How to Create a WIA—Worthless Intelligence Agency

In term two, fantasy will reign supreme when it comes to the sort of intelligence the President and his cronies might care to hear.

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Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

It’s well known that Washington was originally built on a pestilential swamp. Right now, the Bush administration is in the process of draining its own “swamp” of potential critics and doubters of any sort and installing “family” members, many from George’s (and Karl’s) old Texas days, others “adoptees” like Condoleezza Rice, ever more firmly in positions of ever greater power. Though many have written about this night of the loyalists recently, New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller, who often seems little short of an Oval Office staff member herself, produced a wonderful little mash note on the subject Monday (White House Letter: In the New Bush Cabinet, Loyalty Trumps Celebrity). She wrote in part:

“President Bush appears to have picked his new cabinet with the view that he has plenty of friends and doesn’t need to make new ones… As anyone who watched the job-hopping last week in Washington knows, the president promoted not just men and women he knows and likes. He elevated the most loyal of loyalists, staff members he has worked with for decades, most reaching far back to Texas.”

In describing the appointment of his Texas camp followers to positions ranging from Attorney General and Secretary of Education to White House Counsel, Bumiller even manages to find a “critic” of the appointments who couldn’t be sunnier: “‘The good news is that these appointments don’t represent the kind of ideological red flags that obviously could upset a lot of people,’ said Leon E. Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.”

Really, Leon? Evidently neither Panetta, nor Bumiller read Alan Berlow in the Washington Post or Lou DuBose in the LA Weekly on Alberto Gonzales, Bush family lawyer and a sealed-lips insider who regularly raises the red flag of Bushism high above the ramparts. During the President’s first term, for instance, he made himself useful by overseeing the development of a series of legal justifications for torture meant to underpin an offshore global torture regime just for his guy. In the process, he dismissed the Geneva Conventions (officially the law of the land) as “obsolete” and in some provisions as “quaint”. No red flags in rejecting Ye Olde Geneva Conventions, I guess. As Dubose writes, “Gonzales was retained to tell the boss how to do legally whatever he wanted done. It appears he never gave Bush any advice he didn’t want to hear… Gonzales is George Bush’s yes man, parsing the law to justify state executions and torture as easily as a corporate lawyer would parse the law to justify the acquisition of a pipeline right of way.”

Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service notes as well that “Gonzales’ own legal team has been dominated by members of the arch-conservative Federalist Society — a group dedicated to opposing the ‘liberal ideology’ its says dominates the U.S. legal profession — of which Ashcroft has been one of the leading figures. Virtually all of the political appointees in the White House, the Justice Department, the Pentagon and Cheney’s office who were responsible for the most controversial memos on torture, presidential power, and the Geneva Conventions are members of the society, which is particularly notable for its strong aversion to international law and its application within the United States.”

Gonzales is, in fact, a far more dangerous figure than the bumbling, incompetent “camera moth” who was our previous Attorney General. In the meanwhile, the various Pentagon and vice presidential hardliners and neocons of term one are either being kept in place like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz or advanced like Stephen Hadley, Dick Cheney’s man at the National Security Council, slated to replace Rice as the next National Security Adviser. (Keep your eye, by the way, on what happens to the neocon plant in the State Department John Bolton, “the administration’s designated treaty killer.” Talking about raising blazing flags, he’s a man who could give the wild-eyed former CIA director and general neocon freelancer-in-chief James (“World War IV”) Woolsey a run for his money. As Chris Nelson of the Washington insider Nelson Report commented recently, Bolton “has been campaigning all day to replace [Powell’s second-in-command Richard] Armitage at State, but [he] would certainly settle for Deputy National Security Advisor, sources agree. Indeed, in recent weeks, John Bolton’s name has frequently come up as a ‘leading indicator’ of the policy direction of Bush 2, given his exuberantly hard-line performance on Iran and North Korea, in particular.”

So let’s return to the official story, Bumiller-style: “In short, Mr. Bush knows who his friends are, and they’re now in his cabinet.” Friends in the cabinet? Well, think of it another way. Imagine our uncurious George and his Vice President as feudal lords who have called their retainers to their side. Their men are now filling the moat and pulling up the drawbridge. (No more embarrassing kiss-and-tell memoirs like those from term one!) In essence, what’s now being created inside the Beltway is the equivalent of what was created for the President on the campaign trail — those adoring rallies, that moving campaign bubble, lacking the slightest challenge from reality. In a sense, what’s now being put in place is a full-scale fantasy regime, armed to the teeth. Inside the castle (or the bubble, if you prefer) reality will be — for a while at least — what the President and Vice President decide it is.

