Daily Brief with Ray McGovern

Bush, Tenet, Iraq, Conservatives, Vietnam and Sept. 11 through the eyes of a 27-year CIA analyst

Photo by Jack GouldWhen I ask Ray McGovern if the findings of President Bush's commission on intelligence failures in Iraq will give us answers—even if it doesn't get them to us until well after the November election—he has a one-word answer: "No."

McGovern is a measured man with a steady voice. For 27 years—from JFK to George H.W. Bush—he worked as a CIA analyst, chairing National Intelligence Estimates and preparing the president's Daily Brief. He's now co-director of Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C., an inner-city school that provides training and other support for the poor.

I take McGovern's thumbs-down on Bush's commission as part of my daily brief. What I need next is a rundown on current CIA director George Tenet, the man who is to intelligence what Mel Gibson is to crucifixions.

"I think Tenet will be around at least through the election," McGovern says. "There are two reasons for this—the same two reasons that kept him around after Sept. 11, 2001."

"Explain," I say trying to sound presidential.

"One would have thought that the raison d'être for the Central Intelligence Agency was to prevent another Pearl Harbor," McGovern says. "One would have thought that the person most responsible for this would have been cashiered on Sept. 12. Not so. So the question is: Why not so?"

"So, why not?" I ask.

"First of all, George Tenet warned the president of the United States about the threat of terrorism almost ad nauseam during the entire spring and summer of 2001. In the final analysis, the president had been warned often enough and long enough. He should have done something about it."

"Why didn't he?" I wonder.

"Because Bush didn't know what to do," McGovern says. "And Condoleezza Rice, his adviser on such things, didn't know a thing about terrorism. By her own admission, she hadn't opened the file that [Clinton National Security Advisor] Sandy Berger left behind that said, 'Read This File First.' She knew a lot about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but nothing about terrorism. The charitable explanation for why nothing was done is gross ineptitude and gross malfeasance."

"What about Tenet?"

"George Tenet no doubt has a little computer disc with the 27 or so warnings that he gave the president starting in spring and going right up until September 2001," says McGovern. "The president and his advisers in the White House, knowing this, didn't dismiss Tenet after Sept. 11 because it was too much of a risk. Were they to have dismissed Tenet on Sept. 12, they could not have been sure that he wouldn't have said, 'Wait a second. Let me print off some of these warnings. Let me show you what I told the president in the President's Daily Brief on Aug. 6, 2001.' So that's reason No. 1.

"Reason No. 2 is that Tenet is simply too useful of a guy to have around," McGovern continues. "He does what he's told. If he's told to do an estimate and told to make sure the conclusions come out the same as a Dick Cheney speech from the month before, he'll do it."

McGovern is referring to the National Intelligence Estimate that Tenet cranked out after Cheney's August 2002 WMD pep rally. It was a cart-before-the-horse exercise in policy-making: Cheney makes unsubstantiated claims in public. The intelligence agency fashions a report to cover his backside. According to an article penned by McGovern for TomPaine.com, "The conclusions of that estimate have now been proven—pure and simple—wrong."

The real reasons for the Iraq War, he says, are to be found online at the neo-conservative website the Project for the New American Century (newamericancentury.org). "And I would simply add, not as an afterthought but as a core part of this whole calculus, that this war was fought as much for Israeli strategic objectives as it was for American strategic objectives. As a matter of fact, the people running our policy toward Iraq have great difficulty distinguishing between the two."

As McGovern is speaking, I notice a slight rise in the pitch of his voice—an almost imperceptible quarter-step jump.

"If I'm sounding a little angry here," he says, "well, there's no word to describe it." There's a silence. "Outrage is just too pale a word to describe how we intelligence officials feel about George Tenet being so willing to prostitute our intelligence product, to cook it up to the recipe of high policy. That is the unpardonable sin of intelligence, and he's still doing it."

An image of George Tenet pandering outside the Capitol in a bustier, fishnet stockings and spiked heals interrupts my train of thought. The big eyebrows have got to go.

McGovern erases the image. Apparently, he experienced this type of intelligence whoring first-hand. "I saw it in Vietnam," he says. "And usually it was the president himself or the White House that was responsible in the final analysis. Think Gulf of Tonkin."

On Aug. 5, 1964, intelligence officials told the media that North Vietnamese gunboats had attacked U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was pure fiction, but it became Lyndon Johnson's rationale for escalating the U.S.'s involvement in Vietnam and cleared the way for a decade of war.

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