How the Washington Post Accommodates Disinformation

The Washington Post has come up with a doozy of a pairing for its online interview series.  On Thursday, June 4th, the paper is featuring its senior diplomatic columnist David Ignatius and former deputy director of the CIA John McLaughlin in a talk titled “Fact or Fiction: Deepfakes & Disinformation.”  This is an ironic pairing in view of McLaughlin’s role in crafting much of the CIA’s disinformation in the run-up to the Iraq War and Ignatius’ role as the mainstream media’s leading apologist for the CIA.  Ignatius is well known to readers of Counterpunch, so I will highlight the background of a former colleague of mine at the CIA—John McLaughlin.  The Post could not have found a more experienced veteran to explain disinformation.

The best place to start is the worst intelligence scandal in U.S. history—the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in cherry-picking information to support the Bush administration’s specious case for war against Iraq in 2003.  The leading figure in this calumny was McLaughlin, then deputy director of the CIA.  The then-director of the CIA, George Tenet, is well known for telling President George W. Bush in December 2002 that it would be a “slam dunk” for the agency to provide intelligence justification for the war to the American people.  It is less well known that McLaughlin delivered the “slam dunk” briefing to the White House in January 2003.  (Tenet, by the way, left the CIA with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that can be given to a civilian for contributions to the security or national interests of the United States. McLaughlin is the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and MSNBC’s intelligence spokesman.)

McLaughlin was intimately involved in the conjuring of virtually every major act of disinformation that the CIA developed in the run-up to war from the phony National Intelligence Estimate and the accompanying unclassified White Paper to the Congress in October 2002 right up to the speech that was written for Secretary of State Colin Powell in January 2003.  Powell delivered the speech to the United Nations in February 2003, only six weeks before the start of the war.  He insisted on having CIA director Tenet and the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, seated behind him to his left and right.

Powell traveled to CIA headquarters over a period of several days to take part in the drafting of the UN speech, ignoring his director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) who warned the secretary not to do so.  INR analysts had participated in the preparation of the estimate several months earlier and were appalled by the role of senior CIA officials in politicizing and cherry picking intelligence for the policy community.  INR knew that the speech would merely reprise the politicized estimate.  It was right!

McLaughlin was involved in other aspects of the perversion of intelligence in the run-up to the war.  He received and ignored a series of briefings on the weakness of the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and he tried to silence the chief of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, who found no evidence of strategic weapons in Iraq.  McLaughlin was the key advocate for the notorious “Curveball,” the sole source for the phony intelligence on mobile biological laboratories that was in Powell’s speech. “Curveball” was an asset handled by German intelligence, and the Germans warned the CIA that there was no validation for his claims.  The Germans knew that “Curveball” was trying to obtain German visas for his family and would say anything to gain them.  Even analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency referred to his claims as “garbage;” this didn’t prevent McLaughlin from inserting them into Powell’s UN speech.

Both Tenet and McLaughlin lied to Powell in claiming that there were multiple sources for information on mobile biological laboratories.  “Curveball” was the sole source for the laboratories; intelligence analysts—like investigative reporters—should foreswear sole-source information.  Sole source information was used often in the NIE of October 2002, although a major reason for producing a national intelligence estimate is to assess myriad sourcing.  McLaughlin, moreover, had support from the National Intelligence Officers for Strategic Weapons and the Middle East, Robert Walpole and Paul Pillar, respectively, who guided the National Intelligence Estimate and the White Paper that made the politicized case for war.

INR analysts wanted numerous items deleted from Powell’s speech, including the claims about the laboratories; Iraqi-al Qaeda contacts; the presence of bioweapons; the use of Iraqi drones for bioweapons attacks; descriptions of water trucks at Iraqi military installations as “decontamination vehicles” for chemical weapons; and the housing of WMD experts in one of Saddam Hussein’s guest houses.  Most of the allegations in the Powell speech were created out of whole cloth, which is why his speech on Iraqi WMD is compared to Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko’s phony denials of Soviet missiles in Cuban in 1962.

After resigning as secretary of state in 2005, Powell came to grips with the errors in the UN speech, and remarked, “The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.”  According to Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s senior aide at the Department of State, Powell became certain that Tenet and McLaughlin lied to him about the sources of the speech, particularly on the labs and the non-existent connections between Iraq and al Qaeda.  In the various post mortems prepared in the wake of the war, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the Iraq Survey Group, and the Presidential WMD Commission agreed that the intelligence community, particularly the CIA, totally failed on the issue of Iraq’s WMD.

In featuring the pairing of Ignatius and McLaughlin, the Washington Post is signaling that it has no understanding of its own acceptance of the disinformation that the CIA introduced to Powell’s UN speech in February 2003.  The morning after that speech, the Post carried five or six editorials and opeds praising Powell’s seminal case for war, which was highlighted by the liberal columnist, the late Mary McGrory.  Her column was simply titled “I’m Persuaded.”


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Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent book is “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing), and he is the author of the forthcoming “The Dangerous National Security State” (2020).” Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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