In his second term, the President intends to preside over one big, blended Family of Texas yes-folks, hawkish or neocon fundamentalists, Congressional fundamentalists, and fundamentalist fundamentalists. (Note that in the elections just past a number of seats in the Senate passed directly to members of the American Taliban.) Paul Woodward of the invaluable War in Context website offers the following comment on this development: “Though in the short term this will boost their already ballooning confidence, they are also insulating themselves from the possibility that they will get advance notice of impending failures. A wise monarch knows the value of the counsel of an irreverent ‘fool,’ but a vain monarch surrounds himself with flatterers. An administration that only had one feeble eye now has none.” Whether, in the end, the impregnable castle, its raiding parties ready to head out into the countryside, turns into a Nixonian-style “bunker” remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the rest of Washington is being brought into line by various other Bush “friends.” In particular, former Congressional hack Porter Goss, made head of the CIA in the run-up to the election, is directing a White House purge of the Agency and ensuring that, in term two, fantasy will reign supreme when it comes to the sort of intelligence the President and his cronies might care to hear, as Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback, makes clear below.

How to Create a WIA — Worthless Intelligence Agency

By Chalmers Johnson

Two weeks after George Bush’s reelection, Porter J. Goss, the newly appointed Director of Central Intelligence, wrote an internal memorandum to all employees of his agency telling them, “[Our job is to] support the administration and its policies in our work. As agency employees, we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies.”[1] Translated from bureaucrat-speak, this directive says, “You now work for the Republican Party. The intelligence you produce must first and foremost protect the President from being held accountable for the delusions he has concerning Iraq, Osama bin Laden, preventive war, torturing captives, democracy growing from the barrel of a gun, and the ‘war on terror.'”

This approach is not new, even though former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman declares that “the current situation is the worst intelligence scandal in the nation’s history.”[2] Back in 1973, when James Schlesinger briefly succeeded Richard Helms as CIA director, he proclaimed on arrival at the agency’s Virginia “campus”: “I am here to see that you guys don’t screw Richard Nixon.”[3] Schlesinger underscored his point by saying that he would be reporting directly to White House political adviser Bob Haldeman and not to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. In the contemporary White House, Goss need not bother going directly to Karl Rove since Bush’s outgoing and incoming National Security Advisers, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen J. Hadley, have both been working for months under Rove’s direction primarily to reelect the President.

In 1973, Schlesinger wanted to protect Nixon from revelations that the CIA had broken into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and illegally infiltrated the antiwar movement within the United States. His actual achievement was to perpetuate Washington’s idée fixe that the United States could still win the Vietnam War despite overwhelming intelligence to the contrary. The same is likely to be true today and the outcome is likely to be similar. Just as thirty years ago, an administration refused to pay attention to its own internal intelligence assessments and lost the Vietnam War, so another administration has again wrapped itself in a fantasy bubble of wishful thinking and so is losing the war it started in Iraq.

Intelligence and the Truth-teller

Part of the background to the Goss memo is a widespread misunderstanding of why the CIA was created and what it actually does. For example, Bush apostle David Brooks writes in the New York Times that the CIA is engaged “in slow-motion brazen insubordination, which violate[s] all standards of honorable public service. . . . It is time to reassert some harsh authority so CIA employees know they must defer to the people who win elections. . . . If they [people in the CIA] ever want their information to be trusted, they can’t break the law with self-serving leaks of classified data.”[4] Brooks seems to think that the CIA is the President’s personal advertising agency and that its employees owe their livelihoods to him. About Michael Scheuer, the head of the “bin Laden Unit” in the agency’s Counterterrorism Center from 1996 to 1999 and the anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, Brooks fumes, “Here was an official on the president’s payroll publicly campaigning against his boss.”

