Ray McGovern's 2004 Speech in Dallas
Editor’s Note: On Jan. 20, 2004, exactly three years into George W. Bush’s presidency, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern spoke to the World Affairs Council of Greater Dallas and had the audacity to criticize Bush’s misuse of intelligence. Here is a transcript of the speech, entitled "Intelligence and War -- Lessons from the Recent Past":
Thank you very much for inviting me.
I've been in situations like this before where people say, “But you don't look like a spy!" And, you know, I ask myself, What does a spy look like? People watch so many TV programs and movies that they end up with a very different idea of what the CIA is all about, so I 'd like to start out just making sure we have some context regarding the Agency’s primary mission and the kind of work in which I was engaged.
The CIA was set up in 1947. Actually Vice President Dick Cheney referred to this in a speech at the World Affairs Council of Los Angeles just last week. He pointed out that the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the CIA were all set up together to reorganize the government so that surprises—like Pearl Harbor—that happened before we got involved in World War II would not happen again.
There needed to be one central place, one CENTRAL intelligence agency so that the various snippets available to the Navy, the Army, the code-breakers, and our embassies around the world would all come to the in-box of one person, who would then be responsible for analyzing it all and reporting to the President—a Central Intelligence Agency. That was the first of two very important functions.
The second main function involved having one place in government with no policy agenda; one place where the president could go and say “Look, you tell me what you really think. I don't care what the State Department says, I don't care what the Defense Department says, you tell me what you and your specialists really think about this issue!” Can you imagine what an asset that can be to a president—to be able to do that and to trust the answer?
Now those of you have lived in Washington for any length of time will know that when you tell Washingtonians that there's a place without any policy agenda, their eyes sort of glaze over and you are greeted with stares of incredulity. And this is particularly true, of course, among any who have worked in the thoroughly politicized precincts of Congress.
The good news, folks, is that during my 27 years with the CIA we were more often than not able to do precisely that—speak truth to power. Now a lot of this depends on the CIA director who happens to be in charge at the time. I remember being sent by Director William Colby down to do battle with Henry Kissinger of all people. I was a middle-level functionary at the time and Colby told me as I went out the door "Ray, don't vote my stock short!" I went downtown.
It was a very contentious issue; it had to do with Portugal and whether the Portuguese officers who had taken power in the mid-seventies were a bunch of Communists, as Kissinger was making them out to be, or whether they were just very different from previous Portuguese regimes and should be given a chance—with us watching closely. Well, I came back all bloodied about the head and mouth, figuratively speaking, and reported to Director Colby that I was not able to get to first base. Colby put his feet up on the desk and said, "You did a good job and I'm proud of you. That's what we're supposed to do. We’re just supposed to tell the truth".
And I thought to myself, Wow! And that is the way it can be with CIA directors with integrity and courage. And I was very pleased, mostly because ringing in my ears was my Grandmother's dictum. If she told me once, she told me a thousand times in her thick Irish brogue, “Raymond! Be truthful and honest and then you won't give a damn what anyone says about ye."
Speaking Without Fear or Favor
There were challenges, and the first major one was Vietnam. Before I get into that let me jump ahead for a minute and refer to a curious event I believe makes a teaching point here.
Congressman Jim McDermott from Washington State was visiting Iraq in the early fall of 2002, and George Stephanopolous was interviewing him via satellite. McDermott had been casting doubt on what the administration was claiming about the threat from Iraq, so Stephanopolous asked him, "Do you mean, Congressman McDermott, that the President would mislead the American people?" (Watching it live, and I could almost hear a collective gasp go up from the TV rooms of my neighborhood.) McDermott answered:
"Well, yes, George. But it is important to remember that this is a bipartisan thing. When an American president decides he needs to make war, he will certainly mislead the American people, if he believes it necessary to do so. Think of Lyndon Johnson, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the phony second attack. Johnson had been told it was phony. And yet it was just what he needed to get authorization from Congress to start the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. So, yes, George, that’s what I would say—presidents do mislead the American people in such circumstances.”
Now, when I say “bipartisan” or “nonpartisan” here, the use of those words awakens something I need to share with you. Someone asked me recently, would you select the article that your movement, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, has produced that is the most bipartisan or nonpartisan that you’ve done?
