Ray McGovern: Hagel may help restrain forces that want war against Iran; Brennan will help Obama more directly control CIA
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
President Obama announced his nominations for the new secretary of defense and director of the CIA, Chuck Hagel at defense and John Brennan for the CIA. Now joining us to discuss these appointments is Ray McGovern. Ray is a former CIA analyst for several decades. He’s a prolific writer, does many things, including he’s an often-contributor to The Real News.
Thanks for joining us, Ray.
So let’s start with Chuck Hagel at Defense. You wrote a piece for The Baltimore Sun where you thought it would be a good idea for President Obama to select Hagel, and he did. But why did you think that would be a good idea?
RAY MCGOVERN, CIA AGENT (RET.): Well, in short, Paul, Hagel is no chickenhawk. He volunteered to go to Vietnam at the worst of the fighting, wounded twice. He’d been there, done that. Okay? And he’s been very, very upfront about his reluctance or anyone’s reluctance should be to send U.S. troops into battle for no good reason.
JAY: And chickenhawk, for those that don’t know, although I suppose everybody does, is somebody who sits in Washington ordering other people to go fight.
MCGOVERN: That’s exactly right. Or you could go back to George W. Bush, who, you know, his daddy got him a job with the Texas National Guard because expressly, explicitly George Bush said he didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Or you look at Dick Cheney, with five deferments. How many deferments do you think Joe Biden had? Five. Okay? So you’ve got a bunch of people that have no direct experience in war. That is really important.
Chuck Hagel would be the first person with combat experience to be secretary of defense in 30 years. Mel Laird was the first one. He was a navalâ€”he was a midshipman.
JAY: Okay. You would think with this kind of a record it would be a rather popular choice. He’s a Republican. You would think Republicans would embrace him. But as we know, far from embracing him, there’s a campaign to block this nomination. In fact, there’s already a lobby group been formed with lots of money to take out ads against Hagel. Apparently there’s been some website created specifically just to attack Hagel. So what’s getting them all riled up?
MCGOVERN: Well, Paul, Hagel has not been sufficiently passionately attached to Israel. He said some things that have really rubbed some noses out of joint. For example, he had the temerity to say that I am the American senator, not an Israeli senator. Oh. Now, on the face of that, you know, who could object to that? Well, there’s an awful lot of people, like the felon Elliot Abrams, who I heard at NPR yesterday saying that Hagel was anti-Semitic. He’s anti-Semitic because he’s the senator from the U.S. [crosstalk]
JAY: Well, no, they say he’s anti-Semitic ’cause he talked about the Jewish lobby and not the Israel lobby. He used theâ€”he didn’t say Zionist or Israel; he said Jewish.
MCGOVERN: Yeah. Well, okay. So he said that. The problem really is that these folksâ€”they’re called the neoconsâ€”these folks who have real difficulty distinguishing between the objective aims or the strategic aims of Israel on the one hand and the strategic needs of the United States on the other, those are the people that think that Hagel might decide that contrary to even what the president has said in terms of marching in lockstep with Israel, that Hagel might say, wait a second, wait a second, does this really make sense. I mean, Mr.Â President, I know you said before the Super Bowl last year that your primary objective is the defense of the United States, and also Israel; I think we should give the United States a separate sentence this year and say, your primary objective is to secure the United States, and then if you want to add as a second sentence, “And we’re also interested in defending Israel,” that’ll be alright. But people need to know that you’re interested first and foremost in U.S. policy toward the Middle East bereft of any passionate attachment, the kind of attachment that George Washington himself warned against in hisâ€”.
JAY: It’s a very interesting appointment by Obama, because he had to know the pressure that was going to be brought to bear against him on this. He knew that the Likud, the right-wing party in power in Israel, and their allies in AIPAC and the lobby group in the United States and all the senators and members of the House, he knew this was going to be not very well liked, and he did it anyway.