Leave aside the fact that the President doesn’t pay any government official’s salary, at least not legally, and that Scheuer was more interested in educating the public about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, on which he is an authority, than in covering up the President’s mistakes; the point is that the issue of the CIA’s intelligence on the Iraq war is bringing back into our political life once again the figure most feared by presidents: the truth-teller. During a previous period of falsified intelligence, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger said in the Oval Office in front of President Nixon and his Special Counsel Charles Colson, “Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America. He must be stopped at all costs.”[5] Kissinger and Nixon subsequently ordered up felonies, such as a break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, in order to try to smear and discredit the man who had revealed to the public the systematic lying of three presidents — Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson — about the war in Vietnam.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had ordered a special staff to write a top secret History of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68, known as “The Pentagon Papers,” of which Ellsberg was responsible for the 1961 volume on John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Ellsberg’s release of the highly classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times resulted in the public exposure of virtually every National Intelligence Estimate on Vietnam written by the CIA since the end of French colonial rule. Bush’s attempt to squelch information from the CIA then is hardly unprecedented in the annals of our government, but it is egregious and ultimately self-defeating.

The term “intelligence” has always rested uneasily in the name of the Central Intelligence Agency. There is no question that the agency was created in 1947 on the orders of President Truman for the sole purpose of collecting, evaluating, and coordinating — through espionage and from the public record — information related to the national security of the United States. Truman was concerned to prevent another surprise attack on the U.S. like Pearl Harbor and to ensure that all information available to the government was compiled and presented to him in a timely and usable form. The National Security Act of 1947 placed the CIA under the explicit direction of the National Security Council (NSC), the president’s chief staff unit for making decisions about war and peace, and gave it five functions. Four of them concern the collection, coordination, and dissemination of intelligence. It is the fifth — which allows the CIA to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct” — that has turned the CIA into a personal, secret, unaccountable army any president can order into battle without first having to ask Congress to declare war, as the Constitution requires.

Clandestine operations, although nowhere mentioned in the CIA’s enabling statutes, quickly became the Agency’s main activity and as one of its most impartial Congressional analysts, Loch K. Johnson, has put the matter, “The covert action shop had become a place for rapid promotion within the agency.”[6] The Directorate of Operations (DO) soon absorbed two-thirds of the CIA’s budget and personnel, while the Directorate of Intelligence limped along writing National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) — summaries of intelligence produced by all the various intelligence agencies, including those in the Department of Defense — for the White House.

Meanwhile, CIA covert operations subverted domestic journalism, planted false information in foreign newspapers, and covertly fed large amounts of money to members of the Christian Democratic Party in Italy, to King Hussein of Jordan, and to clients in Greece, West Germany, Egypt, Sudan, Suriname, Mauritius, the Philippines, Iran, Ecuador, and Chile. Clandestine agents devoted themselves to such tasks as depressing the global prices of agricultural products in order to damage uncooperative Third World countries, and sponsoring guerrilla wars or miscellaneous insurgencies in places as diverse as the Ukraine, Poland, Albania, Hungary, Indonesia, China, Tibet, Oman, Malaysia, Iraq, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, North Korea, Bolivia, Thailand, Haiti, Guatemala, Cuba, Greece, Turkey, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua, to name only a few of those on the public record. All this was justified by the Cold War, and no one beyond a very small group inside the government knew anything about it. The Central Intelligence Act of 1949 modified the National Security Act of 1947 with a series of amendments that, in the words of that pioneer scholar of the CIA Harry Howe Ransom, “were introduced to permit [the CIA] a secrecy so absolute that accountability might be impossible.”[7]

How to Misuse Intelligence

Regardless of what it most enjoys doing, the CIA is still tasked with providing the president with accurate information to enable him to avoid a surprise attack and protect the national security. In the foyer of the CIA’s headquarters at Langley, Virginia, is inscribed a Biblical quotation: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Loch Johnson conjectures that former Director of the CIA (DCI) Allen Dulles probably thought it meant, “And ye shall know the truth — if ye be me, or the president.” Former DCI Richard Helms once maintained to Bob Woodward that the early warning function of the CIA “is everything, and underline everything.”[8] Even if true, the CIA’s power to provide such unrequested information to a president constitutes a potential restraint on his freedom of action and may on occasion totally derail his policies, particularly since such intelligence is very rarely certain or unambiguous. Over the years the powers of the DCI to compel a president to read an intelligence estimate have been systematically diluted, and when information supplied to the president about a possible attack or any other matter under the CIA’s imprimatur has been leaked to the public, both the Agency and the intelligence have become politically radioactive.

