Losing the War for Reality
When future historians look back at the sharp decline of the United States in the early 21st Century, they might identify the Achilles heel of this seemingly omnipotent nation as its lost ability to recognize reality and to fashion policies to face the real world.
Like the legendary Greek warrior – whose sea-nymph mother dipped him in protective waters except for his heel – the United States was blessed with institutional safeguards devised by wise Founders who translated lessons from the Age of Reason into a brilliant constitutional framework of checks and balances.
What the Founders did not anticipate, however, was how fragile truth could become in a modern age of excessive government secrecy, hired-gun public relations and big-money media. Sophisticated manipulation of information is what would do the Republic in.
That is the crucial lesson for understanding the arc of U.S. history over the past three decades. It is a central theme of a new book by former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman, Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.
As a senior Kremlinologist in the CIA’s office of Soviet analysis, Goodman was on the front lines of the information war in the early 1980s when ideological right-wingers took control of the U.S. government under Ronald Reagan and began to gut the key institutions for assessing reality.
One of the target institutions was the national press corps, which came under sustained assault from the Right – with reporters facing accusations of disloyalty and “liberal bias” from both inside the Reagan administration and from well-financed right-wing attack groups. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History or Secrecy & Privilege.]
Another key institution on the Right’s radar scope was the CIA’s analytical division, which was responsible for supplying objective information about the world’s dangers to senior government officials.
However, in the 1970s and early 1980s, CIA analysts were seeing evidence of an accelerating decline in the Soviet Union, especially in its technological capabilities and its economy. Thus, Moscow seemed genuinely interested in détente with the West, especially a winding down of the dangerous and expensive arms race, the analysts concluded.
“A CIA paper warning of the Soviet Union’s impending descent into economic stagnation, ‘Soviet Economic Problems and Prospects,’ was issued in 1977, setting out the reasons why the Soviet economy was in trouble and why its future was so grim,” wrote Goodman in his book.
While many Americans might have thought the Soviet decline would be good news, it wasn’t welcomed by the U.S. right-wing or inside the military industry. They preferred that the American people still perceive an ascendant and implacable communist enemy, all the better to justify brush-fire wars and higher spending on weapons systems.
So, when Reagan captured the White House in 1980, his followers set their sights on purging the CIA’s analytical division of its historical commitment to objectivity, to be replaced by a submissive readiness to deliver politically desirable data.
Robert Gates’s Role
As Goodman’s book explains in impressive detail, the key action officer for carrying out this reversal of the CIA’s analytical role was a young bureaucrat named Robert Gates, who is now George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense.
Goodman recalls the CIA’s analytical tradition of honest scholarship, which was established in the early days of the Cold War by the likes of Harvard professor William Langer, a former intelligence analyst in World War II.
“Langer and his successor, Yale professor Sherman Kent, were keen analysts in their own right and merciless in criticizing the work of their colleagues,” Goodman wrote. “Both Langer and Kent were independent, tenacious, and tough-minded. They made sure that analysts ‘told it like it was,’ even if the conclusions of the estimates were not consistent with favored policy.
“Kent emphasized that he wanted intelligence delivered with the ‘bark on,’ no matter how unpopular the message was to policymakers.”
However, that ethos began to erode in 1973 – beginning with President Richard Nixon’s appointment of James Schlesinger as CIA director and Gerald Ford’s choice of George H.W. Bush for that job in 1976 – but the principle of objectivity wasn’t swept away until Ronald Reagan put in his campaign chief, William Casey, as CIA director. Casey then chose the ambitious Robert Gates to run the analytical division.
Rather than Kent’s mandate for “bark on” intelligence, Goodman observed, “Bob Gates turned that approach on its head in the 1980s and tried hard to anticipate the views of policymakers in order to pander to their needs.
“Unlike Kent, Gates consistently told his analysts to make sure never to ‘stick your finger in the eye of the policymaker.’”
It didn’t take long for the winds of politicization to start blowing through the halls at Langley.
“Bill Casey and Bob Gates guided the first institutionalized ‘cooking of the books’ at the CIA in the 1980s, with a particular emphasis on tailoring intelligence dealing with the Soviet Union, Central America, and Southwest Asia,” Goodman wrote.
