The original idea of the CIA was to have independent-minded experts assessing both short- and longer-term threats to US national security. Mixing with operations and politics was always a danger, which is now highlighted by CIA Director Brennan’s reorganization, opposed by a group of US intelligence veterans.
MEMORANDUM FOR: The President
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
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SUBJECT: John Brennan’s Restructuring Plan for CIA
Mr. President, the CIA reorganization plan announced by Director John Brennan on Friday is a potentially deadly blow to the objective, fact-based intelligence needed to support fully informed decisions on foreign policy. We suggest turning this danger into an opportunity to create an independent entity for CIA intelligence analysis immune from the operational demands of the “war on terror.”
On Feb. 5, 2003, immediately after Colin Powell’s address to the UN, members of VIPS sent our first VIPS memorandum, urging President George W. Bush to widen the policy debate “beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”
The “former senior officers” whom Brennan asked for input on the restructuring plan are a similar closed, blinkered circle, as is the “outstanding group of officers from across the Agency” picked by Brennan to look at the Agency’s mission and future. He did not include any of the intelligence community dissidents and alumni who fought against the disastrous politicization of intelligence before the attack on Iraq. Nor does Brennan’s plan reflect the lessons learned from that debacle.
You have continued to express confidence in Brennan despite the CIA’s mediocre record under his leadership. We urge you to weigh Brennan’s plan against the backdrop of Harry Truman’s prophetic vision for the CIA. We need to stop wasting time and energy trying to prevent the baby Truman never wanted from being thrown out with the bathwater. Let the bathwater run off, with the baby high and dry.
An independent group for intelligence analysis would be free to produce for you and your National Security Council the medium- and long-term strategic intelligence analysis that can help our country steer clear of future strategic disasters. And we offer ourselves as advisers as to how this might be accomplished.
Our concern over what we see as the likely consequences stemming from what Brennan intends, together with our many years of experience in intelligence work, have prompted this memo, which we believe can profit from some historical perspective.
President Harry Truman wanted an agency structure able to meet a president’s need for “the most accurate … information on what’s going on everywhere in the world, and particularly of the trends and developments in all the danger spots.” In an op-ed appearing in the Washington Post exactly one month after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Truman added, “I have been disturbed by … the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment … and has become an operational and at times policy-making arm of the Government.”
Truman added that the “most important thing” was to guard against the chance of intelligence being used to influence or lead the President into unwise decisions. His warning is equally relevant now – 52 years later.
Bay of Pigs
Truman was referring to how CIA Director Allen Dulles tried to mousetrap President Kennedy into committing US armed forces to finish what a rag-tag band of CIA-trained invaders of Cuba began by landing at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, a few months before you were born. Kennedy had repeatedly warned the CIA brass and covert action planners that under no circumstances would he commit US forces. But they were old hands; they knew better; they thought the young President could be had.
Allen Dulles’s handwritten notes discovered after his death show how he drew Kennedy into a plan that was virtually certain to require the support of US forces. Dulles wrote that Kennedy would be compelled by “the realities of the situation” to give whatever military support was necessary “rather than permit the enterprise to fail.”
Kennedy fired Dulles, a quintessential Washington Establishment figure – something one does only at one’s own peril. As young CIA officers at the time, some of us experienced first-hand the deep reservoir of hate in which many a CIA covert action operator swam. Many could not resist venting their spleen, calling Kennedy a “coward” and even “traitor.”
Analysis Also Corrupted
You are fully aware, we trust, that our analysts’ vaunted ethos of speaking unvarnished truth to power was corrupted by Director George Tenet and Deputy Director John McLaughlin, who outdid themselves in carrying out the instructions of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. The new ethos boiled down to this: If the President wants to paint Iraq as a strategic threat, it is our job to come up with the “evidence” – even if it needs to be manufactured out of whole cloth (or forged, as in “yellowcake uranium from Africa” caper).
Honest analysts were admonished not to rock the boat. A concrete example might help to show this in all its ugliness. When the only US intelligence officer to interview “Curve Ball” before the war saw a draft of Powell’s Feb. 5, 2003 speech citing “first-hand descriptions” by an Iraqi defector of a fleet of mobile bioweapons laboratories, he strongly questioned the “validity of the information.” The interviewer had, from the outset, expressed deep reservations about Curveball’s reliability.
