The Hearings Concentrate on Side Issues, But Provide Dangerous Harbingers for the Future

former CIA analyst

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, chaired by former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean and better known as the 9/11 Commission, entertained news junkies across America with two full days of hearings last week. The ex-governor, chosen in part for his low visibility when a replacement had to be found for the controversial Henry Kissinger, did a creditable enough job as the entertainment MC. He and his mixed crew of good and not-so-good ex-officials, politicians, and perpetual staff aides spread before us not one but several partisan versions of how well or how badly the intelligence and foreign-policymaking arms of a Democratic and then a Republican administration performed over the past decade.

For students of politics and the internal workings of governments and bureaucracies, the exercise undoubtedly provided a few useful historical insights. The commission’s final report, when issued in the summer of 2004, may even contain helpful recommendations for reorganizing governmental intelligence and foreign-policymaking mechanisms — helpful, that is, to the leaders of the world’s only nation-state that presently seeks military domination over the entire globe.

To the remaining citizens of the U.S. and the world, however, it was at best one more Roman circus distracting us from what should be our main goal: PERSUADING WASHINGTON TO SCRAP ITS FOREIGN AND MILITARY POLICIES THAT FOSTER U.S. GLOBAL DOMINATION AND AN AGGRESSIVE ISRAELI-U.S. PARTNERSHIP IN DOMINATING THE MIDDLE EAST. These are the dangerous policies that both Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s administrations, with only minor differences of emphasis, have pressed on an unwilling world. Earlier administrations had similar goals, but serious policy steps toward fulfilling those goals became much more feasible — or at least seemed to U.S. leaders to be more feasible — after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. These policy steps also fitted nicely with the needs of the principal financial backers of both major U.S. political parties for more aggressive U.S. policies that would encourage a continuation and expansion of their own profits.

The website of the 9/11 Commission states that it is “an independent, bipartisan commission created by congressional legislation and the signature of President George W. Bush in late 2002,” and that it is “chartered to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. The Commission is also mandated to provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks.”

The final sentence just quoted would allow the Commission, if it wished, to recommend changes in U.S. policies that generate ever more hatred against America and thereby perpetuate terrorism. On the other hand, the Commission may narrowly interpret the phrase “designed to guard against future attacks” to mean it should recommend only organizational and tactical actions intended to intensify and make more effective U.S. implementation of the so-called “war on terror,” and also reduce the chances of future terrorist surprises embarrassing to the U.S.

The latter course is the one the 9/11 Commission will almost certainly take, since neither of our major political parties wants significant changes in U.S. foreign and military policies. With John Kerry as the presumptive Democratic candidate, the only policy changes that he is likely to favor in these fields will be in matters of tone, such as listening more courteously to allies, and less obvious displays of trigger-happiness. He might, in addition, slow down the outrageously expensive and wasteful anti-ballistic missile program, but he would not stop it. His bread too is buttered by the same financiers that underwrite Bush.

The members of the 9/11 Commission, both Republicans and Democrats, are in the same club. Nothing in the hearings of March 23-24 suggests that any member will cut the leash that ties him or her to the military-industrial establishment. Note also that the charter of the Commission limits its role to “the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,” so it will definitely pass no judgments on, for instance, the later establishment of a Pentagon intelligence unit, the Office of Special Plans, entirely outside the intelligence community with the specific purpose of providing distortions and lies to encourage the American people to support the invasion of Iraq.

The highlight of the hearings, of course, was the testimony of former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and the simultaneous publication of Clarke’s book, both of which demonstrated fairly conclusively that the Bush administration had not, in its first eight months, given a very high priority to developing a coherent counterterrorism policy. Clarke provoked an orgy of activity from the wounded Bushies designed to discredit him, but he produced no smoking gun to prove real negligence on Bush’s part beyond a generalized unwillingness to copy any Clinton policy on any subject. The affair has mildly damaged Bush’s image as a decisive leader, but the injury is nowhere near fatal to his reelection campaign. Furthermore, Clarke himself espouses such one-sided and utterly uncompromising views against terrorism that he is unlikely to provide much support in coming months to those of us who want to change U.S. foreign policies.

So Clarke is also a distraction and part of the Roman circus. It is doubtful that he will draw more than a few votes away from Bush next November, unless his revelations, which by themselves are not of crashing importance, induce someone else to come forward with a real smoking gun. For example, if anyone produced truly strong evidence that the FBI report of an al-Qaida member learning to fly but not to take off or land an airliner had in fact been provided to the White House before September 11, that would change many peoples’ calculations about where responsibility for the 9/11 fiasco lies. Another recent story, appearing on, is also worth watching. A former FBI wiretap translator with top-secret security clearance, who has been called “very credible” by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has told Salon she recently testified to the 9/11 Commission that the FBI had detailed information prior to September 11 that a terrorist attack involving airplanes was being plotted. Again, if anyone provides evidence that such a report was passed to the White House before 9/11, this too could change a lot of political calculations in Washington. At the moment, the evidence is simply not there to conclude that either of these reports will seriously damage the Bush administration.

