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The Prostitution of Intelligence

by RAY McGOVERN Former CIA Analyst

To those readers still wandering the labyrinth of Bush administration explanations regarding how “intelligence” known to be spurious got into the president’s state-of-the-union address: Don’t give up yet. I think I can help.

The White House is on solid ground in pinning most of the blame on CIA director George Tenet for giving unwarranted prominence to reporting that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. Why? Because the report was demonstrably implausible on its face.

“The alleged contract (between Iraq and Niger) could not have been honored, as the export of uranium from Niger is fully controlled by international companies,” is how the International Atomic Energy Agency dismissed the report. Former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson had already underscored that in his report on March 9, 2002 following his eight-day fact-finding trip to Niger. Wilson also described the processes in place for monitoring and transporting uranium from Niger, processes that make illicit diversions virtually impossible.

The subsequent revelation that the original report was not only implausible in substance but based on a forgery should have driven the final nail into its coffin. Instead, the report was resuscitated and used last September and October in a game of “make-believe–“make Congress believe that the threat from Iraq required a preemptive strike.

Arguably, deceiving Congress on a matter of war and peace constitutes an even more serious blow to our constitutional process than the Supreme Court interfering in a state’s own constitutional process for counting ballots. Arguably, it counts for little that the president misled us in his state-of-the-union address, when months earlier his administration had used cynically employed the bogus Iraq-Niger story to deceive our elected representatives into ceding to him authority to make war.

George Tenet recently has sought to put daylight between himself and the Iraq-Niger canard. In his “apology” on July 11, for example, he added: “In the fall of 2002, my deputy and I briefed hundreds of members of Congress on Iraq. We did not brief the uranium acquisition story.” And CIA has forced the administration to acknowledge that, at Tenet’s insistence, the story was removed from a major Bush speech.

The Prostitution of Intelligence

But Tenet was playing a double game. Under relentless pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney and top Pentagon officials, the CIA Director acquiesced in introducing the Iraq-Niger story into the most authoritative analytic product he gives to the president–a National Intelligence Estimate.

“Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” the NIE signed by Tenet on October 1, 2002, was crafted to dovetail with Cheney’s opening pitch in rolling out the marketing strategy for war. In an unusually confrontational speech of August 26, 2002 Cheney had insisted, “Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Now on the defensive as hope fades for finding any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Cheney is resorting once again to the NIE conclusions that he and his staff helped to corrupt! In a major speech on July 24, he quoted the estimate’s conclusions to justify the administration’s decision for war–conclusions that anyone who has been paying attention now realizes were far off the mark.

Now that’s chutzpah!

The inclusion of the Iraq-Niger story, together with other indignities shaping those fallacious conclusions, amount to prostitution of intelligence–big time. And this buck does stop with Tenet, who heads the entire Intelligence Community.

The State Department’s intelligence unit had the courage to pour cold water on the uranium-from-Niger reporting, branding it “highly dubious.” But State’s view was relegated to a footnote in the NIE.

For Tenet, the chickens came home to roost on July 17, when the president’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, taking his cue from earlier remarks by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, singled out the NIE–seven times–as the source of the spurious information in the president’s state-of-the-union speech.

Tenet Had Bad Examples

Sadly, Tenet is not the first CIA director to prostitute an NIE under pressure from the Pentagon. In November 1967 as the Vietnam War gathered steam, Richard Helms signed and gave to President Lyndon Johnson a very important NIE that Helms knew to be fraudulent.

Painstaking research by my CIA colleague, the late Sam Adams, had revealed that the Vietnamese Communists under arms numbered 500,000. But Gen. William Westmoreland in Saigon, eager to project an image of progress in the US “war of attrition,” had imposed a very low artificial ceiling on estimates of enemy strength.

We CIA analysts were aghast when Helms caved in and signed an NIE enshrining Westmoreland’s count of between 188,000 and 208,000. The Tet offensive just two months later exploded that myth–at great human cost. And the war dragged on for seven more years.

Then, as now, morale among CIA analysts plummeted. A senior CIA official made the mistake of jocularly asking Adams if he thought the Agency had “gone beyond the bounds of reasonable dishonesty.” I had to restrain Sam, who had not only a keen sense of integrity but first-hand experience of what our troops were experiencing in the jungles of Vietnam.

Sam would have been equally outraged at the casualties being taken now by US forces fighting another unnecessary war, this time in the desert. Kipling’s verse applies equally well to jungle or desert:

“If they ask you why we died,
tell them because our fathers lied.”

Ray McGovern chaired NIEs and briefed the President’s Daily Brief during his 27-year career at CIA. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an inner-city outreach ministry in Washington, DC. He can be reached at:

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: A version of this article first appeared on  

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