Mark Follman

A CIA veteran says a growing faction of the U.S. intelligence community is furious over the way the administration corrupted the system -- and that the nation's security is at grave risk.

July 18, 2003 | Late last week the White House sought to close the books on the Iraq-Niger-uranium debacle, with President Bush officially pronouncing CIA director George Tenet responsible for the intelligence blunder. At the same time, the president reaffirmed his "absolute confidence" in Tenet and the rest of the agency.

But according to a former CIA officer, the politicization of U.S. intelligence has devastated many in the field -- and dangerously weakened our country's security.

"We're hearing from dozens of [intelligence] people. A lot of them are very demoralized," says Ray McGovern, a 27-year CIA veteran who worked as an agency analyst under seven presidents, from Kennedy to the first President Bush. "The cardinal sin in this business is to cook intelligence to the recipe of high policy," he says.

McGovern is a member of the "steering group" of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of retired spooks, some highly decorated, which has been speaking out for several months about a dangerous fundamental breakdown in the U.S. intelligence system -- a system, McGovern asserts, that must remain free of White House meddling if it is to play its vital role in protecting the nation's security. VIPS has published a series of articles and open letters to the White House; its latest letter to President Bush on Monday denounced the administration's "campaign of deceit" in driving the nation to war, and demanded Vice President Dick Cheney's immediate resignation in light of his central role -- particularly Cheney's allegedly deliberate use of the fraudulent Niger-uranium report to sell Congress on the war. The letter also called on Bush to appoint an independent committee to investigate the intelligence breakdown, and to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq posthaste, for the sake of U.S. credibility.

The White House has scrambled to lay the blame on the CIA's doorstep, but McGovern, though he has no love for Tenet, says Tenet is only one part of a much larger problem -- one that ultimately extends into the upper reaches of the Pentagon and the White House. Although Tenet formally took responsibility for including the faulty Niger-uranium data in a crucial National Intelligence Estimate report in September 2002, McGovern says it's Condoleezza Rice who is ultimately responsible for the intelligence information that makes it into the president's State of the Union address. Nor does the buck stop with Rice: The pressure to cook the books came from the top and pervaded the administration. McGovern believes that only the White House and the vice president's office could exert the kind of intense pressure necessary to cement bogus intelligence information into the ultimately authoritative NIE report -- and keep it there through the string of drafts leading up to a prime-time presidential speech.

By distorting the truth and corrupting America's intel system, says McGovern, spineless agency leaders and a White House with its finger on the scales have not just demoralized the CIA and other agencies, they have thrown the nation into considerable danger. Without an intelligence community that's consistently motivated to serve up objective information, "the president has nowhere to turn to find out real answers," he says.

Tenet himself began fighting back on Wednesday, during a closed hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he told a senator that a White House official pressured him to include the specious Niger-uranium report against his better judgment. On Thursday MSNBC quoted an anonymous source saying that Tenet "reluctantly" fingered National Security Council member Robert Joseph during the hearing.

VIPS, which includes roughly 30 members from across the civilian and military intelligence spectrum, from the FBI and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to the CIA and Department of Defense, has been warning that America's intelligence system was in trouble for months. In a February 2003 article, McGovern wrote of the grave dangers of a politicized intelligence community: "The integrity of the intelligence process is one casualty. But the real losers are the young men and women we send into battle, and whose names we later chisel into a wall."

The group claims no ideology or partisan agenda, only the desire to uphold the raison d'Ítre of the CIA and its peer agencies: providing essential, objective information to policymakers in its mission to prevent enemy attacks on the United States. According to McGovern, the group feels an affinity with the organization Veterans for Common Sense, where VIPS currently publishes its reports. VIPS steering group members, however, have made their voice heard through mainstream media outlets as well: The former director of the CIA's Office of Regional and Political Analysis, William Christison, spoke out in the Washington Post in April 2002; and Patrick Eddington, a military imagery analyst at the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center for almost nine years, has contributed Op-Ed pieces to numerous publications including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Times, and is a regular television news commentator.

