Retired CIA analyst and Co-Founder, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of how 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab soiled his underpants with a makeshift bomb over Detroit last Christmas hung out so much dirty linen on the crowded clothes line of the U.S. intelligence community that it was an easy call to get rid of Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair.
The Senate committee’s findings released on Tuesday showed the community in all-too-familiar disarray — adrift with no helmsman strong, savvy and courageous enough to bang heads together to get the far-flung intelligence bureaucracies to cooperate. The report is a damning catalogue of misfeasance and mistakes.
Yet, given recent precedent, with the intelligence community screwing up so clearly and regularly with no accountability, the Christmas Day fiasco and other recent misadventures might not have been enough to send Blair packing.
Rather, the underpants-bomber fiasco should be seen as the proximate cause of Blair’s abrupt departure — which came without so much as the de rigueur thank-you to President Obama for “the privilege of serving.” Truth be told, the White House and the CIA have been out to get Blair for many months.
An incompetent manager? Seems so. But Blair, a retired four-star Navy admiral, also demonstrated a strain of integrity. And that can often be the kiss of death in Official Washington.
On substantive issues, like Iran’s nuclear program, Blair did not show the malleability that is desired by those who are out to zap Iran; I believe it likely that these get-Iran hawks helped to zap Blair.
Denied His Own Staff
Last year, the hawks also had their feathers ruffled by Blair’s choice of independent-minded former Ambassador Chas Freeman to be chair of the National Intelligence Council, without clearing this first with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
The NIC has purview over the preparation of National Intelligence Estimates and the President’ Daily Brief — the two premier intelligence publications.
Blair’s choice of Freeman raised the ire of Washington’s still-influential neoconservatives and their allies in the Obama administration because he was regarded as a “realist” on the Middle East, rather than someone who would side reflexively with Israel.
When rumors began to circulate about Freeman’s appointment, the neocons unleashed a media barrage, denouncing his criticism of Israel and his associations with the Saudi and Chinese governments. One influential column, entitled “Obama’s Intelligence Blunder,” was published Feb. 28, 2009, on the Washington Post’s neocon-dominated op-ed page, written by Jon Chait of The New Republic, another important neocon journal.
Still, on the morning of March 10, 2009, Blair described the high value that Freeman “will” bring to the job — “his long experience and inventive mind,” for example.
Enter Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut who simply could not abide someone in that post with open respect for the rights and interests of both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. By five o’clock that afternoon, Freeman was told by Blair to announce that he (Freeman) had asked that his selection “not proceed.”
To his credit, Freeman went down swinging. He made it clear that he was withdrawing his “previous acceptance” of Blair’s invitation to chair the NIC because of the character assassination of him orchestrated by the Israel Lobby.
Freeman added: “The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views … and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those it [the Lobby] favors.”
Foreign policy analyst Chris Nelson described the imbroglio as a reflection of the “deadly power game regarding what level of support for controversial Israeli government policies is a ‘requirement’ for U.S. public office.”
Schumer led Lobby boasting. “His [Freeman’s] statements against Israel were way over the top,” Schumer said. “I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing.”
Though the Freeman flap soon faded away, Blair had suffered a political hit and had made some powerful enemies.
I recall the “morning after,” as I found myself wondering when White House chief of staff Emanuel – who reportedly was Schumer’s go-to guy on the get-Freeman campaign – saw fit to let Admiral Blair in on the little secret that no way could he have Freeman.
And I wondered why Blair tucked tail, rather than quit in protest of having his choice for the nation’s senior intelligence analyst blackballed. It is, after all, a position that is supposed to be about objectivity, giving the President unvarnished information, not ideologically favored spin.
A Messy Structure
It seems clear now that Admiral Blair was doomed to failure from the start, as was the bureaucratic superstructure built around the Director of National Intelligence as a key reform that followed the twin intelligence failures on 9/11 and Iraq’s WMD.
The DNI was given the supremely difficult task of ruling over the intelligence community, a responsibility previous invested in the Director of Central Intelligence. The job was hard enough, but Blair was hampered further because he lacked the strong personal support of President Obama.
I served under nine directors of central intelligence — several of them at close remove. Admiral Stansfield Turner, who was picked by his Naval Academy classmate Jimmy Carter, was the only one who really grasped the reins of the entire intelligence community and made it cohere.
