This is how the CIA botched Iraq post-9/11: Bob Gates, careerist sycophancy, and the real history of the Deep State

A veteran CIA officer explains to Salon exactly where the agency has gone wrong for decades — and the consequences

Published February 14, 2016 10:58AM (EST)

Colin Powell, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney attend a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, September 12, 2001.   (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Colin Powell, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney attend a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, September 12, 2001. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

In a lengthy exchange with Ray McGovern, or when you listen to him speak, a lot comes at you. This is a former C.I.A. officer who, as branch chief in the analysis section, counted daily White House briefings among his tasks. Given his years out in Langley, Virginia—from the early Kennedy days until he retired in 1990—he was witness to the agency’s collapse into a factory producing politically and ideologically motivated “intelligence.” Long before the end, Langley had turned into a building full of “prostitutes”—McGovern’s word “not too strong.”

McGovern can get very granular as he describes what he saw. Elsewhere in the News, a discriminating new website that searches out material you ought to see but may miss, just posted this remarkable radio interview, in which McGovern analyzes the fate of the 2002 intelligence report advising the Bush II administration there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. More than a million deaths and one Islamic State later, McGovern tells us what this kind of corruption looks like from the inside and how it felt to watch it.

We explore such things in this, Part 2 of the lengthy interview I conducted with McGovern when we found ourselves at a conference in Moscow last December. But two other things struck me as I prepared the transcript.

One, I tipped my later questions toward the personal, and McGovern did not flinch. Along with the story of an institution’s decay, he here describes his inner turmoil as his conscience—which is formidable—started sending distress signals. Maybe readers will be as moved as I was. Maybe they will draw from it as much as I did.

Two, McGovern’s true offering now, beyond the inner-circle accounts of how things were, is a posture—a way of standing in relation to the world of crisis we find ourselves living in. McGovern never declares his courage—he is, indeed, highly self-critical of some of his judgments—but his guts and commitment ought to be evident, and they are two other things the rest of us might learn from.

He likes to quote Camus. “We have nothing to lose but everything. So let’s go ahead,” the French writer said when he won the Nobel in literature in 1957. “This is the wager of a generation. If we are to fail it is better, in any case, to have stood on the side of those who refuse to be dogs and are resolved to pay the price that must be paid so that man can be something more than a dog.”

McGovern had this in the speech that got me to pick up the telephone and call him a long while back. “I think it has relevance today,” he added quietly before moving on.

You began your analysis work [in the C.I.A.] with the goal of developing rational policies that might be of use in enacting legitimate change in the United States’ government and its foreign policy. When did you become disillusioned with this endeavor? Did you fall off your horse on the way to Damascus?

This makes for a less interesting story, but the answer is no.

It was gradual?

When I joined the agency, the headquarters had just been constructed. John Kennedy was president. Chiseled into the marble foyer: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” So I’m looking at that and I’m hearing my Irish grandmother saying [slips into a thick brogue], “Be truthful and honest, Raymond, and you won’t give a damn what anyone says about you.” [Laughs]

I thought, “This is going to be a good place to work.” And it was. My portfolio was Soviet foreign policy toward China, the international communist movement, Vietnam. Then it broadened out into other things when I became branch chief. I could tell it like it was. Since the Soviet Union was high in priority, every month or so something I wrote or something my branch people wrote would get before the president the next morning. That’s as good as it gets! Would they change it up the line? Well, they’d fix the spelling and the grammar, but no, they wouldn’t change it.

Was that always the case? No, it wasn’t. There were some big things—when, for example, Dick Helms [Richard Helms, C.I.A. director, 1966-73], bowed before [General William] Westmoreland on Vietnam and missed a chance to stop the war halfway through. And we have great regrets about that. I could have spoken out then and didn’t. That’s why we give a Sam Adams Award every year.

It wasn’t formally so, but generally speaking, if LBJ came to us, which he did, and said [begins an impression of Johnson’s Texas drawl], “We have these blue-suit guys with all the stars, and they say we’ve got a B-52, these big, big, big, big planes. They’re going to drop bombs and we’re going to seal off the Ho Chi Minh trail. What do y’all think about that?”

