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The Failure


The first time a Senate investigating committee seriously looked into the way presidents use the CIA was in 1975, following discovery by the public that the CIA had made serious and sustained efforts to assassinate Cuba’s Communist leader, Fidel Castro. The existence of the plots raised the obvious question: Who authorized them? Efforts to kill Castro had begun under President Eisenhower, were actively pursued under President Kennedy, and were not abandoned until after the election of President Johnson in 1964. It was not only presidents and their defenders who denied that the White House had plotted murder; the chief of the CIA during the years when the plotting was at its height, John McCone, also insisted he knew nothing of these schemes and as a Catholic would never have agreed to them. At the outset of the investigation the committee’s chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho, in effect accepted these denials at face value and said he thought the CIA had behaved like “a rogue elephant on a rampage” during the years when Castro’s overthrow was a principal goal of American foreign policy. A “rogue elephant,” of course, listens to no one.

But all talk of a “rogue” CIA had disappeared before the Senate investigating committee finally published its 350-page report on Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders in November 1975. This extraordinary document recounted in meticulous detail the CIA’s many attempts, some with the help of notorious Mafia gangsters, to kill Castro, along with its involvement in other plots to kill Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and Salvador Allende in Chile. The Church Committee report was unprecedented; no other nation had ever conducted a comparable investigation of its own intelligence activities, and the report’s release was preceded by intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering. An increasingly alarmed President Ford, horrified as news of the plots leaked out during the months of the committee’s investigation, reversed his initial support for an inquiry and urged members of Church’s committee to keep their findings under wraps.

The pressure was so great that the Senate itself, fearful of taking a stand, refused either to support or oppose publication of the report. In the end committee members agreed to go ahead only after Senator Church threatened to resign in protest if they repudiated their own work. The result when the report appeared was a predictable nine-day-wonder in the news media and something like a crash course in political realism for reporters, scholars, historians, and the general public. In the past, when American officials had stoutly denied that the United States would ever stoop to secret murder, outsiders could never be really sure if they were being told the truth or a fairy tale. The Church Committee report introduced all who cared to know to the secret world as it is.

But what about the awkward question of authorization—did Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson approve the murder plots or not? The general rule leaves no room for doubt on this score; of course authority came from the White House—where else? Laymen need not agonize over this question; the absence of an explosion of official anger at the discovery of murder plots provides all the evidence anybody really needs.

The Church Committee did not have the ordinary citizen’s luxury of addressing this question on the merits. The defenders of presidents were ready for a bare-knuckle fight to the death, and of course the surviving evidence was never quite 1,000 percent conclusive. Senator Church was a political man in a political town. What to do? In this painful situation the testimony of Robert McNamara unexpectedly offered the Church Committee and its chairman a soft resolution of their dilemma. As the secretary of defense under Kennedy, McNamara was in the government’s innermost circle—not just intimately familiar with efforts to overthrow Castro but to some degree even their author. If anyone knew who gave the go-ahead it was McNamara, but he circled the matter with great care. He told the Church Committee that White House approval of assassination attempts would have been “totally inconsistent with everything I know about” President Kennedy and his brother Bobby, who had been placed in charge of efforts to get rid of Castro after the failure of the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. At the same time, McNamara told the committee, he knew the CIA well—the agency would never go off on its own. He wasn’t denying that the efforts to kill Castro took place, he wasn’t saying that those efforts were duly authorized, and he wasn’t saying that the CIA was out of control. “I understand the contradiction that this carries with respect to the facts,” he concluded. The McNamara formula was intellectually weak but it offered a way out. Church accordingly chose caution over glory, followed McNamara’s lead, and said in effect that the committee had been unable to establish exactly who authorized the plots.