MCGOVERN: Yeah, and that’s a very good sign, Paul. It shows that there’s a little bit of maybe a spine implant that Obama has gotten over Christmas. This is big.
Last year was really a rollercoaster with respect to U.S.-Israeli relations. In February, as I already said, Obama’s saying, we’re going to march in lockstep with Israel. Israel is equal foot in terms of our determination to defend it.
Come around September, come around late August, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is saying, I don’t want to be complicit if the Israelis attack Iran. Hillary Clinton is saying, you know, these red lines about Netanyahu, that’s BS; we’re not interested in that. And the president is saying, sorry, I have to be on The View on TV. I can’t meet with you, Netanyahu, when you come to the United States. There was a sea change there. Obama faced them down.
Now, this appointment, which I dearly feared would be in jeopardy because of all this opposition, Obama stood by it. And that speaks volumes. It means that the second part of 2012 is the continuity here and not the blind, the blind support of whatever Netanyahu does, including the settlements that keep going on with just verbal opposition from the United States. But that’s the thing of the past, that this is a new era, and Hagel’s going to make some changes.
JAY: Well, we don’t know yet whether there’s any change in terms of Obama and pressure on Israel vis-Ã -vis settlements and resolution with the Palestinians and two-state issues and those kinds of questions. What we do know from Obama’s historyâ€”and if you look at what he said about the Iraq War, he opposed the Iraq War not because he’s against projecting U.S. power all over the world; he just thought it was a stupid war, the Iraq War. And I think what this is telling us is he thinks an attack on Iran would be stupid and doesn’t want to do it. It doesn’t mean he’s against projecting U.S. power. And you can see this from his second appointment of John Brennanâ€”the guy he’s been sitting with choosing who to kill with drones is now head of the CIA.
MCGOVERN: Well, you’re right about that. But, you know, he also realizes now, four years later, that Afghanistan is a fool’s errand and he needs support in the Senate to contend with the backsniping that is already occurring about losing Afghanistan. So the Iran thing is crucial. And Hagel is one of the last people that would think that we could send U.S. service people into war with Iran simply because Israel started it or simply because Israel wanted us to do it. So that is big. Okay?
Now, with respect to projecting power, you know, there’s only a limited amount of power you can project. And what we’re seeing now is a retrenchment. You know the problems here in this country. I think Obama will be helped by Hagel in sort of delimiting the defense budget, which is going out of all proportion to the threats that Americans face.
JAY: I guess my point is I think it’s a rational, it’s a good thing that Hagel’s there, becauseâ€”I don’t know if people on The Real News have heard me say this; I’ve been saying it informally right from the first day Obama was president, that the one thing I was actually hopeful for is he might be more rational on Iran than the Republicans would be. I didn’t have a lot of expectations otherwise. And I think this Hagel appointment is that. But when you look at Brennan going to the CIA, does it not mean sort of an expansion of this drone assassination program?
Now, Paul, just one little footnote about Hagel. Hagel has served on the president’s foreign intelligence advisory board. That is key. He knows intelligence back and forth. And he knows very well that in NovemberÂ 2007, the entire intelligence community pronounced itself unanimously and with great confidence that Iran had stopped building a nuclear weapon at the end of 2003. And that judgment has been revalidated every year since by the director of national intelligence. I think Hagel will be able to use that cudgel against the neocons, say, why do we have to attack a country that’s not building nuclear weapons. So that’s a key thing.
You’re right to focus on Iran. I’m more hopeful now than I would have been if the president had sort of caved again and [crosstalk]
JAY: Alright. So what do you make of the John Brennan appointment as director of the CIA?
MCGOVERN: Well, I wish I could be more optimistic, Paul. I know Brennan. I know him as a young sort of failed analyst. The way you promote yourself these days at Washington is you find a job in the White House and catch the attention of people like George Tenet, who was at the White House. And Tenet brought him back when Tenet became deputy CIA director, brought him back to CIA and made him into what he is today. He even sent him to Saudi Arabia to be a chief of station.