Such revelations have usually taken one of two forms. In the first instance, the president, it is argued, has been shielded from or has refused to read accurate intelligence. In the second instance, the president is accused of secretly ordering the suppression of intelligence or of fabricating intelligence to support his preferred policies. President Bush has engaged in both forms of dishonesty, but he is certainly not the first president to do so. The examples are legion.

In 1961, at the time of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, Richard Bissell, then head of the Directorate of Operations, gained the ear of President Kennedy and assured him that elated Cubans would welcome American-supported insurgents, strew rose petals in their path, and help overthrow the Castro government. Bissell simply did not show Kennedy the estimates that said Castro had extensive popular support and the invasion would fail.

Similarly, in May 1970, as President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger plotted their “incursion” into Cambodia, the Board of National Estimates (BNE) concluded that “an American invasion of Cambodia would fail to deter North Vietnamese continuation of the war.”[9] DCI Helms failed to deliver this estimate to the White House, knowing what the BNE did not — that the decision to invade had already been made. Former DCI Robert M. Gates generalizes: “It has been my experience over the years that the usual response of a policymaker to intelligence with which he disagrees or which he finds unpalatable is to ignore it.”[10]

Examples of the distortion or fabrication of intelligence are rarer, but they do occur. During the Vietnam War, Gen. William Westmoreland, U.S. military commander from 1964 to 1968, omitted from his estimate of enemy forces all Communist guerrillas and informal local defense forces — perhaps as many as 120,000-150,000 fighters — that another estimate indicated had been responsible for up to 40% of American losses. His apparent intent was to make victory in Vietnam look more plausible to the American public. On March 14, 1967, DCI Helms included Westmoreland’s figures in an NIE going to the White House even though he “knew that the figures on enemy troop strength in Vietnam provided by military intelligence were wrong — or, at any rate, quite different from CIA figures. Yet he signed the estimate without dissent. The apparent reason, according to his biographer, was that ‘he did not want a fight with the military, supported by [National Security Adviser Walt] Rostow at the White House.'”[11]

Another example of the suppression or distortion of intelligence occurred in 1969-70 over the issue of whether or not the Soviet SS-9 ICBM could carry three warheads and whether those warheads could be fired at separate and distinct targets — that is, whether or not the SS-9 carried MIRVs (multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles). If true, this would perhaps have given the Soviet Union a first-strike capability against the United States. The SS-9 came in four models, the first of which had its flight test on September 23, 1963, and began to be deployed in the summer of 1967. All Western intelligence agencies agreed that models one through three carried a single warhead, some with huge yields (in the range of 18 megatons). Disagreement arose over model four, which seemed to carry three warheads. Whether these were independently targetable was in dispute.

National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird contended that the fourth version of the SS-9 was a MIRVed weapon; the CIA in its NIE on the subject said that it was not. At first the CIA rejected the pressure coming from the policymakers and, in fact, added more evidence against MIRVs to its estimate. Ultimately, however, DCI Helms removed the paragraph arguing against Soviet preparations for a first strike after “an assistant to [Laird] informed Helms that the statement contradicted the public position of the Secretary.”[12] As it turned out, the CIA was right. The SS-9s were armed with MRVs, not MIRVs — that is, they could produce only a cluster of explosions in a single area. The Soviet Union did not deploy MIRVs until 1976, six years after the United States had done so. [13] So it was we, not they, who accelerated the race toward mutual assured destruction — and did so on the basis of fake intelligence.

When it comes to ignoring accurate CIA intelligence, the preeminent example in the Bush administration was National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s indifference to al-Qaeda and her failure to ensure that the president read and understood the explicit warnings of an imminent surprise attack that the agency delivered to her. As the Washington Post‘s Steve Coll has summarized the matter in his book Ghost Wars, “BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO STRIKE IN U.S. was the headline on the President’s Daily Brief presented to Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6 [2001]. The report included the possibility that bin Laden operatives would seek to hijack airplanes. The hijacking threat, mentioned twice, was one of several possibilities outlined. There was no specific information about when or where such an attack might occur.”[14]

Slaying the Messenger

After the extent of its failure became known, and under extreme pressure from the public and families of the victims of 9/11, the Bush administration reluctantly authorized the creation of a National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States and permitted National Security Adviser Rice to testify before it in public. But the fix was in: The Commission was to concentrate on “intelligence failures,” not on the failure of policymakers to heed the intelligence, and on the need to “reform” the CIA but not to such an extent as to damage the president’s ability to blame it for his mistakes.