McGovern himself is currently a full-time co-director of the Servant Leadership School, a faith-based community outreach program in Washington, D.C. Salon spoke with him from Washington on Wednesday, as the White House continued to try to brush aside the Niger-uranium report scandal.

The VIPS letter to President Bush on July 14 charges that Vice President Cheney's office led a "campaign of deceit" that drove the nation to war, and calls for Cheney's immediate resignation. What ultimately makes the case against Cheney?

The most egregious crime committed here was the use of evidence known to be fraudulent, which purported that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger for its nuclear program. This is different from having a body of evidence that's susceptible to varying interpretation. A forgery is a forgery.

The vice president's office had commissioned Ambassador Joseph Wilson [in February 2002] to go to Niger and look into the matter, and he came back and told them the information was no good. So if this trip was taken at the behest of the vice president's office, it strains credulity beyond the breaking point to think that when the ambassador got back to report his findings, the vice president's office said, 'Actually, we're not interested in that any longer, so don't tell us what you found out.'

Then there's the fact that Cheney launched the [pro-war] campaign on Aug. 26, 2002, with a strong speech that went far beyond what the evidence allowed, in saying that the Iraqis had restarted their nuclear program. Cheney was way out in front of everybody else, particularly Colin Powell. On March 16, 2003, as a sort of coda to this, he alleged that Iraq had in fact reconstituted its nuclear program, and that the CIA and others agreed with him on this. False. They hadn't.

Why is it imperative that Cheney resign immediately?

I can't think of anywhere in government where honesty is more important than the intelligence business. Intelligence analysts need to operate on the working assumption that they're seeking truth. When they find it, they analyze it the way they think the truth leads, and then they serve it up to policymakers in that form.

It's up to policymakers what they do with the fruits of these efforts. When analysts see it being distorted, it's incredibly demoralizing. It leads to the conclusion, "Maybe I better not serve up the truth anymore, maybe I should serve up what I know they want to hear." When that becomes the case, the country is in considerable danger. If intelligence analysis is prostituted like that and is no longer objective, the president has nowhere to turn to find out the real answers to his questions.

Have you gotten any response from the White House to the letter?

No, we haven't. We'd like to have one, but we're not surprised: After all, Rep. Waxman of California wrote a letter to the president back on March 17 -- he has a lot more status than VIPS -- and he's still received no response from the White House. His letter was a very bitter one, saying, "Look, Mr. President, in September and early October your people lied to me about this nuclear threat, and on the strength of that lie, I voted for war. I want you to tell me how that could've happened."

Aside from the "steering group," who are the people behind VIPS? How many are there, and is it just CIA?

We're a movement that's growing; the current count is 30. The open letter to Bush on Monday has sparked an amazing amount of interest, which is really encouraging, and affirming. We're not just CIA; we have intelligence veterans from across the spectrum: FBI, DIA [the Defense Intelligence Agency, part of the Pentagon], Army Intelligence and INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research, from the State Department]. Yesterday I had a National Security Agency person call me and say, "Hey, I noticed you don't have anybody from NSA, count me in."

Having left the CIA a decade ago, how are you able to speak for the current sentiment inside the agency, or inside the greater U.S. intelligence community, about all this? Who are you talking with, and hearing from?

We're hearing from dozens of people. The sad part is that we're hearing from midlevel analysts and even lower-level journeymen who are slogging away in the intelligence trenches trying to find the truth and tell it. Unfortunately, in the decades since William Casey and Bobby Gates were the CIA's directors, there've been more careerists -- malleable folks who sniff the wind to find out which direction it's blowing, and trim their sails accordingly. So now you have some people at relatively senior levels who've bubbled to the top by knowing the "correct" answers to the questions they know are on policymakers' minds. Whereas these people were a complete exception in our time, the proportion has grown.

When we retired from the agency, and by that I mean the VIPS steering group, people knew who we were and what we stood for, and the levels at which we operated -- basically the most senior levels of both the military and civilian intelligence communities. We enjoy a certain reputation for integrity, and that's the premier value in intelligence work. So when people see that value being played with fast and loose, they need somewhere to turn. They need people who know the business, who know how much of a sin this is.

So how widespread is this current rancor inside the intelligence community?

