The White House war with the CIA

Author Thomas Powers, an expert on U.S. spy agencies, wonders who will take the rap for 9/11 and the "horrific, calamitous" mistake in Iraq.

Published November 8, 2003 11:56PM (EST)

While the nation's attention is focused on the slow-motion deterioration of Iraq, the White House for months has been at war on the home front -- clashing repeatedly with the CIA in a rare series of public disagreements. They've fought over intelligence that seemed to predict the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They've fought over whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They've fought over a seemingly vindictive White House leak that identified an undercover CIA agent.

According to Thomas Powers, a widely respected authority on the nation's spy business, that conflict has put the CIA -- and U.S. national security -- in peril.

"I think the agency is in terrible shape because of this," Powers told Salon in an interview. "It appears now that the CIA is actually incapable of operating in a hostile environment. It's afraid."

Powers is the author of "Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al Qaeda." He says that the CIA, facing a demoralized rank and file and a lack of resources, is being effectively hamstrung by the Bush administration and compromised in its job of protecting national security. A big part of the danger is that U.S. intelligence, in the hands of an administration that views foreign policy through its own self-serving lens, has lost not just its autonomy, but essential assets. With the administration's focus shifting to the invasion earlier this year, crucial intelligence resources needed to battle al-Qaida around the globe -- as well as those now needed to secure and stabilize Iraq -- have been squandered. "We have practically nobody who can speak the language [in Iraq]," Powers says. "We're running the country with teenagers carrying machine guns."

As the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq keeps rising, evidence continues to accumulate that the Bush administration was determined to invade the country and topple Saddam Hussein, and was never interested in compromise. On Thursday several major news services reported that the Pentagon was offered a last-minute deal by high-level Iraqi officials, via an obscure Lebanese-American middleman, to avert the war. According to the New York Times, the U.S. government did not pursue the offer. The back-channel attempt, which allegedly would have made concessions to key U.S. foreign policy goals in Iraq, may not have been credible. But according to Powers, the Bush administration's apparent lack of interest in the offer fits a broader pattern in which it has parsed intelligence to fit its long-held plan for taking over Baghdad.

Even before the war, a faction within the intelligence community had begun to attack the administration for corrupting the intelligence system in its forced march to war. But since July, when former ambassador Joseph Wilson revealed that the administration knowingly used bogus intelligence to promote the war, it has grown increasingly vocal in its criticism. The administration retaliated against Wilson by leaking the identity of his wife, undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame -- yet another example, Powers says, of how the White House has no qualms about compromising national security in pursuit of its agenda. And the breakdown is almost unprecedented, he says. While the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, which escalated the war in Vietnam in 1964, bears some comparison to the Iraq/Niger uranium scandal, Powers sees a more egregious scenario unfolding now.

"This [war] is more manufactured, more deliberate and more coldblooded. And it was done in plain sight. The whole world was watching and saying, 'No!'" he says. "My own feeling is we've embarked on a horrific, calamitous mistake in Iraq. We're already in a situation we have very little control over and very little ability to get out of, without leaving everything much worse off."

Salon reached Powers by phone at his home in Vermont on Thursday.

Since July when the phony Iraq/Niger uranium story first broke, a number of CIA veterans have been publicly condemning the Bush administration for corrupting the U.S. intelligence system. They're saying it's demoralizing to the agencies, and dangerous to national security. They're saying there is an unprecedented degree of manipulation by the White House. Is this an accurate assessment of what's going on?

Absolutely. I think we've never seen such a flagrant and disastrous misuse of the [intelligence] system.

If you think about the whole history of the run-up to the war, going back as far as 9/11, it seems that the CIA has been right on two occasions. First, it was right about 9/11. The agency was issuing a lot of warnings before it happened. The administration, for whatever reason, has refused to make a lot of documents available to Senate and other investigators, including the 9/11 Kean commission, and we don't know exactly why. But we have to assume there are things in those intelligence reports that these investigators want, which the administration does not want public. It's very unlikely that it's the fact that the CIA fell on its face and didn't offer any adequate warnings. It's the opposite: There's probably very explicit, maybe even uncomfortably close predictions of what would happen ...

