The Mirage of Washington Intelligence

Aerial view of CIA headquarters, Langley, Virginia. Photograph Source: Carol M. Highsmith – Public Domain

“You can send a man to Congress but you can’t make him think,” quipped comedian Milton Berle in the 1950s.  To update Berle for our times: You can spend $60 billion a year on intelligence agencies but you can’t make politicians read their reports.  Instead, most politicians remain incorrigibly ignorant and hopelessly craven when presidents drag America into new foreign fiascos.

Congressional docility has been paving the way to war since at least the Vietnam era. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson invoked an alleged North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin to ram a resolution through Congress giving LBJ unlimited authority to attack North Vietnam.   LBJ had decided earlier that year to attack North Vietnam to boost his election campaign. The Pentagon and White House quickly recognized that the core allegations behind the Gulf of Tonkin resolution were false but exploited them to sanctify the war.

When the official story of the Gulf of Tonkin attacks begin unraveling at secret 1968 Senate hearings, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara proclaimed that it was “inconceivable that anyone even remotely familiar with our society and system of government could suspect the existence of a conspiracy” to take America to war on false pretenses. But indignation was no substitute for hard facts. Sen. Frank Church (D-ID) declared, “In a democracy you cannot expect the people, whose sons are being killed and who will be killed, to exercise their judgment if the truth is concealed from them.”  The chairman of the committee, Sen. William Fulbright (D-AR), declared that if senators did not oppose the war at that point,  “We are just a useless appendix on the governmental structure.” But other senators blocked the release of a staff report on the lies behind the Gulf of Tonkin incident that propelled a war that was killing 400 American troops a week. Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-MT) warned, “You will give people who are not interested in facts a chance to exploit them and to magnify them out of all proportion.” The same presumption has shielded every subsequent U.S. military debacle.

Lazy, cowardly congressmen perpetually paved the way for foreign carnage. In October 2002, prior to the vote on the congressional resolution to permit President George W. Bush to do as he pleased on Iraq, the CIA delivered a 92-page classified assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to Capitol Hill. The classified CIA report raised far more doubts about the existence of Iraqi WMDs than did the 5-page executive summary that all members of Congress received. The report was stored in two secure rooms – one each for the House and the Senate. Only six senators bothered to visit the room to look at the report, and only a “handful” of House members did the same, according to the Washington Post.  Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W VA) explained that congressmen were too busy to read the report: “Everyone in the world wants to come to see you” in your office, and going to the secure room is “not easy to do.’”

Hundreds of thousands of Americans were sent 6000 miles away because congressmen could not be bothered to walk across the street.  Congressmen acted as if going to a secured room to peruse a 92-page document was the equivalent of reading the entire 38 volume Encyclopedia Britannica by candlelight in a musty closet. Most congressmen had ample time to give speeches seconding Bush’s saber rattling,  but no time to sift the purported evidence for the war.  The only relevant evidence for many congressmen was the polls showing strong support of Bush.

More shady details of the path to the Iraq War are exposed in Sen. Patrick Leahy’s new memoir, “The Road Taken.” Leahy was one of the few senators who went to the classified room to read some of the confidential material on the war.  As he and his wife were out on a Sunday walk in their ritzy McLean, Virginia neighborhood in September 2002,

Two fit joggers trailed behind us. They stopped and asked what I thought of the intelligence briefings I’d been getting…. I went through a requisite disclaimer that if I was in briefings and if they were classified, I could not acknowledge that they even occurred and could not talk about them if they had. They told me they understood that, but asked whether the briefers had showed me File Eight.

It was obvious from the look on my face that I had not seen such a file. They suggested I should and that I might find it interesting. Quickly thereafter I arranged to see File Eight, and it contradicted much of what I had heard from the Bush administration.”

A happy ending? No, not quite.  A few days later, Leahy and his wife were out walking and the same joggers reappeared and asked what he thought of that secret file. Leahy commented, “It was the eeriest conversation I’d experienced in Washington. I felt like a senatorial version of Bob Woodward meeting Deep Throat — only in broad daylight.”  The joggers then asked if Leahy “had also been shown File Twelve, using a code word…. The next day, I was back in the secure room in the Capitol to read File Twelve, and it again contradicted the statements that the administration, and especially Vice President Cheney.”

