Many readers of CounterPunch will have seen a statement by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), published on July 14 as a Memorandum for the President, decrying the “melting” down and disintegration of the U.S. intelligence capability, placing the burden of responsibility for this on Vice President Richard Cheney, and calling for Cheney’s resignation. Many will also have noted that, although charter members of VIPS, we did not sign this memorandum. In fact, we resigned from VIPS, with some regret, as the only credible way to dissociate ourselves from the memo.
We have been asked for some elaboration of our reasoning, and an explanation is indeed in order. We want to make it clear at the start that our actions signal no change of heart or of thinking on our part about the policies the Bush administration has been pursuing. We share the disgust of other VIPS members at the aggressive policy direction of this administration and particularly at its distortion and politicization of intelligence. Our disagreement is over methods, not principles. Our objection is to this particular memorandum; we continue to respect the VIPS organization itself and its purposes.
Our principal problem with the memo is its call for Cheney’s resignation. Not that this result would not in fact please us. But our very strong feeling is that an organization like VIPS, and any serious policy analysts, should be writing about policies and actions, not personalities. Harry Truman famously observed that “the buck stops here.” Calling for Cheney’s resignation, or the resignation of any single individual, is to us a cheap shot. Virtually everyone in this administration is implicated in some way, and Bush is ultimately entirely responsible; the buck stops there. Cheney shares responsibility at his level. Secretaries of Defense and State Rumsfeld and Powell share it at their level. And so on down through Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet, and then through all the neo-conservatives starting with Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle.
VIPS should, as it has done, call for a full-bore and independent investigation. No other purpose is served, except possibly grandstanding, by issuing another memorandum now. Furthermore, calling for Cheney’s resignation before an independent investigation is wrong tactically, in our view. If he ended up as a scapegoat and this ended all calls for further change, VIPS would not have achieved what is most important: changing the aggressive, strutting, anything-goes approach to foreign policy that this administration pursues and that has led it to misuse intelligence so badly.
We have a further problem with the memorandum as issued. We feel that it shoots from the hip, and this is dangerous in so serious a matter. Administration spokesmen are extremely clever at using verbal gymnastics to dodge responsibility. For this reason, any organization that goes up against them must be extremely clever itself about what it writes and must avoid at all costs being caught out in statements that cannot be adequately backed up. VIPS in particular, made up as it is of retired intelligence officers without first-hand inside information, must be scrupulously careful in anything it writes about what goes on inside the administration. This is particularly so when the subject is lying and obfuscation by senior officials and when an art form as notoriously uncertain and as broadly interpretable as analysis of intelligence data is involved.
To take just one example, statements such as the remark in the VIPS memo that “there is just too much evidence that Ambassador Wilson was sent to Niger at Vice President Cheney’s behest,” when Wilson himself has made this connection much more indirect (writing in a New York Times op-ed that unspecified CIA officials asked him to go, and paid his expenses, because Cheney “had questions”) diminish VIPS’ credibility and open it to charges of the very kind of truth-stretching that it is trying to combat.
We do not feel that this latest VIPS memorandum to the president is as careful or as judicious in its language as it should be. It is an attention-getter, an effort to keep the subject alive, rather than a reasoned piece of analysis and exposition. The Bush administration as a whole has clearly played fast and loose with the truth in a matter of surpassing importance. We fear that, in its very laudable effort to expose the administration, this memorandum runs the risk of showing up VIPS itself as a group that plays fast and loose with the truth. There is a place for rhetoric and flashy writing. We do not believe a memorandum for the president about a subject as serious to the nation’s destiny as the politicization and distortion of intelligence in the service of aggressive warfare is such a place.
Bill Christison joined the CIA in 1950, and served on the analysis side of the Agency for 28 years. From the early 1970s he served as National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser to the Director of Central Intelligence on certain areas) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Before he retired in 1979 he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit.
Kathleen Christison also worked in the CIA, retiring in 1979. Since then she has been mainly preoccupied by the issue of Palestine. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. The Christison’s are contributors to Cockburn and St. Clair’s new book: The Politics of Anti-Semitism.
The Christison’s can be reached at: email@example.com