A lot of people are very demoralized. And those who aren't, frankly, are ipso facto suspect. The cardinal sin in this business is to cook intelligence to the recipe of high policy; the raison d'Ítre for a place like the CIA is to have one place in government which can operate without fear or favor, which can speak truth to power. Where the president can go and say, "Look, I want the straight scoop here. Forget about the State Department's policies, forget about what Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Perle are saying, tell me what you really think." If the president doesn't have that, he's missing an incredibly valuable ingredient in policymaking.

The current situation is, by definition, a huge problem for the intelligence community. The people not at all demoralized right now, by and large, occupy senior-level positions. It's a sad commentary, because leadership is the key. George Tenet is very malleable and likes to be a team player. Witness what he did on Feb. 5: He sat himself down behind Colin Powell as Powell served up this embroidery of intelligence information before the U.N. Security Council, and Tenet sat there like a potted plant, as if to indicate that the CIA stands -- or sits -- behind everything the secretary of state is saying.

That was an incredibly demoralizing gesture for folks in the CIA who've resisted tremendous pressure ever since 9/11 to prove a link between Iraq and 9/11. There's no evidence of that, and these people, to their great credit, said, "Sir, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to write something I don't believe." So here's Tenet sitting behind Powell, and Powell's drawing a picture of al-Qaida operatives in Iraq. Sure, there were a couple there, but what Powell didn't say was they were in a place that was not controlled by Saddam's government. [The small Ansar al-Islam militant group, which fought Saddam from its enclave in northern Iraq until its fighters were killed or expelled during the war, has been linked to al-Qaida.] So the evidence used to "prove" this link was fraudulent from the get-go. And these analysts had to watch this on TV, with Tenet sitting right behind Powell as he's telling this cooked-up story.

What's your feeling about the intel group installed by the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans?

It's a technique used by some very convinced policy officials when they want a certain answer to an intelligence question, and when they can't get it from the duly established organizations, they aren't above setting up their own shop. They needed a little group to come up with the "correct" answers, so they created this outlying group of non-specialists, gave them some information where they knew what the conclusions were supposed to be, and what do you know? They came up with the right conclusions.

The administration knew long before the war that the Iraq-Niger connection was bogus -- it was struck from the speech Bush gave in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002. Given your knowledge of the CIA's inner workings, how could something so flagrant possibly make it into a presidential State of the Union address three months later?

It's very clear to me how: Condoleezza Rice has actually told us how it happened. Her explanation says the evidence was in the National Intelligence Estimate prepared last August and September on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- which is true. The NIE is by far the most authoritative pronouncement, not only by the CIA, but by the entire intelligence community. It's very carefully done. This story about Iraq trying to get uranium from Niger was in there -- this was evidence long since disproved, and yet someone insisted it be included in the document. The State Department was so shocked by this, they put in a footnote saying that in their view, the information was garbage. Rice says the footnote appeared on Page 55 or something like that, so that nobody paid any attention to it.

So the real question is, how did that information get into the NIE last fall? The reality is that the vice president's office knew that it was spurious -- but the vice president had led the charge on Aug. 26, saying Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, and there wasn't a shred of evidence of that. So they dusted off this forgery and peddled it on the Hill to get Congress to vote for war. Since the NIE was in progress at that time, they insisted it be included despite [objections] at the State Department and the Department of Energy.

So around Christmastime, here's this drafter of the State of the Union speech, whom Condoleezza Rice instructs to draft a couple of paragraphs about WMD in Iraq, and the drafter says, "Where do I get that?" and she says, "Well, consult the NIE." So the damage had already been done with the NIE report itself. Condi should've known better with this. The key question is, who allowed it to stand in that report? It's exactly the kind of pressure that folks who are malleable managers do not have the guts to resist. The senior person in charge of the NIE bowed to the pressure that came from the White House, and presumably from the vice president's office, so that the report would support what the vice president had already said. Cheney set the terms on Aug. 26, and who's going to come out with a report that says otherwise?

In the old days, that's exactly what we would've done, and we'd be persona non grata in the vice president's office. Not so anymore.

