Interview: 27-Year CIA Veteran by Will Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Interview
Thursday 26 June 2003
Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years, serving seven Presidents. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He is co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an outreach ministry in the inner city of Washington.
PITT: Could you give me some background regarding who you are and what work you did with the CIA?
McG: I was a graduate student in Russian studies when I got interested in the Central Intelligence Agency. I was very intrigued that there was one central place to prevent what happened at Pearl Harbor from happening again. I had been commissioned in the US Army, so I needed to do my two years service there, but wound up down in Washington DC. I took a job with the CIA in 1963, and it was what it was made out to be.
In other words, I was told that if I were to come on as an analyst of Soviet foreign policy, when I sat down in the morning, in my In-Box would be a bunch of material from open sources, from closed sources, from photography, from intercepts, from agent reports, from embassy reports, you name it. It would be right there, and all I had to do was sift through it and make some sense out of it. If I had an important enough story, I would write it up for the President the next morning. That seemed too good to be true, but you know what? It was true, and it was really heady work.
PITT: Which Presidents did you serve?
McG: I started with President Kennedy and finished with President Bush, the first President Bush. That would make seven Presidents.
PITT: What was your area of expertise with the CIA?
McG: I was a Soviet Foreign Policy analyst. I also worked on Soviet Internal Affairs when I first came on, but then my responsibilities grew and I became responsible for a lot of different parts of the world. During the 1980s I was briefing the Vice President and Secretaries of State and Defense, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I did this every other morning. We worked in teams of two, and on any given morning depending on schedules, I would be hitting two or perhaps three of those senior officials.
PITT: With all of your background, and with all the time that you spent in the CIA, can you tell me why you are speaking out now about the foreign policy issues that are facing this country?
McG: It’s actually very simple. There’s an inscription at the entrance to the CIA, chiseled into the marble there, which reads, “You Shall Know The Truth, And The Truth Shall Set You Free.” Not many folks realize that the primary function of the Central Intelligence Agency is to seek the truth regarding what is going on abroad and be able to report that truth without fear or favor. In other words, the CIA at its best is the one place in Washington that a President can turn to for an unvarnished truthful answer to a delicate policy problem. We didn’t have to defend State Department policies, we didn’t have to make the Soviets seem ten feet tall, as the Defense Department was inclined to do. We could tell it like it was, and it was very, very heady. We could tell it like it was and have career protection for doing that. In other words, that’s what our job was.
When you come out of that ethic, when you come out of a situation where you realize the political pressures to do it otherwise – you’ve seen it, you’ve been there, you’ve done that – and your senior colleagues face up to those pressures as have you yourself, and then you watch what is going on today, it is disturbing in the extreme. You ask yourself, “Do I not have some kind of duty, by virtue of my experience and my knowledge of these things, do I not have some kind of duty to speak out here and tell the rest of the American people what’s going on?”
PITT: Do you feel as though the ‘truth-telling’ abilities of the CIA, the ability to come in with data without fear of reprisal or career displacement, has been abrogated by this administration?
McG: It has been corroded, or eroded, very much. A lot of it has to do with who is Director. In the best days, under Colby for example, or John McCone, we had very clear instructions. I myself, junior as I was in those days, would go up against Henry Kissinger and tell it like we thought it was. I was not winning any friends there, by any stretch, but I came back proud for having done my job. That was because Colby told me to do that, and I worked directly for him. I also worked directly for George Bush I, and he, I have to say to his great credit, acted the same way. He was very careful to keep himself out of policy advocacy, and he told it like it was.
So to watch what is going on now, and to see George Tenet - who has all the terrific credentials to be a staffer in Congress, credentials which are antithetical to being a good CIA Director - to see him sit behind Colin Powell at the UN, to see him give up and shade the intelligence and cave in when his analysts have been slogging through the muck for a year and a half trying to tell it like it is, that is very demoralizing, and actually very infuriating.
PITT: On September 26 2001, George Bush II went down to the CIA, put an arm around Tenet, and said that he had a “report” for the American people, that we have the best possible intelligence thanks to the good people at the CIA. We’ve come a fair piece down the road since then, and if you read through the news these days, you get the definite sense that the Bush administration is attempting to lay blame for the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, to lay blame for that at the feet of the CIA. Furthermore, by all appearances, the months of reports the administration put out about Iraq’s weapons capabilities are not turning out to be accurate. To no small extent, it appears that there is a scapegoating process taking place here. What is your take on this?