Now, we suppress the laugh and say, “We’ll get back to you.” Two days later, after a decent interval, we say, “Mr. President, we have to tell you, with all respect to your blue-suited generals, the Ho Chi Minh trail doesn’t look anything like I-66 or I-95. You can’t see most of it from the air, with the [jungle] canopy and stuff, and besides it’s not one, it’s about 161 trails. No matter how many big bombs, you’re not going to be able to interdict the flow of men and supplies. And No. 2, we know Ho Chi Minh. Sam here literally took him into Hanoi after the war [World War II] on his shoulders. He’s a nationalist before he’s a communist. He’s not going to give up. As a matter of fact, Mr. President, No. 3, nobody ever gives up just on the bombing.”

So what’s the lesson from that? The lesson from that is, man, we did our job! But the president? Well, the president had other considerations. He didn’t want to be the first president to lose a war. So he disregarded our advice and became the first president to lose a war.

Is that one source of your disillusionment? Agency analysis conducted with integrity being either ignored or doctored?

No, ignored is O.K. That’s the system. We elected LBJ.

Doctored? No. I’ll tell you how the “doctored” happened. A fellow worked for me, his name is Robert Gates [later C.I.A. director, 1991-93, and defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama]. He was a young analyst and pretty bright, not as bright as some of the other people in my Soviet foreign policy branch, but he was so ambitious that you’d see him floating around two levels above me and he was a very disruptive influence in the branch. Here I am, first branch, first managerial position, and I figure at efficiency report time, this is the process where you adjust that. So, I didn’t check with my fellow branch chiefs, who were giving everybody outstanding appraisals, and I wrote what I thought about Bobby Gates. I said, “Reasonably bright, good future, but he needs to stop being so transparent in his ambition because he’s a disruptive influence in the branch.”

He objected to that, and 10 years later he becomes chief of all analysis. What happens then? Bill Casey [William Casey, C.I.A. director 1981-87] is in; Ronald Reagan is in. Bill Casey sees a communist under every rock in Nicaragua. Bobby Gates turns over the rocks and says, “I see two of them, Mr. Casey. There are two of them there.” Everyone who saw Russians under rocks in Nicaragua got promoted.

I say this for an important reason. We’re talking 1981, right? It takes a generation to corrupt an institution. Fast forward to 2002, when people who Bobby Gates promoted because they saluted smartly and saw a Soviet under every rock—not  because they cared much about the substance of things—they’re around a table when George Tenet [C.I.A. director, 1996-2004] finally comes back from the White House and says, “Damn, we have to do an estimate on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

Senator Graham [Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, 1987-2005, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee] says that he’s not going to let a vote happen before a war in Iraq without an estimate.

I don’t know this to be literally true, but I used to sit around that table. He [Tenet] just got back from the White House and can’t avoid the estimate anymore. Of course, they were avoiding the estimate, because an honest estimate [on WMD] would have said, “There ain’t none!”

So [Tenet says], “We can’t avoid that anymore. And just two things: We have to do it in 10 days and it has to come out the way Dick Cheney said it was on the 26th of August.”

Now we’re talking mid-September in 2002. [The Bush II White House authorized the invasion of Iraq the following March.] If any director had said that to us in my day, we would have said, “Ha! George, that’s a good one! But you’re not serious, right?” And if he said he was serious we would have been the hell out of there. Maybe there’d be one or two sycophants hanging around, but he’d know he had an insurrection on his hands. These careerists in managerial positions said, “O.K., we can do that. Ten days? No problem.” Why 10 days? Because they wanted to force a vote in Congress before the midterms [of November 2002]. It was very, very clear. Somewhere I read that Rumsfeld actually acknowledged that.

