Contextual Content

Iran: What’s intelligence got to do with it?

Intelligence work is a "fool’s errand" says former CIA senior analyst, Ray McGovern, referring to the tendency of politicians and the press to neglect or manipulate one’s work. Greg Thielmann notes that it isn’t only US intelligence officers that are neglected, adding that the threat assessments of intelligence services around the world indicate their belief that developing a nuclear weapon is one of the best ways to avoid being attacked by the United States.

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Story Transcript

RAY MCGOVERN, FMR. CIA ANALYST: The attitude struck by President Bush after the celebrated NIE [national intelligence estimate] of November 2007—we’ve talked enough about that. You know what it says. He went over to Israel and said, "Well, that’s not my view, and with all due respect to these 16 intelligence agencies, I have a different view." And that’s the way it went. Now, what is the view of the intelligence community on prospects for Afghanistan? You know, I’ve been around long enough, through Vietnam, through Iraq, to have a good feel for the fact that this is a fool’s errand. Barbara Tuchman, the famous historian, wrote a book called the The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Well, now I wish she were alive. She could add Iraq, she could add Afghanistan, and God forbid adding Iran. Now, her daughter, Jessica Tuchman-Matthews, who’s head of the Carnegie Foundation, is a worthy heir to that wisdom. And the Carnegie Foundation, which never gets any play around here—you know, you always go to AEI [American Enterprise Institute] or Brookings [Institution] or something like that. The Carnegie Foundation issued a formal study earlier this year which said the reason the Taliban are gaining strength and power is precisely because of the occupation, precisely because of the introduction of US and other troops into Afghanistan, and that spiral will continue. So that sort of underscores my appeal for the people working on Afghanistan, whether it’s in the State Department INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research] or whether it’s in the Directorate of Intelligence in the CIA, they need to find some kind of way to speak out in time, because I don’t think Obama has the experience, nor has he enough people with gray hair around him that have been through Vietnam, that know which end is up, and he has to listen to someone. You’re quite right, Phil; he doesn’t seem to be listening or even aware that the views of the intelligence community are sort of being kept out of the information role it should play in the conduct or the formation of good policy. Okay?

GREG THIELMANN, FMR. STATE DEPT. INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: I would just comment that Ray has really talked about two issues, which can be separated. One is the policymakers’ use of the intelligence community to inform itself, and the second is the public’s access to some of the bottom lines of the intelligence community in understanding what US experts think is going on. And I see the first as being almost beyond debate. Of course, that’s why we have intelligence communities, so that policymakers can be informed of what is hoped to be objective assessment. The second one is very difficult, and there’s some sort of middle ground, some sort of balance between the intelligence community being able to speak frankly and use very sensitive information and the public’s need to know. But I am a little distressed that the intelligence community seems to be going farther on the spectrum toward not having any public disclosure. You may remember that the one week before the 2007 national intelligence estimate was shared, in terms of a piece of the key judgments, the director of national intelligence said that there would no longer be any unclassified versions of national intelligence estimates, because this corrupted the process, because then the intelligence analysts were writing for the public or thinking about how it might affect the policymakers, instead of doing the honest, objective assessment. Well, ironically, in this case it seems to have been Bush and Cheney that decided you had to say something publicly, because everyone knew that there was such a different bottom line here than the 2005 national intelligence estimate had delivered on Iran that that would be horribly scandalous if they kept a lid on it and then everyone found out through leaks that there’d been this major change. So it was a very strange sequence, the intelligence community saying that we really can’t corrupt our process by letting the public know what our outcome is; Bush and Cheney, who had been masters at distorting and spinning intelligence community products, saying, no, we have to tell the public something; and then it’s released, and Bush and Cheney back off from and express themselves in disagreement with the main thrust of the intelligence estimate.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have one short comment and then a question. It seems to me that, you know, the episode with Iraq, and now with Iran, and also with North Korea, it seems that a lot of these countries don’t have the capability to get a weapon here and won’t for a long time. Even North Korea doesn’t have a missile that’ll get here. So is part of this aimed at, if you will, a neo-imperialist strategy? And we have the Cheney—as you mentioned, that Cheney was pounding the desk for war with Iran. So is that really the issue, instead of a real threat to the US?

THIELMANN: I’m spending a lot of time lately on threat assessments, and I’m also trying to look at the threat assessments of other countries with regard to the United States, which we never spend any time on, and it’s quite clear to me that the major motivation for a lot of countries developing nuclear weapons, in addition to the sort of prestige and power factor, is that they think this is the best guarantee that they will not be attacked by the United States, you know, which is one of the reasons we developed nuclear weapons, to deter an attack on the US and its allies. So, you know, this is not putting Kim [Jong-il] on a pedestal or [Mahmoud] Admadinejad out on a pedestal or anything, or praising their motives or anything; it’s just saying that we have to understand the threat assessment on the other side as well. And when you see statements by the US about how this would be bad, part of it clearly is, well, there’s the threat that US citizens can be killed or injured in huge numbers. But they also talk about, if the Iranians had nuclear weapons, our options in the region would be severely constrained. Well, yeah, I guess that would mean that we would think twice about invading Iran. Is that a bad thing? So I think you’re right to question some of the automatic assumptions we make about the evil of other countries getting nuclear weapons. I mean, I am a very strong advocate of nuclear nonproliferation, and I hope earnestly that we can talk the Iranians out of getting nuclear weapons if they have that intention, and there are all kinds of reasons for that. I do not think that the world would be safer if a lot of countries had nuclear weapons. But, again, I think one has to drill down a little bit and examine some of the catchphrases that are often used here.

MCGOVERN: Yeah. I would simply add: you remember the Axis of Evil, right? Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons. Look what happened to them. North Korea did have two or three, maybe. Look what didn’t happen to them. So you’re an Iranian, right, and you’re sitting back and saying, "Hmm." I mean, it’s a no-brainer. That’s not to say that they’ve irrevocably decided to seek a nuclear weapon, but I certainly—if I were an Iranian, I would say, well, you know, if this would prevent the US from invading or attacking us, maybe it’s worth doing that. The other thing I’d just suggest is—and I don’t know, Greg; we have discussed this. We actually didn’t really very much coordinate our remarks here. Could it be mostly a function of the press? I mean, the press is just so untrustworthy that all you need is one renegade DND or German intelligence service person in Berlin saying this and they’ll run with it. You know. Besides, of course, the German intelligence service was responsible for the famous Curveball, who gave us those mobile biological weapons manufacturing laboratories, artist renderings of which Colin Powell showed on 5 February 2003. So I don’t know. I think maybe the press is, you know, looking for stories like this, and their bent is to exaggerate the threat anyway. But—.

THIELMANN: All I would say is the press has a very tough job. All the information they get on these subjects is from people who shouldn’t be talking to them, and that provides a lot of opportunities for spinning and selling stories that serve whatever your interests are.

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