McG: It is interesting that you would go back to September 26, because that was a very key performance on the part of our President. Here was an agency that was created expressly to prevent another Pearl Harbor. That was why the CIA was created originally in 1947. Harry Truman was hell-bent on making sure that, if there were little pieces of information spread around the government, that they all came to one central intelligence agency, one place where they could be collated and analyzed, and the analysis be given to policy people.
So here is September 11, the first time since Pearl Harbor that this system failed. It was worse than Pearl Harbor. More people were killed on September 11 than were killed at Pearl Harbor, and where were the pieces? They were scattered all around the government, just like they were before Pearl Harbor. For George Bush to go out to CIA headquarters and put his arm around George Tenet and tell the world that we have the best intelligence services in the world, this really called for some analysis, if you will.
My analysis is that George Bush had no option but to keep George Tenet on as Director, because George Tenet had warned Bush repeatedly, for months and months before September 11, that something very bad was about to happen.
PITT: There was the August 6 2001 briefing…
McG: On August 6, the title of the briefing was, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US,” and that briefing had the word “Hijacking” in it. That’s all I know about it, but that’s quite enough. In September, Bush had to make a decision. Is it feasible to let go of Tenet, whose agency flubbed the dub on this one? And the answer was no, because Tenet knows too much about what Bush knew, and Bush didn’t know what to do about it. That’s the bottom line for me.
Bush was well-briefed. Before he went off to Texas to chop wood for a month like Reagan did in California, he was told all these things. He didn’t even have the presence of mind to convene his National Security Council, and say, “OK guys, we have all these reports, what are we going to do about it?” He just went off to chop wood.
PITT: Now why is that? There are people in America who believe this kind of behavior was deliberate – the administration was repeatedly warned and nothing was done about those warnings. It smacks of deliberate policy for a lot of people. This is the current World Heavyweight Champion of conspiracy theories.
McG: In this, I am an adherent of the charitable interpretation, and that comes down to gross incompetence. They just didn’t know what to do. Look at who was in charge there. You have Condoleezza Rice. She knows a lot about Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but she has no idea about terrorism. She had this terrorism dossier that Clinton NSC director Sandy Berger left behind, and by her own admission she didn’t get to it. “It was still on my desk when September 11 happened,” she said. They didn’t take this thing seriously.
Now, you can probably fault George Tenet for not being careful about crying wolf. In other words, you cry wolf often enough and in an undifferentiated way, then that is not a real service to the President. You really have to say, “Mr. President, you know I warned you about this two months ago, but now this is really serious.” You have to grab him by the collar and say, “We’ve got to do something about this.” Tenet didn’t do that. So I attribute it not to conspiracy theories, but to lack of experience, a kind of arrogance that says, “Who cares what Sandy Berger thinks,” and just gross incompetence.
Now ‘gross incompetence’ is not a nice thing to say about a President, but he had no experience in this at all, and the people he surrounded himself with also had no experience.
PITT: Given all of this – the August 6 briefing, the other terrorism warnings, the big hug given to Tenet by Bush on September 26, and the fact that Tenet was kept on because he knew too much about what the Bush administration was aware of before September 11 – one gets the sense that Tenet has been relegated to the position of lapdog. This is a frightful position for the Director of CIA to occupy.
McG: It wouldn’t be the first time, and I think regarding Tenet the term ‘lapdog,’ unfortunately, is apt. For example, here were rather courageous CIA analysts under terrific pressure from the likes of Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz to establish a contact or connection between al Qaeda and Iraq. They resisted this ever since 9/11, not out of any unwillingness to believe it, but simply because there was no evidence to establish it. To their credit, they held the line, and were supported by Brent Scowcroft of all people, who very courageously spoke out and said that evidence is “scant.”
Now here’s George Tenet, when push comes to shove on February 5 at the UN, sitting right behind Colin Powell like a potted plant, as if to say the CIA and all his analysts agreed with what Colin Powell was about to say about contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq. That was incredibly demoralizing for all my colleagues. That’s the kind of thing that will be a very noxious influence on their morale and their ability to continue the good fight.
PITT: Is there a great deal of unrest and unease within the CIA at this point?