Ouch! This was a real disconnect! I guess I am still very much an intelligence officer and the thought that my colleagues and I would have written something partisan really jars. There may be skepticism about this on the part of those unfamiliar with our ethic, but I can assure you that, at least during my 27 years of service, we bent over backwards to serve President Nixon, President Johnson, President Kennedy, President Carter, President Reagan, all presidents exactly the same way. And it was our privilege and our duty to do that because we had career protection for this, because our job was to ferret out the truth, in keeping with the scriptural quote chiseled into the marble at the entrance to CIA headquarters: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." (The first time I saw that verse there, my grandmother's aphorism rang in my ears, and I thought to myself, this is a good place to work. And it was.)
When, for example, I had the privilege of briefing George Herbert Walker Bush as vice president, I bent over backwards to remain apolitical. And that even included small things like not laughing or joining in at the proper times when pundits and political rivals were being raked over the coals. I believed it important to maintain some distance from this kind of thing, and I had the distinct impression that President Bush respected—and trusted—me the more for that.
I had a really interesting revelation in this regard a few years after he left office. My son Joseph was graduating from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in 1995, and I learned that President Bush was coming to give the commencement address. The former president and I had been in touch off and on since he left Washington, so I wrote him another letter. I told him that Joseph belonged to a secret society, actually the oldest secret society of any college in the nation—older than the Skull and Bones! And I wondered if he would enjoy meeting those folks. You know clandestine tradecraft, I added, and we could get you in and out of there without notice before you had to give the commencement speech.
He wrote back and said he had already made arrangements to play golf that morning, but he would love to see Rita and me again and meet Joseph. Why didn’t we come to where he would be staying and have a chat for 20 minutes before the speech. We had a wonderful reunion. President Bush was typically gracious—including when Joseph asked him to write notes to those of his classmates who were ill and could not make their own graduation. (Some of you no doubt have personal experience with how very tall the first President Bush is. He nonetheless huddled himself over a small coffee table and wrote thoughtful notes on the commencement programs of Joseph’s friends.) Finally the former president said he ought to go off and give his address.
Staying At Arms-Length From Politics
As we were leaving I thought to myself, OK, this is important enough that I’m going to break precedent. I said, “Mr. President, I just want to say how proud, not only I, but many of the people back in Washington are that you sent that letter in which you loudly resigned from the National Rifle Association".
(I don't know if you remember the incident; it had happened just a week or so earlier after the NRA issued a statement criticizing federal officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for acting like jackbooted Nazi Troops. The NRA would not retract the statement, so George Bush wrote them a letter saying, “Here’s my card. I quit.”)
But when I offered my comment, the former president turned on me sharply—and, as I said, he’s a pretty big guy!— and asked, “What did you say?!” So I repeated that many of us found it really admirable that he had done that. He stopped for a few seconds, then said, “Well, thanks. Thanks very much. As I think you know, Barbara and I don't want to get involved much publicly any more, but that was such a provocation!” He then looked at me quizzically, shook his head, and said, “Thanks again.”
It took me a day or so to figure out the reason behind that uncharacteristically sharp initial reaction. For 19 years (since 1976 when I first worked for him as Director of Central Intelligence), I had never allowed myself to say anything political to him. I had never encouraged him, I had never said, That was a good move, or You did well, or anything like that. Nor, of course, had I advocated any policy. So I guess it was a kind of culture shock for him to hear a political statement—You did well on this—from McGovern the private citizen now free to make such comment.
And, you know, I thought to myself, that’s as it should be. And I am proud of that.
Criticizing a President
I'm going to be saying some critical things about the policies not only of Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam but of George W. Bush on Iraq and the misuse of intelligence in both cases. I am aware that both are from this great state of Texas and that I run the risk of offending folks on both sides of the aisle. So I am going to put on a little armor. And the armor is provided by a great Republican President, a favorite of President George W. Bush. His name is Teddy Roosevelt and he said this:
"To announce that there is to be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong is not only unpatriotic and servile, but morally treasonable to the American people.”