On November 20, 2004, right-wing members of the House of Representatives scuttled the major recommendation of the 9/11 Commission — namely, to provide the leader of the American intelligence community with greater authority to direct and coordinate the analyses of all 15 intelligence agencies. Reflecting the Pentagon’s interests in maintaining control over 80% of the $40 billion annual intelligence budget, Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and an ally of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, withdrew his support. Other Republican congressmen joined him, demanding that the bill go even further than was already the case in harassing so-called illegal immigrants, primarily from Mexico.

The President and the Speaker of the House both said they favored enactment of the proposed legislation, but many experienced observers thought it was all Grand Kabuki by the Republican Party, intended to make it appear that the White House favored reform while ensuring that reform did not actually occur. In killing the reform bill, the Pentagon unambiguously displayed the raw political power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. During October 2004, Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, without the public approval of any civilian leader of the Defense Department, wrote to Congressman Hunter expressing his support for sabotaging change.

After the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq, the focus shifted from ignoring unwanted intelligence to actively creating false intelligence. The critical item was the NIE of October 1, 2002, entitled “Iraq’s Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” which became known inside the CIA as the “whore of Babylon.”[15] It explicitly endorsed Vice President Cheney’s contention of August 26, 2002 — “We know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons” — and was signed by DCI George Tenet with “high confidence.” “The intelligence process,” writes CIA veteran Ray McGovern, “was not the only thing undermined. So was the Constitution. Various drafts of the NIE, reinforced with heavy doses of ‘mushroom-cloud’ rhetoric, were used to deceive congressmen and senators into ceding to the executive their prerogative to declare war — the all-important prerogative that the framers of the Constitution took great care to reserve exclusively to our elected representatives in Congress.”

In succeeding months numerous review commissions revealed that the October NIE was only one of numerous failures by the truth-tellers to do what the people of the United States pay them to do. The Senate Intelligence Committee, the 9/11 Commission, and the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group under Charles Duelfer all reported that the CIA’s so-called intelligence on Iraqi WMD was fictitious. Even more dangerously for the White House, these reports suggested that its so-called war on terrorism and its attack on Iraq rather than on the true perpetrators of 9/11 were based on false intelligence, much of it manufactured in the Pentagon.

The number three civilian defense official in the Pentagon, Douglas Feith, had set up the Office of Special Plans, an operation devoted to going through all the raw intelligence available to the various spy agencies and finding items that offered possible evidence of (or hints of evidence of) links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. It was this effort to get around both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, neither of which had found links or ties between Iraq and 9/11, that eventually led some officials to break ranks and charge that the war against Iraq was in fact undercutting the “war on terrorism” — specifically, Richard A. Clark, the White House’s coordinator for counterterrorism in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, in his book Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terrorism; and the CIA’s Michael Scheuer in Imperial Hubris and in his letter to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees entitled “How Not to Catch a Terrorist”[16]

The new head of the CIA, Porter Goss, is now setting about knocking off all such messengers and their supporters still inside the CIA because the agency, despite its frequent co-option and misuse by presidents, still retains a vestigial role as a truth-teller. Goss had been ordered to make it appear that the agency misled the President (rather than the other way round, as actually happened). He is then supposed to shake up what he calls a “dysfunctional” organization. After George Tenet resigned as DCI in July 2004 and went on the lecture circuit at $35,000 a pop — he had earned well over a half-million dollars by November — Bush appointed Goss to control further truth-telling at Langley and to head off efforts by Congress to create a powerful intelligence czar, as the 9/11 Commission has recommended.[17] The Senate confirmed Goss by a vote of 77 to 17 (six senators did not vote), strongly suggesting the increasing worthlessness of Senate oversight of the executive branch.

