Damning with Faint Praise


newmatilda.com: The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report on Iran released in late 2007 was an embarrassment to President George W Bush, directly contradicting his Administration’s dire warnings about Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons program. Does the NIE suggest that there have been real changes to the way the US intelligence community prepares and delivers its advice?

Ray McGovern: Yes, certainly. The Iraq fiasco is so bad that then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte — no independent thinker — decided in 2005 to appoint Tom Fingar as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which prepares the NIE. It was Fingar who insisted on a bottom-up review of all available intelligence on Iran’s nuclear programs.

Fingar — the former head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research — is not only bright as Hell, he is also a person of some integrity. He brought people over with him from State and he knew where the sycophants were at NIC.

It’s significant, however, that this NIE was ordered not by Bush, but by Congress. And it is the fourth report contradicting the Administration to have been released in the past few years. First, there was the 2005 Estimate on how soon Iran could develop a nuclear bomb which reported that it would be early to mid next decade before that could possibly happen. That was gutsy, because that was certainly not what Vice President Dick Cheney was saying at the time.

There was the 2006 Estimate which reported that the prospects for international terrorism had gone up geometrically as a direct result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

And then in early 2007, the Estimate, which was postponed until after Bush announced the ‘Surge’ of US troops in Iraq, reported that Iraq was basically going to Hell in a handbasket. The Administration didn’t want to hear any of these reports.

newmatilda.com: Has this series of reports repaired the US intelligence community’s reputation after the infamous NIE before the Iraq invasion?

Ray McGovern: The reason that the then-Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, could prostitute the NIE process the way he did in 2003 was that he was heir to a politicisation of intelligence that had been going on for 20 years. His predecessors at the CIA, Bill Casey and Robert Gates, hand-picked malleable managers who were more interested in their careers than in the truth.

In 2002, Bush and Cheney needed Tenet to dummy up an NIE, which coincided with Cheney speeches of the time, in order to convince Congress that Iraq was a real threat. And Tenet delivered a politicised intelligence report that was wrong on every major count.

The latest NIE is to both Negroponte’s and Fingar’s credit. That is a pleasant surprise in Negroponte’s case — Cheney sent his people along to try and change the report and they were resisted.

newmatilda.com: So who’s grown a spine since 2003?

Ray McGovern: Four things have changed since 2002/3. Firstly, the Congressional Intelligence Committees are all headed by Democrats. Second, as I’ve mentioned, it was the Senate Intelligence Committee that commissioned the latest Estimate. Third, there’s a precedent now for these reports to be released or leaked.

And finally, and this is key, it was in the senior military’s interest that the latest Estimate be made and released. Admiral William Fallon, the Commander of US Central Command, is reliably reported to have said, ‘We’re not going to do Iran on my watch.’ And the Joint Chiefs feel the same way.

newmatilda.com: Has the immediate threat of a US-Iranian War passed?

Ray McGovern: No. It’s true that the NIE’s conclusion that Iran’s nuclear weapons program ceased in 2003 makes it more difficult for Bush and Cheney to attack. But the wildcard here is Israel. Remember last year when Bush was adlibbing about the possibility of World War III? He talked about Iran as an existential threat to Israel.

So you’ve got ultra neo-cons like Charles Krauthammer writing for the Washington Post, saying that the chance for an attack on Iran has vanished. And you’ve got Condi Rice’s right-hand man David Satterfield coming out before Christmas confirming that Iran is reining in its Shi’ite allies in Iraq.

But this was the day after Gates said that ‘the jury was out’ on whether Iran was behaving itself. So the situation is still up for grabs.

Put yourself in an Israeli policy-maker’s seat. For them, even one Iranian bomb poses an existential threat — no matter that Israel has over 200 — and that has to be taken seriously to the extent that Israel feels that Bush and Cheney have promised they will ‘take care of Iran’ before leaving office.

newmatilda.com: You’ve described Robert Gates as a yes-man when he was at the CIA. Have you changed your opinion since he took over from Donald Rumsfeld?

Ray McGovern: Gates was always smart politically and a sycophant — pandering to anyone who could promote him. He’s still smart. Certainly smarter than Condi, which is damning with faint praise. But it’s hard to see where he could be promoted to now.

I’m hopeful he’ll do the right thing. Even though he’s virtually one of the Bush family, I don’t think he wants to be the guy who started World War III, and he had the ultimate sign-off on Satterfield’s comments and the release of the NIE.