I entered the CIA on detail from the US Army in April of 1963. I had been accepted into a program called at the time the Junior Officer Trainee (JOT) Program and was privileged to be thrown in with some really terrific people. One of these was a fellow named Sam Adams. Sam, now deceased, was a direct descendant of the Adams family patriots of Revolutionary War times, and he clearly had the blood of a fearless patriot. He was very bright, out of Harvard College, served in the Navy, did a year in Harvard Law School, decided he didn't want to be a lawyer, came to the Agency, and was in our JOT class. Like the rest of us, Sam was captivated by the challenges involved in the search for truth on issues that matter, and the notion that we would have career protection for that. He thought it a great place to work, and he excelled at analysis.
Sam also had a great sense of humor. We did some of our training down at a secure facility. We spent many weeks there and as we intelligence analysts left those of our classmates who were going into the clandestine service and had to stay behind for more training, we staged a final show. Sam composed new words to "Lilli Marlene,” and I’d like to sing two stanzas for you. (But first, for you younger folks, I should explain that Madame Nhu was the éminence grise in Saigon—the sister-in-law of President Ngo Dinh Diem; John McCone was John Kennedy’s CIA director at the time; and the GRU was the military intelligence arm of the Soviet security apparat. The song went like this:
Good-bye to isolation,
We're sad to leave the farm.
We have to save the nation
From tragedy and harm.
For we've been trained as professional spies
To tell foul lies to Czechs and Thais,
And pay Madame Nhu
And pay Madame Nhu.
Please dear Mr. John McCone,
Won't you hear our plea?
We've worked our fingers to the bone
For very little fee.
So all we ask is permission from you
To sell something to the GRU
To help with our salary,
To help with our pay.
Well, that was just one of Sam's contributions. After our training, Sam proved himself quickly as an analyst and was given the Vietnam military account. We are now talking 1965. And he set to the task in his own orderly way. (His shirttail seemed always to be outside his trousers, but he was incredibly orderly in his thought process.) To make a long story short, he looked closely at the captured documents, the defector reports, and all the other more esoteric forms of intelligence and concluded that there were twice as many Vietnamese Communists under arms as the US military command in Saigon was willing to admit. And at that point some of the US Army analysts in Saigon confided to Sam, “You are right; we have been required to put an artificial limit on the number of enemy we carry on our books.”
Politicization of Intelligence
Why was the US command unwilling to accept the more accurate, higher figures? Because they were waging a war of attrition. And how could you have more Communists under arms if you're being successful? And the body counts were coming in every week and so the military deemed it politically impossible to admit the truth. General William Westmoreland was in command for most of that time and General Creighton Abrams, one of his aides, wrote a cable to the Pentagon saying, We cannot adopt the real figures because the press would have a field day.
Now Sam Adams and I used to have lunch and Sam told me of that cable and I said, "Sam, this is bizarre. Our troops are being killed every day and we are drastically underestimating the enemy!” Sam Adams drafted an estimate, what we call a National Intelligence Estimate (our most authoritative genre of analysis) providing and documenting the real figures. He won the concurrence of the rest of the Intelligence community except, of course, Army intelligence. The estimate was sent up to CIA Director Richard Helms, but he refused to give it to the president. He said, “Look, there's a war going on and this is not the time to get involved in a conflict with the military. We need to protect the Agency.” So, instead, he served up to the president the bogus numbers from Saigon.
That was in the fall of 1967. On January 30, 1968 Communist forces launched the countrywide Tet Offensive, attacking in numbers far greater than those carried in Gen. Westmoreland’s books—giving the lie to that unconscionable deception.
What happened next was truly remarkable (and it seems quite appropriate to mention in view of the president’s state-of-the-union address later tonight). Less than two weeks before the Tet offensive, President Johnson had given a very flowery state-of-the-union address about how the US was not going to cut and run, how we were going to stay the course and prevail. “The enemy has been defeated in battle after battle,” he said.
Taken completely by surprise by Tet, Johnson realized he had been misled by his fawning advisers as well as Gen. Westmoreland. Johnson finally got some good advice and convened a panel of “wise men.” And within a month—early March to the end of March 1968—he was briefed on their conclusions and decided he was on the wrong course. He would henceforth pursue a negotiated settlement with the Vietnamese Communists. And he would not again run for office. Big, big decisions.