McG: Not a great deal, but an incredible amount of unease and disarray. There are a lot of people who feel as strongly as I do about integrity. It was not some sort of an extra thing with us. We took it seriously, and we had a big advantage, of course. We could tell it like it was. To the degree that esprit de corps exists, and I know it does among the folks we talk to, there is great, great turmoil there. In the coming weeks, we’re going to be seeing folks coming out and coming forth with what they know, and it is going to be very embarrassing for the Bush administration.
PITT: How much of a dent does this unease, and this inability to stand up to those who have put this atmosphere in place, how much of a dent does this put in our ability to defend this country against the very real threats we face?
McG: A big dent, and that of course is the bottom line. What you need to have is rewards for competence and not for being able to sniff which way the wind is blowing. You need to have people rewarded for good performance and not for political correctness. You have to have people who are serious about collecting and analyzing this material. The way the analysis was played fast and loose with, going back to last spring, is just incredible. It requires a whole re-do of how the whole national security setup is arranged, to have intelligence come up and have it treated with the kind of respect and the kind of consideration it is due.
PITT: Let’s bottom-line it here. In the situation regarding the question of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq, where does the fault lie for the manner in which this has all broken down? Was it an intelligence failure on the part of the CIA, or are we talking about the Bush administration misusing both that institution and the information it provided?
McG: It’s both, really. Let’s take the chemical and biological stuff first. At the root of this, as I reconstruct it, is what I call ‘Analysis by Subtraction.’ Let’s take a theoretical example: Iraq had listed 50,000 liters of sarin nerve gas in 1995. The UN is known to have destroyed 35,000 liters of this. Subsequently, US bombing destroyed another 5,000 liters of this. Therefore, QED, they have 10,000 liters of sarin.
There’s no consideration given here to shelf life of sarin, what would be necessary to keep sarin active, where it would be stored, how it would be stored, the correct temperature and all that. Instead, it is, “We think they had this and here is the inventory. We think we destroyed this” or “We know we destroyed that, and so the difference, we assume, is there”
You don’t start a war on an assumption, and with the sophisticated collection devices the US intelligence apparatus has, it is unconscionable not to have verified that so they could say, “Yes sir, we know that it’s there, we can confirm it this and that way.” Instead, as I said, it was analysis by subtraction. We had the inventory here, and we know we destroyed that, so they must have this. Analysis like that, I wouldn’t rehire the analyst who did it if he were working for me. That’s the biological and chemical part.
To be quite complete on this, it encourages me that the analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency - who share this ethic of trying to tell the truth, even though they are under much greater pressure and have much less career protection because they work for Rumsfeld - to their great credit, in September of last year they put out a memo saying there is no reliable evidence to suggest that the Iraqis have biological or chemical weapons, or that they are producing them.
PITT: Was this before or after Vice President Cheney started making personal visits to the CIA?
McG: It was all at the same time. This stuff doesn’t all get written in one week. It was all throughout the spring and summer that this stuff was being collected. When the decision was made last summer that we will have a war against Iraq, they were casting about. You’ll recall White House Chief of Staff Andy Card saying you don’t market a new product in August. The big blast-off was Cheney’s speech in Nashville, I think it was Nashville anyway, on August 26. He said Iraq was seeking materials for its nuclear program. That set the tone right there.
They looked around after Labor Day and said, “OK, if we’re going to have this war, we really need to persuade Congress to vote for it. How are we going to do that? Well, let’s do the al Qaeda-Iraq connection. That’s the traumatic one. 9/11 is still a traumatic thing for most Americans. Let’s do that.”
But then they said, “Oh damn, those folks at CIA don’t buy that, they say there’s no evidence, and we can’t bring them around. We’ve tried every which way and they won’t relent. That won’t work, because if we try that, Congress is going to have these CIA wimps come down, and the next day they’ll undercut us. How about these chemical and biological weapons? We know they don’t have any nuclear weapons, so how about the chemical and biological stuff? Well, damn. We have these other wimps at the Defense Intelligence Agency, and dammit, they won’t come around either. They say there’s no reliable evidence of that, so if we go up to Congress with that, the next day they’ll call the DIA folks in, and the DIA folks will undercut us.”
