"Intelligent people know that the empire is on the downhill": A veteran CIA agent spills the goods on the Deep State and our foreign policy nightmares

After almost 30 years in the CIA, Ray McGovern became a truth-teller. He sits down with Salon for a long debriefing

Published February 7, 2016 3:00PM (EST)

Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, John Kerry   (AP/Reuters/Evan Vucci/Alexei Druzhinin/Remy de la Mauviniere/Kathy Willens)
Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, John Kerry (AP/Reuters/Evan Vucci/Alexei Druzhinin/Remy de la Mauviniere/Kathy Willens)

I first heard Ray McGovern speak on a country road in the New England hills. This was courtesy of the admirably dedicated David Barsamian, who broadcast one of McGovern’s talks on Alternative Radio in late-2013. Reception up here being spotty, I pulled over and sat watching the autumn clouds drift by for the full hour McGovern stood at the podium of a Methodist church in Seattle. I was rapt.

What a lost pleasure it is in our indispensable nation to be in the presence of someone who thinks, acts and speaks out of conscience and conviction. Even better, these were precisely McGovern’s topics that day three years back: The necessity of careful thought, of honoring one’s inner voice, of acting out of an idea of what is right without regard to success or failure, the win-or-lose of life. One way or another, these themes run through everything he has to say, I have since discovered. At an inner-city church in Washington, McGovern teaches a course he calls “The Morality of Whistleblowing.”

Born in the Bronx in 1939 and educated at Fordham (and later Georgetown and Harvard), McGovern joined the Central Intelligence Agency during the Kennedy administration, when it was still possible to think sound, disinterested analysis out there in Langley, Virginia, could be a force for good. Long story short, as McGovern likes to say, he left 27 years later, by which time the scales had fallen, and founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence—Adams being a former colleague and one of the whistle-blowers who paid his price. Not long before that AR speech, McGovern went to Moscow to give the recently exiled Edward Snowden one of his Sam Adams Awards. This is the ex-spook’s milieu: At 76, he dwells among the truth-tellers.

After many months trying to get our act together—or mine, I should say—I finally caught up with McGovern in Moscow late last year. We were both there for a conference on cross-border media and global politics sponsored by RT, the Russian variant of British Broadcasting. The venue was perfect: Russia has been McGovern’s focus since he earned his Fordham degrees. Russia, naturally, figured prominently in our exchange—along with American politics, the “deep state,” Syria and numerous other topics.

McGovern is approachable on the way to avuncular, as readers will see, but the preference for simplicity and plain speaking masks an impressive erudition. He is a linguist well read in several languages; his grasp of history, recent and otherwise, is thorough. He is an ecumenical Catholic whose frame of political reference is defined by nothing more exotic than the Constitution—a document he sees as having less and less bearing on what we do and how we live. I have rarely heard anyone of his intelligence and background use the “f” word when describing our national direction, and I do not refer to the carnal activity.

McGovern and I spoke at length in a Frenchified sitting room at the Metropol Hotel, famed seat of the Bolshevik government for a couple of years after the 1917 revolution. What follows is the first of two parts.

In the speech that eventually put us in this room together, you talked about Kennan [George Kennan, the noted diplomat and Princeton scholar] as a one-time hero of yours and then implied a change of mind—a certain, perhaps, betrayal—and noted that remarkable quotation: “We no longer have the luxury of altruism and world benefaction…. The day is not far off when we will have to deal in straight power concepts.”

Can you talk about Kennan as hero and then the betrayal you felt as the years went by? Does the quotation explain American conduct abroad today?

The respect I had for Kennan came from his earlier books and, of course, his writing from Moscow, where he pretty much invented containment policy. It appeared to me then that the Soviet Union was enlarging its area of control not only in Eastern Europe, but elsewhere. I thought he was right on target in explaining how to deal with the Russians. Being chief of the Soviet foreign policy branch at CIA in the ’70s, that was the Soviet Union I knew. It was always an amazing thing for me to think back, “Wow, we’re talking ’47 [when Kennan published his famous “X” essay in Foreign Affairs, titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”] and here we are in ’77 or whatever. That’s a pretty good read on the way these people behave.”

At the same time, I had a respect and knowledge of Russian history. My master’s degree is in Russian studies, so I knew not only the language but a good bit of history. So it was kind of a love/hate relationship, where I had grown to know and respect the Russian people, they being very much like the Americans. When I was in Moscow, if I lost my way or needed directions, they’d get on the bus with me, for Pete’s sake! I felt sort of tormented by what had become of the rulers there.

