Five Years for Powell -- and VIPS
It is a difficult anniversary to “celebrate” – Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity’s first publication, a same-day critique of Colin Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003, UN address – since what he said helped grease the skids for incalculable death and destruction in Iraq and brought shame on our country.
A handful of former CIA intelligence officers formed VIPS in January 2003, after we could no longer avoid concluding that our profession had been corrupted to “justify” what was, pure and simple, a war of aggression.
Little did we know at the time that a month later Colin Powell, with then-CIA Director George Tenet sitting conspicuously behind him, would provide the world a textbook example of careerism and cowardice in cooking intelligence to the recipe of his master.
It was hardly Powell’s first display of abject obedience.
Some biographers have traced the pattern back to his early days as an Army officer in Vietnam and later as an Iran-Contra accomplice while serving as military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the 1980s. [See Chapter 8 of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.]
A year before his UN speech, rather than confront President George W. Bush personally on White House pressure for legal wiggle-room for torture, Powell asked State Department lawyers to engage White House lawyers Alberto Gonzales and Cheney favorite David Addington, in what Powell knew would be a quixotic effort, absent his personal involvement.
Powell’s lawyers put in writing his concern that making an end-run around the Geneva protections for prisoners of war “could undermine U.S. military culture which emphasizes maintaining the highest standards of conduct in combat, and could introduce an element of uncertainty in the status of adversaries.”
But when Gonzales and Addington simply declared parts of Geneva “quaint” and “obsolete,” Powell caved, acquiescing in the corruption of the Army to which he owed so much. We know the next chapters (Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) of that story.
Powell was right, but lacked the strength of his convictions. Turns out that key instance of obeisance – important as it was in its own right – was just practice for Powell.
VIPS’ Maiden Effort
When our fledgling VIPS learned that Powell would address the UN, we decided to do a same-day analytic assessment – the kind we used to do when someone like Khrushchev, or Gorbachev, or Gromyko, or Mao, or Castro gave a major address.
We were only too well accustomed to the imperative to beat the media with our commentary. Coordinating our Powell effort via e-mail, we issued VIPS’ first Memorandum for the President at 5:15 p.m. – “Subject: Today’s Speech by Secretary Powell at the UN.”
Our understanding at that time was far from perfect. It was not yet completely clear to us, for example, that Saddam Hussein had for the most part been abiding by, rather than flouting, UN resolutions.
We stressed, though, that the key question was whether any of this justified war:
“This is the question the world is asking. Secretary Powell’s presentation does not come close to answering it.”
And we warned the president:
“Intelligence community analysts are finding it hard to make themselves heard above the drumbeat for war.”
And we voiced our distress at “the politicization of intelligence,” as well as the deep flaws:
“Your Pentagon advisers draw a connection between war with Iraq and terrorism, but for the wrong reasons. The connection takes on much more reality in a post-US invasion scenario.” [bold in original]
“Indeed, it is our view that an invasion of Iraq would ensure overflowing recruitment centers for terrorists into the indefinite future. Far from eliminating the threat it would enhance it exponentially.”
Dissociating VIPS from Powell’s bravado rhetoric claiming that the evidence he presented was “irrefutable,” we noted, “No one has a corner on the truth,” and warned the president:
“But after watching Secretary Powell today, we are convinced you would be well served if you widened the discussion beyond violations of Resolution 1441, and beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”
And Senator Clinton Knew
Five years later, we take no pleasure at having been right; we take considerable pain at having been ignored.
It was a no-brainer, and serious specialists like former UN inspector Scott Ritter, to his credit, were shouting it from the rooftops.
And here is more than a mere footnote. Folks should know that our Feb. 5, 2003, memorandum analyzing Powell’s speech was shared with the junior senator from New York. Thus, she still had plenty of time to raise her voice before the Bush administration launched the fateful attack on Iraq on March 19.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. A veteran of 27 years in the analytic ranks of CIA, he is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. VIPS’ issuances are listed below; complete texts can be found at afterdowningstreet.org/vips.
