Ray McGovern was chief of the CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch in the early Seventies, and served at CIA for 27 years. He worked on the President’s Daily Brief under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. He now works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington
As the world marks the centennial of World War I, the guns of August are again being oiled by comfortable politicians and the fawning corporate media, both bereft of any sense of history. And that includes much more recent history, namely the deceitful campaign that ended up bringing destruction to Iraq and widened conflict throughout the Middle East. That campaign went into high gear 12 years ago today.
On August 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney -- who remains something of a folk hero on Fox News -- formally launched the lies leading to the U.S.-UK attack on Iraq seven months later. And on August 30, 2013, Syria was 20 hours away from a similar fate after Secretary of State John Kerry claimed falsely -- no fewer than 35 times -- to "know" that the government of Syria was responsible for using sarin nerve gas in an attack outside Damascus on August 21, 2013.
Unlike 12 years ago, when the Pentagon was run by Field Marshal Donald Rumsfeld and the military martinets who called themselves generals but danced to his tune, war with Syria was averted last year when Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey talked sense into a young President who was on the verge of making a terrible mistake by bending to the Cheneyesque hawks now perched atop the State Department.
As if to mark Cheney's day of deceit a dozen Augusts ago, this morning's Washington Post editorializes: "Stepping back into the fray: Stopping the Islamic State will require 'boots on the ground.'" As is its custom, the Post offers no enlightenment on what motivates jihadists to do unspeakably evil things -- in other words, "why they hate us" -- or why Gulf allies of the U.S. fund them with such largesse.
Sadly, the thinking of Establishment Washington is no more refined today that it was on January 8, 2010 when the late Helen Thomas asked then-White House counter-terrorism czar and now CIA Director John Brennan why the "underwear bomber," who on December 25, 2009 tried to down a U.S. passenger plane, did what he did. (See "Answering Helen Thomas on Why")
Hardwired to Hate
Thomas: "And what is the motivation? We never hear what you find out on why."
Brennan: "Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents... They attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he's (sic) able to attract these individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death."
Thomas: "And you're saying it's because of religion?"
Brennan: "I'm saying it's because of an al Qaeda organization that used the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way."
Brennan: "I think this is a -- long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland."
Thomas: "But you haven't explained why."
Neither has President Obama, or anyone else in the U.S. political/media hierarchy. All the American public gets is boilerplate about how al-Qaeda evildoers are perverting a religion and exploiting impressionable young men. There is almost no discussion about why so many people in the Muslim world object to U.S. policies so strongly that they are inclined to resist violently and even resort to suicide attacks.
It is the same now. Lacking is any frank discussion by America's leaders and media about the real motivation of Muslim anger toward the United States? Why was Helen Thomas the only journalist to raise the touchy but central question of motive? But I digress.
The Almost-War on Syria
Why did Kerry mislead the world on August 30 in professing to "know" that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical attack near Damascus on August 21? It is crystal clear that he did not know. Typically, Kerry adduced no verifiable evidence, and what his minions leaked over the following weeks could not bear close scrutiny. (See Robert Parry's "The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.")
(Parenthetically, Kerry also does not know what he professes to know about the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.)
The key question at this point is whether Gen. Dempsey can hold off the hawks at the State Department, as he did a year ago to prevent an ready-to-go U.S. attack on Syria ... or maybe Iraq again ... or how about Ukraine.
Late last summer, Dempsey had the good sense to be a reluctant soldier. He had already told Congress that a major attack on Syria should require congressional authorization, and he was aware that the "evidence" adduced to implicate the Syrian government could not pass the smell test. Besides, British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn't match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army's chemical weapons arsenal.
The British warning that the case against Syria wouldn't hold up was quickly relayed to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to Seymour Hersh, American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the President, which they believe led to his cancelling the attack. (See "The Red Line and the Rat Line.")