So they said, “What have we got? We’ve got those aluminum tubes!” The aluminum tubes, you will remember, were something that came out in late September, the 24th of September. The British and we front-paged it. These were aluminum tubes that were said by Condoleezza Rice as soon as the report came out to be only suitable for use in a nuclear application. This is hardware that they had the dimensions of. So they got that report, and the British played it up, and we played it up. It was front page in the New York Times. Condoleezza Rice said, “Ah ha! These aluminum tubes are suitable only for uranium-enrichment centrifuges.”
Then they gave the tubes to the Department of Energy labs, and to a person, each one of those nuclear scientists and engineers said, “Well, if Iraq thinks it can use these dimensions and these specifications of aluminum tubes to build a nuclear program, let ‘em do it! Let ‘em do it. It’ll never work, and we can’t believe they are so stupid. These must be for conventional rockets.”
And, of course, that’s what they were for, and that’s what the UN determined they were for. So, after Condoleezza Rice’s initial foray into this scientific area, they knew that they couldn’t make that stick, either. So what else did they have?
Well, somebody said, “How about those reports earlier this year that Iraq was trying to get Uranuim from Niger? Yeah…that was pretty good.” But of course if George Tenet were there, he would have said, “But we looked at the evidence, and they’re forgeries, they stink to high heaven.” So the question became, “How long would it take for someone to find out they were forgeries?” The answer was about a day or two. The next question was, “When do we have to show people this stuff?” The answer was that the IAEA had been after us for a couple of months now to give it to them, but we can probably put them off for three or four months.
So there it was. “What’s the problem? We’ll take these reports, we’ll use them to brief Congress and to raise the specter of a mushroom cloud. You’ll recall that the President on the 7th of October said, “Our smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Condoleezza Rice said exactly the same thing the next day. Victoria Clarke said exactly the same thing on the 9th of October, and of course the vote came on the 11th of October.
Don’t take my word for it. Take Henry Waxman’s word for it. Waxman has written the President a very, very bitter letter dated the 17th of March in which he says, “Mr. President, I was lied to. I was lied to. I was briefed on a forgery, and on the strength of that I voted for war. Tell me how this kind of thing could happen?” That was March 17. He hasn’t received a response from the White House yet.
That’s the way it worked, and you have to give them credit. These guys are really clever. It worked.
PITT: We were talking a little while ago about Andy Card and marketing wars in August, and you stated that the decision to make war in Iraq was made in the summer of 2002. General Wesley Clark appeared on a Sunday talk show with Tim Russert on June 15, and Clark surprisingly mentioned that he was called at his home by the White House on September 11 and told to make the connection between those terrorist attacks and Saddam Hussein. He was told to do this on the day of the attacks, told to say that this was state-sponsored terrorism and there must be a connection. What do you make of that?
McG: That is really fascinating. If you look at what he said, he said, “Sure, I’ll say that. Where’s the evidence?” In other words, he’s a good soldier. He’s going to do this. But he wanted the evidence, and there was no evidence. Clark was not only a good soldier, but a professional soldier. A professional soldier, at his level at least, asks questions. When he found out there was no evidence, he didn’t say what they wanted him to say.
Contrast that with Colin Powell, who first and foremost is a good soldier. But when he sees the evidence, and knows it smells, he will salute the President and brief him anyway, as he did on the 5th of February.
PITT: There was a recent Reuters report which described Powell being given a draft of his February 5 UN statements by Scooter Libby and the Rumsfeld boys. Powell threw it across the room, according to Reuters, and said, “I’m not reading this. This is bullshit.”
McG: I can see it happening. Powell was Weinberger’s military assistant for a couple of years, and I was seeing Weinberger every other morning in those years. I would see Powell whenever I went in to see Weinberger, and so I used to spend 15 minutes with him every other morning, just kind of reassuring him that I wasn’t going to tell his boss anything he didn’t need to know. Not only that, but we come out of the same part of the Bronx. He was a year ahead of me. He was ROTC and so was I. He was in ROTC at City College and became Colonel of Cadets and head of the Pershing Rifles, a kind of elite corps there.
I understand Colin Powell. I know where he is coming from, I know where he got his identity and his persona, and it was in this great institution we call the United States Army, which, by the way, I am very proud to have served in. But that be exaggerated, and it has been in his case. People were expecting him to take a stand on principle and resign. That was never a possibility I attributed to Colin Powell, because unlike General Clark, Powell is really a creature of how he was given his identity in this whole system. He is just not constitutionally able to buck it.