I could understand through a glass dimly, why this was a natural reaction to what they saw President Truman and his successors do.

I think we could have done more—and could do more—to understand, from a Russian perspective, the sensation of being surrounded. This is to put the point too mildly.

If you know a little bit about Russian history, you’re aware that it’s a very sad history. It starts millennia behind other histories. People don’t know that the Slavic peoples who emerged from the area in and around Kiev and what is now Belorussia—they had no written language until the 9th century! A.D.!

Remarkable. Did they have an oral literature?

They had an oral literature. “Slovo o Polku Igoreve” [“The Song of Igor’s Campaign”] was one of their major epic poems. It rivals “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.” It’s a really beautiful thing, except they had no way to set it down in writing. And so two Greek priests, Cyril and Methodius, go up in the 9th century, and they say, “These people are incredibly bright and prosperous. They’re prosperous—and this is kind of a mind leap for most people—because the Norse, from Norway and Sweden, traded with the East all the way to Istanbul by coming through the series of rivers of which the Dnieper [which flows through Russia and empties into the Black Sea] was one. A great deal of so-called civilization and some wealth had accrued there. So they go up there and they say, “Well, that sounds like kai. Let’s make that sound a kai (or “k”). That sounds like the Latin V. That one sounds like Hebrew. That one doesn’t sound like anything, so let’s manufacture a character for that.” And they put the [written] language together. This we call “Cyrillic,” of course.

In 988, Knyaz Vladimir, the prince of Kiev, decides that, now they have a language and now they can write down their liturgy, “Let’s become Christians.” This may be a little overstated, but it happened almost like this: One Sunday he said, “All right, everybody out into the river, we’re going to get baptized.” And now they’re part of the Western world—part of the Eastern Rite, of course, but still part of civilization all of a sudden.

You go straight to the point, Ray. There’s no understanding anything without a grasp of its history—which, of course, is the American failing over and over again.

Well, what happens next? The Mongol hordes invade Russia and stay for two centuries. Two centuries and 20 more years. We’re talking Genghis Khan, right? They live under what they call “the Tatar yoke” for those centuries. As we’re coming out of the Dark Ages into the Renaissance in the West, they’re still fighting major battles with the Tatars. They finally drive them out of European Russia, and what happens? In come the Swedes! In come the Lithuanians and the Hanseatic League!

So Ivan Grozny, Ivan the Terrible, was a pretty terrible guy, but at least he got those guys together and said, “Look, if we don’t get rid of the Westerners we’re going to be in deep kimchi. He probably said it a bit differently. [Laughs]

So they did, and finally Russia proper congealed around Moscow and later Petersburg.

My point is simply this: by the time Peter the Great came along at the very end of the 17th century, he’s primed, he’s going to be the czar, but he knows about the West. That’s another little-known fact. Do you know what he does? He goes incognito down to the wharfs of Rotterdam and spends two years working on the wharfs just to see what it’s like. He finds out, “Wow! This is a pretty neat place and they’re pretty civilized.” So he comes back and, of course, he overdoes it: “Everybody shave off the beard, and we’re going to use scythes rather than sickles.” So he has a lot of opposition, but by the time Catherine the Great comes [in 1762], when we’re having our Revolution, she’s able to consolidate Russia—all the way down to, and including, Crimea—for the first Russian port that was ice-free. Sevastopol, as you’ve heard about it in the news lately.

All I’m saying here is that when you appreciate Russian history—we haven’t even gotten Napoleon and Hitler. It was mentioned just today, I’ve seen figures between 20 million and 27 million Russians perished when Hitler invaded.

I’ve understood 27 million.

Well, that’s what Peter Kuznick [director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University] used today. I think the Russians say 26 million or 27 million. And the West seems oblivious to this. The supreme indignity, in my view, was on the celebration of D-Day this past June, 70 years after D-Day, there was some discussion as to whether we should invite the Russians. Can you imagine how the Russians felt about that?

“He who is insulted is not defiled. He who insults another is the one defiled.”

Long story short, when we talk about Ukraine now, American history, in the media, begins on the 23rd of February, 2014, when, as the Washington Post headlined the article, “Putin had early plan to annex Crimea.” What are they citing? There’s a documentary out. Putin admits that he got his national security advisers around him on the 23rd.