Such as we began to see with the leaked presidential daily brief from Aug. 6, 2001, which warned of attacks by bin Laden inside the U.S. and described the potential for plane hijackings?

Right -- that would be the principal one. But of course, that brief is a daily publication; there are a hundred of them that the Kean commission would like to have a look at, and they haven't seen any of them. Yet all the evidence we do know of strongly suggests that the CIA was warning the White House vigorously.

Second, you have to ask, Why wasn't the White House livid with fury at the CIA for the failure to find WMD in Iraq? And the answer is, the CIA told the White House they never would. They must have been forthcoming when they said that they didn't know what there was, or where it was. There's really no solid way to interpret the judgments made in the [declassified] summary of the [October 2002] National Intelligence Estimate. It's vague. We don't know what's in the rest of the document, but it's pretty clear [the intelligence] community didn't know where anything was; they were unable to tell the U.N. inspectors how to find anything. They had four months when they could have led those weapons inspectors around anywhere in Iraq. They couldn't find anything, except what they found by accident in that military scrap heap, those 16 empty artillery shells that had been designed for chemical warheads. That was it; I mean it was really just junk -- certainly not the kind of usable weapon that would justify going to war.

Is the White House in uncharted waters here in terms of how it has manipulated intelligence and exercised executive power?

I think what the Bush administration has done is extremely dangerous. It has conducted what is essentially an illegal war. If circumstances were slightly different in the world, they would be facing a tribunal. It's not legal to go to war against somebody based on just some vague notion ... in this case, the administration was on constructive notice that the [intelligence community] didn't know where any of this WMD was. Their cause for war was weak and they knew it. But they wanted a war. They'd dreamed up a theory about how to make the world a better place and that included invading Iraq, toppling the government, and replacing it with one of their own construction.

It would be natural for the administration to try to blame the CIA, but on the other hand, there's a limit to the egregious charges it can bring without having the [intelligence community] protest. As you said, we've seen plenty of that protest over the past six months, whisperings and then angry bleats about misuse of intelligence and pressure from the White House to toe the line on things that were irrelevant or inaccurate.

What we're watching is the second time in 50 years when the United States got a bee in its bonnet that it wanted to go to war, with the premise that some "good thing" was going to come of it. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson's administration wanted to go to war with Vietnam, and they used the Gulf of Tonkin incident as the rationale. There were two alleged attacks on American naval ships -- there's a lot of complicated history about this -- but the essence of it is that one of the attacks never took place.

So how does the run-up to the Iraq invasion compare? In some ways it seems even more manufactured than Gulf of Tonkin.

It's more manufactured, more deliberate and more coldblooded. And it was done in plain sight. The whole world was watching and saying, "No!" We put tremendous pressure on all these countries at the U.N. to support a resolution, including impoverished ones from Africa and elsewhere, which are heavily dependent on U.S. aid, and we couldn't even persuade most of them to vote for it. But we did it anyway.

How does CIA director George Tenet fit into all this? Since July, he's looked as if he's been yanked in opposite directions, by his boss in the White House and by his own irate troops. Where does his allegiance ultimately come down between the two?

George Tenet is a wholly owned property of the White House. But he's definitely in a hard place. If we were to take all these claims [as reported by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war] at face value, the agency would have been completely wrong in what it told the administration about Iraqi WMD. So Tenet [in fearing for his job] is defending the agency as well as he can, saying it was an honest error, that the integrity of the process was not violated, etc. But clearly he knows the White House misused the intelligence, and he's also under the gun internally. You have to assume his hand was forced when he asked the Justice Department to investigate the Valerie Plame leak. Why else would he do it? That's asking for serious trouble inside the White House. Tenet would never call up the White House and say, "I woke up this morning and decided to get the Justice Department to investigate you." The call would have to be, "I woke up this morning and discovered I have a revolt on my hands at the agency, and I have no choice at all, I have to do this." It has to be that kind of an imperative for Tenet to clash with the White House like this.

