Exclusive: Forgetting lessons from the Tonkin Gulf to the Iraq War, the U.S. news media has mostly elbowed past doubts about whether the Syrian government launched the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack and now is focused on the political drama of congressional approval for war, a big mistake says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.
By Ray McGovern
In a dazzling display of chutzpah, the White House is demanding that Congress demonstrate blind trust in a U.S. intelligence establishment headed by James Clapper, a self-confessed perjurer.
That’s a lot to ask in seeking approval for a military attack on Syria, a country posing no credible threat to the United States. But with the help of the same corporate media that cheer-led us into war with Iraq, the administration has already largely succeeded in turning public discussion into one that assumes the accuracy of both the intelligence on the apparent Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria and President Barack Obama’s far-fetched claim that Syria is somehow a threat to the United States.
Here we go again with the old political gamesmanship over ”facts” as a prelude to war, a replay of intelligence trickery from Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin to Iraq’s nonexistent WMD. Once more, White House officials are mounting a full-court press in Congress, hoping there will be enough ball turnovers to enable the administration to pull out a victory, with the corporate media acting as hometown referees.
And in the weekend talk shows, Secretary of State John Kerry, team co-captain in this transparent effort to tilt the playing field, certainly had his game face on. Kerry left little doubt that he KNOWS that the Syrian government is guilty of launching a chemical weapons attack on suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. How do we know he knows? Simple: It’s “Trust me” once again.
Did you not watch Kerry’s bravura performance before the TV cameras on Friday when he hawked the dubious evidence against the Syrian government? Someone should tell Kerry that using the word “know” 35 times does not suffice to dispel well-founded doubts and continuing ambiguities about the “intelligence,” such as it is. The administration’s white paper, issued to support Kerry’s “knowledge,” didn’t provide a single verifiable fact that established Syrian government guilt. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “A Dodgy Dossier on Syrian War.”]
But with his bravado, Kerry’s ploy was obvious – to sweep aside serious questions about the evidence and move the discussion simply to one of how much punishment should be inflicted on Syria. “So now that we know what we know, the question … is: What will we do?” Kerry said Friday.
But, Mr. Kerry, please not so fast with your attempt to do an Iraq War number on us. Frankly, asking us to simply trust you (especially after your 2002 vote for President George W. Bush’s Iraq War resolution) is too much to ask. Given the disease of prevarication circulating like a virus among top intelligence officials, one would have to have been “born yesterday” (to use one of Harry Truman’s expressions) to take you at your word.
And, there are hopeful signs that Congress, which has been fooled more than once before, may see through this latest rush to judgment. “Yes, I saw the classified documents,” Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, told The Hill newspaper. “They were pretty thin.”
Some lawmakers are even stating another obvious point; i.e., that even with congressional approval, a military strike on Syria would be not only an international crime, but also unconstitutional because of the Constitution’s supremacy clause making treaties the supreme law of the land.
Under the United Nations Treaty, signatories like the U.S. pledge not to use – or even threaten to use – military force against another nation without U.N. Security Council approval or unless already attacked or in imminent danger of attack. None of those conditions apply here.
So, even if the “intelligence” against Syria were air-tight (which it isn’t) and if Congress approves a use-of-force resolution, the U.S. Constitution still requires that we abide by the U.N. Treaty and obtain Security Council approval. How can lawyers like Obama and Kerry ignore such basics?
There are also other options for punishing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if there’s real evidence that he was complicit in the Aug. 21 attack. Like other leaders accused of war crimes, he can be indicted by the International Criminal Court or subjected to a special war-crimes tribunal. Yet, instead of following those legal strategies, which are specifically designed for these sorts of situations, President Obama proposes punishing one alleged war crime by committing another.
Intelligence? A Sow’s Ear
But there remains the key question of establishing the Assad government’s guilt and whether the Obama administration’s “high-confidence” assessment about that point is justified. It is a time-honored (or, better, time-dishonored) custom for White House officials bent on war to distort or even manufacture “intelligence” to justify their aims, especially after they’ve gone public with their “knowledge.”
On this point, I can say – “with high confidence” – that the White House is at it again, perpetrating another fraud on Congress and the American people. And most of the U.S. mainstream press has elbowed past the many questions about the quality of the intelligence and has moved on to discussing whether President Obama will “win” or “lose” the congressional vote, whether partisanship will spill over into foreign policy hurting America’s “credibility” to look tough.