What I’m saying here is that’s how it happened, and I was very lucky because I was briefing Vice President [George H.W.] Bush and all of Reagan’s chief advisers—[Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger, [Secretary of State George] Shultz and the rest of them. It was one-on-one and I could tell them the truth. This was when Bobby Gates was chief of analysis. There were occasions years later when I finally realized that Bush, for example, was well in on the Iran-Contra stuff, but by and large I could tell the truth on substantive matters—including on Nicaragua—and I did.

I remember one morning when I carried in to Shultz a piece just pulled off the TASS ticker indicating he had just been invited to visit Moscow. How to R.S.V.P. would be a delicate decision; he and I both knew that my bosses Casey and Gates, as well as Weinberger and other hardliners, were telling President Reagan that Gorbachev was just a clever Commie trying to take us in. At the same time, Shultz knew of my experience in Soviet affairs and that I remained in constant dialogue with analysts I could trust—those still putting truth-telling above career advancement and saying Gorbachev seemed to be the real deal. When Shultz probed my personal views, I was not about to join the malleable managers Casey and Gates had put in place to take the agency “party line”—Caution: clever Commie ahead.

Surely not just because of me, but he [Schulz] goes to Moscow and finds out Gorbachev is the real deal. There are summits between Reagan and Gorbachev, largely because Shultz prevailed over Casey, Gates, Weinberger and the clowns who were the national security advisers at the time.

I was lucky from ’81 to ’85, but when I could retire in 1990 I did, primarily because the politicization had already eroded not only the operational part but the analysis part of the agency, and that was really sad to see. I had completed enough time overseas to qualify for early retirement, reduced annuity, but I knew I had to get out of there. So that’s when I left.

With information handled in this way, the implication would seem to be that a great many decisions having to do with our conduct abroad are made in a condition of blindness or detachment from reality. Is this so?

I would say not blindness but myopia. Or really better would be astigmatism. From my perspective as an intelligence officer, undue weight is given to political considerations of a domestic variety. That’s why we didn’t end Vietnam when we should have. That’s why we did a lot of things that we shouldn’t have. Domestic considerations prevail. The system is such that that’s the way it should be. So what’s the answer? We have to elect presidents with integrity and with some kind of feel for who their advisers should be. How Obama ever thought that he could invite Hillary Clinton and Bobby Gates [into his cabinet]—that’s crazy!

I saw Chalmers Johnson shortly before he passed away and recall him saying to me one evening, “The day Obama named Gates his defense secretary, I knew it was all over.”

[Laughs] Really? Oh, good! Because he [Johnson] has a real good rep in Washington.

You seem to suggest that the moment has arrived when one must stand outside the tent and urinate in, if I may. You use phrases such as “out of channels” in your speeches. This has big implications if it applies beyond agency people but also to journalists and others. Being outside the tent is not an easy place to be. What are your thoughts on this?

The benefits are out of this world. [Laughs] I look at myself in the mirror and say, “Well, I’m doing everything I can.” I don’t know how those other guys look at themselves in the mirror, except they get a lot of money. I guess that helps. I think we can make a difference, and I’m just pleased as punch that so many people have joined us in Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and also in the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence—young people, people spirited and brighter than I am and more energetic now. So we may be what, in biblical terms, would be called a remnant. But the remnant comes back. It lives in Babylonian captivity for a while but then it grows back.

One of the things I actually do believe is that Americans, in particular, are guilty of giving success inordinate attention. What I mean is this: A normal American won’t embark on any significant action without having a reasonable prospect of success. Nobody wants to be laughed at. One of my heroes is Dan Berrigan [Father Daniel Berrigan, the noted antiwar activist]. After the first major action [the “Catonsville Nine” activated in 1968], when they poured homemade napalm on draft cards, they end up in the only federal building in Catonsville, Maryland (and it’s the post office). Dan is wrestling with this question. “This is a major action,” says Dan. “Was it worth it? Are people going to call me a Commie? Call me stupid? A clown? Was it worth it?” Says Dan, “I came to the realization that the good is worth doing because it’s good. Success is not unimportant, but it’s secondary.”