So where do you see this battle between the CIA and the White House heading? So far the administration appears to be succeeding in stonewalling investigations by the Justice Department and by the Senate Intelligence Committee -- perhaps with the help of Bush ally and committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

No doubt it could be extremely embarrassing to the White House, but it's kind of hard to read the whole thing. It seems like the Vietnam scenario [with regard to using manipulated intelligence to promote the war], but with its revelation played out at a much faster rate, as if the film has been speeded up immensely. There's already a lot to look at in terms of what Colin Powell and others said was going on in Iraq, and what [Bush administration chief arms inspector] David Kay has since reported. Kay found nothing that the administration had said we would. It wasn't a weak case -- there was no case at all. That's something you can't just explain away.

My own feeling is we've embarked on a horrific, calamitous mistake in Iraq. We're already in a situation we have very little control over and very little ability to get out of, without leaving everything much worse off. Historically when this kind of thing happens, everybody tries to prevent the consequences as long as they can and the process drags out; I would say this is probably good for 10 years now.

A lot of people have said the White House leak exposing the identity of Joseph Wilson's wife, undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, was an act of revenge for Wilson bringing the bogus Iraq/Niger intelligence to light. Do you believe it was purely a vindictive move by the White House? Or was there a bigger strategic reason, perhaps a way to discredit the agency, and thereby control it even more closely?

I think they were trying to suggest that Wilson had an ulterior motive or political ax to grind, first in coming back from Niger with the answer that he did, and second by making it public. They did Valerie Plame serious damage: She had an undercover career, and that's over. It's my guess that whoever made the leak, at that moment, had kind of forgotten they were breaking the law -- it seemed casual, a kind of a muddying-the-waters type of maneuver, just to raise questions about how and why Wilson was involved. It was meant to make the whole thing seem petty and small, rather than what it really was: that Wilson had gone to Niger and concluded there was nothing to the story [that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Niger], and that this had happened nine months before the president used it in his State of the Union speech anyway.

But how could a high-level leaker in the White House not know that it would be illegal to reveal an undercover CIA agent's identity?

If it wasn't a sloppy mistake, they may have comparably thought they could avoid being caught. And that's probably going to turn out to be the case. Still, I do think it would be possible for somebody under these circumstances not to really recognize they're committing a felony; it's been quite a while since this law was invoked [that revealing the identity of a CIA operative is a federal crime].

Do you think the CIA maintains any real authority or power to carry out its mission of protecting national security?

It's such an imperial intelligence service, so focused on Washington, so attentive to the White House. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of the administration. That leads to intense demoralization inside the organization. Everybody working below the top level or two must feel very badly used and abused, misunderstood and pissed off. It's very dangerous to our national security because it means we don't have an intelligence service that can actually operate. That service is supposed to tell you what's really going on in the world. It hasn't done that; it's gotten us involved in a serious war that we're going to have a hell of a time getting out of. At the moment, I think our national security is more endangered by the consequences of the war in Iraq than anything else. And nobody can really tell at this stage what those consequences are going to be.

How did Donald Rumsfeld's creation of the Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon affect the current state of the CIA, and U.S. intelligence?

They wanted the war so badly that they were doing everything they could to create pressure for it. With the Office of Special Plans, they were essentially saying to the CIA, "OK, you're not giving us what we want, so we're going to create a new CIA."

I think the agency is in terrible shape because of this. But there's something that's even much more important: It appears now that the CIA is actually incapable of operating in a hostile environment. It's afraid. It stands offshore, trying to listen with technical ears and to watch with technical eyes, but it appears that it is actually afraid to go into dangerous places. The institution is afraid of getting hurt, of getting caught.