PITT: Do you think Powell was aware that the British intelligence dossier he used on February 5 before the UN, the one he held up and praised lavishly, was plagiarized from a graduate student who was writing about Iraq circa 1991?
McG: No, I think he was unaware of that. I’ll tell you a little story. Back in January, Colin Powell invited all the NATO countries for a confab so he could brief them on Iraq and tell them what they should be telling their host governments. After one of the sessions he was in the hall, and one of the ambassadors asked him what the evidence was like on Iraq. Powell said he didn’t know, he hadn’t seen it yet. That was January.
Small wonder that Powell now brags of having had to spend four days in early February – right before his UN speech on the 5th – up at CIA headquarters pouring over the evidence, analyzing and selecting what he should say on the 5th. I can only believe he had a lot on his plate – the Middle East and other stuff – and that the daily briefings were so sparse that he really didn’t have a good handle on what the evidence was that support this case for weapons of mass destruction and all that stuff. It becomes more believable to me that he really was starting almost with tabula rasa on the 1st of February, and then went up to CIA headquarters and said, “OK, what have we got?” And the first thing he was given was Scooter Libby’s first draft, and you already recounted his reaction.
PITT: So what we have, essentially, is in the run-up to the war the Secretary of State of the United States of America was cramming for a major exam like a freshman in high school.
McG: Yes. And most of the evidence was being supplied by the Vice President’s office, in the person of Scooter Libby, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld along with Wolfowitz. That’s curious enough, but an equally important point I would make is this: I worked at senior levels up there for 27 years. Never, never once, not one time did the Vice President of the United States, the Secretary of State or the National Security Advisor come up to the CIA for a working visit. Vice President Bush came up a couple of times to give awards out – after all, he was once the Director – but never for a working visit.
We went down there. I was part of that briefing team. I would be down there every other morning, and if they wanted more depth I would bring folks down there with me, folks who I knew were the experts. We came to them. We had our homework done alone, thank you very much. We got real good insights into what the concerns were during these morning briefings, and sometimes we got concrete requirements or papers to be done by the next day. We had a really good window into what was uppermost in policy-maker’s minds, but we would take that back to CIA headquarters and say, “OK, now we know what they’re interested in. What to we have?” And we’d do it alone. We’d analyze the heck out of it. We’d polish it off, pass it by our supervisors and bring it down the next morning.
The prospect of the Secretary of State and Condoleezza Rice and Cheney convening in CIA headquarters to sit around a table and help with the analysis…give me a break! You don’t have policy-makers at the table when you’re doing analysis. That’s antithetical to the whole ethic of analysis. You’re divorced from policy as soon as you do your analysis, and when you’re finished, you serve it up to them, and they can do what they want with it. To be sure, that’s the other part of the game. But when they get it, they get it in unexpurgated virgin form, and that was heady and important work. It was the only place in town, in the Foreign Affairs realm, that could and did do that work.
PITT: Where do you see this whole issue of the manner in which the war was sold to the American people going?
McG: The most important and clear-cut scandal, of course, has to do with the forgery of those Niger nuclear documents that were used as proof. The very cold calculation was that Congress could be deceived, we could have our war, we could win it, and then no one would care that part of the evidence for war was forged. That may still prove to be the case, but the most encouraging thing I’ve seen over the last four weeks now is that the US press has sort of woken from its slumber and is interested. I’ve asked people in the press how they account for their lack of interest before the war, and now they seem to be interested. I guess the simple answer is that they don’t like to be lied to.
I think the real difference is that no one knew, or very few people knew, before the war that there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Now they know. It’s an unavoidable fact. No one likes to be conned, no one likes to be lied to, and no one particularly likes that 190 US servicemen and women have been killed in this effort, not to mentioned the five or six thousand Iraqi civilians.
There’s a difference in tone. If the press does not succumb to the argument put out by folks like Tom Friedman, who says it doesn’t really matter that there are no weapons in Iraq, if it does become a quagmire which I believe it will be, and we have a few servicemen killed every week, then there is a prospect that the American people will wake up and say, “Tell me again why my son was killed? Why did we have to make this war on Iraq?”