A few years ago, as Admiral Turner and I sat together waiting to go into a TV studio, I had a chance to ask him how he was able to do that. To the best of my recollection, this is what he told me:
“I was in command of the Sixth Fleet cruising in the Med when I was tipped off that I was about to get a call from the president-elect. There had been earlier signs that Carter was going to ask me to be his Director of Central Intelligence.
“Now, Ray, when you know you’re going to be made that kind of offer — one you can’t really refuse — that’s precisely the time when you need to think long and hard about how you might use what little bargaining power you may have at that point, in order to improve your chances for success in the new job. I had about ten minutes. Then the call came.
“Mr. President-elect, I said, as a former naval officer you will be able to appreciate this conundrum I see. The job is twofold. I would have no trouble running the CIA — I can run the Sixth Fleet; I can run the CIA.
“What gives me pause is the equally important — maybe more important — job of running the entire intelligence community. As a military man I am very reluctant to accept responsibility for something over which I have only tenuous authority.
“And my experience with the intelligence community suggests that the fiefdoms that comprise it will not work together effectively, no matter what I say or do, UNLESS you make it clear that I have the authority derived from the President, commensurate with my responsibility in leading the entire community. If you can make that clear, I will accept the nomination with gusto.”
Carter said he would take care of it and shortly thereafter came a directive from the President-elect to heads of the main national security and intelligence agencies and staffs. In it Carter announced he had selected Turner to be his DCI, that ALL addressees would cooperate fully with him as he harnesses the intelligence community behind the new administration’s main objectives, and that he had instructed Turner to let him know immediately, should there be any sign that he was not getting the full and unfettered cooperation he would need as the chief intelligence adviser to the President. That did it, Turner told me.
Turner was too modest to add what I had already learned as a lesson about his tenure, that an effective director of the intelligence community needs the courage to put noses out of joint. He should NOT adopt “team player” mode that so many intelligence directors since Turner have succumbed to.
If Turner was not getting full cooperation from, say, the FBI, he would simply go down to the White House and let President Carter and/or his advisors know. The attorney general and/or the FBI director would promptly receive the necessary remedial instructions.
Consummate Team Player
Two decades later, “team player” George Tenet (the team being George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld) stood this on its head. Nary a nose did timid, incurious George put out of joint.
But Tenet, who had mastered the skills of serving his “principal” as a staff aide to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren, was so well-liked in Washington that even the 9/11 Commission was reluctant to offer pointed criticism of his gross misfeasance in his community role.
(At one hearing, commissioner Jamie Gorelick fawned over Tenet, noting with admiring wonderment what she said especially distinguished him; namely, that everyone in the Establishment simply called him “George,” and all automatically knew to whom they were referring. Amazing!)
Instead of affixing blame for 9/11, co-chair Lee Hamilton, Gorelick and others kept wringing their hands, complaining that no one was in charge of the intelligence community. True enough, but that was by no means solely due to the organizational anomaly that gave the DCI responsibility for managing both the agency and the entire intelligence community.
It had much more to do with Tenet’s reluctance to give the needed time and attention to the rest of the community and make it work together. Tenet preferred to direct his gaze upward, drawing on the bureaucratic skills he had learned as a Capitol Hill aide, ingratiating himself with the powerful and never putting them — or himself — in an uncomfortable situation.
You don’t insinuate yourself into top jobs in Washington, or get to stay in them, by knocking important noses out of joint, no matter how badly such disfigurement is needed. No one ever needed plastic surgery after an encounter with George Tenet.
On July 22, 2004, the day the 9/11 report was released, I had been asked to comment on it immediately at the BBC’s studio in Washington. After expressing amazement at the report’s bizarre bottom line, that the calamity seemed to be no one’s fault, I emerged from the studio and promptly bumped into two commissioners, Jamie Gorelick and Slade Gorton. They had been waiting on deck in the outer room.
Gorelick went in first; I thought to myself, now’s your chance, McGovern. I approached Gorton and said that I was bothered by the report’s mantra that no one is in charge of the intelligence community and the commission’s misguided notion that a new DNI superstructure should be placed atop it.
I said that no doubt you are well aware that, by statute, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet is supposed to be in charge of the community and to ensure that all agencies cooperate.
Gorton put his arm around me, as senior ex-senators are wont to do, and in an avuncular voice (as if explaining something pretty basic to a freshman), said: “Yes, of course I know that, Ray. But Tenet would not do it.”
