. Are there active members of the intelligence community working with VIPS?

RM: Yes, but not as members of VIPS. We don’t proselytize or try to recruit, and we don’t even have a website But you’re hearing from other retired and resigned intelligence professionals?

RM: Exactly, and from virtually all the agencies, not just CIA. We’re hearing from some very distinguished operations officers, and from the FBI, Defense Intelligence, from the NSA, Army Intelligence, and from the State Department. Why are you speaking out like this?

RM: Because there is no English word to describe our outrage. We’ve been watching this for a year now, and we’ve published eleven memos on what the Bush administration has done. We’re just aghast at what we saw all during 2002.

We have never seen anything like this orchestrated campaign, as the Administration chose to play on America’s real suffering and trauma to sell an illegal and unnecessary war. In light of what’s gone on recently, what is your group’s feeling now about our intelligence capabilities and how intelligence is being used?

RM: The intelligence process is broken, really broken. This is, in terms of the immediate problem, the only thing that the President is right about — it is a dangerous world out there. He’s helped make it so, but it is very dangerous, and there is an intelligence process here that has been prostituted and battered around. What do you make of Kay’s statement that “We were almost all wrong”?

RM: “Almost” is really very appealing to me because it suggests that he’s read the issuances of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

I think David Kay is a good scientist. And that makes him different from all these other guys. He’s a scientist, an empiricist. He went out there to Iraq fully expecting to find all these weapons of mass destruction. And he finds nothing. He comes back and says, “I can’t find anything.” And he’s told, ‘go back.’ So he goes back, and then finally he says “I’m going to leave now, and we’ve looked at 85 percent of the likely places and there’s nothing there, and that’s what I’m going to have to tell the American people.”

He’s a gutsy guy, he told the truth–which is really refreshing in all this. Kay went on to say that the intelligence community owed George Bush an apology rather than Bush owing an apology to the American people. Is he right?

RM: It’s a “both/and” situation.

For the longest time, Tenet was resisting the notion that there was any palpable tie Between Al Qaeda and Iraq. And of course he was right about that. It wasn’t until Bush said, ‘we could have a war here so we’re going to pull out all the stops. Colin Powell is going up [to the U.N.], and he’s going to make the best case he can about ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq. He’s going to say, for example, that Iraq was training Al Qaeda in poisonous weaponry and all that kind of stuff, so why don’t you sit right behind him there, and support him on all that?’

When that happened, the good analysts, the honest ones, were just aghast. You can imagine what a morale-destroyer that is, to watch your boss sit like a potted plant behind Colin Powell, as if to say, hey this is what we think too, while all the stuff that Colin Powell was saying was demonstrably untrue. A lot of [the honest analysts] are just disconsolate. A lot of them are leaving. But it’s hard to leave, you know, you’ve got ten years invested in a place like that.

The ones that are hanging around, well there are two kinds. One kind is saying, ‘well we’ll hang in there and wait to fight another day.’ And then there are the kinds that smell the prevailing winds. They are the willing accomplices of George Tenet in cooking the intelligence to the recipe of high policy. That’s been done in the past, but never in so concentrated and orchestrated in so prolonged, cynical a way. Kay and Tenet have been making a point of saying that the intelligence analysts were not pressured. What do you make of that?

RM: Methinks they doth protest too much. And I think you are going to get analysts coming forward now, saying ‘This is really a crock, I can’t stand it anymore, and this is what really happened.’ What did you make of Tenet’s recent speech at Georgetown?

RM: He was trying to defend his performance, and the performance of the government, and the intelligence community. And he was doing it in the only way it could be done –- in an incredibly disingenuous way

It was a great performance. Talk about cherry-picking. For God’s sake, Tenet cited Hussein Kamel, the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, who headed up the biological, chemical, nuclear missile programs before he defected in 1995. He cited some of what Kamel said, about some biological weapons, but he neglected to mention the rest of what Kamel said, that the chemical and biological weaponry was destroyed in the summer of 1991.

That’s what Kamel told us in ’95, and everything else he told us checked out. But here’s Tenet, citing only the really bad things that Kamel said. “Disingenuous” is a very mild word to describe what Tenet did. Can the intelligence apparatus be fixed?

RM: For the first time in my forty years of watching intelligence, I’m not sure it can be fixed. There are structural faults, almost literally structural, in the way the CIA is set up. What are the structural problems?

RM: The primary one is with the National Security Act itself. It stressed two primary functions: One, that there be one “central place” for all the nation’s intelligence, and two, that this one agency would have no policy axes to grind. It was supposed to give the President the unvarnished truth, without fear or favor, and with career protection. Those are the first two duties of the CIA.

But there is a third duty, established in 1947, that refers to “such other functions” as the President and the NSC might deem necessary — that is, “covert action.” It made sense at the time, given the conflict with the Soviet Union. But now, should covert action be part of the same agency that’s performing the other two duties?

There is a built-in conflict. Suppose you’ve got one part of the Agency running a secret war in Central America, and you have analysts in the same agency looking at that war and saying, honestly, that the war makes no sense. That’s real. That’s a very big structural fault. What do you make of the independent intelligence commission Bush created in early February?

RM: Well there are three overarching aspects, and they have nothing to do with who’s on the commission. First is the timing. This is being arranged so it will not interfere with the President’s re-election prospects. Which is cynical in the extreme. Second, it was supposed to be about weapons of mass destruction. But it’s not about that any more. Now it’s about “intelligence community performance on proliferation,” which is a transparent effort to widen the thing out so that the real crux of the matter, the missing weapons of mass destruction, can be hidden in the weeds, so to speak. Third, the President gets to pick these guys. So nothing will come of this commission. And the investigation being conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee?

RM: [laughs] Yeah, I’m reminded of when Richard Nixon told Attorney General John Mitchell to conduct a good, thorough investigation of Watergate. Do you think any of the investigations in the works can accomplish any of the changes that need to be made?

RM: No. Very seldom can you give an answer that simple. But, no.


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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