So I do think that there is some hope now that the truth will come out. It won’t come out through the Congressional committees. That’s really a joke, a sick joke.
PITT: During the Clinton administration, if there was going to be an investigation into something, it was going to come out of the House of Representatives. What would your assessment of the situation be at this point?
McG: It doesn’t take a crackerjack analyst. Take Pat Roberts, the Republican Senator from Kansas, who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. When the Niger forgery was unearthed and when Colin Powell admitted, well shucks, it was a forgery, Senator Jay Rockefellar, the ranking Democrat on that committee, went to Pat Roberts and said they really needed the FBI to take a look at this. After all, this was known to be a forgery and was still used on Congressmen and Senators. We’d better get the Bureau in on this. Pat Roberts said no, that would be inappropriate. So Rockefellar drafted his own letter, and went back to Roberts and said he was going to send the letter to FBI Director Mueller, and asked if Roberts would sign on to it. Roberts said no, that would be inappropriate.
What the FBI Director eventually got was a letter from one Minority member saying pretty please, would you maybe take a look at what happened here, because we think there may have been some skullduggery. The answer he got from the Bureau was a brush-off. Why do I mention all that? This is the same Pat Roberts who is going to lead the investigation into what happened with this issue.
There is a lot that could be said about Pat Roberts. I remember way back last fall when people were being briefed, CIA and others were briefing Congressmen and Senators about the weapons of mass destruction. These press folks were hanging around outside the briefing room, and when the Senators came out, one of the press asked Senator Roberts how the evidence on weapons of mass destruction was. Roberts said, oh, it was very persuasive, very persuasive.
The press guy asked Roberts to tell him more about that. Roberts said, “Truck A was observed to be going under Shed B, where Process C is believed to be taking place.” The press guy asked him if he found that persuasive, and Pat Roberts said, “Oh, these intelligence folks, they have these techniques down so well, so yeah, this is very persuasive.” And the correspondent said thank you very much, Senator.
So, if you’ve got a Senator who is that inclined to believe that kind of intelligence, you’ve got someone who will do the administration’s bidding. On the House side, of course, you’ve got Porter Goss, who is a CIA alumnus. Porter Goss’ main contribution last year to the joint committee investigating 9/11 was to sic the FBI on members of that committee, at the direction of who? Dick Cheney. Goss admits this. He got a call from Dick Cheney, and he was “chagrined” in Goss’ word that he was upbraided by Dick Cheney for leaks coming out of the committee. He then persuaded the innocent Bob Graham to go with him to the FBI and ask the Bureau to investigate the members of that committee. Polygraphs and everything were involved. That’s the first time something like that has ever happened.
Be aware, of course, that Congress has its own investigative agencies, its own ways of investigating things like that. So without any regard for the separation of powers, here Goss says Cheney is bearing down on me, so let’s get the FBI in here. In this case, ironically enough, the FBI jumped right in with Ashcroft whipping it along. They didn’t come up with much, but the precedent was just terrible.
All I’m saying is that you’ve got Porter Goss on the House side, you’ve got Pat Roberts on the Senate side, you’ve got John Warner who’s a piece with Pat Roberts. I’m very reluctant to be so unequivocal, but in this case I can say nothing is going to come out of those hearings but a lot of smoke.
PITT: So what is the alternative?
McG: The alternative would be an independent judicial commission, such as the one that a lot of the British are appealing for in London. You get a person who is not beholden to George Bush or to the Democrats, a universally respected figure, and let him pick the members of the commission, and you give them access to this material. Not restricted access, like what the 9/11 committee in Congress got. You give them everything, and you let them tell their story. It would take a while, but they would come up with a much better prospect of a fair judgment on what happened.
PITT: That’s not going to come unless there is some pretty significant pressure put on the administration from outside Congress.
McG: I wouldn’t see that coming at all, and surely not before 2004.
PITT: In your time at CIA as a Soviet Foreign Policy analyst, you were directly involved with analyzing Soviet policy issues in the run-up to and duration of the Soviet war in Afghanistan?
PITT: How deep into the details of that did you get?
McG: Oh, quite deep. By that time my responsibilities had grown, and I stayed very interested and abreast of what was going on there.