Actually, it was no secret that Dempsey helped change the President's mind between when Kerry spoke on the afternoon of August 30, all but promising a U.S. attack on Syria, and when President Barack Obama announced less than a day later that he would not attack but rather would seek authorization from Congress. Obama was explicit in "blaming" Dempsey, saying on the early afternoon of August 31:
"Our military has positions assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive: it will be effective tomorrow, next week, or one month from now."
This, of course, was a major defeat for those, primarily the neocons, who wanted war with Syria. By happenstance, I was given a personal window into their distress at CNN's main studio in Washington. (See: "How War on Syria Lost Its Way.")
How About Ukraine? ... Syria ... or Perhaps Iraq Again?
If the world is lucky, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham will soon have another chance to heap abuse on Gen. Dempsey for blocking direct U.S. military involvement in one or another of their favorite wars. It is a safe bet Dempsey is again warning the President that there are risks that the Russian bear will do more than just snarl if it continues to be poked by the U.S.-installed coup government in Kiev. Hopefully, at the September 4-5 NATO summit in Wales, Dempsey and other cool heads, who have had some experience in war, will again be able to head off the hotheads advocating gratuitous threatening gestures toward Russia.
This will take courage and stamina, since ill-informed Groupthink, aided and abetted by the "mainstream" media, has taken hold in Washington, in a way reminiscent of this same time 12 years ago. Sadly, there was no Martin Dempsey at hand then. The malleable careerist generals that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld picked to serve him -- like JCS Chairman Richard Myers -- could be counted on to salute smartly to all of the boss's decisions -- even on torture. Ex-general Colin Powell -- who was Peter-Principled up to be Secretary of State because he was safe -- was cut of the same cloth. So Rumsfeld together with his partner-in-crime Vice President Dick Cheney had a free hand.
By all appearances, except for Dempsey and his immediate staff, Groupthink continues to reign supreme in the foreign policy and defense councils of Establishment Washington. It is as though nothing has been learned from the destruction and chaos left behind after the U.S./UK invasion and the occupation of Iraq beginning in March 2003.
Anatomy of a Consequential Lie
With Rumsfeld covering for him at the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney led the charge exactly 12 years ago. Addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 26, 2002, Cheney launched the propaganda campaign for war on Iraq, falsely claiming, "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. ... Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." Cheney went on to warn that UN inspectors were worse than useless, since they fostered a false sense of security.
Cheney's speech provided the recipe for how the intelligence was to be cooked in September 2002. In effect, it provided the meretricious terms of reference and conclusions for a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) requested by Congress a few weeks later and completed on October 1. We now know that Robert Walpole, the intelligence official selected to chair the Estimate was receiving guidance from Cheney during the record-short drafting period. We also know that the NIE was wrong on every major judgment. Its purpose, though, was to deceive Congress out of exercising its Constitutional prerogative to declare or otherwise authorize war. And that worked like a charm.
To their discredit, many in the intelligence community knew of Cheney's and Walpole's playing fast and loose with the evidence and the White House's determination to pave the way to war. Those intelligence officials, however, simply held their noses. No one spoke out.
The whole orchestration was a fairy tale, and Cheney and his co-conspirators knew it full well. The most successful midwife of such tales, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, later bragged about his role in facilitating the spurious claims of WMD in Iraq. He said, "Saddam is gone. ... What was said before is not important. ... We are heroes in error."
Old Soldiers Never Lie; They Just Keep Their Mouths Shut
Back to the VFW convention on August 26, 2002: sitting on the stage that evening was former CENTCOM commander Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was being honored by the VFW. Zinni later said he was shocked to hear a depiction of intelligence (Iraq has WMD and is amassing them to use against us) that did not square with what he knew. Although Zinni had retired two years before, his role as consultant had enabled him to keep his clearances and stay up to date on key intelligence findings.
Zinni is among a handful of senior officials, active duty and retired, who could have prevented the war, had they spoken out at the time.
Three and a half years later, Zinni told Meet the Press, "There was no solid proof that Saddam had WMD...I heard a case being made to go to war." Zinni had earlier enjoyed a reputation as a straight shooter, with occasional displays of actual courage. And so the question lingers: why did he not make inquiries and -- if necessary -- go public?