If George Tenet is to blame for the blunder, why is President Bush backing him now with "absolute confidence," rather than asking for Tenet's immediate resignation?

Well, George Tenet is not to blame. If you look at his statement carefully -- and this is vintage Tenet -- he says, "I confess, she did it." He says, "I confess I didn't catch the error because I didn't read it carefully enough, but I didn't put the error in there."

So he's taking responsibility by saying, "I'm captain of the ship and this happened on my watch?"

But he's not the captain of the ship. Condoleezza Rice is. She's responsible for this text of the president's speech, not George Tenet. And she's explained it: She says, "We got it from the NIE report." People don't realize what that really means. The NIE report, having already been prostituted, means the deceit and the damage run that much deeper.

But who is ultimately responsible for the NIE report?

That is Tenet. But if we're talking about the president's speech, Condoleezza Rice is responsible. But you're right about the NIE report -- that's George Tenet, and the malleable manager he appointed to manage it.

That said, how does the president blaming Tenet square with the widespread accounts of CIA warnings about the Niger report months prior?

Tenet's influence and stature is like that of a successful congressional staffer. He's a lawyer, and he knew how to ingratiate himself with both sides of the aisle -- usually a good thing in politics, but not a good thing when it comes to the responsibilities of a CIA director. Because if he's going to speak truth to power he's going to make lots of enemies.

But he doesn't have the stature of Rumsfeld or Cheney. If you look at Cheney's Aug. 26 speech -- remember, this is around the time when Cheney visited the CIA on multiple occasions -- there's great pressure on the analysts to produce. Will it be an honest estimate, saying there's no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program? Or will they stick stuff in there that they know will make Cheney look right? I hate to say it, but this was the course chosen, and Tenet is that kind of person. Where does that leave Tenet now? Well, he played the team game. He should've threatened to resign if that kind of fraudulent stuff appeared as "intelligence," but he didn't. He hung around as part of the team.

No wonder the president has complete confidence in him. He does what he's told, no matter what his analysts think.

What do you make of Tenet's pointing the finger at Robert Joseph of the NSC during Wednesday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing?

The only thing Tenet confessed to before was being a lousy proofreader. What Tenet's really saying now is, "How many times did I have to tell these guys that the report was bogus?" The fact that Tenet now mentions Joseph's name doesn't surprise me -- somebody has to draft these things, and my information was that it was Joseph who drafted that section of the speech. He was the natural choice; he's a proliferation guy at the NSC and very much a hard-liner.

Is there any precedent for this kind of intelligence breakdown? You were in the CIA during the LBJ administration -- how does the Iraq-Niger debacle compare to the Gulf of Tonkin escalation in Vietnam?

There's always pressure of this kind, and it's always intense with matters of war and peace. Gulf of Tonkin maybe rivals this, though it doesn't strike me at all as being nearly as contrived and concerted and jointly plotted over a long period of time. I was [at the CIA] during Tonkin, and I know the second incident didn't happen: the initial report of a big firefight going on, which was disputed by a Navy pilot, James Stockdale, who was flying overhead at the time and reported pitch blackness. The initial report was a mistake, a lightning storm or something, but there was certainly no attack on U.S. ships.

My colleague who was writing this up for the next daily report outlined this in his draft and sent it up the line. He was told, "We're not going to put a piece out for tomorrow morning." He asked, "What could be more important than this?" and the word came back down that the White House had already decided to go to war, and that the agency wasn't going to wear out its welcome there.

So you're saying this has happened before, but not on the same scale in terms of planning.

Look, I'm not at all excusing what happened back then -- these are both really egregious sins. Just consider what happened after Tonkin. Years later, McGeorge Bundy told a wonderful vignette on the "McNeil Lehrer News Hour." He explained that the president came in the next day [after the alleged incident] and said to him, "OK, Mac, we've got the documentation we need, now go over to the Hill and sell that resolution." Bundy protested that the evidence wasn't good at all, and LBJ turned to him and asked, "Look, are you part of the team?" Well, we know his answer. That was August 1964. Eleven years of war in Vietnam followed, with almost 60,000 U.S. soldiers killed, and over a million Vietnamese killed.