“Casey’s first NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] as CIA director, dealing with the Soviet Union and international terrorism, became an exercise in politicization. Casey and Gates pushed this line in order to justify more U.S. covert action in the Third World.
“In 1985, they ordered an intelligence assessment of a supposed Soviet plot against the Pope, hoping to produce a document that would undermine Secretary of State [George] Shultz’s efforts to improve relations with Moscow. The CIA also produced an NIE in 1985 that was designed to produce an intelligence rationale for arms sales to Iran.”
After years of overestimating growth of Soviet military spending, which had been pegged at 4 to 5 percent a year, CIA analysts sought in 1983 to correct the growth rate down to 1 percent, only to be blocked by Gates, according to Goodman.
“Gates would not permit the paper with the revised growth rates to be published, but warned [Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger, who ‘went nuts,’ according to two former CIA analysts,” Goodman wrote. “Two years later, Gates finally permitted the paper to be circulated, but he refused to publish a paper.”
The Triumph of Career
From his front-row seat at CIA headquarters, Goodman watched in dismay as Gates applied his bureaucratic skills to reverse the agency’s analytical principles.
“While serving as deputy director for intelligence from 1982 to 1986, Gates wrote the manual for manipulating and centralizing the intelligence process to get the desired intelligence product,” Goodman wrote.
Gates promoted pliable CIA careerists to top positions, while analysts with an independent streak were sidelined or pushed out of the agency.
“In the mid-1980s, the three senior [Soviet division] office managers who actually anticipated the decline of the Soviet Union and Moscow’s interest in closer relations with the United States were demoted,” Goodman wrote, noting that he was one of them.
“All understood the weakness of the Soviet Union, but were removed from their managerial responsibilities by the director of the Soviet office, Douglas MacEachin, under the orders of the deputy director of intelligence, Bob Gates.”
The reason, Goodman wrote, was: “The Reagan administration would not accept any sign of Soviet weakness or constraint, and CIA director Casey and deputy director Gates made sure intelligence analysis presented the Russian Bear as threatening and warlike.”
These institutional blinders remained in place for the rest of the 1980s.
“As a result, the CIA missed the radical change that Mikhail Gorbachev represented to Soviet politics and Soviet-American relations, and missed the challenges to his rule and his ultimate demise in 1991,” Goodman wrote.
So, when the Soviet Union – the CIA’s principal target – collapsed without any timely warning to the U.S. government, the CIA didn’t as much “miss” this development as it was blinded by ideological taskmasters to the reality playing out in plain sight.
Then, rather than take the Soviet intelligence failure to heart, Gates and other bureaucrats went to work covering their tracks. For that, they got the help of Harvard’s Kennedy School, which received hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance case studies to show that the CIA “got it right,” Goodman wrote.
“The office director for the Soviet Union during much of the 1980s, when the work of politicization was undertaken, Douglas MacEachin, was sent to Harvard as intelligence officer in residence to help the director of the case studies, Philip Zelikow, prepare these studies,” Goodman wrote.
“In 1993, MacEachin became the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence,” Goodman wrote. “Zelikow and MacEachin were reunited in 2004, when Zelikow was named staff director of the 9/11 commission and appointed MacEachin a team leader on the staff. Zelikow and MacEachin made sure that the commission did not indict the CIA for its contributions to the 9/11 intelligence failure.”
In the 1980s, two other brave analysts – Richard Barlow and Peter Dickson – were punished when they clashed with the Casey-Gates desires regarding analyses on nuclear proliferation issues, particularly evidence that Pakistan was developing a nuclear bomb.
At the time, the Reagan administration wanted the Pakistan-bomb issue downplayed because the Pakistani intelligence service was helping the United States funnel arms to Islamic fundamentalists flocking to Afghanistan to fight Soviet troops.
Ironically, after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, the chief beneficiaries of that covert U.S. program included Osama bin Laden, who used the Afghan war to organize his band of al-Qaeda terrorists, and Pakistani physicists, who did develop a nuclear bomb and sold the technology to “rogue” countries.
Yet, in the 1980s, while out-of-step analysts were pushed aside, many of Gates’s protégés – the likes of John McLaughlin, Paul Pillar and Alan Foley – went on to successful CIA careers. Eventually, they would play key roles in the politicizing of the intelligence on Iraq’s WMD, Goodman wrote.