Can you elaborate on this? How does this connect to the apparent control of the agency by the White House?

In some ways it's been developing in this direction for a long time. But the clearest indication I've seen lately is [Rep.] Porter Goss [R-Fla., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee] getting pissed off at the CIA for taking all these funds that were supposed to be used to train officers to speak Arabic, and using them for computer translation programs for documents. I think it's a fearfulness of [committing assets to] operating on the ground. Do you think American CIA officers are wandering around the streets of Baghdad right now? Have you read the recent accounts of what it takes to get into the U.S. headquarters in the [so-called] Green Zone there? We have virtually no actual human contact -- we're trying to do this in some kind of technical, remote-control television-commanded way.

What does the Iraq war and the Bush administration's handling of U.S. intelligence resources mean for the broader fight against al-Qaida in dozens of other places around the globe?

Well, it seems we had a lot of things going right. We had the cooperation of much of the world, and could operate in many of those other places. But we largely abandoned that: We pulled back large numbers of intelligence officers who were working on al-Qaida, and turned them to working on Iraq.

We've had about 1,300 people working in the Iraq Survey Group [the intelligence operation set up by the U.S. in early Sept. to hunt WMD in Iraq], but now they're actually talking about abandoning the rest of David Kay's mission because supposedly we need all of those Arabic speakers just to translate documents. But look, the world doesn't unfold on paper, it unfolds between people talking to each other. You can't figure out what all these militants are doing by just constantly reading telephone transcripts and e-mails and other stuff like that. It's just crazy to think that will give us a full handle on terrorist activity.

So the CIA lacks key assets as well as the autonomy it needs to operate effectively.

We're trying to fight a political war in Iraq. I think we're missing real human assets, and the ability to actually conduct many necessary operations. I think there's a delusional dependence on technological solutions. It's kind of like saying, "Hey, we could really save a whole lot of money if we just don't have any more first-grade teachers, we'll just have computers in the classrooms instead, and the kids will punch buttons." I think there's a tendency toward that throughout our whole society. It's not a good way to actually engage things.

Why would the Bush administration really want to operate this way? Why would they think it's a good approach to recasting a foreign country -- and maybe the greater Mideast region?

I think they're ignorant, and were overcome with arrogance in the belief that American power could handle anything, could do anything. Donald Rumsfeld, who's allegedly a smart guy, apparently could not think beyond our ability to destroy Saddam Hussein's army. It seems that it never occurred to him that we would have a political problem afterward that would be complicated.

But recently we learned that the State Department had in fact developed a major report forecasting the political and logistic complications that would follow an invasion of Iraq.

Well, maybe it's that [Rumsfeld and other administration hawks] had nobody really to deal with it. We have practically nobody who can speak the language and we're running the country with teenagers carrying machine guns.

In July and August the city of Baghdad suffered approximately a thousand murders a month. Who was killing who? Do we even know the answer to that question? The tentative answer is, people were getting revenge, or it was petty crimes, etc. I don't believe it for a minute. Those people, whoever they were, were settling who's going to run the country, in kind of a clandestine way. Look back at the Vietnam War: After it was over we discovered that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong had been running thousands of agents throughout South Vietnam. Thousands. The United States never had one agent reporting from high levels in North Vietnam, or inside the National Liberation Front, the Viet Cong -- not one.

So you're saying the U.S. post-invasion plan for Iraq -- already seemingly very thin -- has this same dangerous gap.

Yes, but we've almost never seen a mistake of this scale unfold in such vivid slow-motion. It's all there, right in front of us right now. We're walking around in that country with no idea what's going on around us. We can't understand any conversation, and we know so little. You may think I'm exaggerating -- and God willing I am. But I don't think so. We don't know who the enemy is, or who we're dealing with, and we can't talk to them. They could all be sitting in a room talking to each other right now about how to kill the Americans, and we would never know. I think an awful lot of that is going on over there as we speak.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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