That was just after the coup [the American-cultivated ouster of Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev].

It was the day after! So I say to my friends, some of whom are very well educated, what’s wrong with that headline? What happened on the 21st? They really don’t know! And these are educated people.

Anyhow, when I saw that happen, I said, “My goodness, not only is this a direct challenge to Russia, but it was sort of pre-advertised. They say the revolution will not be televised, well this coup was “YouTube-ized,” O.K.? Two and a half weeks before?

You mean the famous Vicky Nuland tape. [Nuland is Assistant Secretary for European Affairs; Geoffrey Pyatt is U.S. ambassador in Kiev.]

With the Victoria Nuland—Geoffrey Pyatt conversation, “Yats is the guy.” [Arsenyi Yatsenyuk, Nuland’s preference as premier.] I wake up the 23rd of February and turn on the radio to find out there’s been a coup in Kiev and who’s the new prime minister? Yatsenyuk! And he still is.

It all fit like a glove. Let’s finish with Kennan, your turn with Kennan.

What I would say about Kennan is he was an elitist. I met him a couple of times. His policies were racist. And this is in my view the original sin of the United Stated of America for lots of reasons.

The so-called Indians, the blacks—what a terrible record. He brought that forward. He said, in effect, “We are the indispensable country in the world, the sole indispensable country." After World War II, we ended up with, as he put it, 50 percent of the natural resources of the world but only 6 percent of the population. What we had to do, of course, since we’re due a disproportionate amount of the riches of the world, we’ve got to pursue policies that are not sidetracked by altruistic things like human rights. We have to realize this is going to take hard power. That’s how he ended that policy proscriptive paper.

When I saw that I said, “I didn’t learn this in graduate school!” [Laughs] This really speaks volumes about how Kennan looked at the world. As bright as he was, he had this streak of exceptionalism. When I talk at colleges and universities I say, “Well, you know the president has said several times that we are the sole indispensable country in the world. Do you still do synonyms in this university? Do you do antonyms? So what’s the opposite of indispensable? Dispensable. So, by definition, all the other countries are dispensable. That, I think in retrospect, is what I see Kennan saying.

Ike [President Eisenhower] warning about the military-industrial complex. Once you get that kind of dynamic going and once you get the media enlisted in all this because the corporations that are profiteering on these wars are controlling the media in large measure, and then when you get the security complex building itself up, doubling and tripling in size since 9/11, what more do you need to create a system that is not very far from the classic definition of fascism? Do not blanch before the word.

Getting back to the Kennan quotation: “We no longer have the luxury of altruism or world benefaction. We must think in terms of straight power concepts.” Is it an adequate explanation of American conduct abroad today?

I see the same spirit of entitlement, the same undisguised feeling of superiority, but I also see a lot of fear.

I couldn’t agree with you more. Beneath the chest-out bravado, we’re a frightened people.

Yeah, I think intelligent people know that the empire is on the downhill. So how do we react? Well, we’re not reacting well in a sense. [Laughs]

We find ourselves in Moscow. I wonder if you could reflect on U.S. ambitions today with regard to Russia. What do we want? To be honest, I rather fear your answer. What is our ultimate intent, given what I assume you agree to be an induced atmosphere of confrontation? Do we ultimately want what we call “regime change” here?

There are aspirations and then there are policies. I think we really can’t talk in terms of a unitary policy being made by a government as headed by Obama. I do not see Barack Obama as being in control. I see him buffeted about, very inexperienced, advised by similarly inexperienced advisers on foreign policy, people who really don’t know which end is up when it comes to Russia. And I see on the other side what we call the neocons. Those are the people who hate Russia.

When I was growing up in New York we used to play these big records. There was one record about Gene Autry. [Sings] I’m a-rollin’, I’m a-rollin’. So on this one record this comic describes in Bronx vernacular what poor Gene Autry is heading into [in one of his movies]. He’s going into this very dangerous area, you can tell by the rocks in the background that this is dangerous country because the Irigousa—Bronx dialect for Iroquois are there. Then the commentator says, “Do you know how much the Irigousa Indians hate Gene Autry? They hate him yet from another picture!” [Laughs] Well, the neocons hate the Russians yet from another picture.

How terrifically put. As I’m sure you know, a goodly proportion of Americans think—without thinking, of course—that the very conservative Putin is just the latest in a line of Communist leaders.

