President-elect's Queries to Briefers
After a week lecturing at Kansas State University and then in Kansas City, Missouri, I could not shake the feeling that what Kansas and Missouri need most is the equivalent of Radio Free Europe, which was so effective in spreading truth around inside Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
(Truth in advertising: during the late Sixties, I served for two years as substantive liaison officer between the RFE and Washington.)
So I was amused while still in Kansas to get a call from Mike Caddell of “Radio Free Kansas” asking me for an interview. Broadcasting from rural northeastern Kansas, Caddell does his own part in spreading truth around.
Most of his fellow Kansans are malnourished by a steady diet of extreme right-wing media gruel that helps re-elect folks like see-no-evil Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who did Bush’s bidding in “justifying” Bush’s attack on Iraq when Roberts headed the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Caddell called me on Thursday, expressing excitement at the beginning of daily intelligence briefings of President-elect Barack Obama by the CIA.
Aware that I helped prepare the President’s Daily Brief for Presidents Nixon and Ford, and that I conducted one-on-one PDB briefings of Reagan’s most senior advisers during the latter’s administration, Caddell wanted me to tape a telephone interview to run on his show this weekend.
He asked what I would tell President-elect Barack Obama if I were Mike Morell, the chief CIA analyst assigned to brief Obama daily.
What fun, I thought. On more sober reflection, it seemed more useful to prepare questions of the kind President-elect Obama might wish to ask Morell, since the briefings are supposed to be a two-way street.
Obama is no shrinking violet. Just the same, it may be useful to warn him not to succumb to the particular brand of “shock and awe” that can be induced by ostensibly sexy intelligence to color reactions of briefees, including presidents. I have seen it happen.
The president-elect needs to start asking hard questions. Now. Here are some he might want to select for his next briefing:
1. The lead story in Friday’s New York Times undercuts the claims of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili that he was acting in self-defense when he ordered his troops to fire artillery and rockets at the city of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. The new information comes from international monitors of the highly respected Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and, oddly, is much closer to the Russian version of what happened.
Task: A two-page memo on who started the fighting and why? Deadline: Monday
2. A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) produced last November concluded that Iran’s work on the nuclear-weapons part of its nuclear development program was suspended in mid-2003. National Intelligence Council director Thomas Fingar repeated that judgment publicly on Sept. 4, 2008.
I want to know how that squares — or doesn’t — with the claim by neoconservative icon Norman Podhoretz, just hours after the NIE’s key judgments were made public, that Iran is “hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons,” and why Podhoretz would go on to charge that the intelligence community was trying to “undermine George W. Bush.” I notice, incidentally, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has parroted Podhoretz’s “hell-bent” phraseology, and that your boss, CIA Director Michael Hayden, has also publicly volunteered his “personal opinion” that this is so.
Task: A memo updating the judgments of the Nov. 07 NIE, as necessary. Deadline: Nov. 14
3. My aides have been telling me that, when speaking of the recent decrease in violence in Iraq, I have been mis-overestimating, so to speak, the success of the surge while mis-underestimating factors like the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad, the decision to pay Sunnis not to shoot at U.S. forces, and the decision of Muqtada al-Sadr to hold Shia fire pending the withdrawal of U.S. forces, which the Shia see as just a matter of time.
Task: A memo ranking the reasons for the downturn in violence in order of relative importance. It should address all these factors; it should also explain why the U.S. has several thousand more troops in Iraq now than were there before the surge came and went. Deadline: Nov. 19
4. Confusion reigns with respect to what is likely to happen when U. S. forces withdraw from Iraq. That administration officials and U.S. Army generals know better what to expect than the Iraqis themselves strains credulity. It has become increasingly clear that the Iraqi government and people believe they themselves can handle whatever comes once we depart, and that they consider the large U.S. troop presence part of the problem, not the solution.
Task: A memo addressing why the Iraqis are more relaxed about a U.S. troop withdrawal than most U.S. officials and pundits. Deadline: Nov. 21
5. No outsiders have been able to prevail in Afghanistan. What makes us think the U.S. can, no matter how many troops it chooses to recruit and insert?
Task: A formal National Intelligence Estimate on prospects for Afghanistan. Deadline: Jan. 9, 2009
6. Nuclear nonproliferation: The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently proposed a nuclear-free zone as the best way to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. I want to know why this proposal never gets off the ground. What are the obstacles?
Task: A memo addressing this in historical perspective. Deadline: Nov. 26
7. Peak Oil: the juncture at which demand keeps growing sharply while supply stagnates/recedes. Some say we are already there. What does the intelligence community think? Related question: Is it likely that China, India and other key countries regard the invasion of Iraq as the first resource war of the 21st Century?
Task: A memorandum addressing these questions. Deadline: Dec. 1
8. My advisers tell me that senior intelligence officials, including the principal deputy to National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, have been briefing the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a creature of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Task: Please ask McConnell to let my staff know what other policy advocacy institutes his subordinates have briefed. Deadline: Nov. 10
9. Mike, one of my aides has read carefully through the memoir of your former boss, ex-CIA director George Tenet, who speaks very highly of you. The reader gets the clear impression you were one of his protégés; he appointed you personal briefer to President George W. Bush.
Now two questions for you, Mike:
(1) Tenet told his British counterpart, Sir Richard Dearlove, on July 20, 2002, that the “intelligence was being fixed around the policy” of invading Iraq to bring “regime change” there. (I refer, of course, to the so-called “Downing Street Minutes” of Dearlove’s briefing of British Prime Minister Tony Blair on July 23, 2002.) Did you know, Mike, the intelligence was being “fixed?”
(2) Tenet also says in his memoirs that you “coordinated the CIA review” of Colin Powell’s speech at the U.N. on Feb. 5, 2003. Your comment?
Nothing personal, Mike. But with all due respect, you will be able to understand why I would like to start with a fresh slate. Please inform your management that I would prefer a briefer untainted by the intelligence fiasco regarding Iraq. Add that I am offended that they would send me someone so closely associated with George Tenet, the consummate “fixer” of intelligence.
And please do not forget to pass along to your successor the requests I have made.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, publications outreach of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His career as a CIA analyst spanned seven administrations, and included responsibility for chairing NIEs. He is now a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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