Here’s what the interviewer’s supervisor, the Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Iraqi Task Force, wrote in an email responding to his misgivings:
“Let’s keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn’t say, and that the Powers That Be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he’s talking about. However, in the interest of Truth, we owe somebody a sentence or two of warning, if you honestly have reservations.”
This was not an isolated occurrence. Commenting on the results of a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee five-year study of pre-Iraq-war intelligence, Chairman Jay Rockefeller described it as “unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even nonexistent.” He was alluding to information (in)famously described as a “slam dunk” by then-CIA Director George Tenet who was singularly responsible for advancing the career of John Brennan.
In a departure from customary diplomatic parlance, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence Carl Ford, speaking to the authors of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, had harsh words for Tenet and his deputy John McLaughlin. Ford said that the evidence and analysis they gave policy makers was “not just wrong, they lied … they should have been shot.”
It is unfortunately true that – short of quitting and blowing the whistle – there is little one can do to prevent the skewing of “intelligence” when it is directed from the top – whether by the Bush-Tenet-McLaughlin consequential deceit on the threat from Iraq, or the ideological/careerist conceit of William Casey-Robert Gates in insisting up until the very end of the Soviet regime that the Soviet Communist Party would never relinquish power and that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was merely cleverer than his predecessors.
Thankfully, Not All Gave Up
There is hope to be drawn from those occasions where senior intelligence officials with integrity can step in, show courageous example, and – despite multiple indignities and pitfalls in the system – can force the truth to the surface. We hope that you have been made aware that, after the no-WMD-anywhere debacle on Iraq, Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence Thomas Fingar did precisely that during 2007, supervising a watershed National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that concluded unanimously, “with high confidence,” that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon in 2003.
President Bush concedes in his memoir that this put the kibosh on his and Dick Cheney’s earlier plan to attack Iran during their last year in office. So, character (as in Fingar) counts, and people of integrity can make a difference – and even help thwart plans for war – even in the most politicized of circumstances.
Accordingly, the primary objective in any restructuring should be to make it easier for people of integrity, like Thomas Fingar, to create an atmosphere in which analysts feel free to tell it like it is without worry about possible harm to their careers, should they come up with a politically “incorrect” conclusion – as the one on Iran clearly was.
The problem is that the Brennan restructuring effort does just the opposite. It puts the politicization on steroids. Placing intelligence analysts and operations officers together fosters a quite different kind of atmosphere – the kind that increases the likelihood of what Truman called the “most important thing” to guard against – leading “the President into unwise decisions.”
Truman saw the general problem and went even further, saying he “would like to see the CIA restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President … and its operational duties terminated or properly used elsewhere.” We think Truman was right then; and he is right now.
Decades of experience show that Truman’s fears were well founded. Indeed, from the outset, putting analysis and covert action operations together in the same agency was the first structural fault, so to speak, when it was created in 1947.
It was occasioned primarily by insistence that WWII OSS operatives who could match the KGB in what is now called “regime change” remain in government, and then a myopic choice to place them with the analysts in the newly created CIA. As Melvin Goodman points out in his The Failure of Intelligence: the Decline and Fall of the CIA, the early “CIA leadership itself was opposed to having responsibility for covert action, believing that the clandestine function would ultimately taint the intelligence product, a prescient observation.”
During the 1980s, President Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, correctly accused CIA Director William Casey and his deputy, Robert Gates, of slanting intelligence, charging that their operational involvement “colored” the Agency’s analysis. Shultz openly charged William Casey with giving President Reagan “faulty intelligence” to bolster Casey’s own policy preferences, including the ill-conceived arms-for-hostages-swap with Iran.
Shultz added that, because he had a sense of this analysis-operations toxic mix, he harbored “grave doubts about the objectivity and reliability of some of the intelligence I was getting.” Shultz was a strong advocate of separating the analysis from operations, likening the need to that of separating investment from commercial banking.
“War on Terrorism” as Business Model
The business model chosen by Brennan is fashioned to the “War on Terrorism,” and he holds up the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) as a model to emulate. There the analysts and operations officers sit side by side charged primarily with hunting, targeting, and killing in that war.