The beauty or the goodness or the truth of the act speaks for itself. The result is really out of our hands. So let’s not, he says, be deterred by always trying to make sure we’re successful. He says, “I took great consolation in that because I knew what I was in for, and I said ‘Well, you know, success, don’t dismiss it, it’s not unimportant, but it’s secondary.’” [Berrigan was convicted in 1968, sentenced in 1970, fled and was re-arrested. He was released from prison in 1972.]

And that’s how I come at things. It keeps me going, and more important lately have been the young people who have retired [from the agency]. One I can think of exactly, she joined 20 years after me, retired 20 years after I retired, she’s 20 years younger than me and she is an incredible person. I traveled through Germany with her for eight days last September. What an incredible experience it was, not only for us to do our job there. It was the first week of the major refugee crisis, and she’s fluent in Arabic. So we arrive at this bahnhof in Rostock, on the Baltic, way the hell up there, and the place is full of open suitcases and refugees from Syria, and there’s a big sign on the wall: “All have the same rights.” And the Germans are feeding these people. My friend goes down and chats with them in Arabic. And they’re like, “Oh man, somebody speaks Arabic!”

So all I’m saying is that these people are coming out of the woodwork now—of course, the NSA guys who joined our movement and we’ve been nourished by—so that we know a lot of things. What I’m saying is that our old colleagues, a lot of them, show some shame when I run into them in the men’s room at the opera or at a funeral. At least I don’t feel that shame.

What can you say about relations between the C.I.A. and journalists today? The Church Committee revelations of press people working for the agency landed like bombs. [The committee conducted a Senate investigation of intelligence operations in 1975.] And I’ve wondered ever since, “Are we supposed to think it ended there? The practice was terminated?”

It’s a not-done among journalists to suggest publicly that someone’s working for the agency. It’s a career-wrecker, so an ethical question. One doesn’t do it without evidence, which is more or less impossible to come by. I know three recent cases that were point-blank obvious—Australian correspondents in Asia working for an American newspaper. In Washington and the foreign bureaus, I can think of half a dozen names, even more, that have to be compromised—unless the agency is getting a very cheap deal. Are there still people working two jobs, to put it delicately, as so many were in the ’70s?

Bill Colby [William Colby, C.I.A. director, 1973-76], as you probably remember, let himself say, “We control probably 90 percent of the important people in the media.”

Yikes! Did he? It holds in the cases I mentioned, as their senior editors had to know.  

Yeah. Carl Bernstein wrote a major article on that. I worked directly under Bill Colby. I had a lot of respect for him. I wonder what happened to him; I was overseas when he perished. [Colby died while canoeing in 1996 under unclear circumstances.] I always thought, “Bill, for God’s sake, hyperbole like that!”

But you know what? As I watched things happen—for example, Jeremy Scahill [the journalist associated with Intercept] and the others coming out with documentary evidence from a new Snowden [document] about the effects of drone strikes. When I see four drone operators confessing that they feel ashamed and that they have PTSD [in consequence of] what they did, and one of them saying, “I have 1,372 confirmed kills and they gave me a medal for that.” Is anything like that [published] in the New York Times? No. Washington Post? No. My God! It doesn’t have to be everybody in the media, but the guys who are running things, I suppose.

You say solitude is the hardest thing you’re faced with. I wonder why you say this. There’s solitude and there’s loneliness—light and dark sides of the same moon—and I place some value on the former so long as it doesn’t tip over into the latter.

It’s hard to be ostracized from a profession you’ve given your life to. What I conclude is that, really, I’m being loyal to that profession and everybody else is being ostracized. [Laughs]

You’re doing the ostracizing. Good.