Now, Brennan pretends to know Arabic. He can say Abdulmutallab just really goodâ€”I’ll practice that: Abdulmutallab. Okay? So when he goes before the press and he says “Abdulmutallab,” that’s very impressive. But when Helen Thomas asks him, why do they hate us, why did they do these things, why did Abdulmutallab try to knock down that plane over Deroit, he says, they’re hardwired to hate us. It’s their religion. Helen says, oh, so it’s theâ€”. Well, it’s not the religion; it’s the wayâ€”Iâ€”they just hate us, they hate us, and they’re a danger to our homeland.
Now, either Brennan is dumb (and that’s possible, you know) or he’s really sold out to the people who are profiteering on these unending wars. Right? Why would you continue to press these things? Pakistan has 175Â million people. What are we doing? We’re alienating hundreds of them every day with these drone strikes. They also have nuclear weapons. So, you know, it doesn’t make any sense, unlessâ€”.
JAY: Well, just to refresh everybody’s memory here, Brennan sits in the White House with President Obama deciding who they’re going to kill with drones. He helps draw up the kill list. Is that correct?
MCGOVERN: That’s right. Yeah. That’s pretty confirmed now. You know, picture it. Now, I’ve been in the White House. I used to brief there. But, you know, my picture is Brennan comes in on Tuesday, ’cause that’s the day they do the kill list, and he says, Mr.Â President, we have 13 here, here are the names, can you sign off on this. And Obama looks at him, and he says, well, number threeâ€”didn’t you tell me last week number three has three small kids? Well, yes, Mr.Â President, but we know, we know he’s a suspected militant, we know. So, well, look, take three, put him inâ€”let’s do three next week, and let’s just do 12 this week. Sign off. And then he goesâ€”Barack Obama goes to have a nice lunch with his wife.
Give me a break. That’s what goes on in the White House now. You know, that’s almost as bad as Condoleeza Rice presiding over demonstrations of enhanced interrogation techniques, which were also done at the White House.
JAY: And this was more or less leaked to The New York Times, right? It’s not like you’re speculating. The New York Times kind of described these meetings.
MCGOVERN: Well, yeah. This was when the White House saw some incentive in showing the president to be a tough guy like Brennan, you know. I know Brennan. He’s from northern New Jersey. He’s a tough guy. When he says, yeah, we do this without due process, well, don’t be stupid here. We do due process right here in the White House. That’s how we do due process now. Eric Holder says so. Give me a break. That’s the kind of mentality you have there. And what really, really is missing here: where’s the legal profession in this country? You know? Due process means the judiciary, it means the courts. And here they’re letting these people get away with saying no, no, we do due process here in the White House. It’s unconscionable.
JAY: So what does it mean for the CIA? Any changes from the way it’s acting?
MCGOVERN: Well, Paul, as you know, there are two CIAs, one the analysis CIA that Truman envisaged and set up. That’s the one I worked in, and that’s the one that prevented a war with Iranâ€”that’s no exaggeration, with that estimate saying they had stopped working on a nuclear weapon in 2003. That one still has some people of integrity in it. The other one that Truman never envisaged, this operational, you know, covert actions sort of thing, well, they’re riding high. They’re flying drones all over the place. And Brennan can be expected to enhance the military capabilities that really should not belong in the CIA. And Truman said so before he died.
JAY: And now President Obama has his guy controlling those drones. So in a sense it’s an extension of the drone program and what they’ve been doing together.
MCGOVERN: I think Obama, you know, has a certain confidence in Brennan that he has in nobody else. I hope it’s not a misplaced confidence. Brennan’s a pretty treacherous guy, and I think the way Obama looks at the CIA is, if he has his own man controlling the CIA, Brennan, that there’s less danger that the CIA will play games, less prospect that the CIA will get involved in the kinds of things against John F.Â Kennedy that happened then.
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Ray.
MCGOVERN: Most welcome.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.