McNeil and Lehrer didn't bother to ask Bundy why he did it. I mean, Bundy was no slouch -- he was [a dean at] Harvard, so he wasn't going to be out in the street looking for a job. So you can imagine the severe pressure from policymakers at that level, especially a president who makes very clear he wants to hear "yes, sir." Bundy caved in, and that's what's happened here.

You seem to be saying that intelligence is always politicized to some degree by the White House.

No, I don't agree that intelligence is always politicized. It depends on who's president, and who that president selects as head of the CIA. There have been incredibly honest CIA directors who wouldn't bend to this kind of pressure. I'm thinking of Bill Colby and Stan [Stansfield] Turner -- and I'm also thinking of a fellow named George H. Bush. When the first President Bush was CIA director, he'd been chair of the Republican National Committee, so all of us were afraid he'd be inclined to participate in policy decisions, and perhaps even mess with the intelligence. He solemnly promised not to do that.

Well, I worked directly for him, and you know what? He kept his promise. He recused himself when policy decisions were made, and he was very faithful in representing what we analysts thought, down at the White House. And when he was president he knew, and expected the same from his CIA directors.

What do you see as the greatest dangers of a politicized intelligence system in terms of broader democracy and national security?

Analysts are human beings. They want to make a good living and be promoted just like the rest of us. But if all you have left in the intelligence community are analysts who have really good noses for which way the political wind is blowing and trim their sails accordingly, the country is in grave danger. You have to depend on somebody to tell it like it is. There's an inscription at CIA headquarters: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." When you lose all the people who believe that, you've lost a precious asset. The ability of the president to make a well-informed, objective policy decision is greatly diminished.

Why did the U.S. intelligence community fail to prevent the 9/11 attacks? And why, almost two years later, does the American public still have no clear explanation of what went wrong?

It was an egregious failure, and there's no getting around that. Enough information has come out to indicate there were enough bits and pieces for a junior high school kid to figure out something very bad was about to happen. We know there were high-level meetings where assertions were made that bin Laden would attempt something pretty spectacular. There was a president's daily brief prepared on Aug. 6, 2001, entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.," and we know in the body of that report there were allusions to plane hijackings. I haven't read that report; this much was leaked to the press. But I do know that when a daily brief has that kind of title and mentions those kinds of things, then it's very important indeed. It appears the administration just took them as routine warnings.

I don't subscribe to the more sinister theories; I take the more charitable interpretation: gross incompetence on the part of the president and the CIA director. The president was served up with repeated warnings, so much so that the "cry wolf" syndrome set in. He didn't know what to do with all the information, so he went off to Texas to chop wood instead. Nobody collared him and said, "Hey, this is really serious."

Pearl Harbor was the reason the CIA was set up in 1947, expressly to prevent this kind of thing: one central clearing house for all the bits of information. Its raison d'Ítre was objectivity, and to prevent such an attack. But the CIA director only has the power to carry out this mission in deference to the president. Unless the president makes it clear, like Jimmy Carter did with Stan Turner, that the CIA director is his main man for intelligence, and that anyone who interferes will be sent packing ... that hasn't happened with this president. Right now the director of the CIA has a hell of a lot of responsibility, and very little authority. He doesn't control 80 percent of the intelligence budget, which is in the Pentagon.

In the end, it all goes back to who we elect in November.

Does VIPS have any kind of ideological or partisan agenda?

Look, we're not afraid of speaking up on these issues, and we feel our credentials speak for themselves. I have letters from George H. Bush, and awards given to me upon retirement. In other words, I graduated summa cum laude. This is true of my other senior-level colleagues as well.

We don't have a partisan agenda -- that's basic to who we are as intelligence professionals. To be against the war is not to be partisan, it's to be sensible. People in this town are intellectually unable to believe that there can be a group working inside Washington without a partisan agenda. When we say we're dedicated to the pursuit of truth and career protection for people pursuing truth, people's eyes glaze over, and they shrug and say, "Yeah, right." It's a hard thing to believe.

