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Blowing Smoke on Intelligence

Turning Liability into Asset

by RAY McGOVERN


Former CIA Analyst

What do the president’s nomination of Rep. Porter Goss (R, FL) to head the CIA and the seemingly contradictory proposal of Senator Pat Roberts (R, KS) to dismember the CIA have in common with tales of swift boats once in Vietnam? Answer: The proven potential of all three to grab the headlines and draw attention away from President George W. Bush’s most serious vulnerabilities in this key pre-election period.

One can be forgiven for being confused at the administration’s recent moves on the intelligence front. Early last month, when the Senate Intelligence Committee published its multi-count indictment of CIA’s performance on Iraq and former CIA Director George Tenet left the scene of the crime, the pundits expressed confidence that the president would ask Tenet’s deputy to fill in over the ensuing months rather than risk calling further attention to the intelligence fiasco.

Leading Democrats were rubbing their hands in glee at the president’s dilemma. Failing to appoint a new take-charge CIA director would look inept amid all the warnings of a pre-election terrorist attack, but appointing one would bring still more embarrassment for the administration. And some voters, the Democrats were hoping, might even remember where the buck is supposed to stop.

Not a problem, decided Karl Rove, who continues to outsmart many Democrats of higher IQ. The situation is made to order. The president is particularly vulnerable on two counts: what he did in Iraq, and what he didn’t do before 9/11. The 9/11 commission performed yeoman’s service in diffusing responsibility such that no one-and especially not the one sitting where the buck used to stop-could be held accountable. And it is turning out to be almost as easy on Iraq­despite the continuing mayhem there and the inexorable culpability-creep up the chain of command regarding the torture of Iraqi and other prisoners.

Porter Goss Front and Center

It was in this context that the White House decided to stoke the fires of political controversy still higher by nominating Porter Goss to replace Tenet. As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee for the last eight years, Goss is as responsible as anyone for the intelligence failures that facilitated the attacks of 9/11.

He bears even more responsibility for turning a blind eye toward the corruption of intelligence-including the conjured-up-out-of-thin-air mushroom cloud that in October 2002 frightened Congress into surrendering to the president its constitutional prerogative to wage war. No one has accused Goss of being dumb. If we "out-of-the-loop" veteran intelligence professionals could readily see what was going on, surely Goss could.

And so, as Goss comes before the Senate for confirmation, controversy is assured-and welcomed by the White House. The Democrats will not pass up the opportunity to ask the nominee how all this could have escaped Goss’ attention during the eight years he chaired the powerful House Intelligence Committee. They will want to know, specifically, why he failed to stem the erosion of CIA’s human source reporting capability-a problem Goss himself highlighted after his first year as chairman. And they are bound to ask him why he sponsored legislation with deeper cuts in intelligence funding than those advocated by Sen. John Kerry-for which Republicans have roundly criticized Kerry.

But while the Democratic leadership continues to lick its chops at the prospect of raking Goss over the coals at his nomination hearings next month, Karl Rove is smirking from ear to ear. Another situation made to order. Attention will be riveted on this controversial "team player" nominated to assume the mantle of Tenet, who in a leap of faith-based intelligence aimed at keeping himself on the starting cheerleader team, famously described the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a "slam dunk."

Too bad the press, and even the Democrats, play along in accepting the failure of intelligence as the reason we invaded Iraq. In doing so they let the White House off the hook and deny the public the honest debate it deserves about the real reasons for war.

The focus on Goss and intelligence reforms allows the White House to push its message: The president was misled. It was a terrible performance, but now Tenet is gone. Subtext to Senate Democrats: Here’s Goss: take him, or leave him (and open yourselves to charges of foot-dragging at a time when our PR machine has ratcheted up the likelihood of a terrorist attack before the election).

The performance of intelligence was, indeed, terrible-as inept as it was politicized. But intelligence failings regarding weapons of mass destruction and putative ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda had very little to do with the president’s decision to make war on Iraq.

The Real Reasons

With the false WMD threat exposed and tales of significant ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda thoroughly discredited, the American people need an open discussion about the White House’s motivations for invading Iraq. Rove’s tactics aside, the Democrats are none too eager to engage this question, either, as is clear from John Kerry’s recent statements on justification for the war.

And the general consensus contrives to silence those of us who dare to speak on the Iraq debacle. As has become increasingly clear, the neo-conservatives’ vision that the US has a strategic imperative to gain more assured control over oil from the Middle East, together with their overweening zeal to eliminate any conceivable threat to the security of Israel, are what sunk us into the quicksand of Iraq. More important at this juncture, these twin aims render it virtually impossible for these policy makers to find a way out.

Quite aside from the political opprobrium that would attach to a decision to "cut and run," the neo-cons probably reckon that, in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, Israel is only more secure as long as the US keeps a sizable military presence there. The Bush administration is, on the one hand, unwilling to send the "several hundred thousand" troops that former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki at the outset warned would be needed. On the other hand, it seems convinced that it cannot withdraw without leaving Israel in the lurch.

The neo-cons have considerable difficulty distinguishing between the strategic requirements of Israel and those of the US. There are not enough US troops in Iraq to quell the resistance, but there are enough to prevent any strategic threat to Israel. And so, the Bush administration shows no intention of drawing down US forces from Iraq anytime soon.

This, needless to say, has serious implications for us all-including my grandson Matthew who is fast approaching draft age. But such awkward realities are not supposed to be spoken in polite political discourse. Last Friday on PBS’ Charlie Rose Show, I broke that taboo and was immediately branded "goofy" and "anti-Semitic" by arch-neo-conservative James Woolsey, a former CIA director.

It is a volatile, but important, point. Most Americans would be loath to support sending our young men and women into Iraq to make the world safer for an Israel that is armed to the teeth and led by the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In justifying the war, the administration deemed it far better to home in on things like "weapons of mass destruction" and to count on our somnolent press to miss a glaring inconsistency. On February 24, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated publicly, "Saddam Hussein has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction." And in July 2001 Condoleezza Rice said, "We are able to keep his arms from him. His military forces have not been rebuilt."

But, as we are repeatedly reminded, after September 11 "everything changed." Are we being asked to believe, then, that weapons of mass destruction suddenly descended softly on Iraq-like manna from heaven?

Intelligence Complicity

Intelligence? No intelligence estimate on Iraq was wanted by the White House, or needed, until the fall of 2002 when Congress was asked to authorize war on Iraq-long after the decision to attack. At that point the ever-vigilant Senate intelligence oversight (overlook?) committee woke up to the fact that it had seen no intelligence to justify war. So the White House ordered the obedient Tenet to have his chefs cook up the "evidence" needed to muddle congressional minds with mushroom clouds. And the worst National Intelligence Estimate in US history was conjured up to help convince Congress to surrender to the president its power to make war.

Just as the swift boats of August have been spreading thick spray, the Goss hearings next month and debate on Roberts’ cockamamie proposal on restructuring-so outlandish as to have zero chance of passing-can be counted upon to spread enough fog to keep the mayhem in Iraq off the front pages and distract attention from the president’s most serious vulnerabilities. Karl Rove is counting on it, and he’s cleverer by half.

Iraq? The CIA made us do it.

RAY McGOVERN, a CIA analyst for 27 years, is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and a contributor to CounterPunch’s unsparing new history of the Afghanistan/Iraq wars, Imperial Crusades. McGovern can be reached at: RRMcGovern@aol.com

This article was first published on TomPaine.com