A lot of it has to do with my faith background. I worship with an ecumenical community now. I’m a Catholic by birth and still consider myself a good Catholic, and like some of the things [Pope] Francis has said, especially the “blood-soaked arms trade”—he says this in the Congress of the United States! [Laughs]

Where I worship now, the pastor and founder of this small ecumenical church was a chaplain with the 101st Airborne Glider force flying into Normandy on the first day [D-Day, June 6, 1944] and finished up at the Battle of the Bulge because the 101st was the only tempered group [battle-tested unit] that could relieve those guys at Bastogne. He came home after the war and decided that there was no difference between the young G.I.s who were “churched”—he meant churchgoing—and those who weren’t churched: Neither knew what to expect. Long story short, he started a very new church which was involved very much in the inner city where I work. As I was leading the school—which was trying to dispense the trial-and-error type of learnings we have from being involved in setting up nonprofits in the inner city—all of a sudden my former profession becomes prostituted—and that’s not too strong of a word—and I start writing op-eds at night. San Francisco Examiner, Charlotte Observer, Hartford Courant—wherever I can. [Laughs]

The pastor, who’s the CEO of the school, says, “When are you doing this?”

I say, “All night.”

He says, “You know, maybe you should do this full time.”

I say, “Well, you know, I need the salary you pay me to run the school.”

He says, “We’ll get the salary. What do you think?”

So I went home and talked to Rita and she says, “Yeah, that sounds all right.” So I said fine.

He said, “Well, there’s one condition.”

I said, “What’s that?”

He says, “When you write, we’re going to ask you to identify yourself with the Ecumenical Church of the Saviour.”

I said, “Gordon, that would be terrific, but what’s in that for you?”

You know what he says? He says, “Well, No. 1, that’s what church should be doing. That’s what church is for. No. 2, when they come for you, Ray, I want it to be so that they’ll have to come for all of us.” [Laughs]

That was 10 years ago. At one point somebody says to Gordon, “Well, when are you going to retire, and Gordon replies, “‘Retire’ is a secular concept.” [Laughs]

We’re near the end. If you want to step back from this question I won’t press it. You may find it too personal, or difficult, but I’m going to ask it anyway.

You once quoted the German poem “Guilt” in a speech. This struck me. I was moved as I listened as you unwrapped the poem. Do you feel that you were too late in doing what you did?

[Albrecht Haushofer, a geologist at the University of Berlin during the war, wrote “Schuld,” a sonnet, when the Gestapo arrested him and demanded a confession before executing him. Haushofer turned the occasion upside down, writing of his true guilt: “I should have earlier recognized my duty. I should have more sharply called evil ‘evil.’ I put off my judgment too long.” McGovern quotes the poem in German.]

In a sense, yes. I knew General Westmoreland was lying through his teeth on Vietnam, specifically on the question of how many Vietnamese Communists were under arms in the south. I knew that because Sam Adams, my colleague in the analysis division of the C.I.A., found it out. He went out to Saigon and found out that they were deliberately halving every regiment, every battalion, whatever. So he came back, and I said, “Sam, for God’s sake, this doesn’t make any sense. Generals have incentive to magnify the size of the enemy. What’s going on here?”

And he says, “Ray, you know the weekly kill rate and the original figures for how many Vietnamese Communists under arms there were—like 250,000 or 300,000. The press corps in Saigon is not the brightest, but they can do arithmetic. If you admit that there are 500,000, and that’s how many there are, they’re going to do the math in Saigon.”

We’re talking the 20th of August 1967, and he says, “Yesterday morning came in a NODIS”—a “no dissemination,” very closely held. You had to go up to the director’s office to read it. A NODIS from General Abrams, Westmoreland’s deputy. And he says specifically, “We can’t possibly go with the higher numbers because we have been projecting an image of success in this war and there’s nothing we can say, despite adducing all the caveats, that will prevent the press from drawing an erroneous and gloomy conclusion.”

I said, “Sam, he said that in writing?”

Sam says, “Yeah, it’s right upstairs.”

Sam was a real straight arrow. I knew that he would never go to the New York Times. You have to realize that the New York Times was an independent newspaper in those days. If you took something to them, and they backstopped it and looked into it and found it to be almost certainly authentic, they would put it on the front page. So here I am thinking, Sam’s not going to do this, maybe I could ask Sam to burn me a copy of that thing. It would have been difficult because it was in the director’s office and all, but somebody needs to take that down to the New York Times bureau, Sheehan or somebody else, and give it to them. We’re talking August 1967. That way maybe people can see the God-awful deception that’s going on here. [Neil Sheehan was in the Times’ Washington bureau; in 1971 he obtained the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg.]