But truth, it has been pointed out, is the first casualty of war. This can be seen right off the bat in the exaggerated way the supposed “successes” of the Center are advertised. Some of us have worked in or closely with these CIA Centers, after which ten new “Mission Centers” are patterned. And we are taken aback by the hyperbolic plaudits being given them – and especially to the CTC.
That a quintessential politicizer, and big Curve Ball promoter, like former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin is reported to have advised Brennan on the restructuring, and lauds the benefits of “putting analysts and operators together” adds to our concern.
Very much in step, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, for instance, claims that existing Centers have “proven to be a very powerful combination” and that the Counterterrorism Center is “the most successful agency component over the last decade.”
Morell remains focused on the business model of war. Just days ago he conceded that he did not think he would live to see the end of al-Qaeda: “My children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight,” said Morell.
Does it occur to Morell or others who have played senior intelligence roles that there ought to be a different kind of center, like what used to exist in parts of the Directorate of Intelligence, where analyst talent might be used not simply for targeting terrorists, but for figuring out what their grievances are, and whether there may be more promising ways to address them?
Do we really believe that terrorists slip out of the womb screaming “I hate America”? And is there a cost to drone-killing them as the preferred method of eliminating terrorists (together with others who may be in the wrong place at the wrong time)?
Brennan has announced that the new Centers will “bring the full range of operational, analytic, support, technical, and digital personnel and capabilities to bear on the nation’s most pressing security issues and interests.”
We need to learn more of the specifics, but the integrated Mission Centers sound very much like fertile field for politicization and centralized control under which subordinates will feel pressure to fall in line with prosecuting the war de jour and to sign on to politically correct solutions dictated from the 7th floor under guidance from your staff in the White House.
Is this the kind of CIA we need — everyone marching in step, as major parts of the Agency are transformed into a private army at your disposal, with virtually no Congressional oversight? We don’t think so.
With the present restructuring plan we see little promise for the kind of agenda-free, substantive intelligence that you and other senior policy makers need. But the train seems to have left the station headed toward Brennan’s restructuring plan. The sweeping reorganization scheme is of such importance that it should be the subject of hearings in the intelligence committees of House and Senate, but there is no indication that either committee intends to do so.
Let the analysts inclined toward targeting terrorists and providing other direct operational support to war sign up for these war-on-terror and like Centers. You and your successors will still need an agency devoted to unfettered intelligence analysis able to critique honestly the likely medium- and long-term consequences of the methods used to wage the “war on terror” and other wars.
We can assure you it is far better for those analysts doing this demanding substantive work NOT to be simultaneously “part of the team” implementing that policy.
It is time to revert to what Truman envisaged for the CIA. We are ready to make ourselves available to assist you and your staff in thinking through how this might be done. That it needs to be done is clear to us, and this would seem an opportune time.
In our view, we need to stop wasting time and energy trying to prevent the baby from being thrown out with the bathwater. Let the bathwater run off. Save the baby, even if that means a separate institution in which analysts of the kind that completed that NIE on Iran in 2007 can flourish. This just might help stop a new unnecessary war, as the combat support officers try to bring an end to old ones.
In sum, we are convinced that a separate entity for intelligence analysis – the kind of agency Truman envisaged for his CIA – would be an invaluable asset to you and your successors as president.
For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
Fulton Armstrong, National Intelligence Officer for Latin America (ret.)
Larry Johnson, CIA analyst & State Department/counterterrorism, (ret.)
John Kiriakou, Former CIA Counterterrorism Officer
David MacMichael, USMC & National Intelligence Council (ret.)
Ray McGovern, Army Infantry/Intelligence officer & CIA presidential briefer (ret.)
Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, National Intelligence Council (ret.)
Torin Nelson, former HUMINT Officer, Department of the Army
Coleen Rowley, retired FBI Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel
Peter Van Buren, former diplomat, Department of State (associate VIPS)
Kirk Wiebe, Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA (ret.)
Lawrence Wilkerson, Colonel (USA, ret.), Distinguished Visiting Professor, College of William and Mary
Ann Wright, retired US Army reserve colonel and former US diplomat (resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the Iraq War)