A central theme of Goodman’s book is that the consequences of this obsequious intelligence – this failure to face reality – have been disastrous:
“Much of the intelligence damage in the run-up to the Iraq War was due to the DI [the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence] believing that it was actually ‘serving’ the White House in preparing its assessments of Iraqi WMD. [Old-time analysts] Langer and Kent did not see themselves as ‘serving’ the White House, but ‘informing’ the White House.”
Goodman noted that other cozy relationships helped advance Gates’s career and blocked a truthful recounting of recent American history. Goodman even traced the end of serious congressional oversight of intelligence to 1991 and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s capitulation during Gates’s confirmation hearings to be CIA director.
After Gates had been blocked from the top CIA job in 1987 because of his ties to the Iran-Contra scandal, Gates “set about to launder his credentials and particularly to insinuate himself with [Sen. David] Boren,” D-Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Goodman wrote.
“In 1991, the White House checked with Boren to see if Gates could receive confirmation this time around, and Boren angered many Democrats on the intelligence committee when he guaranteed confirmation to White House aide Boyden Gray.”
But a firestorm over Gates’s role in politicizing CIA intelligence threatened his nomination in fall 1991. Rather than back off this time, however, President George H.W. Bush told committee Republicans “that he was ‘going to the mat’ for Gates and wanted his nomination confirmed at all cost,” Goodman wrote.
Gates’s future ultimately was saved by Boren and his top aide, George Tenet, who shepherded the nomination through the committee and then the full Senate.
Once Gates got in as director, he went to work shielding Bush from political scandal, including Bush’s secret military support of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq during the 1980s, according to Goodman.
Gates helped squelch the House Banking Committee’s examination of a multi-billion-dollar Iraqi-financing operation involving the Italian-owned Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Goodman wrote, adding:
“The fact is that the Bush administration was engaged in an effort to subsidize and arm Saddam Hussein right up to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the CIA was totally aware of these efforts.”
The Casey-Gates approach of putting politics and ideology ahead of objective analysis was still alive and well a decade later when then-CIA director George Tenet offered President George W. Bush the “slam-dunk” intelligence on Iraq’s WMD.
Though Goodman suspects that Bush would have invaded Iraq whatever the CIA did, “it is conceivable … that honest leadership from George Tenet and John McLaughlin and a strong CIA stand could have created more opposition to the war from the Congress, the media, and the public,” Goodman wrote.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Goodman wrote: “The CIA’s failure in the run-up to the Iraq War was a total corporate breakdown.”
Even in the wake of the Iraq WMD disaster, politicization has remained dominant, according to Goodman.
Tenet’s successor, former Republican congressman Porter Goss, issued a memo to the CIA staff telling them to “support the administration and its policies in our work. As Agency employees, we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies.”
In Goodman’s view, other post-9/11 changes in the structure of the U.S. intelligence community – such as topping it off with another presidential appointee as Director of National Intelligence – have failed to address the underlying problem of a lost ethos that was committed to telling the truth no matter the political consequences.
Faced with mounting opposition to the Iraq War in 2006, President Bush also dipped back into his father’s old roster of pliable bureaucrats and brought Robert Gates back into the government as Secretary of Defense. Gates helped put a fresh face on the “surge.” [For more on Gates, see Consortiumnews.com's archive, "Who Is Bob Gates?"]
Lost Moral Compass
To Goodman, the erroneous intelligence analyses – that caused the United States to massively over-spend on military hardware to confront a declining Soviet threat in the 1980s and that led the nation into a bloody quagmire in Iraq this decade – were not simply mistakes.
“The intelligence provided in the Gorbachev era and the run-up to the Iraq War represented the failure of the CIA’s moral compass,” Goodman wrote. “There have been pluses and minuses over the sixty-year history of the CIA, but the past twenty-five years have provided an unending cycle of failure in telling truth to power. …
“The moral failure is the most worrisome aspect of all because, without the willingness to tell truth to power, reform and reorganization of CIA become irrelevant.”
That lost ethos of seeking truth and telling it – both in the political and journalistic worlds – also goes a long way to explaining how the American Republic lost its way.