Intelligence Officers, Learn From History

The truth will out. If you fabricate, or acquiesce in the fabrication of, evidence used to "justify" launching a war of choice, you will have to live with that for the rest of your life.

Call me quaint, but having spent 27 years in intelligence on both the analysis and operations ends of the business, I continue to believe that most intelligence officers have a conscience. The problem is they are often too late in acting on it.

Take the former chief of the European division of CIA’s directorate of operations, Tyler Drumheller, for example, who is now spelling out chapter-and-verse the deceitful "intelligence" adduced by "Slam Dunk" George Tenet and his "if-you-say-so" deputy John McLaughlin. Sunday’s Washington Post article by Joby Warrick has Drumheller elaborating on the raging dispute within the CIA over the credibility of a defector labeled (appropriately) "Curveball." Curveball is the source of bogus stories about "biological weapons trailers" to which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gave such prominence in his (in)famous speech on Feb. 5, 2003, at the UN: "We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and rails."

Who’s Telling the Truth?

I think Drumheller. My reasoning has much to do with motive. Readers can come to their own judgments. Here’s some background that might help.

I knew McLaughlin well. When he was a young analyst, I chaired his first National Intelligence Estimate and shared after-hour sandwiches as we crafted articles for the President’s Daily Brief. Sadly, he fell in with bad companions and let himself be seduced by Robert Gates, who had his own agenda as he climbed the ranks to be head of CIA analysis and then CIA director.

Full disclosure: Gates worked for me when I was chief of the Soviet foreign policy branch in the early Seventies. To this day, I am proud to have put in his efficiency report a warning about the Cassius-like ambition that later succeeded in advancing his career so rapidly.

Were there Soviets under every rock? Gates found two. Were there "moderates" in the Iranian leadership? Gates found as many as you would like. How about the Soviet Union, Gates’ area of substantive specialty: would the Communist Party ever lose control? Never, said Gates, as he pandered to his mentor, William Casey, at whose feet he learned so well. Gates has publicly admitted that he watched Casey on "issue after issue sit in meetings and present intelligence framed in terms of the policy he wanted pursued." (He was quoted by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post on March 15, 1995.)

McLaughlin was a perfect choice to head the Soviet analysis division. His lack of expertise in Soviet affairs was seen by Gates as an asset, as was the fact that – unlike Gates – he came across as a "nice guy." Above all, he did what he was told. And his career zoomed, like Gates’.

As Drumheller listened to President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003, he was amazed to hear him describe Curveball’s "mobile laboratories" in detail. Drumheller’s earlier warnings about Curveball had been ignored. When just a few days later Curveball’s "intelligence" turned up featured in an advance copy of Powell’s UN speech, Drumheller called McLaughlin’s office and was summoned there at once. Sitting across from McLaughlin and an aide in a small conference room, Drumheller told him of a warning from a German intelligence officer (the Germans were debriefing Curveball) that, "He’s a fabricator and he’s crazy." McLaughlin says he has "no recall" of that meeting.

According to an aide to then-Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt (Drumheller’s immediate boss), McLaughlin’s executive assistant held two meetings in December 2002 to discuss the issue and was told that the Operations Directorate "did not believe that Curveball’s information should be relied upon." The two meetings took place during the week before Christmas 2002. Ironically, George Tenet’s famous "slam-dunk" came that same week (on Dec. 21), according to Bob Woodward.

Boss, There’s Problems.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.

On the night before Powell’s UN speech, Drumheller’s home telephone rang; Tenet was calling to get a telephone number. A Los Angeles Times story of April 2, 2005, quotes Drumheller:

"I gave him the phone number for the guy he wanted, then it struck me, ‘I better say something.’ I said, ‘You know, boss, there’s problems with that [Curveball] case.’ He says, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m exhausted. Don’t worry about it.’"

More recently, Drumheller told the Washington Post‘s Joby Warrick that he referred directly to the draft of Powell’s speech: "Hey, boss, you’re not going to use that stuff in the speech…? There are real problems with that." Warrick, too, quotes Drumheller on how "distracted and tired" Tenet seemed to be.

Tenet must have been really tired not to remember that.

Let’s assume for the moment that Drumheller’s memory is better than Tenet’s. It is then easier to sympathize with Tenet’s predicament, without excusing his behavior.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, senior aide to Powell, who was at Powell’s side as he prepared his address, has told the press of his own and Powell’s misgivings because there were no photos of the "mobile labs" – just artist renderings. According to Wilkerson, Tenet, and McLaughlin that same day (Feb. 4, 2003) "described the evidence on the mobile labs as exceptionally strong, based on multiple sources, whose stories were independently corroborated." Speech rehearsals showed that the CIA graphics shop could still turn out eye-catching artist renderings, and copies had been distributed to top aides. How inconvenient to have a senior CIA officer still casting cautions at this time of night.

What is truth? The president wants war, and we’re here to help. Besides, Curveball’s reporting is no worse than the other cockamamie garbage we’ve given Powell to say. We’ll win this war handily; the Iraqis will welcome us with cut flowers and open arms. We’ll be in the Middle East big time, sitting on all that Iraqi oil and building permanent military bases, having deposed a "ruthless dictator" and eliminated a sworn enemy of Israel – now tell me, who is going to come along at that point and fault us for using bogus intelligence?