My follow-up question was to be: So you all are advocating an entirely new superstructure just because George Tenet “would not do it?” Unfortunately, the door opened, Gorelick walked out and Gorton escaped into the studio.
The year 2004 was an election year and, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the commission report, members of Congress wished to be seen as doing something — anything. So, they moved to enact many of the 9/11 Commission’s “reforms.”
By then, the CIA and the just-resigned Tenet had been completely discredited, not only for failures prior to 9/11 but also for the unconscionable cooking of intelligence to justify war on Iraq.
Yet, instead of focusing on individual responsibility for 9/11 and the politicization of the CIA’s analytical division – what might be called cultural failures – Congress found it easier to diagram a new bureaucracy.
Protests from intelligence professionals were seen as self-serving. So, we got a new Director of National Intelligence ostensibly to preside over the whole enchilada, but WITHOUT the kind of authority and support Carter gave Turner.
Admirals and Admirals
If recent years have proved anything, it is this: there are admirals; and then there are admirals.
Admirals in the mold of Stansfield Turner — like William (Fox) Fallon and Joint Chiefs’ Chairman Mike Mullen – are one thing. They represent the tough independence that the Navy often requires of its senior officers.
Near the end of the Bush administration, Fallon and Mullen deserved most of the credit for facing down Vice President Dick Cheney and persuading President Bush that war with Iran would not be a good idea and that Israel needed to be told exactly that — in no uncertain terms. That was just three years ago; war was pretty close.
Then there are the admirals who know how to salute and avoid confrontations, the likes of Mike McConnell, who was snatched away from his sinecure as VP at Booz-Allen & Hamilton marketeer to become the second director of national intelligence, apparently because he was judged to be incapable of doing much harm.
What McConnell lacked in managerial knowhow, well, let me put it this way; he in no way made up for that lack by his substantive expertise. Three poignant illustrative vignettes involving the hapless McConnell come to mind.
(1) Testifying before the Senate, McConnell was asked to venture a guess as to why Israel might put forward a more alarming view of Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon than that of the U.S. intelligence community. He was at a loss for an answer.
(2) At times McConnell would display his naïveté by saying too much. The subject of torture came up in an interview McConnell gave Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker magazine. McConnell innocently told Wright that, for him:
“Waterboarding would be excruciating. If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can’t imagine how painful! Whether it’s torture by anybody else’s definition, for me it would be torture.”
Later, McConnell let slip the rationale for the Bush administration’s refusal to admit that waterboarding is torture. For anyone paying attention, that rationale had long been a no-brainer. But here is McConnell inadvertently articulating it:
“If it is ever determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it.”
(3) More damning was “Malleable Mike” McConnell’s attempts to finesse the key judgments of the bombshell NIE of November 2007, which directly contradicted what Bush and Cheney had been saying about the imminence of a nuclear threat from Iran.
Facing withering criticism from the likes of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and the irrepressible former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, McConnell backpedaled.
In testimony to the Senate on Feb. 5, 2008, he confessed to careless wording in the NIE due to time constraints, and even indicated he “probably would have changed a thing or two.”
Whereas the NIE started out with a straightforward, “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” McConnell indicated he would now prefer to say, for example, that “maybe even the least significant portion [of the Iranian nuclear program; i. e., the warhead] was halted and there are other parts that continue.”
A Mixed Bag
McConnell’s successor Blair was in no way a strong manager as DNI. And with an increasingly bloated staff tripping over one another, there was little hope that Blair was up to the job of taking hold of the intelligence community.
Nor was there any sign that he ever thought to ask President Obama for the necessary endorsement and support. Besides, Blair seems to have been an innocent to the ways of Washington.
Anyone could have told him there would be no percentage in locking horns with CIA Director Leon Panetta with the latter’s longstanding political connections in this town and a CIA staff that has proven past master at political infighting.
Worse still, Blair let himself be used in a way no U.S. intelligence official should permit. Those in the Obama administration who think it’s a good idea to put U.S. citizens on the CIA assassination list needed to send up a trial balloon to see if Congress and the media would look the other way.
And so, in February, the White House inflated the balloon for Blair to float at a congressional hearing. He contended that there were certain counterterrorism cases that could involve killing an American citizen. There were very few objections from Official Washington.
