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The CIA's History of Deception

By Melvin A. Goodman
May 23, 2009

Editor’s Note:  The Republican assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her complaints about the CIA’s briefings on “enhanced interrogation techniques” has taken on otherworldly aspects, particularly the fictional narrative that the CIA would never seek to hide information from or mislead members of Congress.

It’s become a litmus test on one’s patriotism to accept the false history of the CIA’s transparency to Congress, but that is not the real story, as former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:

“Let me be clear about this,” CIA director Leon Panetta told his troops last week, “it was not CIA policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values.”  

Of course, Panetta is entitled to his opinions, but he cannot create his own facts. And, as a long-time member of the House of Representatives, he surely must know that there is a long and substantiated record of CIA deceit and dissembling to the congressional intelligence committees. Here are some highlights of that record:

In 1973, CIA director Richard Helms deceived the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, refusing to acknowledge the role of the CIA in overthrowing the elected government in Chile. Helms falsely testified that the CIA had not passed money to the opposition movement in Chile, and a grand jury was called to see if Helms should be indicted for perjury. 

In 1977, the Justice Department brought a lesser charge against Helms, who pleaded nolo contendere; he was fined $2,000 and given a suspended two-year prison sentence. Helms went from the courthouse to the CIA where he was given a hero’s welcome and a gift of $2,000 to cover the fine. It was one of the saddest experiences in my 24 years at CIA.

In the new Ford administration, Secretary of State Kissinger, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and White House chief of staff Dick Cheney orchestrated phony intelligence for the Congress in order to get an endorsement for covert arms shipments to anti-government forces in Angola.  

The CIA lied to Sen. Dick Clark, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa and a critic of the Agency’s illegal collaborations with the government of South Africa against Angola and Mozambique. Agency briefers exaggerated the classification of their materials so that Senate and House members could not publicize this information.

Agency shields of secrecy and falsehood were extremely effective.

In the 1980s, CIA director William Casey and his deputy, Bob Gates, consistently lied to the congressional oversight committees about their knowledge of the Iran-Contra Affair. Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-New York, believed that Casey and Gates were running a disinformation campaign against the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Casey even managed to alienate Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, a pro-intelligence, conservative who typically walked through barbed wire for the CIA.

Gates’ lies on Iran-Contra led to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s unwillingness to vote him out of the committee in 1987 when he was nominated to be CIA director by President Ronald Reagan. Gates was nominated again in 1991 and this time he was confirmed, but not before the hearings produced rhyme and verse on Gates’ tailoring of intelligence to fit the biases of Bill Casey.  

Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s, Aldrich Ames performed as the most destructive traitor in the history of the CIA, but CIA directors Gates, William Webster and Jim Woolsey failed to inform the congressional oversight committees of the serious counter-intelligence problems that had been created.  

In the late 1980s, the CIA concealed from the Congress that Saddam Hussein was diverting U.S. farm credits through an Atlanta bank to pay for nuclear technology and sophisticated weapons. The chairman of the Senate and House intelligence committees, Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Arizona, and Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kansas, were furious with the deception tactics of CIA briefers.

The greatest CIA disinformation campaign in the Congress took place in 2002-2003, when CIA director George Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin, consistently lied about Iraqi training for al Qaeda members on chemical and biological weapons as well as the existence of mobile labs to manufacture such weapons.  

Several days before the congressional vote on the authorization to use force, CIA senior analyst Paul Pillar delivered an unclassified memorandum to the Hill with a series of false charges about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Pillar’s memorandum and a national intelligence estimate on the same subject were also used to develop Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the United Nations in February 2003.

More recently, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Michigan, the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, documented the dissembling of the CIA to cover-up the Agency’s involvement in a drug interdiction program in Peru that led to the loss of innocent lives. Hoekstra accused CIA director Tenet with misleading the Congress.  

The CIA still has not addressed the serious procedural and institutional problems that were exposed in a report from the Office of the Inspector General on the Peru program, which concluded that Agency officials deliberately misled Congress, the White House and the Justice Department.

In closing, Panetta emphasized that it was the CIA’s task to “tell it like it is, even if that’s not what people always want to hear. Keep it up. Our national security depends on it.”

If only that were the case in the 1980s, when the CIA hid from the Congress the intelligence on the decline of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact or more recently when the CIA tailored intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi ties to al Qaeda in order to give the Bush administration an intelligence case to go to war.

Panetta should understand that there was far less dissembling to the Congress 35 years ago when the Agency’s Office of General Counsel only had two attorneys, but with the addition of 63 attorneys over the next two decades there was greater politicization of Agency testimony and briefings.  

Today there are nearly 200 lawyers with the Office of the General Counsel. Panetta should also understand that it is long past time for him to make sure that the Agency replaces the current acting directors of the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of the General Counsel in order to make sure that the CIA is indeed telling truth to power.

Melvin A. Goodman, a regular contributor to The Public Record where this essay first appeared, is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. He spent more than 42 years in the U.S. Army, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense. His most recent book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.

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