The failure of Senate investigators, journalists, and historians to identify and hold to account those ultimately responsible for the plots to kill Castro and similar “excesses” of the 1960s—the presidents for whom the CIA worked—has been damaging to the agency, which naturally felt it had been chastised for doing its job. It is not hard to see why presidents like pushing the blame for folly or failure onto others; the puzzle is why those who ought to be paying attention—politicians, journalists, and historians alike—have let them get away with it. In the investigation of Watergate the Senate and House both focused on “the cover-up” and sidestepped the more alarming crimes—the pressure of the Nixon White House on the CIA to assist the White House plumbers in what turned out to be illegal break-ins, and, later, to block the FBI’s investigation. Much the same happened during the Iran-contra investigation, when CIA officers faced jail and crippling legal fees while the man in charge of these illegal foreign adventures, President Reagan, was allowed to plead a lapse of memory.

This pattern of blaming the CIA for what presidents have ordered it to do is the single most important cause of the emergence within the agency of a “risk-averse” culture—a learned caution about undertaking operations of the sort CIA officers have later been required to explain or deny under oath on the witness stand. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once told Richard Clarke that it was not hard to explain the passive-aggressive behavior of the CIA. “It has battered child syndrome.” The agency’s operational timidity beginning in the mid-1980s is one reason efforts to kill or kidnap Osama bin Laden failed in the years leading up to September 11—a reluctance to act frequently cited by Clarke in Against All Enemies. But Clarke credits the CIA with issuing frequent urgent warnings over the summer of 2001, and reserves his most pointed criticism for two failures of the Bush White House—its inability to grasp the urgency of the danger posed by al-Qaeda before September 11, and its folly later in going to war with Iraq. Clarke’s strongest passages are reserved for the consequences of this mistake, which diverted American resources and the attention of the White House from the real threat, al-Qaeda, at the very moment when victory in Afghanistan offered an opportunity to deal the terrorist organization a fatal blow. Instead, while the Bush administration busied itself going to war to “disarm Saddam Hussein,” al-Qaeda was given a year to recover, reorganize, and carry out many new acts of terrorism. But it appears that the established pattern is repeating itself in the investigation of the CIA’s alleged intelligence “failure” while the White House fixation on Iraq, vividly described by Clarke, is ignored.

The investigators will find the going routine so long as they limit their inquiry to the nuts and bolts of intelligence collection and estimate-writing. The CIA, the NSA, and other agencies will grumble about threats to “sources and methods” when they are asked to deliver raw intelligence reports, but some sort of secure procedure will be worked out and investigators will soon find themselves wading through a sea of paper. Technical experts will explain how to read overhead photos or monitor cell-phone traffic with watchwords. Specialists will line up to say why they thought tractor-trailers discovered in northern Iraq after the war were, or were not, mobile biological weapons laboratories. Other specialists will do the same for the now-notorious aluminum tubes which maybe were, but probably weren’t, intended for an Iraqi centrifuge. Estimate writers will explain the deliberative process that went into creating the October 2002 Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and why the CIA had high confidence that they posed a growing threat, but low confidence that it could predict what Saddam Hussein would do with the weapons.

Much time will be required for this investigation; White House and CIA officials will concede nothing; the issues will be factually complex; long hours of testimony will be delivered in sentences with many clauses; there will be much talk of fragmentary evidence, ambiguous reports, making the most of what you’ve got, doing the best you can. At day’s end, described in a fat report, this exercise may be expected to reveal “an honest mistake”—a picture of the world that, despite expensive hardware, thousands of man-hours, and painstaking debate, turned out to be wrong. Things that looked clear in the beginning will look fuzzy by the end. Appended to the report will be numerous recommendations for new tables of organization, improvements in procedure, more emphasis on training, and of course additional funds.

But this kind of nuts-and-bolts effort will avoid all the really troubling and difficult questions raised by the use of intelligence to convince Congress to vote for an unnecessary war in order to pursue an undeclared policy that the legislators did not understand, much less have an opportunity to debate. I do not mean to imply that the administration’s policy had sinister aims; I take the President at his word when he says his purpose was to make America safer. But questions of war and peace affect the whole country, the Constitution specifically provides for the deliberation of Congress, and nothing in the enabling legislation of the CIA suggests that the president alone, and not the Congress, should enjoy the benefit of the CIA’s best efforts. The debate is supposed to be honest, but in this case the debate fell short of the ideal by a country mile. To ignore the administration’s manipulation of intelligence is to issue an invitation for more of the same.