Administration officials have since cited secret evidence showing that the Yemen-based Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s connections to al-Qaeda have gone “operational,” thus making him a target for killing even though he is a native-born American citizen. The Bill of Rights be damned.
I would wager Blair regrets letting himself be used like that. I have independent confirmation that during the Sixties at the Naval Academy the curriculum included a block of instruction on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
A Saving Grace
There is one substantive matter of considerable significance, on which Blair did muster the courage to stand up. He withstood intense pressure from those wishing to exaggerate the danger that Iran could have a nuclear weapon soon.
There is no sign that whoever succeeds him will have the courage or the professionalism to face down those in Congress and the administration determined to exaggerate that threat, to the point where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be emboldened to launch a “pre-emptive” attack (the term now in vogue for what the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal called a “war of aggression”).
In testimony before Congress early this year, Blair virtually wore out the subjunctive mood in addressing Iran’s possible plans for a nuclear weapon. His paragraphs were replete with dependent clauses, virtually all of them beginning with “if.”
Blair repeated verbatim the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate judgment that Iran is “keeping the option open to develop nuclear weapons,” while also repeating the intelligence community’s agnosticism on the $64 question: “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
Addressing the uranium enrichment plant at Qom, Blair said its small size and location under a mountain “fit nicely with a strategy of keeping the option open to build a nuclear weapon at some future date, if Tehran ever decides to do that.”
Such “advancements lead us to affirm our judgment from the 2007 NIE that Iran is technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon in the next few years, if it chooses to do so.”
Notably absent from Blair’s testimony was the first “high confidence” judgment of the 2007 NIE that “in fall 2003 Iran halted its nuclear weapons program,” and the “moderate confidence” assessment that Iran had not restarted it.
That was the most controversial judgment in 2007. But Blair did not disavow it. Nor did he weasel on it, as McConnell did. He simply didn’t mention it — probably in an attempt to let that sleeping dog lie.
A “Memorandum to Holders” is intelligence jargon for updating a definitive estimate, like the one from November 2007, with any necessary changes. As has been the custom in recent years, one regarding the Iranian nuclear program has been delayed and delayed again. The Washington Post says it is now due in August.
There is no minimizing the importance of this update. It needs to be as honest as the earlier NIE, though that will take courage and clout.
In this sense, I regret Blair’s departure. For those now in charge are relative non-entities with, truth be told, very little experience in intelligence work and still less clout. It is doubtful they will be able to stand up against the mounting pressures to paint Iran in the most alarmist colors.
The task is complicated by the recent tripartite Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal. With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her neocon friends and supporters already trashing this viable initiative, it will take courage to point out clearly to the President the relative merits of allowing Iran to transfer half of its low enriched uranium to Turkey and then onward for further processing.
Except for the political pressures, not much courage should be needed. By any objective measure, the relative merits should be pretty obvious, IF one is willing to disappoint Israel. (Where is Chas Freeman when we need him?)
According to press reports, the leading candidate to succeed Dennis Blair is retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, whose record does not inspire confidence. Clapper has a well-deserved reputation for giving consumers of intelligence what they want to hear.
He now serves as undersecretary of intelligence at the Defense Department, working for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was the chief bureaucrat responsible for politicizing U.S. intelligence in the 1980s as an apparatchik for CIA Director William Casey.
Some of my colleagues in Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity have the book on Clapper, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1991 to 1995. There, according to Larry Johnson, Clapper earned the reputation of “worst-ever DIA director.”
Among other things, he restructured DIA’s analytical corps, removing an analysis capability that would have been an invaluable asset in the period before 9/11 and succeeding years. As a direct result, hundreds of the most experienced analysts took early retirement, and DIA has had to play catch-up ever since to reconstruct its analytic capability.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Pat Lang, who held some of the most senior positions at DIA, told me Friday, “Clapper is a man who is just a walking mass of ambition.”
What I find most damaging, though, is the fact that Clapper was head of the National Geo-spatial Agency from 2001 to 2006. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chose well, for his purposes.
It is abundantly clear that Clapper smothered any imagery analyst who suggested that, since there was not a trace of WMD in the various kinds of available imagery of Iraq, there might not be any WMD.
Clapper, rather, was one to salute and enthusiastically subscribed to the Rumsfeld dictum: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Quick, someone tell Barack Obama about Clapper before the President is led once again down the garden path.
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