The Russians bailed out Obama when he was about to get involved in an open war with Syria at the end of August 2013 and the very beginning of September. [when Obama invoked his “red line” over the use of chemical weapons]. Now, there are a couple of things that saved the world from war at the time, but the Russian role was key. Putin and Obama had met at a summit in Northern Ireland a couple of months before, and Putin had said, “Look, we can help you on Syria. We’ve got real influence there. Let’s talk about these things. As a matter of fact, you’re worried about chemical weapons usage there? Let’s get technical experts together and maybe we can work out something.”

What happens? On the 21st of August, 2013, there is a sarin gas attack outside Damascus. On the 30th John Kerry gets up and he’s up before the State Department and says—35 times, you can count them, “It was Bashar al-Assad’s government. Bashar al-Assad did these chemical attacks and we have to get him because the president said that we would if he crossed the red line on the use of chemical weapons.”

That’s the 30th of August. On the 31st, the president has a news conference in the Rose Garden, and about 500 people, including myself, are out in front of the White House with signs saying “No Strike!” and “Don’t bomb Syria!” We were making such a din that the president’s news conference was delayed for 45 minutes. So he finally comes out, and we were fully expecting the worst. But we get word: He’s not going to attack Syria! I was the next speaker up, and I couldn’t believe it. So I said, “If this rumor is true…”

The president had changed his mind—overnight. I think I know how it happened. General Dempsey [Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at this time], who had by then gotten not only a memo from us saying, “You promised. You testified before Congress that if you were ordered to start another war that you wouldn’t do it because it’s against the Constitution. We hold you to that promise and expect you to resign if you’re asked to.” I’m not sure we had much influence, but the British had gotten a sample of that sarin gas and realized, “My god, this isn’t the sarin in Syrian government stock.” It was homemade stuff. So they told Dempsey.

I wasn’t there, I’m not a fly on the wall, but I think Dempsey got to the president that evening and said, “Mr. President, this is a problem. We think you’ve been mousetrapped. It’s not the same sarin gas that the Syrian army has, and those U.N. inspectors who were conveniently there [in Damascus] when this happened on the 21st come back in two days, and everyone is going to ask me, ‘Could you not have waited two days for the inspectors to come back?’ And I’m going to have to say, ‘Beats the hell out of me. Go ask the president.’”

The president gets up in the Rose Garden and the first thing he says, “We’re in position to attack Syria, we’re all ready. But the chairman of the joint chiefs tells me that there’s no particular ‘time sensitivity’ to this operation. We could do it next week, the following week, next month. So I am going to go to Congress to ask for approval of this.”

It’s not like I’m making this up. He blamed it on Dempsey. Another reason I think Dempsey was “guilty” [laughs] is that [Senator John] McCain and [Senator Lindsey] Graham stormed the White House the next day, which happened to be a Sunday, and they come out into the parking area and the cameras are going and they’re saying, “The president is a coward! What do we have an army for?”

In the background, Putin is talking to Obama saying, “Look, we can get you out of this. We can get the Syrians to destroy all their chemical weapons.” And Obama says, “You can?” And Putin says, “Yeah, watch me.”

While this is all going on, John Kerry—who really has been a neocon, at least up until the Iranian negotiations—is going to Congress on the third of September and testifying about Syria. Of course he repeats the charges about Assad being responsible for the chemical attacks, but he also says our moderate rebels are making great progress. And everybody watching wonders, “What planet are you from, John Kerry?” [Laughs]

The next day Obama arrives in St. Petersburg for one of the summits. On the day of his arrival Putin allows himself to say something very unusual. He talks about Kerry’s testimony before the Senate and says, “He’s lying. He knows he’s lying. This is really sad.” Whoa. I have never, in 52 years of watching Soviet and Russian leaders, leaders of many statures, heard one call the secretary of state of the United States a liar. But he did, and he chose a day when Obama was there.

Putin comes across as a very frustrated leader to me. Frustrated with repeated instances of American mendacity. So far as I understand, the Russians and [Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov tabled a peace proposal [addressing the Syrian crisis] in Vienna about six weeks ago, and the Americans have ever since been continuing on with the drumbeat, “We can’t do it until Assad goes.” The rest of the world seems to look rather favorably upon the Russian proposal, and the Americans have been smoked out of the woods with the comparison of Syria and Libya: “What do you want to do, knock Assad over and have total chaos?” [The Russian proposal is the basis for the peace talks that were opened in Geneva on Monday and suspended Wednesday.]