Investigators will need no instruction in how to conduct a nuts-and-bolts study of the Iraq intelligence failures, and politics will certainly impede and possibly preclude entirely an effort to explain the deeper reasons why and how false intelligence was used to prepare the way for war. But perhaps not. To be serious and complete, investigations now underway, and additional efforts undertaken by historians later, should explore the following questions:

  1. The close cooperation between American and British intelligence services which helped President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair make their case for war while protecting them from awkward questions. In particular investigators should look into the source and vetting of fabricated documents suggesting that Iraq was trying to buy Niger yellowcake; British claims that they possessed “other” evidence of the yellowcake purchase; the provision to Secretary of State Colin Powell of an allegedly official British report on Iraqi intelligence organizations that was cited by Powell at the UN only two days before journalists revealed that the report was based on materials plagiarized from open sources; CIA collaboration with British intelligence officials in creating an intelligence dossier outlining al-Qaeda responsibility for the attacks of September 11; the content of all communications between British and American intelligence figures in the months between President Bush’s appearance before the United Nations in September 2002 and the outbreak of war the following March; and British and American cooperation in espionage targeted on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and members of the UN Security Council.

  2. Communications with the CIA by officials in the Pentagon, the office of the vice-president, and the National Security Council that might have been intended, or reasonably interpreted, as pressure to skew intelligence estimates. A special office to “re-look” intelligence on Iraq was established in the Pentagon immediately after September 11 by Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy. This group received numerous reports about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction from Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which was supported and paid by the Department of Defense. Investigators should track the circulation of these reports, most later dismissed as false or even fabricated, to determine if they were “stove-piped” (a term for sending reports directly to higher-ups without benefit of analysis) to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell (who may have depended on them for passages in his address to the UN on February 5, 2003), or NSC staffers who worked on speeches for the President.

  3. The origin of the obsession with Iraq which the Bush administration brought into office in January 2001, an obsession well-documented in Clarke’s new book, in the recent book about former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, The Price of Loyalty; in Bob Woodward’s book of a year ago, Bush at War; and in a new Woodward book soon to be published. Clarke describes the obsession with Iraq as “an idée fixe, a rigid belief, received wisdom, a decision already made” eight months before the attacks of September 11. Still missing from the public record is any reliable account of why the administration was already determined to invade Iraq when it had barely heard of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda; why it chose to divert attention and resources from Afghanistan while bin Laden and leading members of the Taliban government were still at large, in order to invade Iraq; when and why it chose to justify war by citing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, how and when the decision for war was discussed with allies, especially Britain; and what the administration hoped to achieve by the conquest of Iraq. It is this obsession with Iraq which best explains the pressure on the CIA to “find” an extensive WMD program which did not exist.

Attempts to answer these questions will be resisted by the White House principally on the grounds of executive privilege, and by the CIA citing its historic understanding with British intelligence that neither will share information received from the other without its prior agreement, which the British may confidently be expected to refuse. No other administration has held its deliberations on sensitive questions more closely, and it is possible that official investigators, journalists, and historians will never really get a full understanding of the purposes and hopes of the President and his advisers as they prepared for war. But the need to explain what happened is made urgent by the now-unmistakable collapse of the official case justifying the invasion. Only one of two things could have happened—either the CIA completely misread the evidence and precipitated an unnecessary war, or the administration determined on war for reasons of its own and insisted that the CIA cobble together a best case from scraps of information in the intelligence grab bag. No official body will decide to state the choices quite this starkly, and the writers of reports will be even less willing to identify the implications. But something went terribly wrong as America debated the need for war a year ago, and each of the possible explanations raises grave questions of trust—either the CIA cannot be trusted to see the difference between real and imaginary dangers, or the agency made itself pliant and supine in the hands of the President, who exploited the CIA to make his case for war.

—April 1, 2004

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