Below is the full text of the VIPS’ first issuance, a Memorandum for the President, Feb. 5, 2003
“Secretary Powell’s Presentation to the UN Today”
Secretary Powell’s presentation at the UN today requires context. We give him an “A” for assembling and listing the charges against Iraq, but only a “C–” in providing context and perspective.
What seems clear to us is that you need an intelligence briefi ng, not grand jury testimony. Secretary Powell effectively showed that Iraq is guilty beyond reasonable doubt for not cooperating fully with UN Security Council Resolution 1441. That had already been demonstrated by the chief UN inspectors. For Powell, it was what the
Pentagon calls a “cakewalk.”
The narrow focus on Resolution 1441 has diverted attention from the wider picture. It is crucial that we not lose sight of that. Intelligence community analysts are finding it hard to make themselves heard above the drumbeat for war. Speaking both for ourselves, as veteran intelligence officers on the VIPS Steering Group with over a hundred
years of professional experience, and for colleagues within the community who are increasingly distressed at the politicization of intelligence, we feel a responsibility to help you frame the issues. For they are far more far-reaching—and complicated—than “UN v. Saddam Hussein.” And they need to be discussed dispassionately, in a setting
in which sobriquets like “sinister nexus,” “evil genius,” and “web of lies” can be more hindrance than help.
Flouting UN Resolutions
The key question is whether Iraq’s flouting of a UN resolution justifies war. This is the question the world is asking.
Secretary Powell’s presentation does not come close to answering it. One might well come away from his briefing thinking that the Iraqis are the only ones in flagrant violation of UN resolutions. Or one might argue that there is more urgency to the need to punish the violator of Resolution 1441 than, say, of Resolution 242 of 1967 requiring Israel to withdraw from Arab territories it occupied that year. More urgency? You will not find many Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims who would agree.
It is widely known that you have a uniquely close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This presents a strong disincentive to those who might otherwise warn you that Israel’s continuing encroachment on Arab territories, its oppression of the Palestinian people, and its pre-emptive attack on Iraq in 1981 are among the root causes not only of terrorism, but of Saddam Hussein’s felt need to develop the means to deter further Israeli attacks.
Secretary Powell dismisses this factor far too lightly with his summary judgment that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are “not for self-defense.”
You have dismissed containment as being irrelevant in a post 9/11 world. You should know that no one was particularly fond of containment, but that it has been effective for the last 55 years. And the concept of “material breach” is hardly anything new.
In the summer of 1983 we detected a huge early warning radar installation at Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. In 1984 President Reagan declared it an outright violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. At an ABM Treaty review in 1988, the US spoke of this continuing violation as a “material breach” of the treaty. In the fall of 1989, the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate the radar at Krasnoyarsk without preconditions.
We adduce this example simply to show that, with patient, persistent diplomacy, the worst situations can change over time.
You have said that Iraq is a “grave threat to the United States,” and many Americans think you believe it to be an imminent threat. Otherwise why would you be sending hundreds of thousands of troops to the Gulf area? In your major speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, you warned that “the risk is simply too great that Saddam Hussein
will use instruments of mass death and destruction, or provide them to a terror network.”
Your intelligence agencies see it differently. On the same day you spoke in Cincinnati, a letter from the CIA to the Senate Intelligence Committee asserted that the probability is low that Iraq would initiate an attack with such weapons or give them to terrorists—UNLESS: “Should Saddam conclude that a US-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions.”
For now, continued the CIA letter, “Baghdad appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or chemical/biological warfare against the United States.” With his back against the wall, however, “Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a weapons-of-mass-destruction
attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.”
Your Pentagon advisers draw a connection between war with Iraq and terrorism, but for the wrong reasons. The connection takes on much more reality in a post-US invasion scenario.
Indeed, it is our view that an invasion of Iraq would ensure overflowing recruitment centers for terrorists into the indefinite future. Far from eliminating the threat it would enhance it exponentially.