The other day one of these nitwits reporting for the Times—forgive me, one loses all patience—I think it was [State Department correspondent Michael] Gordon, is writing about the possibility of a peace settlement and in his third paragraph says, “The elements of Mr. Kerry’s plan…” Stop right there, Gordon. “The elements of Mr. Kerry’s plan?”

Rather subtly over the weeks, the Americans have come to pretend, “Actually, it’s our idea to have a ceasefire, constitutional revision and national elections.” I don’t think Lavrov and Putin are in this for the ego trip of it, but it must simply gall them to hear the Americans say this kind of thing. I honestly think we must come across as a pack of clowns to these people. Whatever one thinks of Putin, he’s a serious statesman.

How do you view Putin, in broad terms? What is he trying to do with Russia by way of its relations with the rest of the world?

Putin is a very unusual person. As aggrieved as he may feel—or dissed, as we say on the streets of Washington—he keeps his sangfroid. He knows the balance of power in Russia and he’s incredibly careful. One thing that does not become very clear in Western media is that the Russians have a very singular interest in Syria, and that is Chechnya, Dagestan. The problems they have in those areas are not notional problems. We’ve seen them in the past. There are thousands and thousands of jihadis being supplied arms by the Saudis and by the Qataris and God knows who else and allowed into Syria through Turkey, and this is a direct security risk to Russia.

Again, I don’t get into the White House anymore, so I can only imagine myself as a fly on the wall on the 28th of September, when Putin and Obama spent 90 minutes behind closed doors at the U.N. My notion of how that conversation went is that Putin said, “Mr. President, I don’t know if your advisers have told you, but we’ve got a real problem in Syria. We can’t let this go on in the way it’s been going on, with this half-hearted attempt to contain ISIS. As you know, Mr. President, Saudi Arabia and the Qataris and other people are arming, equipping and funding them, and you don’t seem to be able to do anything about that.

“I know that you have an agreement with Saudi Arabia to sell them $100 billion of arms in this five-year period, and I imagine that’s why you’re so gentle with them and not able to work any influence on them, but that’s beside the point. We have a problem, and in two days’ time we’re going to enter the fray. As you know, we’ve already been building up. We’re going to start bombing to protect Bashar al-Assad’s regime and eventually to get rid of ISIS. We just want to let you know that ahead of time. We hope that you will see a joint interest in joining us in this necessary attempt to get rid of ISIS. We know you want to get Assad out of there, but we don’t quite understand why that should be a priority for you. We know it’s a priority for Turkey; we know it’s a priority for Israel; but we don’t quite understand why it’s a priority for you. But let’s agree to disagree on that. We’re going to start this.”

And, of course, they do. [Russia’s bombing sorties commenced Sept. 30, two days after the Obama-Putin encounter.] What happens? Whoa! The rules have changed here.

I was very much afraid that Obama and Kerry would act under the influence of people like Victoria Nuland—rashly and negatively. I was really encouraged by the fact that they decided to do just the opposite, to say, “Let’s ‘deconflict’ our bombing, so we don’t bomb one another. Let’s get our militaries together—we’re not going to cooperate, but let’s not run into each other.” And then, miracle of miracles, all of a sudden the precondition that Bashar al-Assad has to go before negotiations start is dropped. And then, “OK, Iran can come.”

So, two major concessions on the part of the United States, and all of a sudden they’re sitting around a table, 19 of them in Vienna. [Laughs] I’d been praying and calling for that for over a year. That’s the way we used to do things. You have a conflict like this, you get the stakeholders around the table, and if you get enough of them with real stakes, then you can say to the Saudis and the Qataris, “Knock it off for God’s sake!”

The conference [preparatory to the Geneva peace talks] got under way, but there was still this dithering. I don’t know how Putin reads Obama. The rhetoric is one thing. I’m sure Obama says, “Look, I have to be really nasty to you, but I hope you understand.” [Laughs]

Then, of course, the shooting down of the Russian bomber by the Turks [on Nov. 24]. That’s serious stuff. We heard today that it had to have been approved at the highest level and that, indeed, they knew exactly how to shoot it down, where it was, and that information was available to Turkey (among others, presumably) from the United States. So here’s Putin looking at all this realizing that [Turkish President Recip Tayyip] Erdoğan, at least, approved this. If I were Putin I would say, “You know, I bet that Victoria Nuland approved this, too.”