The March 23-24 hearings, however, do provide a few dangerous harbingers for the future that may be of secondary importance in the short run but become more important as time passes.


Further Expansions of Intelligence and Covert Actions Planned

That the world is likely to be subjected to a further upsurge of U.S. intelligence activities and covert actions will not be news to many of us, but it still is noteworthy. This trend has been developing for the last four years or so. The testimony and the written submission of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet show most clearly the continuities of the two administrations, since Tenet served both under Clinton and under Bush. Under both, terrorism (as defined by the U.S.) and military actions initiated by the U.S. have resulted in a major expansion of U.S. intelligence services, particularly in the areas of personnel and career opportunities in both the analytical and the covert action and collection components of the CIA. More is to come.

If you accept as valid the views that terrorism against the U.S. and its allies is entirely the fault of those whom the U.S. labels enemies, and that military actions initiated by the U.S. are entirely defensive and therefore valid, then you will see nothing wrong with the massive expansion of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies (or for that matter the expansion of our overt military services). But if you are skeptical of these views, then you should also understand that most people of the world will regard this surging growth of U.S. intelligence activities as immoral and as representing a truly absurd and crazy excess in the American political system that should be opposed by every thoughtful person.

Most Americans do not realize the extremely negative effect that a global expansion of CIA activities, particularly covert actions, has on other peoples. It seems almost impossible for the U.S. to avoid bragging about strengthening its intelligence capabilities while at the same time coyly claiming that it cannot reveal the details for reasons of security. It is just one more form of arrogance that the U.S. displays, and it simply intensifies global hatred of the U.S. The covertness of what the CIA does makes the blowback worse. The use of covert action by the U.S. should be reduced, not expanded. Any instances of it that are uncovered become a cause of more terrorism. The U.S. literally encourages this. Governments around the world can easily obtain and study every unclassified briefing that Tenet gives, and newspapers, TV, and radio in other nations revel in spreading and embellishing stories about what the CIA says it is doing.

The unclassified oral briefing that Tenet gave on March 24 was a summary of a lengthy written statement given to every Commission member. The entire statement was immediately available on the CIA website. It is a blueprint for vastly increased covert activities. The global dominators running Washington these days probably think it is a great idea to show the rest of the world how easy it is for the U.S. to increase its covert capabilities against other nations and sub-national groups, and how futile it is for others to try to stand up to the U.S. But the other side of it is the hatred this produces — always more hatred.

In the written statement, Tenet starts out by poor-mouthing his way through the “peace dividend” years after the Soviet Union fell apart. The document states that “during the 1990s our intelligence community funding declined in real terms, reducing our buying power by tens of billions of dollars over the decade. We lost nearly one in four of our positions. . . . By the mid-1990s recruitment of new CIA analysts and case officers had come to a virtual halt. NSA was hiring no new technologists during the greatest information technology change in our lifetimes. . . . With the al-Qaida threat growing more ominous and with our resources devoted to countering it clearly inadequate, we began taking money and people away from other critical areas to improve our efforts against terrorism. Despite the resource reductions, . . . we managed to triple intelligence-wide funding for counterterrorism from fiscal year 1990 to 1999.” After the earlier statements, this tripling of the money for counterterrorism is a real eye-opener, meant to suggest that Tenet is a genius of a manager for doing so much with so few resources.

The paper points out that FY 1999 was the first year during the decade of the nineties in which the intelligence community received a “significant infusion of new money,” and that other supplemental infusions followed in subsequent years. Tenet then writes, “In CIA alone, I count the equivalent of 700 officers working counterterrorism in August 2001 at both headquarters and in the field.” He adds, however, “Nonetheless, it will take many more years to recover the capabilities we lost during the resource decline of the 1990s.” Later in the paper, he talks about the need for better integration between the intelligence community in Washington and state and local officials. For this purpose, he says, “Large, sustained budget infusions will be required separate from our other resource needs.”

From this shopping list, readers throughout the world can see that the U.S. intelligence community assumes it soon will have a great deal more money to spend than it has now. Will these same readers be cowed by all this, or will their antagonisms against the U.S. behemoth simply grow stronger? As intelligence and covert actions become
increasingly important as an identifiable, separate, and growing arm of U.S. global policies, should not questions be raised by Americans about the ignoble image of the U.S. this trend presents to the world? Do we lack so much confidence in our own overt policies — our alleged support for democracy, for example — that we have to rely increasingly on covert actions? To repeat the obvious, these questions will become more rather than less important unless we change our foreign and military policies in major ways. Starting right now.