This is a sad tale, because for those of you who know the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, if you can visualize the memorial without the left-hand side, without the left-hand side—if the correct figures were given, if perhaps Sam or I had given a copy of Gen. Abrahms’ cable to the Washington Post, that war might have ended in 1968 and there would be no need for the entire left side of the Vietnam Memorial. Why? Because there would be no names to chisel into that granite, that's why; because there would be no names. Half of the 58,000 would not be there on the wall!
Shortly after Director Helms decided to go with the bogus estimate, one of the senior people in the agency jocularly asked Sam Adams, "Well, Sam do you think that we have gone beyond the range of reasonable dishonesty?" I had to restrain Sam physically. You see, Sam had been in the Navy in Vietnam. He knew what our forces were going through there.
I think recounting that Vietnam experience may help you understand how strongly we felt—and continue to feel—about the need for integrity in intelligence. So that's meant to be sort of general background.
As we watched the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and what the administration was clearly intending to do with respect to Iraq—with very dubious intelligence to justify it—my former colleagues and I had great concern; so we started writing articles and comparing notes.
We could hardly believe what we were forced to conclude, and when you're writing things and you're not completely sure you are on the right track, you need a sanity check. That's in large measure why we decided to establish Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
What about weapons of mass destruction?
Before September 11, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell said this: (The date was February 24, 2001.)
“Saddam Hussein has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.”
In July of 2001, Condoleezza Rice said:
"We are able to keep his arms from him. His military forces have not been rebuilt."
Well, as everybody in Washington is fond of saying, “Yes, but after 9/11 EVERYTHING CHANGED!” What does that mean? Does that mean all of a sudden Saddam Hussein acquired weapons of mass destruction? It doesn't mean that at all.
Let me take you very briefly through the chronology that led to the war. The final decision for war was made in the spring of 2002, at the latest. There is lots of evidence of that, and I have my own anecdotal piece of evidence from a father of an 82nd airborne trooper who was told in June of 2002 that he was going to Iraq. His father remonstrated, “You mean Afghanistan.” But the young man insisted, “No, they keep saying Iraq!”
What follows is a reconstruction of the flow of events following the decision to attack Iraq. You don’t need a seat inside the White House to be able to piece it all together. All it takes is a close, sustained reading of the press, experience in media analysis, and familiarity with how things work in the inner councils of our national security structure. (It also helps to have had first-hand experience with how easily intelligence can be corrupted when integrity is in such short supply at senior levels.) I am the first to admit that no one has a corner on the truth, but the continuing unfolding of events since the war lends additional support for the scenario posited below.
Rolling Out a New Product
White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, you'll recall, made it clear that there would be no marketing of significant new initiatives during the summer months, and that the country would have to wait until the fall to be told of the big plans for Iraq. On August 26th, in a preemptive coup of his own, Dick Cheney set the stage for war with a blistering attack on Saddam Hussein and on the UN inspection process, and contended that nuclear weapons were again being developed in Iraq. After Labor Day, the president and his advisers got back in town and looked at one another, “OK, now that we’ve decided to have this war, what do we need to do first?”
Someone noted that the Constitution could pose something of an obstacle, inasmuch as Congress alone is given the power to declare war. Cheney’s speech, however hard hitting, would not be enough to persuade Congress to cede that power to the executive. And a number of lawmakers were having serious problems with the brand-new doctrine of “preemptive war.”
What do we have that can persuade Congress? How about ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda? Let’s use that. That will speak to the Congress.
Well, we can't do that, because of those wimps over at the CIA. They have been pawing through all the reporting and they still insist on telling everybody there is no good evidence of ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
How about chemical and biological weapons? We know they have those.
Bummer. Can't use that either. Other wimps, this time at the Defense Intelligence Agency, just issued a memorandum saying that there's no solid evidence that Iraq has chemical or biological weapons or the capacity to produce them.
How about the report earlier this year that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger? Uranium! That will sell! Uranium could only be for nuclear weapons!