The following Sunday, Leahy and his wife were walking past Robert Kennedy’s former estate when a black car with multiple antennas and darkened windows pulled up. Leahy wrote, “A member of the presidential inner circle leaned out from the back window, greeting both myself and [his wife] Marcelle, and asked if he could talk with me…. I got in the car with him while the security people got out of the car. We sat there and talked, and he said, ‘I understand you’ve seen File Eight and Twelve.’ I said I had, and I knew of course that he’d seen them. He said, ‘I also understand you’re going to vote against going to war.’ I said, ‘I am, because we all know there are no weapons of mass destruction and the reasons for going to war are just not there.’  He asked if he could talk me out of that, and I said no, and we ended the conversation. I started to get out of the car, and he said they would give me a ride home. ‘Thanks — let me tell you where I live.’”

The unnamed top Bush administration official replied: “We know where you live.”  Leahy didn’t ask the dude whether he also knew all of Leahy’s computer passwords.

Leahy voted against the Bush resolution to use military force against Iraq.  But Leahy waited 20 years to reveal the inside shenanigans he had seen on the road to war. And Leahy still refused to disclose the name of the “member of the presidential inner circle” who was stalking him that morning in McLean.  Podcast host Jimmy Dore scoffed that Leahy’s story was “just like a political thriller but at the end nothing happens and nothing is resolved.” Dore commented, “There’s a war anyway and he says nothing for 20 fucking years. The end. Did they even bother testing that ending with audiences?”  Edward Snowden tweeted on Leahy’s story: “How could Leahy sit on classified information he knew could stop a war?”

But cover-ups are often unnecessary in Washington because few members of Congress are paying attention regardless. After four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) admitted they did not know that a thousand U.S. troops were deployed to that African nation. Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, admitted, “We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world militarily and what we’re doing.” U.S. troops were engaged in combat in 14 foreign nations at that time, purportedly fighting terrorists. But most members of Congress probably could not list more than two or three nations where U.S. troops are fighting.

As the U.S. government has become far more secretive in recent decades, congressional intelligence committees supposedly provide a check-and-balance for agencies hiding behind iron curtains. But congressional “intelligence committee” is Washington’s biggest oxymoron.

Those committees lead the charge to kowtow to the CIA and other agencies.  The Senate Intelligence Committee effectively absolved all of the Bush administration’s lies on the path to war with Iraq.  When its report was released in mid-2004 (just in time to boost Bush’s re-election campaign), committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) announced, “The committee found that the intelligence community was suffering from what we call a collective groupthink.” And since everyone was wrong, no one was at fault – especially conniving Vice President Dick Cheney.  (Counterpunch was one of the rare outlets that was right long before the war started.) The CIA also paid no price when it was caught illegally spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of CIA torture during the Obama administration.

 The CIA publicly awards its Agency Seal Medal to members of Congress who boost its budget, coverup its crimes, and refrain from asking embarrassing questions.  Pat Roberts got one – along with Rep. Jane Harman (D-California), Sen. John Warner (R-Virginia), and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) – all reliable stooges for the agency. The Founding Fathers would spin in their graves at the notion of federal agencies giving awards to congressmen who were supposed to be holding the leash on the agency. This is akin to a judge bragging about receiving a Public Service Award from a mobster who he connived to find not guilty.

There are some smart, dedicated, principled members of Congress who overcome the prevailing lethargy and bureaucratic roadblocks to learn enough to recognize the follies of proposed interventions.  But those stalwart souls will probably always be outnumbered by the herd of senators and representatives far more likely to skim the latest polls than to read any official report longer than a tweet thread.  And when the next foreign intervention turns to crap, count on shiftless intelligence committee chairman to blather about “group think” and absolve all the bootlickers on Capitol Hill.

An earlier version of this piece was published by the Libertarian Institute.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books. Bovard is on the USA Today Board of Contributors. He is on Twitter at @jimbovard. His website is at www.jimbovard.com  This essay was originally published by Future of Freedom Foundation.