What's the press missing in all this? Is there other evidence of a contrived pre-war campaign to mobilize public opinion? After all, it seemed there was reason to believe that Saddam, with the way he thwarted U.N. inspectors, etc., did actually have WMD programs...

He did have WMD programs. What wasn't talked about was how they were [mostly] destroyed. We have that from his son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who defected in 1995. He was head of the Iraqi WMD programs. He told U.N. inspectors what Saddam had and where, and after the inspectors found and destroyed most of that, Kamel claimed that he himself ordered the rest destroyed. Of course you don't take that at face value, but this came from someone who'd been a pretty credible source in the past, and he was a defector.

A few weeks ago [Mahdi] Obeidi [head scientist of Iraq's uranium enrichment program in the '80s and early '90s] dug up a rose plant in a garden and revealed a few centrifuge components and some blueprints. Obeidi explained that his orders in 1991 were to squirrel this stuff away for the day when the order was given to reconstitute the program. He said that order never came.

How do you feel about the post-9/11 reorganization of U.S. intelligence agencies into the one behemoth Department of Homeland Security? What does it mean for the agencies in terms of doing a credible, nonpartisan job?

I agree with President Bush on this. He was courageous and right when he said creating a Department of Homeland Security would be a huge mistake -- that's what he said for several months anyway. He said it would detract from our fight against terrorism and bog down the system for years.

What changed his mind? Pressure grew, of course, for the president to show that he was doing something [after 9/11] on a big organizational level. There were revelations about failures within the INS, and lack of communication between the FBI and CIA.

Colleen Rowley, the courageous FBI agent in Minneapolis who wrote the letter to the FBI director about the overlooked hijacking intelligence, testified before Congress in May of last year. The same day, when the publicity would have been all about her, the president went on television and said, in effect, that he'd changed his mind about the Department of Homeland Security. Now, do I think he decided this just to take the press away from Rowley? Of course not. But it does account for the timing, I think. The legislation wasn't ready yet; it took Congress several more weeks. Everything is choreographed in this administration.

This [new department] couldn't be worse. I used to run our intelligence exchange with the Germans, and I can tell you that sharing with foreign intel services is a delicate prospect; you have to give them some sort of guarantee that the exchange will be protected. Now, do you think they'll be eager to hand over sensitive information and risk a source if it's going to a department with 170,000 people in it, where they have little idea of who's going to be responsible for handling it? So what could be more noxious to the system? The bulk of our terrorism information comes from these services.

Of course, there is justification for fixing the INS and other problems in terms of sharing information, but to create a mammoth department -- the biggest ever, aside from the Pentagon -- even from a management point of view, makes no sense at all. It will actually endanger the intelligence process and the fight against terrorism.

Do you think the American public is ultimately willing to overlook the major intelligence failures of the Bush administration, including the Iraq-Niger report?

The important thing will be what happens on the ground in Iraq. Nobody I know expects the administration to be able to extricate itself quickly from what's happening. With each week that produces a handful of U.S. casualties, more questions will be asked. If I were a father of a son who died over there, I'd be banging on the White House door, wanting to know why he was sent over to disarm Iraq of WMD that don't appear to exist.

I think there's a basic decency to the American people, and they really do care when kids go off to get killed. And they care about being lied to. Even the press is finally waking up -- apparently they don't like to be lied to either. There is some prospect, I think, that as things wash out here, the invasion of Iraq will be seen as an unprecedented blunder, and those responsible for selling it to Congress will be held accountable. It may not happen until November of next year, but it seems more likely now than it did just a short month ago.

If this scandal does blow over, what are the consequences for U.S. national security going forward?

Well, we have Iran, Syria and North Korea. Because of the administration's preemptive doctrine, those countries are now rushing to accelerate their nuclear weapons programs, and unless the U.S. public demands truth from the administration, I think the administration will just take the next step. Look at the documents from the Project for a New American Century [a Washington-based neoconservative think tank founded in 1997, which urged invading Iraq before 9/11 and is dominated by militarist unilateralists and supporters of Israel's Likud Party]: They provide the strategic and ideological justification for it. The consequences could be immense.

© 2003 Mark Follman.

Mark Follman is an editorial fellow at Salon, where this piece first appeared.