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An Intelligence Debacle…and Worse

Former CIA analyst

In our various oral and written presentations on Iraq my veteran intelligence officer colleagues and I took no delight in sharply criticizing what we perceived to be the corruption of intelligence analysis at CIA. Nothing would have pleased us more than to have been proven wrong. It turns out we did not know the half of it.

Several of us have just spent a painful weekend digesting the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on prewar intelligence assessments on Iraq. The corruption is far deeper than we suspected. The only silver lining is that the corrupter-in-chief, George Tenet, is now gone.

When the former CIA Director departed Sunday, he left behind an agency on life support-an institution staffed by sycophant managers and thoroughly demoralized analysts. The analysts are embarrassed at their own naiveté in believing that the passage carved into the marble at the entrance to CIA Headquarters-“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”-held real meaning for their work.

The Senate Committee report is meticulous. Its findings are a sharp blow to those of us who took pride in working in an agency where we could speak truth to power-with career protection from retribution from the powerful, and with leaders who would face down those policymakers who tried to exert undue influence over our analysis.

Enter “Joe Centrifuge”

Although it was clear to us that much of the intelligence on Iraq had been cooked to the recipe of policy, not until the Senate report did we know that the skewing included outright lies. We had heard of “Joe,” the nuclear weapons analyst in CIA’s Center for Weapons Intelligence and Arms Control, and it was abundantly clear that his agenda was to “prove” that the infamous aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were to be used for developing a nuclear weapon. We did not know that he and his CIA associates falsified the data-including rotor testing ironically called “spin tests.”

The Senate committee determined that “Joe” deliberately skewed data to fit preconceptions regarding an Iraqi nuclear threat. “Who could have believed that about our intelligence community, that the system could be so dishonest?” wondered the normally soft-spoken David Albright, a widely respected veteran expert on Iraq’s work toward developing a nuclear weapon.

I share his wonderment. I too am appalled-and angry. You give 27 years of your professional life to an institution whose main mission-to get at the truth-is essential for orderly policy making, and then you find it has been prostituted. You realize that your former colleagues have lacked the moral courage needed to stave off the effort to enlist them as accomplices in deceiving our elected representatives into giving their blessing to an ill-conceived, unnecessary war. Even Republican stalwart Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has conceded that, had Congress known before the vote for war what his committee has now discovered, “I doubt if the votes would have been there.”

Pandering to the “Powers That Be”

It turns out that only one US analyst had met with the now-infamous Iraqi defector appropriately codenamed “Curveball,” the source of the scarytale about mobile biological weapons factories. This analyst, in an e-mail to the deputy director of CIA’s task force on weapons of mass destruction, raised strong doubt regarding Curveball’s reliability before Colin Powell highlighted his claims at the UN on Feb. 5, 2003. I almost became physically ill reading the cynical response from the deputy director of the task force:

“As I said last night, let’s keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn’t say, and the powers that be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he’s talking about.”

(Reading this brought to consciousness a painful flashback to early August 1964. We CIA analysts knew that reports of a second attack on US destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf were spurious but were prevented from reporting that to policymakers and to Congress. The then-Director of Current Intelligence explained to us condescendingly that President Johnson had decided to use the non-incident as a pretext to escalate the war and that “we do not want to wear out our welcome at the White House.” So this kind of politicization, though rare in the past, is not without precedent-and not without similarly woeful consequences.)

With respect to Iraq, George Tenet’s rhetoric about “truth” and “honesty” in his valedictory last week has a distinctly Orwellian ring. Worse still, apparently “Joe Centrifuge,” the abovementioned deputy director, and other co-conspirators will get off scot-free. Sen. Roberts says he thinks “It is very important that we quit looking in the rearview mirror and affixing blame and, you know, pointing fingers.” And Acting Director John McLaughlin has told the press that he sees no need to dismiss anyone as a result of what he portrayed as honest, limited mistakes.

Tell It To The Families

I would like to hear Roberts and McLaughlin explain all this to the families of the almost 900 US servicemen and women already killed and the many thousand seriously wounded in Iraq.

Roberts seemed at pains to lay the blame on a “flawed system,” but a close reading of the committee report yields the unavoidable conclusion that CIA analysis can no longer be assumed to be honest-to be aimed at getting as close to the truth as one can humanly get. For those of you cynics about to smirk, I can only tell you-believe it or not-that truth was in fact the currency of analysis in the CIA in which I was proud to serve.

Aberrations like the Tonkin Gulf cave-in by CIA management notwithstanding, the analysis directorate was widely known as the unique place in Washington where one could normally go and expect a straight answer unencumbered by any political agenda. And we were hard into some very controversial-often critical-national security issues. It boggles my mind how any president, and particularly one whose father headed the CIA, could expect to be able, without that capability, to make intelligent judgments based on unbiased fact.

It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. Sadly, in the case of Iraq, even before the war truth took a back seat to a felt need to snuggle up to power-to stay in good odor with a president and his advisers, all well known to be hell-bent on war on Iraq.

Caution: Don’t Be Fooled

The Washington Times lead story on July 10 began: “Flawed intelligence that led the United States to invade Iraq was the fault of the US intelligence communitya report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded yesterday.” From the other end of the political spectrum, David Corn of The Nation led his own report with, “The United States went to war on the basis of false claims.”

Not so. This is precisely the spin that the Bush administration wants to give to the Senate report; i. e., that the president was misled; that his decision for war was based on spurious intelligence about non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

But the president’s decision for war had little to do with intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It had everything to do with the administration’s determination to gain control of strategic, oil-rich Iraq, implant an enduring military presence there, and-not incidentally–eliminate any possible threat from Iraq to Israel’s security.

These, of course, were not the reasons given to justify placing US troops in harms way, but even the most circumspect senior officials have had unguarded moments of candor. For example, when asked in May 2003 why North Korea was being treated differently from Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz responded, “Let’s look at it simplyThe country (Iraq) swims on a sea of oil.”

And basking in the glory of “Mission Accomplished” shortly after Baghdad had fallen, Wolfowitz admitted that the focus on weapons of mass destruction to justify the attack on Iraq was “for bureaucratic reasons.” It was, he added, “the one reason everyone could agree on”-meaning, of course, the one that could successfully sell the war to Congress and the American people.

The Israel factor? In another moment of unusual candor-this one before the war-Philip Zelikow, a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2001 to 2003 (and now executive director of the 9/11 commission), pointed to the danger that Iraq posed to Israel as “the unstated threat-a threat that dare not speak its namebecause it is not a popular sell.”

Last, but hardly least. It was not until several months after the Bush White House decided to make war on Iraq that the weapons-of-mass-destruction-laden National Intelligence Estimate was commissioned, and then only because Congress needed to be persuaded that the threat was so immediate that war was necessary. Vice President Dick Cheney set the main parameters in a major speech on August 26, 2002, in which he declared, “We know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.” The estimate Tenet signed dutifully endorsed that spurious judgment-with “high confidence,” no less.

Is There Hope?

If hope is what is found at the bottom of Pandora’s box, it can be found here too. That there are still honest, perceptive analysts at CIA is clear from the analysis that Anonymous sets forth in his excellent book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. (Note to Condoleezza Rice: Anonymous’ name is Michael Scheuer; he is an overt employee; you can get his extension from the CIA operator-just call 703 482 1100.)

As long as analysts of Scheuer’s caliber hang in there, there can be hope that, once the CIA is given the adult supervision it has lacked for the last two dozen years, it can get back on track in performing its critical job for our country.

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:


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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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