If CIA Director George Tenet was in on this discussion and was doing his job as chief intelligence adviser to the president, he would have had to say, My people looked at that information and found it to be false on its face and we now know it was based on a forgery, to boot. (I am reminded of Yul Brunner's great line in The King and I— “It’s a false lie!”) It was false on its face, partly because Niger does not control the uranium that's mined in that country. It is controlled by an international consortium led by the French. And that had been made clear to all—including the Vice President's office, which had been responsible for sending Ambassador Wilson down to Niger to look into the matter.
All this was well known during the White House deliberations in September 2002. But the decision was, Use it anyway! Raise the prospect of a mushroom cloud, the prospect that nuclear weapons will be in Saddam Hussein's hands—perhaps quite soon—and our first indication of that could be this mushroom cloud. That should do it.
And so the President took that line on the seventh of October, Condoleezza Rice said it on the eighth of October, Victoria Clark of the Pentagon repeated it on the ninth. Senators and representatives voted on the tenth and the eleventh to cede to the president the constitutional power reserved to them, as the elected representatives of the American people, to declare war.
What were administration planners thinking? It seems clear they thought this: “Look, we’ll persuade Congress, we'll have our war, we'll win handily, the people in Iraq will welcome us as liberators with open arms and cut flowers. And then who is going to care, who is going to care, with the evil Saddam Hussein gone, that the evidence we gave for attacking Iraq was based largely on a forgery!?
Please don’t take my word for all this. Read the letter that Henry Waxman wrote to the President on March 17, 2003, two days before the war, after senior administration officials had already acknowledged that the report was based on a forgery. Waxman asked the president to explain how he could have let Congress be deceived into voting for war on the basis of forged documents.
Mushroom Cloud and Constitution
I believe the congressional, the constitutional aspect is very important. I’d like to go back a bit in history and read a short excerpt from a prominent American statesman. I’ll not say who it is until I’m finished, and then we’ll see of any one knows.
“Allow the president to invade a nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure.”
The statesman goes on to explain why the framers of our Constitution gave Congress and not the President the power to declare war:
“Kings have always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending that the good of the people is the object. This our constitutional convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions and they resolved to frame the Constitution so that no one man should have the power to bring this oppression upon us.
The words of Abraham Lincoln.
I'll finish up with another excerpt. This one is from the mouth of Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s top lieutenants. The date is April 18, 1946. What follows is from a report by Gustave Gilbert, who interrogated Goering at Nuremburg:
“We got around to the subject of war again and I said that I did not think the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction. Goering shrugged. 'Why of course the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a communist dictatorship.’”
Gilbert, the interrogator, interjects. “There is one difference,” I pointed out. “In a democracy, the people have some say. They have some say in the matter through their elected representatives and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”
Goering: “Oh, that is well and good. But voice or no voice the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing a country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
You may not detect it in my voice but I shall now confess to a lot of anger, a lot of outrage—over the way our Constitution has been undermined, at the way intelligence has been prostituted, at the way—once again—thousands and thousands have already died in an unnecessary war launched on false pretenses.
When I start feeling guilty about how my anger just seems to linger and linger, I remind myself that anger has been getting a bad rap for a very long time—and that none other than Thomas Aquinas 700 years ago insisted that anger is a virtue.
Indeed, Thomas bemoaned the fact that there was no word in Latin for the virtue of anger. See, he bought that old Pythagorean idea that virtue is in the middle. Take courage for example, the virtue of courage, that's in the middle; too much courage and you get foolhardiness; too little yields timidity. After complaining that there was no Latin word for the virtue of anger, Thomas took it a step further. He quoted John Chrysostom of the early church, who insisted that those who are not angry when there is cause for anger sin. Why? Because Thomas said, “Anger looks to the good of justice,” and if you can live among injustice without anger, you are unjust.
He went on to describe one other important phenomenon that I believe is all too common in these critical times. The best English translation is “unreasoned patience.” Thomas wrote, “Unreasoned patience sows the seeds of vice, nourishes negligence, and invites not only evil people, but also good people to do evil.”
I'll just close with a brief sentence from Edmund Burke along these same lines. This very prominent English statesman put it this way:
"The hottest fires in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis".
By now you have probably had enough quotations and commentary from me. Let’s turn the session over to questions.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He spent almost 30 years in Army intelligence and as a CIA analyst, and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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