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Gas masks, so insiders joke bitterly, were issued this week to analysts at CIA headquarters in Langley. Not because of Code Orange, but to help staunch the stench. The analysts have been holding their noses ever since CIA Director George Tenet’s February 11 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Tenet caved in to administration pressure to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Equally important, he retracted key intelligence judgments of barely four months ago on Iraq.
As I watched the TV cameras pan Tenet sitting like a potted plant behind Secretary of State Colin Powell during Powell’s briefing at the UN on February 5, the subliminal message came through loud and clear: the CIA stands, or sits, four-square behind what Powell is saying.
Never mind that CIA analysts and the president’s father’s national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, consider the evidence tying Iraq to al-Qaeda “scant.” Never mind that a British intelligence report described by Powell as “exquisite,” was based mostly on an old paper of a US graduate student.
When the cameras turned their focus away from Powell and Tenet to Powell’s briefing screen, I imagined that Tenet need to hold his own nose. His testimony to the Senate committee suggests, though, that he did not wince once.
Briefing the Senators, Tenet demonstrated high tolerance for cooking intelligence to the recipe of policy-a tolerance much higher than that of his analysts, who have been taken in by the verse chiseled into the marble at the entrance to CIA Headquarters-”And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”.
With no evident embarrassment, the CIA director backtracked on key judgments on Iraq that he gave the Senate committee in a letter of October 7, 2001. Those conclusions were call-them-as-you-see-them judgments in the best tradition objective CIA analysis. But, alas, they caused much reflux pain at the White House and Pentagon among those who prefer to damn the torpedoes and press full speed ahead to invade Iraq.
Tenet’s October 7 letter asserted, for example, that the probability is low that Iraq would initiate an attack with weapons of mass destruction or give them to terroristsUNLESS: “Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorists action.”
An inconvenient judgment, to say the least, for those pressing for precisely such an attack.
Since Tenet adduced no credible reporting warranting change in that judgment, his decision to blow smoke when questioned on this key point was astounding-and, for CIA analysts, demoralizing in the extreme. Tenet is fortunate that CIA’s Inspector General is an old crony and that so many CIA analysts have mortgages and kids in college. Otherwise, the outrage among analytic ranks would spell revolution.
With his February 11 testimony Tenet wins the dubious distinction of joining the club of predecessor CIA directors who, in the words of the widely respected CIA alumnus/historian, Harold Ford, “felt they had to adjust what might be called ‘pure’ intelligence judgments to ‘practical’ political considerations, lest they lose their place at the president’s table.”
Who does lose? 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.
Take Vietnam, for example. In early 1967, CIA analysts, led by young analyst Sam Adams demonstrated that there were more than twice as many Vietnamese Communist forces as the US military listed on its books. General William Westmoreland’s staff had reduced the numbers for political reasons.
The general was adamant, so CIA Director Helms caved. In November 1967 Helms signed and gave to President Johnson a formal National Intelligence Estimate enshrining the Army’s count of between 188,000 and 208,000 for enemy strength. My CIA analyst colleagues were aghast; their best estimate was 500,000.
Had Helms told the truth, the war could have ended much sooner. But it dragged on for seven more years, filling the entire left half of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington with the names of those killed or missing in action.
I have a vivid memory of Sam Adams telling me at the time of a comment made to him by one of the most senior CIA officials. “Have we gone beyond the bounds of reasonable dishonesty?” he asked. “We” had indeed.
The question speaks volumes regarding the willingness of senior agency officials to politicize intelligence analysis at a time when it is critically necessary to speak truth to power-a time like now. D?j? vu.
Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years and is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He is co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an outreach ministry in the inner city of Washington. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.