It is an all too familiar conundrum. Senior military leaders, like Bre'r Fox, don't say nuthin'. And, almost always, it comes out badly for everyone else, but they still get to sit on corporate boards and make a ton of money. It is a safe bet Zinni now regrets letting himself be guided -- or misguided -- by what passes for professional courtesy and/or slavish adherence to classification restrictions, when he might have prevented the U.S. from starting the kind of war of aggression branded at Nuremberg as the "supreme international crime."
Tenet: Gosh! But Completely Complicit
Zinni was not the only one taken aback by Cheney's words. Then-CIA Director George Tenet says Cheney's speech took him completely by surprise. In his memoir, Tenet wrote, "I had the impression that the president wasn't any more aware than we were of what his number-two was going to say to the VFW until he said it." Tenet added that he thought Cheney had gone well beyond what U.S. intelligence was saying about the possibility of Iraq acquiring a nuclear weapon, adding piously, "Policy makers have a right to their own opinions, but not their own set of facts. ... I should have told the vice president privately that, in my view, his VFW speech had gone too far." Tenet doesn't tell us whether he ever summoned the courage to tell the President, although he briefed him several times a week.
Actually, Cheney's exaggeration could not have come as a complete surprise to Tenet. We know from the Downing Street Minutes, leaked to the press on May 1, 2005, that on July 20, 2002, Tenet himself had told his British counterpart that the president had decided to make war on Iraq for regime change and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
When Bush's senior advisers came back to town after Labor Day, 2002, the next five weeks were devoted to selling the war, a major "new product" of the kind that, as then-White House chief of staff Andy Card explained, no one would introduce in the month of August. Except that Cheney did.
After assuring themselves that Tenet was a reliable salesman, Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld allowed him to play a supporting role in advertising bogus claims of yellowcake uranium from Niger, aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment, and mobile trailers for manufacturing biological warfare agents, in order to scare Congress into voting for war. It did on Oct. 10 and 11, 2002.
Was President George W. Bush not warned of the likely impact of his attack on Iraq? He had been earlier, but the malleable Tenet opted to join the Groupthink and told his minions that, if the President wants to make war on Iraq, it's our duty to provide the "evidence" to justify it. Forgotten or suppressed were earlier warnings from the CIA about how an attack on Iraq would mean a growth industry for manufacturing terrorists.
In a major speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, four days before Congress voted for war, the President warned that "the risk is simply too great that Saddam Hussein will use instruments of mass death and destruction, or provide them to a terror network." In a sad irony, on that same day, a letter from the CIA to the Senate Intelligence Committee asserted that the probability is low that Iraq would initiate an attack with such weapons or give them to terrorists -- UNLESS: "Should Saddam conclude that a US-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions."
In a same-day assessment of Colin Powell's deceptive speech at the UN on February 5, 2003, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) warned the President to beware of those who...
"...draw a connection between war with Iraq and terrorism, but for the wrong reasons. The connection takes on much more reality in a post-US invasion scenario. Indeed, it is our view that an invasion of Iraq would ensure overflowing recruitment centers for terrorists into the indefinite future. Far from eliminating the threat it would enhance it exponentially."
"We recommend you re-read the CIA assessment of last fall  that pointed out 'the forces fueling hatred of the US and fueling al Qaeda recruiting are not being addressed,' and that 'the underlying causes that drive terrorists will persist.' We also noted that a 'CIA report cited a Gallup poll last year of almost 10,000 Muslims in nine countries in which respondents described the United States as 'ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked and biased.'"
But Groupthink set in. And courage at senior ranks in the military was in short supply. No one had the guts to properly discharge the responsibility of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the principal military adviser to the President. This is the role that Gen. Martin Dempsey stepped up to a year ago and, in the process, prevented wider war in the Middle East.
One can only hope that President Obama, in current circumstances, will keep listening to aides that know something about war.