Well, McGovern had a nice, plum assignment in Munich coming up, he had three children at the time, and he had a big mortgage, and he said to himself, “You know, I think maybe I’ll wait until I get more gravitas and more what the Germans call Format [literally form or shape, in this case meaning weight, position, seniority.] Next time there’s something like this I’m going to let ’em have it.” So I chickened out.

Sam Adams fought through the system, went through channels just like Tom Drake did in NSA, and got nowhere. Went to the IG [inspector-general] and said, “Dick Helms should be fired for giving in to Westmoreland, knowing that Westmoreland was wrong.” Got nowhere. Sam Adams died from an early heart attack at age 56, no explanation for it, incredibly grieved.

You’ve seen the Vietnam Memorial [ Maya Lin’s controversial monument near the National Mall in Washington]? It’s in the shape of a “V.” There would be no “V,” there would be no left arm of that thing, because there wouldn't be any names of dead G.I.s to carve into that granite. That’s a heavy burden. We’re talking August ’67. Tet [the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Tet offensive] came in ’68.

One of the things Sam couldn’t resist, he sent a cable out to Saigon and said, “Gosh, it’s amazing that we should be suffering some casualties from all those battalions that don’t exist.” So there’s no humor to that. Sam went to an early death. I still feel that I muffed that one, and that’s probably one reason I feel that so strongly when you get a guy like Ed Snowden or a guy like [Julian] Assange or Bradley Manning [now Chelsea Manning] who have the conscience. Bradley Manning, how old is he, 28 or something like that?

Pretty young.

That’s what Snowden was. They didn’t have all this moral, theological training, all this ethics. They didn’t know there were supervening values to telling the truth. They just instinctively knew the right thing to do. And McGovern screwed up. That’s the thing that comes to mind first. For the rest of my career I did try to do the right thing and did stand up for stuff and was marginalized at the very end.

I had a charmed existence as briefer of the president’s daily brief, because George H. W. Bush and I got along really, really well. Same went for Shultz, despite the fact that he hated my bosses. Weinberg was a cold fish; you never knew what… In other words, for those four years I was sort of protected, and in 1985 I had only five years left. That was it.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Years ago I took to asking this whenever I interviewed someone during a long journey around India, counterclockwise from Bombay. As many times as I asked, I got that many interesting replies. I put it to a sociologist in Ahmedabad, a truly kinetic thinker called Shiv Visvanathan. He leaned across his desk and didn’t miss a beat: “It’s obvious. Of course I’m an optimist. Why would I bother with critique if I weren’t?”

So I think I know your answer, but I’ll ask anyway. Which are you?

Optimist, for sure. For the reason you just mentioned, but also because I have nine grandchildren and I can see them alive and prospering. And I can see my children, of whom we’re immensely proud, and thanks to their mother have turned out really well.

Be careful to distinguish between optimism and hope. The latter can prove a treacherous friend.

Oh, darn. [Laughs] You’re too good, Patrick. That’s a real bitch to ask me about.

“Optimist of the will, pessimist of the mind.” Gramsci.

I suppose that would be a good description. I want to believe that these problems are addressable, but when I think about things like global warming or even the blood-soaked arms trade, they all seem so…

Impervious to language. Impervious to thought, even.

And so monumental. It’s really hard. But then, you know, we’re not supposed to know everything. The Soviet Union did fall apart, and good things do happen quite unexpectedly and not always well-predicted or even well-explained after the fact. It’s a little bit more than hope. It’s kind of, you know, “The arc of the universe bends toward justice.” I do believe that.

So do I.

When our youngest granddaughter was born two years ago, I was thinking, “Wow. My daughter is now 36. She’s the youngest. When Nora [the granddaughter] is 36, she’s going to have one hell of a problem deciding whether it’s a responsible thing to do to bring new life into the world.” And that’s about the hardest thing…

I can’t imagine a more difficult thing for a grandparent to say.

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

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