I’m not a conspiracy person, but I know what she did in Kiev. What’s to prevent her from giving the Turks a little wink and saying, “Try it.” In my view, Obama would have typically not been involved in giving the go-ahead to Erdoğan, but Victoria Nuland quite likely could have. So I don’t rule that out.

What we’ve got now is Putin looking at what happened and sending in the air defense equipment in a major way and pretty much saying, “We’re equipped to down whatever planes we want to. We don’t want to do that, but we’re going to act like the invited supporter of the duly elected government of Bashar al-Assad. The rest of you are not duly invited, so bear in mind that international law is on our side. We don’t want any more trouble, we just hope that you can realize that this terrorism, these real jihadis, are a particular problem to us. Bear that in mind and stop listening to these people who don’t know anything about Russian interests.”

I’d like to hear your thoughts on Julian Assange’s assertion that the fight against mass surveillance is over and we lost it. [Assange spoke via video at the RT conference.] The idea that the standards of the past, things such as the U.S. Constitution or the European Charter, won’t survive.

I have cognitive dissonance on that because I don’t want to believe it. But if Assange is wrong on this, it’s the first time I know of that he’s been wrong on an issue of this importance. It’s all very depressing. If you look at the constellation of candidates for president, including the Democratic ones, there’s very little sympathy for restoring the Fourth Amendment, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or anything else that people might say is a “soft” reaction to very fearful developments that are going on in the world.

That said, I think what made us different in the beginning was the Constitution, which I consider a sacred document. I say this not only because I swore a solemn oath to support and defend it against all enemies foreign and domestic, but because I think it was an inspired document, which inspired not only our country but many others.

I learned that a fellow who lived about a mile from where I live in northern Virginia named George Mason, who crafted most of the Constitution together with James Madison, went to Madison at the very final stages and said, “Jim, I can’t sign this damn thing.”

And Madison says, “What? Come on, George. You drafted most of it.”

And Mason said, “I can’t sign it because it doesn’t have a Bill of Rights. It will be abused; it will be no better than other constitutions. So I can’t sign it. Sorry, Jim.”

Madison said, “Can you keep quiet about this? If you keep quiet about this I pledge that I’ll have horsemen going up and down the Eastern seaboard. We’ll get the Bill of Rights ratified, but nothing’s going to happen if you come out against this Constitution.”

So Mason kept his counsel, Madison kept his promise and we got the Bill of Rights.

I think that there is some rudimentary knowledge on the part of people who have been to school that the Constitution is important, that it’s important for a reason and that the Bill of Rights is also important. All I’m saying is that I’m fighting a midnight withdrawal here. I don’t want to believe that what Julian said is true, so I’m going to keep this cognitive dissonance alive so I can fight my damnedest in the years I have left to make sure that he’s wrong.

To what extent do the entrenched military and intelligence bureaucracies—the so-called “deep state”—control policy and the White House?

Stephen Kinzer’s “The Brothers” [published in 2013] describes the routine as it evolved under Eisenhower. When Allen and John Foster Dulles wanted to do something, they would draw up a little report and go over to the White House and it would be reviewed in that informal way the White House had then, and I suppose Eisenhower would look up from his desk and say, “You think that’s best? O.K. ” That scene might seem old-fashioned now, but is it not suggestive of what we call the “deep state” in its formative days?

I think it is. Think about when Eisenhower was told that Castro had to go. And the way they would do it is arming and otherwise equipping a rag-tag group of Cubans who would land at the Bay of Pigs. Eisenhower was a military man. He should’ve known better—“That’s not going to work”—and young John Kennedy comes in and he says, “Well, I don’t want to be soft on Communism, so if you think this will work, O.K. But for God’s sake, don’t you expect that I’m going to commit U.S military forces to this enterprise. You got that? Repeat. Can you repeat that, Allen Dulles? OK, you got it. All right, good.”

Now, they knew damn well that they wouldn’t be able to unseat Castro. And when Allen Dulles died, there were coffee-stained notes on his desk, which said. “Once we get on the beach, there is no way the president of the United States can refuse to support us with his military.”

Interesting. We’re well on from that now. It seems to me that in this question of the “deep state” we described informal interactions during a time that is no longer. This now seems to be very dangerously consolidated. A president in another context, who might be quote “reformist” can’t get anything done.