Was it just a little over a decade ago that we watched President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney create out of whole cloth intelligence to “justify” war on Iraq while the U.S. press corps mostly acted as stenographers and cheerleaders? Mistakes are forgivable; fraud is not; neither is cowardice in the face of a misguided rush to war. And the fact that not a single senior Bush administration official was held accountable compounds the problem.
Since many Americans, malnourished as they are by the corporate media, need to be reminded, let’s say it again: The pre-Iraq “intelligence” was not mistaken; it was fraudulent. And, sad to say, then-CIA Director George Tenet and his malleable managers were willing accomplices in that fraud. You need not take my word for it.
Just five years ago, in June 2008, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, announced the conclusions of a five-year committee investigation into pre-Iraq War intelligence approved by a bipartisan majority of 10-5 (Republican Senators Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe voting with the Democratic majority).
Emphasizing the committee’s conclusion that the Bush administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence, Rockefeller declared, “In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent.”
Pressure on Intelligence Analysts
My former CIA analyst colleague, Paul R. Pillar, who, as National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East before the attack on Iraq, experienced up-front and personal the extreme pressure that intelligence analysts feel when a president has decided to make war, addressed this problem recently in “The Risk of Distorting Intelligence.” Pillar pointed out that an Associated Press story on the Obama administration’s preparation of the public for a military strike on Syria included these statements:
“The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack [with chemical weapons] directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military act[ed] without Assad’s authorization. That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence laying out evidence against Assad. … The CIA and the Pentagon have been working to gather more human intelligence tying Assad to the attack.”
Pillar adds, “When one hears that policy-makers want not just intelligence on a particular subject but intelligence that supports a particular conclusion about that subject, antennae ought to go up. A ‘quest’ for conclusion-bolstering material is fundamentally different from an open-minded use of intelligence to inform policy decisions yet to be made. It is instead a matter of making a public (and Congressional) case to support a decision already made.”
This was the kind of highly politicized “policy kitchen” in which intelligence analysts and other officials were pressured to serve as cooks whipping up the frothy broth labeled “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons,” lauded by Secretary of State Kerry on Friday. The manner in which it was issued shows it to be a “policy statement,” NOT an “intelligence summary,” as widely described in the media. And, clearly, there were too many cooks involved.
In contrast to key past issuances of similarly high political sensitivity, the “Government Assessment” released on Friday does not appear under the letterhead of the Director of National Intelligence as was the case, for example, with the official statement issued on Sept. 28, 2012, “on the intelligence related to the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.”
This break in customary practice may have been simply a function of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper being in such bad odor among those lawmakers who still care about truth. Clapper has confessed to telling Congress, under oath, “clearly erroneous” things about the National Security Agency’s surveillance abuses.
Thus, the administration runs some risk in trotting out Clapper this week to testify before the intelligence and national security committees of Congress. Perhaps the White House has decided it has to rely on Clapper’s demonstrated gift for lying with a straight face (though sweaty pate); or it may be counting on short-term memory loss on the part of the many superannuated and/or distracted members of Congress.
Well before Obama appointed him Director of National Intelligence three years ago, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper showed himself to be a subscriber to the George Tenet doctrine of compliant malleability, having helped Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld falsify the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Did no one tell Obama about Clapper’s key role in the cooking of intelligence before the Iraq War?
Rumsfeld handpicked Clapper to be the first civilian director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), where he served during the crucial period of September 2001 to June 2006. NGA’s responsibilities included analysis of satellite imagery – the most capable and likely collection resource to discover weapons of mass destruction facilities in Iraq or to verify Iraqi “defector” reports of hidden WMD caches.
So why didn’t NGA point out the absence of WMD evidence or note the many discrepancies in the stories being told by the “defectors” – many of whom were coached by the pro-invasion Iraqi National Congress? The answer: Clapper knew which side his bread was buttered on. Instead of speaking truth to power, he not only fell in with the Tenet school of obeisance, but also glommed onto Donald Rumsfeld’s aphorism: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Working for Rumsfeld, Clapper’s job, pure and simple, was to stifle any untutored-to-the-ways-of-Washington analyst who might ask unwelcome questions like: Could the reason there is not a trace of Iraqi WMD in any of the satellite imagery be that there is none there – and that the Pentagon’s favorite “defectors” are lying through their teeth?