And people grow.

newmatilda.com: How would you characterise the Bush Administration’s last couple of years, in terms of their strategic and foreign policy goals?

Ray McGovern: Disaster.

newmatilda.com: Has the ‘Surge’ worked, or is it a face-saving stunt?

Ray McGovern: The ‘Surge’ had one objective only — to stave off a definitive US defeat before January 2009, when a new US President takes office. There is no gainsaying that violence is down in Baghdad. But pour an extra 29,000 troops into areas many of which were already ethnically cleansed and, surprise, surprise, it works … temporarily.

There can be no military solution without a political solution in Iraq.

The relative peace will hold until Bush and Cheney leave office. But when troops begin to pull out, it will be the new Administration that will bear the political brunt of the consequent upsurge in violence. Bush and Cheney will smile cynically, say, ‘We told you so,’ and be exculpated.

The worst part is that the Democrats have gone along with it — preferring to listen to their ‘smart political advisers’ who tell them that Bush’s popularity figures are in the toilet and Cheney’s have already been flushed away; that it is better to do nothing; and that if they tried to impeach Bush, then FOXNews would accuse them of dividing the country. Better to ride the seachange approaching at the ballot box, get into office, and then do good things.

This is not only unconscionable and cynical to the core (because it means thousands more Iraqis will die needlessly), but it may also turn out to be stupid because people may not go along with the ‘grand plan.’

newmatilda.com: Has the new Australian Government’s decision to switch focus from Iraq to Afghanistan had any appreciable impact in the US?

Ray McGovern: People at large have not taken much notice. But the top US policy-makers have, because when one’s next-to-staunchest ally (after Britain) does this, you do take notice.

newmatilda.com: What does the US intelligence community think about Kevin Rudd or his new Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith?

Ray McGovern: The new Prime Minister has good overseas credentials and can speak Mandarin — that’s got to be good, it will broaden his approach.

A lot will depend on the new Government appointing Andrew Wilkie to head the Office of National Assessments (ONA) to clean up that mess. We used to admire the expertise and independence of the ONA, and to see what happened to it over the past few years was quite painful.

newmatilda.com: Any comments about John Howard and Alexander Downer’s stints as Prime Minister and Defence Minister, respectively?

Ray McGovern: Disaster.

newmatilda.com: What do you see as the major foreign policy issues for 2008?

Ray McGovern: Bedrock problem is the Israel-Palestinian nexus, because that (in addition to what we did in Iraq) has turned 1.3 billion Muslims against us. It has turned both highly educated and non-educated Muslims into rabid terrorists with no response other than to strike back at us.

I say we should treat terrorism the same way we treat malaria — by tracking the mosquito back to its swamp. But once you find the swamp, you don’t set up a bunch of sharpshooters to fire at each mosquito, you drain the swamp. Terrorists have a very large swamp of legitimate grievances, ranging from our actions in Iraq to our support for repressive regimes in the Muslim world. You have to do something about those grievances.

newmatilda.com: What will Bush do in the Middle East during his last 12 months in office?

Ray McGovern: He can do little more than tamp down losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s no prospect of a benign outcome and only a fear that, with people like Elliott Abrams running Middle East policy, Bush and Cheney are not relying on sober assessments like the NIE.

newmatilda.com: Is there any prospect of a Republican winning the race for the White House this year? And if so, what are the foreign policy implications?

Ray McGovern: Yes, there is that prospect and I’m having chills just contemplating it. The Republicans are vying with each other to appear the most mean. None has a balanced view and all are playing to the public fear that’s still palpable since 9/11. There’s no hint that any of them know the slightest thing about the Islamic world and every sign that, if elected, they will act as demagogues, using the huge powers that Bush has carved out of the Constitution in dangerous and inappropriate ways.

newmatilda.com: And what would be the effect in Iraq if a Democrat won?

Ray McGovern: The Democrats would be in a better position to act. But don’t forget that there are always strong constraints on the way our government works — extremely powerful lobby groups (like the Israel Lobby) that have much influence and a lot of money behind them.

The US has been in this situation before, but the major difference now is that we no longer have a free press. It is now corporate-controlled — no longer a Fourth Estate, more part of the Executive Branch of government. Reporters get their briefs from Head Office, and it is no surprise that the corporate sector is profiting immensely from the Iraq War.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington DC. A former CIA analyst, he is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.