PITT: Could you talk about how America’s involvement in the Soviet war in Afghanistan led to the events of September 11? There are some very clear, straight-line connections – starting with Brzyznski’s ‘Afghan Trap’ in 1978 - between the two events, yes? From your perspective, how did that develop?
McG: The big momentum was put on by a fellow named William Casey, who was head of CIA under Reagan. He saw this as a little war that he could wage and win, and he had a lot of support from folks on the Hill. What they did was arm and recruit folks like Osama bin Laden and others. One of the big decisions they had to make was whether or not to give them Stinger missiles. I remember when that was under discussion. The dangers of giving these uncontrollable folks Stinger missiles was emphasized, but the decision was to go ahead and give them those missiles anyway. In many respects, the folks that were used as our proxies in this war against the Soviets have come back to bite us, and to bite us very hard as we know from 9/11.
PITT: The invasion came in 1979 because the Soviets were worried about their puppet regime in Afghanistan. It became a great Muslim cause to defend Afghanistan against the godless invaders. Osama bin Laden became a hero by funding this fight, and by fighting along with the others. When the war ended in 1989, when the Soviets withdrew with their tail between their legs, Afghanistan was left in an utterly shattered and destroyed state. Given the fact that we basically precipitated the start of that war by arming and training those mujeheddin fighters to go after the Afghan government in 1978 and 1979, why was the decision made in 1989 to leave Afghanistan in such a sorry state? The chaos left in the aftermath of that war led to the rise of the Taliban. Why didn’t we help clean up the terrible mess we had helped to cause?
McG: I hate to be cynical about these things, but once we got the Soviets out, our reason to be there basically evaporated. You may ask about the poor people and the poor country. Well, we have a history of doing this kind of thing, of using people. The Kurds are one example. We use them and betray them, and we don’t care much once our little geopolitical objective has been achieved. That’s what was in play here. Nobody gave a damn. We had a brilliant victory, we got the Soviets out of there, we started pounding our chests, and nobody gave much thought to helping the poor Afghanis that were left behind.
In addition, these bad guys were our good guys. Osama bin Laden and all those folks were people we armed and trained, and when you get that close – and this is a systemic problem within the Agency – when you get that close so that you’re in bed with these guys, you can’t step back and say, “Whoa, wait a second. These guys could be a real danger in the future.” You can’t make a calculated, dispassionate analysis of what might be in store for these guys. It was a poor situation politically, strategically, and as it turned out, analytically as well.
PITT: What we’re talking about is actions and consequences. At the time, there was not a lot of concern for Afghanistan after we had achieved our goals there, and the place was left to fester, and 9/11 became the inevitable consequence of that.
PITT: Are you aware of the situation surrounding John O’Neill? He was a Deputy Director of the FBI, and was the chief bin Laden hunter. He investigated the first Twin Towers bombing, he investigated the Khobar Towers bombing, he investigated the bombing of our embassies in Africa, and he investigated the bombing of the USS Cole. He was the guy in government who knew everything about bin Laden, and he quit the FBI in protest three weeks before 9/11. He quit because he said he was not being allowed to investigate terror connections to Saudi Arabia, because such investigations threatened the petroleum business we do with that nation. O’Neill quit, took a job as chief of security at the World Trade Center, and died doing his job on September 11. The fact that he was thwarted in his terrorism investigations clearly left a hole in our intelligence capabilities regarding these threats – the guy who knew the most about it was not allowed to pursue those connections to the greatest possible degree.
McG: I am aware of that. There are other FBI folks who have spoken out about this same problem. There is an agent from Chicago named Robert Wright who has spoken out about his being hamstrung in his attempts to investigate these matters. Just read the book about the FBI labs that was written by Warren and Kelley. The corruption and deceit that goes on there, and the headquarters mentality where you can be completely incompetent and still get a Presidential award – which is what happened with the fellow who squashed the Minneapolis Bureau’s requests for action against Moussaoui – there’s something really insidiously wrong there. The problem is that if you ask Pat Roberts or the Judiciary Committee and the Congress to do something about it, well, lots of luck.
PITT: Is there anything else you would like to touch upon before we are finished?
McG: My primary attention is on the forgery of the Niger documents that supposedly proved Iraq was developing a nuclear program. It seems to me that you can have endless arguments about the correct interpretation of this or that piece of intelligence, or intelligence analysis, but a forgery is a forgery. It’s demonstrable that senior officials of this government, including the Vice President, knew that it was a forgery in March of last year. It was used anyway to deceive our Congressmen and Senators into voting for an unprovoked war. That seems to me to be something that needs to be borne in mind, that needs to be held up for everyone to see. If an informed public, and by extension an informed Congress, is the necessary bedrock for democracy, then we’ve got a split bedrock that is in bad need of repair.
I have done a good bit of research here, and one of the conclusions I have come to is that Vice President Cheney was not only interested in “helping out” with the analysis, let us say, that CIA was producing on Iraq. He was interested also in fashioning evidence that he could use as proof that, as he said, “The Iraqis had reconstituted their nuclear program,” which demonstrably they had not.
What I’m saying is that this needs to be investigated. We know that it was Dick Cheney who sent the former US ambassador to Niger to investigate. We know he was told in early March of last year that the documents were forgeries. And yet these same documents were used in that application. That is something that needs to be uncovered. We need to pursue why the Vice President allowed that to happen. To have global reporters like Walter Pincus quoting senior administration officials that Vice President Cheney was not told by CIA about the findings of this former US ambassador strains credulity well beyond the breaking point. Cheney commissioned this trip, and when the fellow came back, he said, “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know what happened.” That’s just ridiculous.
Cheney knew, and Cheney was way out in front of everybody, starting on the 26th of August, talking about Iraq seeking nuclear weapons. As recently as the 16th of March, three days before the war, he was again at it. This time he said Iraq has reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. It hadn’t. It demonstrably hadn’t. There has been nothing like that uncovered in Iraq. As the first President Bush said about the invasion of Kuwait, this cannot stand.
One other thing I’d like to note is the anomaly that President Bush has succeeded Saddam Hussein in the role of preventing UN inspectors from coming into Iraq. He has not even been asked why.
There is no conceivable reason why the United States of America should not be imploring Hans Blix and the rest of his folks to come right in. They have the expertise, they’ve been there, they’ve done that. They have millions of dollars available through the UN. They have people who know the weaponry, how they are procured and produced. They know personally the scientists, they’ve interviewed them before. What possible reason could the United States of America have to say no thanks, we’ll use our own GI’s to do this. Don’t come in here. That needs to be brought out. For the UN to be waiting with those inspectors at the ready, there has got to be some reason why the United States won’t let them back in.
The more sinister interpretation is that the US wants to be able to plant weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Now, most people will say, “Come on, McGovern. How are you going to get a SCUD in there without everyone seeing it?” It doesn’t have to be a SCUD. It can be the kind of little vile vial that Colin Powell held up on the 5th of February. You put a couple of those in a GI’s pocket, and you swear him to secrecy, and you have him go bury them out in the desert. You discover it ten days later, and President Bush, with more credibility than he could with those trailers will say, “Ha! We’ve found the weapons of mass destruction.”
I think that’s a possibility, a real possibility. I think that, since it is a real possibility, the Democrats’ sheepishness on this, their reluctance to get out on a limb and say there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, may be more explainable. But they should come around anyway.
PITT: I have heard that it is difficult to manufacture Iraqi-style weapons of this type, because the Iraqi chemical and biological weapons have a particular signature created in their inception that is hard to duplicate.
McG: It was very difficult to do the forgery, too. A slipshod job was done. When Colin Powell was asked about it , he said, “We have this information. If it is inaccurate, fine.” Like I said before, he and I come out of the same part of the Bronx. He went to Army charm school and I did not. That kind of tone, that kind of attitude, was always accompanied by an obscene gesture and a four-letter word where I came from. But that’s the attitude.
If they can take that kind of attitude on a forgery, they can take the same attitude on this. “You can believe who you want,” they’ll say. “You can believe Hans Blix and Saddam Hussein, or you can believe us. We say we found it there.”
Four months ago, I would have said, “McGovern, you’re paranoid to say stuff like that.” But in light of all that has happened, and light of the terrific stakes involved for the President here – each time he says we’re going to find these things, he digs himself in a little deeper – I think it’s quite possible that they will resort to this type of thing.
William Rivers Pitt email@example.com is a New York Times best-selling author of two books - "War On Iraq" available now from Context Books, and "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," now available from Pluto Press at www.SilenceIsSedition.com.