When no WMD caches were found, it was Clapper who suggested, without a shred of evidence, that Saddam Hussein had sent the phantom WMD to Syria, a theory that also was pushed by neocons both to deflect criticism of their false assurances about Iraq’s WMD and to open a new military front against another Israeli nemesis, Syria. (It appears that time may have finally come.)
On more substantive issues – like the key one, “why they hate us” – Clapper has advanced some imaginative theories about what makes terrorists tick. It’s “self-radicalization,” you see. Clapper promoted this bedeviling concept while a nominee for the post of Director of National Intelligence, which he – having played fast and loose with the truth, aside – still occupies.
At his nomination hearing Clapper was asked by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, about lessons drawn from the investigation of Army Major Nidal Hasan, the psychiatrist sentenced to death last week for killing 13 people at Fort Hood. Clapper responded that “self-radicalization” is a “daunting challenge. … I don’t have the answer to the challenge; identification of self-radicalization may not lend itself to detection by intelligence agencies. … It’s almost like detecting tendencies for suicide ahead of time.”
Still Far From a Silk Purse
If intelligence community leaders have any pride left, they may also have been embarrassed by how last Friday’s “Government Assessment” fit the old bureaucratic image of a camel as the arch-typical horse designed by committee. Seldom have my intelligence alumni colleagues and I seen a more meandering, repetitive, fulsome document. Full of verisimilitude, the document nonetheless includes this key acknowledgment: “Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence can take short of confirmation.”
It seems a safe bet that during the next two weeks’ testimony before the various national security committees of the Senate and House, Kerry and Clapper will claim that additional intelligence has “confirmed” what until now has been simply the “assessments” of the U.S. government. Let’s hope that lawmakers have the good sense to ask for actual evidence that can withstand independent scrutiny.
Colin Powell’s meretricious U.N. speech on Feb. 5, 2003, was at least well crafted and persuasively presented. In a same-day assessment, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) gave him an A for presentation, while almost flunking him (with a C-minus) for substance. In our Memorandum for the President that day, we urged that the discussion be widened beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we saw no compelling reason and from which we believed the unintended consequences were likely to be catastrophic.
If President Obama would let us in the door, we would tell him the same thing today, since he has surrounded himself with a menagerie of “tough guys and gals” as well as some neocons and neocons-lite. Before Kerry went on TV Friday, VIPS had already warned Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey “there are serious problems with the provenance and nature of the ‘intelligence’ that is being used to support the need for military action.” Those problems remain.
From my own personal life experience, there was another good example of how the prostitution of intelligence works: When the Tonkin Gulf incident (used to “justify” the Vietnam War) took place 49 years ago, I was a journeyman CIA analyst in what Condoleezza Rice has called “the bowels of the agency.” As an intelligence analyst responsible for Russian policy toward Southeast Asia and China, I worked very closely with those doing analysis on Vietnam and China.
At the time, the U.S. had about 16,000 troops in South Vietnam, but there was mounting political pressure to dramatically expand the U.S. troop levels to prevent a Communist victory. President Lyndon Johnson feared that Republicans would blame him for “losing Vietnam” the way some tarred Harry Truman for “losing China.” So the Gulf of Tonkin incident – North Vietnamese allegedly firing on a U.S. destroyer in international waters – offered Johnson the chance both to look tough and to get a congressional carte blanche for a wider war.
Those of us in intelligence – not to mention President Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy – knew full well that the evidence of any North Vietnamese attack on the evening of Aug. 4, 1964, the so-called “second” Tonkin Gulf incident, was highly dubious.
But it fit the President’s purposes. The North Vietnamese could be presented as aggressors attacking a U.S. ship on a routine patrol in international waters. To make the scam work, however, the American people and members of Congress had to be kept in the dark about the actual facts of the case, all the better to whip them into a war frenzy.
Only years later was the fuller story revealed. During the summer of 1964, President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were eager to widen the war in Vietnam. They stepped up sabotage and hit-and-run attacks on the coast of North Vietnam. Defense Secretary McNamara later admitted that he and other senior leaders had concluded that the seaborne attacks “amounted to little more than pinpricks” and “were essentially worthless,” but they continued.
Concurrently, the National Security Agency was ordered to collect signals intelligence from the North Vietnamese coast on the Gulf of Tonkin, and the coastal attacks were seen as a helpful way to get the North Vietnamese to turn on their coastal radars. The destroyer USS Maddox, carrying electronic spying gear, was authorized to approach as close as eight miles from the coast and four miles from offshore islands, some of which already had been subjected to intense shelling by clandestine attack boats.
As James Bamford describes it in Body of Secrets: “The twin missions of the Maddox were in a sense symbiotic. The vessel’s primary purpose was to act as a seagoing provocateur — to poke its sharp gray bow and the American flag as close to the belly of North Vietnam as possible, in effect shoving its 5-inch cannons up the nose of the Communist navy. In turn, this provocation would give the shore batteries an excuse to turn on as many coastal defense radars, fire control systems, and communications channels as possible, which could then be captured by the men … at the radar screens. The more provocation, the more signals…
“The Maddox’ mission was made even more provocative by being timed to coincide with commando raids, creating the impression that the Maddox was directing those missions and possibly even lobbing firepower in their support. … North Vietnam also claimed at least a twelve-mile limit and viewed the Maddox as a trespassing ship deep within its territorial waters.”
On Aug. 2, 1964, an intercepted message ordered North Vietnamese torpedo boats to attack the Maddox. The destroyer was alerted and raced out to sea beyond reach of the torpedoes, three of which were fired in vain at the destroyer’s stern. The Maddox’s captain suggested that the rest of his mission be called off, but the Pentagon refused. And still more commando raids were launched on Aug. 3, shelling for the first time targets on the mainland, not just the offshore islands.
Early on Aug. 4, the Maddox captain cabled his superiors that the North Vietnamese believed his patrol to be directly involved with the commando raids and shelling. That evening at 7:15 (Vietnam time) the Pentagon alerted the Maddox to intercepted messages indicating that another attack by patrol boats was imminent.
What followed was panic and confusion. There was a score of reports of torpedo and other hostile attacks, but no damage and growing uncertainty as to whether any attack actually took place. McNamara was told that “freak radar echoes” were misinterpreted by “young fellows” manning the sonar, who were “apt to say any noise is a torpedo.”
This did not prevent McNamara from testifying to Congress two days later that there was “unequivocal proof” of a new attack. And based largely on that, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution allowing Johnson to escalate the war with intense aerial bombardments and the dispatch of more than a half million U.S. troops, 58,000 who would die along with estimates of several million Vietnamese and other people of Indochina.
Meanwhile, in ‘the Bowels’
However, by the afternoon of Aug. 4, 1964, the CIA’s expert analyst on North Vietnam (let’s call him “Tom”) had concluded that probably no one had fired on the U.S. ships. He included a paragraph to that effect in the item he wrote for the Current Intelligence Bulletin, which would be wired to the White House and other key agencies and appear in print the next morning.
And then something unique happened. The Director of the Office of Current Intelligence, a very senior officer whom Tom had never before seen, descended into the bowels of the agency to order the paragraph deleted. He explained: “We’re not going to tell LBJ that now. He has already decided to bomb North Vietnam. We have to keep our lines open to the White House.”
“Tom” later bemoaned — quite rightly: “What do we need open lines for, if we’re not going to use them, and use them to tell the truth?”
The late Ray S. Cline, who as Deputy Director for Intelligence was the current-intelligence director’s boss at the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident, said he was “very sure” that no attack took place on Aug. 4. He suggested that McNamara had shown the President unevaluated signals intelligence that referred to the (real) earlier attack on Aug. 2 rather than the non-event on the 4th. There was no sign of remorse on Cline’s part that he didn’t step in and make sure the President was told the truth.
Though we in the bowels of the agency knew there was no Aug. 4 attack – and so did some of our superiors – everyone also knew, as did McNamara, that President Johnson was lusting for a pretext to strike the North and escalate the war. And, like B’rer Rabbit, nobody said nothin’.
Let’s hope that, this time on Syria, at least one or two senior intelligence or policy officials will find a way to get the truth out – heeding their own conscience and oath to support and defend the Constitution – rather than succumb to the ever-present temptation to give priority to being part of the President’s “team.”
Ray McGovern works for Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served in CIA from the administrations of John F. Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush, including as drafter and briefer of the President’s Daily Brief under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).