As recent events around the world attest, terrorism is like malaria. You don’t eliminate malaria by shooting mosquitoes. Rather you must drain the swamp. With an invasion of Iraq, the world can expect to be inundated with swamps breeding terrorists. In human terms, your daughters are unlikely to be able to travel abroad in future years without a large phalanx of security personnel.
We recommend you re-read the CIA assessment of last fall that pointed out that “the forces fueling hatred of the US and fueling al Qaeda recruiting are not being addressed,” and that “the underlying causes that drive terrorists will persist.” That CIA report cited a Gallup poll last year of almost 10,000 Muslims in nine countries in which respondents
described the United States as “ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked and biased.”
With respect to possible Iraqi use of chemical weapons, it has been the judgment of the US intelligence community for over 12 years that the likelihood of such use would greatly increase during an offensive aimed at getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
Listing the indictment particulars, Secretary Powell said, in an oh-by-the-way tone, that sources had reported that Saddam Hussein recently authorized his field commanders to use such weapons. We find this truly alarming. We do not share the Defense Department’s optimism that radio broadcasts and leaflets would induce Iraqi commanders
not to obey orders to use such weapons, or that Iraqi generals would remove Saddam Hussein as soon as the first US soldier sets foot in Iraq. Clearly, an invasion would be no cakewalk for American troops, ill equipped as they are to operate in a chemical environment.
Reminder: The last time we sent troops to the Gulf, over 600,000 of them, one out of three came back ill—many with unexplained disorders of the nervous system. Your Secretary of Veterans Affairs recently closed the VA healthcare system to nearly 200,000 eligible veterans by administrative fiat. Thus, casualties of further war will inevitably displace other veterans who need VA services.
In his second inaugural, Abraham Lincoln appealed to his fellow citizens to care for those who “have borne the battle.” Years before you took office, our country was doing a very poor job of that for the over 200,000 servicemen and women stricken with various Gulf War illnesses. Today’s battlefield is likely to be even more sodden with chemicals and is altogether likely to yield tens of thousands more casualties. On October 1, 2002, Congress’ General Accounting Office reported “serious problems still persist” with the Pentagon’s efforts to protect servicemen and women, including shortfalls in clothing, equipment, and training. Our troops deserve more effective support than broadcasts, leaflets, and faulty equipment for protection against chemical and biological agents.
No one has a corner on the truth; nor do we harbor illusions that our analysis is irrefutable or undeniable. But after watching Secretary Powell today, we are convinced that you would be well served if you widened the discussion beyond violations of Resolution 1441, and beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.
Richard Beske, San Diego
Kathleen McGrath Christison, Santa Fe
William Christison, Santa Fe
Patrick Eddington, Alexandria
Raymond McGovern, Arlington
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
2 Memorandum for Confused Americans, March 12, 2003
“Cooking Intelligence for War”
3 Memorandum for the President, March 18, 2003
“Forgery, Hyperbole, Half-Truth: A Problem”
4 Memorandum, March 26, 2003
“Arafat Interviewed by the Christisons on Current Impasse”
5 Memorandum, April 24, 2003
“The Stakes in the Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction”
6 Memorandum for the President, May 1, 2003
7 Letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, May 19, 2003
“On UN Inspectors and Weapons of Mass Destruction”
8 Memorandum for the President, July 14, 2003
9 Memorandum for Colleagues in Intelligence, August 22, 2003
“Now It’s Your Turn”
10 Memorandum for Colleagues in Intelligence, October 13, 2003
“One Person Can Make a Difference”
11 Memorandum for the President, January 13, 2004
“Your State-of-the-Union Address”
12 Memorandum for the President, August 24, 2005
“Recommendation: Try A Circle of ‘Wise Women’”
13 Memorandum for Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader
“Denouement on Iraq: First Stop the Bleeding, March 14, 2007
14 Memorandum, March 29, 2007
“Brinkmanship Unwise in Uncharted Waters”
15 Memorandum, June 17, 2007
“Countering Terrorism—How Not to Do It”
16 Memorandum, July 27, 2007
“Dangers of a Cornered George Bush”
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