Enough on Tenet’s possible motives. How about Drumheller’s? In the days ahead, expect to hear that he is just trying to promote the book he has written, or that he has axes to grind with Tenet and McLaughlin. I had a chance to hear Drumheller speak, together with Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), on Iraq at George Mason University on June 21. He was asked about Curveball, but never once mentioned the book – strange way to promote it. He did not go much beyond what he had already told the press and the various commissions investigating CIA performance.

The Ugly Question

And then it came up. Drumheller was also asked why he did not go public before the war, when his candor might have contributed to stopping unnecessary killing. In an apologetic tone, he adduced the familiar reasons: the hope that by staying in place he might prevent still worse; a sense of responsibility to his colleagues, especially those he had mentored; a mortgage; the fact that he had not yet reached retirement age.

One ringing lesson here is the need for whistleblower protection for those working in the national security arena. There is none now, and Congress has just rejected all recent attempts to craft legislation with teeth in it.

The tone of Drumheller’s remarks left the distinct impression that he regrets remaining silent and wishes he had summoned the courage to blow the whistle. It was also clear that he does not look forward to having to answer that ugly question for the rest of his life.

That said, better late than never. Drumheller deserves a lot of credit for coming clean. It takes no little courage to come forward at the risk of ostracizing yourself from many years-worth of colleagues in the brotherhood and making yourself vulnerable to the Joe Wilson treatment he can now expect from the administration and our domesticated press.

Drumheller’s boss at the time, Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt, has shown no such courage. He made light of the whole issue in telling the Los Angeles Times:

"I remember the guffaws by myself and others when we said, ‘How could they have put this much emphasis on this guy?’ … He wasn’t worth [anything] in our minds."

It would have been nice if you shared that with us at the time, Jim.

The Silberman-Robb commission’s investigation of intelligence performance on Iraq called the failure to prevent Curveball’s material from being included in Powell’s UN speech a "serious failure of management and leadership."

No One Accountable

Surprise, surprise. No one has been held accountable. And please, don’t tell me that is the job of the congressional "watchdog" committees. This week witnessed the latest hoax from Hoekstra, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who tried to support Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) lagging election campaign by supporting his fanciful claim that the U.S. did indeed find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. With customary chutzpah, Fox News immediately aired a statement by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to the effect that the 20-year-old degraded chemical munitions in question "are weapons of mass destruction." I don’t know how that squares with his answer to my questioning on May 4 in Atlanta, when he stated, "Apparently there were no weapons of mass destruction." There is no other sign that he means to revise that judgment – but, hey, if it will help Santorum, Hoekstra will oblige – even if that means holding them both up to ridicule from those who have been paying attention (perhaps not too many of them in Pennsylvania). Some watchdog, Hoekstra.

The Senate intelligence committee is headed by White House arch-loyalist Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the fellow who refused to investigate the Iraq-Niger forgery and the Wilson-Plame affair and reneged on a promise to complete the so-called Phase II study regarding what the administration did with the intelligence it got on Iraq. Drumheller’s revelations provide yet another case study making clear why Roberts has been dragging his feet on the Phase II study.

Intelligence Failure?

It depends on your vantage point. From the point of view of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, and Bush – and Hoekstra and Roberts – Tenet and McLaughlin performed well, with their elastic consciences never feeling much apparent strain. The "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal" (Col. Wilkerson’s label) and associates got their war with Iraq with the help of intelligence cooked to their recipe. Tenet was the quintessential "team player," an attribute antithetical to his statutory duty to tell the emperor when he had no clothes on.

Rumsfeld adviser (and former House speaker) Newt Gingrich, like Cheney a frequent visitor to CIA headquarters, told the press in 2003 that "George Tenet is so grateful to the president [presumably for not firing him on Sept.r 12, 2001] that he will do anything for him." When Tenet retired a year later "for family reasons," Bush reciprocated and gave him the highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, for services performed. John McLaughlin now has a cushy job as national security adviser for CNN, and is still showing great elasticity – in commenting on NSA’s end-run around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, for example. Drumheller will have to be content with the satisfaction of having told the truth. But, for some of us, this is no little thing.

Lessons for Today

No one will be held responsible for the corruption of intelligence unless there are changes in Congress and the White House. Meanwhile, as intelligence is used/abused to support administration aims vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea, Drumheller’s former colleagues will probably have to grapple with difficult decisions. Let me close by citing our prewar appeal to CIA and other intelligence officers from a Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity Memorandum of March 12, 2003, "Cooking Intelligence for War."

"Many former colleagues and successors are facing a dilemma all too familiar to intelligence veterans – the difficult choices that must be faced when the demands of good conscience butt up against deeply ingrained attitudes concerning secrecy, misguided notions of what is true patriotism, and understandable reluctance to put careers – and mortgages – on the line. … We appeal to those still working inside the Intelligence Community to consider turning state’s evidence."

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Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).