The Israeli military has been assassinating Palestinians accused of terrorism, or of organizing and directing terrorism, for some years. The U.S. government has approved these assassinations, or at most has issued exceedingly mild criticisms on some occasions. But when it comes to proposals for assassinations that might be committed by the CIA, the differing views in the government that have come to light so far in the 9/11 hearings are remarkable. The reason for the differences goes back at least to 1976, when President Gerald Ford issued an executive order decreeing that “no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” That period immediately after the Vietnam War saw an upsurge of harsh criticism of the CIA for its covert actions from the 1950s through the early 1970s. This writer knows of no evidence that Ford’s executive order has ever been formally rescinded.

But times change, of course, and by the late 1990s the Clinton administration was quite openly calling for the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden, although not publicly using the word assassination. The Bush administration has continued these calls and has freely talked about wanting bin Laden “dead or alive.” The unclassified version of the 9/11 Commission’s staff report, however, contains considerable evidence of conflict. The excerpts below are drastically abbreviated. The entire document makes fascinating reading and can be found on the internet.

“Many CIA officers, including Deputy Director for Operations Pavitt, have criticized policy-makers for not giving the CIA [the proper] authorities to conduct effective operations against bin Laden. . . .

“[With respect to] President Clinton, NSC staff and CIA officials differ starkly here. Senior NSC staff members told us they believe the president’s intent was clear: He wanted bin Laden dead. . . .

“As former National Security Adviser Berger explained, if we wanted to kill bin Laden with cruise missiles, why would we not want to kill him with covert action? . . .

“[But] every CIA official interviewed on this topic by the Commission, from DCI Tenet to the official who actually briefed the agents in the field, told us they had heard a different message.

“What the United States would let the military do is quite different, Tenet said, from the rules that govern covert action by the CIA. CIA senior managers, operators and lawyers uniformly said that they read the relevant authorities signed by President Clinton as instructing them to try to capture bin Laden. . . .

“They believed that the only acceptable context for killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation. Quote, We always talked about how much easier it would have been to kill him, end of quote, a former chief of the bin Laden station said. [Elsewhere, the document reveals that the CIA’s Directorate of Operations established what was dubbed a “station” in Washington to handle the pursuit of bin Laden. CIA “stations” are usually established in foreign capitals to deal with operations in those countries.]

“. . . To further cloud the picture, two senior CIA officers told us they would have been morally and practically opposed to getting CIA into what might look like an assassination. One of them, a former counterterrorism center chief, said that he would have refused an order to directly kill bin Laden.

“Where [both sides] agree is that no one at CIA, including Tenet and Pavitt, ever complained to the White House that the authorities were restrictive or unclear. Berger told us, quote: If there was ever any confusion, it was never conveyed to me or the president by the DCI or anybody else, end of quote . . .

“But absent a more dependable government strategy, CIA senior management [did not push for more specific instructions] . . . through both the late Clinton and early Bush administrations.”

What seems to be happening here is that in the years before September 11, neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration was willing to put in writing an explicit assassination order to the CIA, and CIA leaders, remembering that the Agency had been badly and deservedly burned in a similar situation almost thirty years earlier, dragged their heels and possibly avoided even trying to carry out an assassination that both administrations wanted. It is fairly clear that Tenet thought the U.S. military might have no such compunctions; he simply did not want to steer the CIA into such a morass on his watch. But it is also fairly clear that he did not choose openly to confront either administration on the issue — at least not before September 11. His position now, in the aftermath of September 11, may or may not be different. We simply have no information. The best guess is that he would prefer to avoid the issue as long as possible, and if the military under Donald Rumsfeld wants to solve the problem for him, copying the Israeli military, he probably would not mind.

Pressures are almost inevitably mounting within the Bush administration in support of more assassinations The peace movements of the U.S. and the world ought to be out there with all the strength they can muster, opposing assassinations everywhere. They are always extralegal and immoral, and the perpetrators are always the prosecution, defense, judge, and jury all rolled into one. Furthermore, as a practical matter, one assassination often encourages others, and any leader who supports an assassination had better watch his own rear. Needless to say, assassinations would be yet another kind of action seen as displaying the arrogance of Americans toward other peoples, and one more entry in the catalog of reasons for hating the United States.

BILL CHRISTISON joined the CIA in 1950 and worked on the analysis side of the Agency for over 28 years. In the 1970s he served as a National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser of the Director of Central Intelligence) for Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa. Before his retirement in 1979, he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit. He can be reached at: