An Interview with Ray McGovern

Courageous actions and boldly speaking the truth-even by one person-can galvanize the feelings of millions. This happened last year when Cindy Sheehan camped outside Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas and demanded he meet with her to explain for what “noble cause” her son died in Iraq. And it happened on May 4 in Atlanta when Ray McGovern, a 27-year CIA veteran, a founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), and a participant in the Bush Crimes Commission, confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about his Iraq War lies-and caught him red-handed-on national TV.

At the beginning of Rumsfeld’s televised speech, a woman shouted, “I cannot stay silent, this man needs to be in prison for war crimes. Drive Out the Bush Regime!” Two more protesters stood up and accused Rumsfeld of war crimes and lying, and another man stood with his back to Rumsfeld. Then during the question-and-answer period, McGovern confronted Rumsfeld-with facts.

Ray McGovern (quoting from a New York Times report): Atlanta. Sept. 27, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld said (and this is in quotation marks), “There is bulletproof evidence of links between al Qaeda and the government of Saddam Hussein.”

Was that a lie, Mr. Rumsfeld? Why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary and that has caused these kinds of casualties?

Rumsfeld: Well, first of all I haven’t lied. I didn’t lie then. Colin Powell didn’t lie… It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.

McGovern: You said you knew where they were.

Rumsfeld: I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were, and we were-

McGovern: You said you knew where they were: near Tikrit, near Baghdad, and north, east, south, and west of there. Those are your words

Rumsfeld: My words-my words were that-

[On March 30, 2003, Rumsfeld told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “We know where they (the WMD) are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad, and east, west, south, and north somewhat.”]

The McGovern-Rumsfeld exchange immediately flashed through the media and cyberspace. CNN, MSNBC and other major media broadcast the back-and-forth, and compared McGovern’s words with Rumsfeld’s March 30, 2003 statement, showing that Rumsfeld was lying-yet again. It became grist for a Jon Stewart segment lampooning Rumsfeld and sparked the lead editorial in the New York Times on May 7.

I interviewed Ray McGovern about the encounter.

LARRY EVEREST: Why did you decide to focus on the question of Rumsfeld’s lies about the war?

Ray McGovern: That day I was surfing the web and noticed that my former colleague, recently retired Paul Pillar, had referred in an interview to the “campaign of manipulation of intelligence” that tried to create out of whole cloth ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. Until he retired late last year, Pillar was the most senior analyst/manager for the Middle East; now he is speaking out.

So that morning I was thinking of that unconscionable manipulation of intelligence that was used to trick Congress into voting for an unnecessary war, but that had not been my first choice of a question to pose to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Rather, I have been longing for someone to ask him directly whether he had been personally involved in the torture of detainees. Fresh in my mind was an official Army Inspector General’s report, released last month in response to a Freedom of Information request, which includes sworn testimony by Army Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt who interviewed Rumsfeld twice in early 2005. Schmidt testified that Rumsfeld was “personally involved in the interrogation at Guantánamo of high-value al-Qaeda detainee Mohammed al-Kahtani in Dec. 2002.” On Dec. 2, 2002, Rumsfeld had approved 16 harsher interrogation tactics for use against Kahtani.

Army investigators called “degrading and abusive” the treatment of Kahtani by US soldiers implementing measures the defense secretary had approved. Rumsfeld, in turn, was “talking weekly” with the notorious Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller with his campaign ribbons from Guantanamo and Abu Graib (who has now taken the Army equivalent of the Fifth Amendment). During the 18 to 20-hour per day interrogation of Kahtani for 48 days, he was forced to do “dog tricks” on a leash, to stand naked in front of a female interrogator, and to wear women’s underwear. According to Lt. Gen. Schmidt, when he asked Rumsfeld about this, he replied, “My God, you know, did I authorize putting a bra and underwear on this guy’s head?” So I had been thinking of asking Rumsfeld the obvious question that Pentagon-accredited pussycat press people never would; i. e., “Well, did you…or did you not?”

But what Paul Pillar had said the day before about the artificial creation of a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda, seemed even better to raise, since Rumsfeld’s comment that evidence of such ties was “bulletproof” was his own word and cut right to the key issue of the corruption of intelligence. The success of that campaign can readily be seen in the fact that for a long period of time, 69 percent of the American people believed it at the time. It was, of course, a bald-faced lie but one that was assiduously insinuated into the discussion by the administration. And from the White House’s point of view, the campaign bore very good fruit.

That was a particularly sore bone of contention with me because the CIA had been leaned on very strongly by the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney to come up with evidence that there were meaningful ties between al Qaeda and Saddam. The agency labored long and hard for years and finally concluded there was no evidence of meaningful ties. Yet here is Rumsfeld saying the evidence was “bulletproof.”

So I was thinking of what Pillar said-and one other thing that had just happened. When Rumsfeld was several minutes into his Atlanta speech, he was interrupted by two women who accused him of lies. Rumsfeld paused, and after the women were ejected, he chose to address the charge as though they had accused the president rather than Rumsfeld. He proceeded to wring his hands and solemnly intoned:

“You know, that charge is frequently leveled against the president for one reason or another, and it is so wrong, and so unfair, and so destructive of a free system where people need to trust each other and the government. And the idea that people in government are lying about something is fundamentally destructive of that trust and, at bedrock, untrue.”

That was almost too much to take-the feigned abhorrence of lies and how destructive they are. Lucrative material for Jon Stewart or Saturday Night Live, but nonetheless outrageous.

That got my Irish up. So I decided when the question period came up I would try to ask Rumsfeld about that-about lies. There was certainly no lack of material.

Everest: How did he react to you?

McGovern: He seemed surprised. When I pointed out I was a 27-year veteran of the CIA he sort of smiled as if to say, “This fellow will do no harm.” When I pointed out that I was a member of VIPS (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity), his demeanor changed a bit. I led off by complimenting Rumsfeld on his observation that lies are fundamentally destructive of the trust that government needs to govern. Then I went on to ask him why he talked about “bulletproof” evidence when virtually all the intelligence analysts said there wasn’t any at all.

Everest: What kind of response have you gotten afterward?

McGovern: The media response has been interesting. No sooner was I out the door, when I got a call from CNN. They asked for my sources so I gave them chapter and verse. Ten minutes later, I was booked for several shows on CNN that evening. Clearly, CNN had checked the facts, verified what I had said and thought the encounter with Rumsfeld might make a good story. I’m not sure that just a year ago this would have happened.

That evening CNN and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann took the trouble to display Rumsfeld’s earlier statements and compare them with what he said last week in Atlanta. CBS and Fox simply provided the familiar “he-said-but-he-said-and-I-guess-we’ll-have-to-leave-it-at-that” treatment. No apparent fact checking; no pursuit of truth there.

Everest: You’ve made an important comparison between the US today and Germany in the 1930s. What changes do you see in the US that makes you feel that way, that concerns you so much?

McGovern: First and foremost people need to reassert the primacy of the rule of law. The familiar administration line is that after 9/11 everything changed and that we now have a new “paradigm.” Well I hope we haven’t decided to substitute that “paradigm” for the Constitution. If we still give primacy to the Constitution, lawmakers and other leaders need to confront the clear illegalities that have been taking place. It’s actually hard to keep track, given what I call “outrage fatigue.” It seems there is a fresh outrage every week, and it becomes very hard to prioritize them and decide which to focus on.

But if we don’t focus on these violations of law then fascism will take hold. Indeed, we are already well down that road-for example, when we see what the National Security Agency has been doing at the President’s direction; when we see a U.S. Air Force officer, Michael Hayden, unable to stand on the principle of law and instead allow himself to be corrupted by nearness to power, we’re in a dangerous situation. Like me and all other officers, Hayden swore an oath to defend the Constitution; we were also taught that no military officer is obligated or permitted to obey an illegal order.

There was no one in the USA who knew more about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 than Hayden did. He knew it was illegal to spy on Americans without a court order, but he saluted and did it anyway. It is not for some idle or capricious reason that warrantless eavesdropping is illegal. It’s illegal because of what was done before 1975 when the Church Committee exposed the outrageous abuses of Fourth Amendment protections that President Richard Nixon, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and others had been committing with such surveillance, like wiretapping and trying to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example.

So you have to observe the law. If you have some reason that law is outdated, then you ask Congress to change it. You don’t just ignore it. If you start ignoring laws then our democracy is lost. The bottom line is Congress makes laws and the executive branch is supposed to implement and observe them. No president is empowered to say, “We’ll simply ignore the law because after 9/11 everything has changed.” If he is allowed to do this, we endanger all laws-like the President is already doing with “signing statements.” It’s incredibly corrosive of the democratic process and constitutional protections, and it can lead to the end of the Republic.

Adding insult to injury, many of these law-skirting actions are being kept secret. Knowledge is the oxygen of democracy and we are slowly suffocating. Down with the new “paradigm”!

Watch the MSNBC broadcast on McGovern’s confrontation with Rumsfeld and the protests against Rumsfeld by World Can’t Wait and others.

LARRY EVEREST is the author of Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda, an organizer of the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity by the Bush Administration, and a contributor to a new book: Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney, forthcoming from Seven Stories Press. This interview originally appeared in Revolution. He can be reached through his website.