Well, John Kennedy had problems of the same kind, and he fired Dulles. And that was a no-no. You don’t fire people like Dulles. Kennedy embarked on a new course. He talked with Khrushchev, he had people, interlocutors, who talked with Castro, and, worst of all, he issued two executive orders, saying that 1,000 U.S troops would be pulled out of Vietnam by the end of 1963 and the bulk of the rest by 1965. He was going to give up Southeast Asia to the Commies, and God knows what would happen next with the dominoes falling and Indonesia, and my God... So he was killed by the “deep state.”

Are you familiar with the new book by David Talbot? [Talbot, Salon’s founding editor, published “The Devil’s Chessboard” shortly before this interview.]

I am, and I am also familiar with an earlier book by James Douglass, which is the most persuasive of all. It’s called “J.F.K and the Unspeakable.” Now this is all necessary background, because when Obama comes in, even though it’s been a lot of years, he faces the same kind of military power—even enlarged—and a security apparatus that has grown like topsy since 9/11. The CIA’s budget has grown three-fold since 9/11.

Not something widely advertised, is it?

Yeah, yeah. Obama is dealing with a lot of congressmen who pour a lot of money into NSA, CIA and elsewhere. They have power, clout, the lobbyists and so forth. So it’s a fertile field for the military-industrial-congressional complex to thrive.

You know, one of the things that struck me most about 9/11—you may recall this—was funding for an unproven, untested ABM system had been held up in the Senate Armed Services Committee by [Democratic Senator] Carl Levin. We weren’t going to waste any money on this. Then 9/11 happens. One of my first thoughts was, “Well, this may be reaching to find something positive that might, just might result from the attacks, but at least the ABM appropriation will die on the vine now because that doesn’t address the threat, right? Guess what: Just weeks later Levin lifts his earlier hold on tens of millions more for the Star Wars system, which virtually all engineers and scientists agree can always be defeated—easily, and for much less money.

The appropriation passed.

That sort of told me, hey, McGovern, [laughs] you don’t know much about how things work but you do know that you will perpetually be surprised by the ability of people who profiteer on wars to get appropriations even though they don’t make any sense, even though this missile defense around Russia doesn’t make any sense against an Iranian threat. You know? Well now the Iranian threat is gone, “Oh yeah but we still have... How about North Korea?” Well, look at the globe.

Here the Russians look on and say, “Hello?” And interestingly—and this hasn’t been pointed out—Putin, on the 17th of April 2014, in his three-hour conversation with people throughout Russia [an annual event], said, “We moved with respect to Crimea mostly because of the anti-ballistic missile threat.” He said, “We didn’t want Ukraine to join NATO, but the strategic threat was the anti-missile defense system,” which, by that time, Bobby Gates [former defense secretary Robert Gates] had decided—and he brags about this in his book [“Duty,” 2014]—that the Czechs are going wobbly on the ABM system, and you can’t trust these... So? Let’s put them on ships. We’ll put them on ships, we’ll put them in the Baltic, we’ll put them in the Black Sea.

This is serious stuff, but they’re building it anyway. Why? What you’re talking about is not only the military-industrial-congressional complex, but this “deep state” that has this power to speak to the president and say, “We’ve got to do this! The Russians are bad, the Russians are bad.” I don’t pretend to understand the whole thing, but from what I’ve seen and read, Obama is susceptible to real fears about all this.

“Real fears”? Meaning what?

You may recall that [at the RT conference] I cited a secondhand report from a very reliable source who told me that his source was at a small gathering where President Obama was talking to well-heeled supporters. There was a lot of criticism to the effect, “You’re supposed to be a progressive. We put you in there and gave you a lot of money, so why don’t you act like a progressive?” Finally, Obama stands up and he says, “Look, it’s all very well for you to criticize me, but don’t you remember what happened to Dr. King?”

If I had anything but the utmost respect for my primary source, I would not be repeating this. But I can very easily believe it happened. When people say, “If he felt that way he shouldn’t have tried to be president,” well, that’s easy to say. You get pushed into these positions, even if he’s just afraid for his children or for Michelle.

So I am willing to include that as a factor for why Obama often seems wishy-washy. Others say, “Ray, for God’s sake he’s 100 percent in with them. [Laughs] Can’t you get out of the mold from eight years ago, when you had some hope for the guy?”

The curious thing about Obama is you can’t really put a finger on this guy as to whether he’s on the bus or off the bus.

Yeah, but you know what, Patrick? It doesn’t matter. In the final analysis it doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of thought and controversy if we get into this, but in the end, he is what he is, and it doesn’t matter.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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