Goss represented the 14th district of Florida for some sixteen years in the House of Representatives, but before that, between 1962 and 1971, he worked in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO). He was stationed primarily in Latin America, and rumors persist that he left the agency under a cloud. In 1995, he was appointed to the House’s Intelligence Oversight Committee and in 1997 became its chairman. There is no evidence that he did anything at all in this position, including investigating the intelligence lapses that preceded 9/11 or the failure of the CIA to have placed a single spy anywhere within Saddam Hussein’s regime. Admiral Stansfield Turner, DCI under President Carter, has said that Goss was the worst appointment ever made to the position of director of the CIA.

How to Create a Worthless Intelligence Agency

Goss is a highly political bureaucrat, who raised eyebrows when he gave speeches earlier this year attacking John Kerry for slashing intelligence funding without mentioning that, in 1995, he himself had co-sponsored a measure calling for firing 20% of all CIA personnel over five years. Goss has also dismissed the efforts to find out who in the Bush administration identified, and so outed, undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame — wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson who had embarrassed the administration over its Iraqi nuclear claims — to the press as “wild and unsubstantiated allegations,” a position that will not reassure operatives at the Directorate who can be and have been assassinated because of such leaks. Goss brought with him to Langley a group of Republican Party activist staff members from the House Intelligence Committee and set them up in prominent executive positions from which they unleashed a witch-hunt against any and all intelligence officers who sought to put accuracy and integrity ahead of service to George W. Bush.

It is interesting that Goss has begun his shake-up of the CIA by forcing out the director and deputy director of operations, even though this is not where the alleged failures of the CIA in recent years occurred. (This, in turn, has lead to speculation that he is trying to ensure his own service record in the DO will be kept under wraps.) Within the coming weeks, he will certainly fire Jami A. Miscik, head of the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), who has worked in the agency since 1983 and was a close associate of former DCI George J. Tenet. She has led the DI since May 2002, a period in which much of the false reporting on Iraq occurred. It may be logical and expectable that Miscik be held responsible for the politicized intelligence produced on her watch; but under the present circumstances it is clear that she is actually being punished for following the orders of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, who ordered up the false intelligence in the first place. As Spencer Ackerman has written, “If Goss thought the CIA was dysfunctional before, he has guaranteed that it is now.”[18]

There is every reason to try to make the CIA at least slightly more effective in its truth-telling mission, but even the hint that a Republican Party loyalty test is now being applied will cause an exodus of experienced analysts and leave the country even more vulnerable than it is now. With several wars underway (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Colombia, Kashmir, Sudan, and Chechnya, to name only the most obvious), Iran and North Korea on the cusp of becoming nuclear powers, a looming possibility of a global flight from the dollar, the emergence of China as an economic powerhouse, and the polar ice caps melting, this is not exactly a good time to be blinding ourselves. The only groups who will profit from a crippling of what is left of the CIA’s early warning and analytic capabilities will be the Bush-Cheney White House and Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.

The present sorry chapter in the rise and fall of the CIA reflects trends in the U.S. that are bolstering an “imperial presidency” and its handmaiden, militarism. Although the CIA was created to help inform presidents about threats to the country, it is clear that the President and his top officials no longer want or need its intelligence functions, which have, in any case, been increasingly transferred to the military establishment, the professional armed forces, and the military-industrial complex — groups hardly best known for their reputations as truth-tellers.

It is true that the CIA, once founded, quickly evolved into a Praetorian Guard, totally under the president’s secret control, and that every president since Truman, upon discovering such an extraordinary source of power privately available, has found its use irresistible. Over the decades, however, the CIA’s ability to intervene covertly and often violently in the affairs of others almost anywhere on Earth has become somewhat less interesting to presidents as Congress passed laws constraining presidential independence of action when it came to the Agency — and as alternatives came into being in the form of the military’s various Special Forces. The president now has an explicit and far more military Praetorian Guard at his disposal that lacks any form of democratic oversight, although he risks a future moment in which it might eventually take power into its own hands, as the original Praetorians of the Roman Empire did two millennia ago.

Many presidents have abused their secret powers. When these violations of law became public, as they did spectacularly during the Watergate scandal, they led to Congressional efforts to impose oversight on the agency. From 1947 to 1974, Congress was completely uninformed about and exercised no control at all over anything the CIA did. The agency’s budget was buried in the “black” sections of the Pentagon’s budget. With the amending of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 (the “Hughes-Ryan Act”) and the 1980 Intelligence Oversight Act, the president was required formally to authorize all operations in writing and report them to special committees of Congress or at least to their chairmen and ranking minority members.

None of these measures has worked well, but they reflected a growing public distrust of secret powers. Some members of Congress even collaborated with unscrupulous CIA officials to subvert controls over expenditures and covert operations. When Congressman Charlie Wilson (D-TX) became chairman of the House’s Intelligence Oversight Committee, he wrote to his friends at the CIA, who were then secretly enlarging the supply of weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, “Well, gentlemen, the fox is in the hen house. Do whatever you like.”[19] Similarly, in 1985, the oversight system virtually collapsed when it was revealed that NSA director Vice Adm. John Poindexter and his aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North had secretly collaborated with DCI William Casey to sell arms to Iran and that no one in Congress had been informed about it in any way. Somewhat more rigorous Congressional scrutiny of the CIA ensued, which had the unintended effect of making CIA officers more risk averse while enlarging the powers of the Pentagon and our 14 other supersecret intelligence agencies, particularly the National Security Agency, whose budget the Pentagon controls.

Nonetheless, the CIA still retains its statutory role of compiling and transmitting to the president objective intelligence on matters it deems relevant to the nation’s security. The Agency may have become little more than a speed-bump for an imperial president who also dominates the Congress and the courts, but it is still part of the checks and balances of power within the executive branch of our government that make the U.S. a democratic republic and protect us from an imperial usurpation of power. With the reelection of President Bush and the appointment of Porter Goss to bring the CIA under White House control, it becomes increasingly hard to see how the republic will survive.


1. Douglas Jehl, “Chief of CIA Tells His Staff to Back Bush,” the New York Times, November 17, 2004.

2. Melvin A. Goodman, “Righting the CIA,” the Baltimore Sun, November 19, 2004.

3. See, among several references, the remarks of a CIA officer who actually heard Schlesinger: Ray McGovern, “Cheney’s Cat’s Paw: Porter Goss as CIA Director,” Counterpunch, July 6, 2004.

4. David Brooks, “The C.I.A. Versus Bush,” the New York Times, November 13, 2004.

5. Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets [New York: Viking, 2002], p. 434.

6. Loch K. Johnson, America’s Secret Power: The CIA in a Democratic Society [New York: Oxford University Press, 1989], p. 21.

7. Loch K. Johnson, p. 36.

8. Bob Woodward, Veil: The CIA’s Secret Wars, 1981-87 [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987], p. 49.

9. Robert M. Gates, “The CIA and American Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs vol. 66, Winter 1987-88, p. 227.

10. Loch K. Johnson, p. 62.

11. L. K. Johnson, p. 62; see also Harold P. Ford, CIA and Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes, 1962-1968 [Washington: Central Intelligence Agency, 1998], pp. 86-104.

12. 94th Congress, 2nd Session, Senate, Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities [the Church committee], Final Report [Washington: Government Printing Office, 1976], vol. 1, p. 78.

13. See Federation of American Scientists, Weapons of Mass Destruction, R-36/SS-9 SCARP; and Fred Kaplan, The Rumsfeld Intelligence Agency, Slate, October 28, 2002.

14. Steven Coll, Ghost Wars [New York: Penguin, 2004], p. 562.

15. Ray McGovern, “Cheney’s Cat’s Paw,” Counterpunch, July 6, 2004.

16. Richard A. Clark, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terrorism [New York: Free Press, 2004]; Michael Scheuer, “How Not to Catch a Terrorist,” Atlantic Monthly, December 2004, pp. 50-52.

17. Douglas Jehl, “Ex-CIA Chief Nets $500,000 on Talk Circuit,” the New York Times, November 11, 2004.

18. Spencer Ackerman, “Killing the Messenger,” Salon, November 16, 2004.

19. George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War [New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003], p. 494.

Chalmers Johnson’s latest books Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Metropolitan, 2000) and The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (Metropolitan, 2004) are the first two volumes in a trilogy on American imperial policies. The final volume is now being written. Between 1967 and 1973 Johnson served as a consultant to the CIA’s Office of National Estimates.

Copyright C2004 Chalmers Johnson

This piece first appeared at


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