The Common Good
November-December 2003

The Burden of Truth

by Jim Rice, Rose Marie Berger | November-December 2003

Two former CIA analysts talk about the lies behind the Iraq war and the heavy weight of conscience.

Ray McGovern came to the CIA in 1964 in the wake of President John Kennedy's call to "ask what you can do for your country." For the next 27 years, McGovern did his best to speak the truth, as he saw it, to those in power—including presidents and their national security staffs. David MacMichael also worked for the CIA, investigating Reagan administration claims that Nicaragua was fomenting regional wars. Both men came to the conclusion that ideology and politics, not "truth," was fueling U.S. foreign policy, in Iraq and elsewhere, and have since been on a mission to bring light to the shady world of spy vs. spy—and encourage their former intelligence colleagues to refuse to remain silent. They were interviewed in July by Sojourners editors Rose Marie Berger and Jim Rice.

Sojourners: In the buildup to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration made allegations about Iraq that are proving to be demonstrably false. Were they just misunderstandings of intelligence data, or were we sold a bill of goods? Was it an honest mistake?

Ray McGovern: No, by no stretch of the imagination was it an honest mistake. We were able to tell by last fall that there was very little substance to the main charges with respect to weapons of mass destruction. Even the sanitized version of the National Intelligence Estimate that was put on the CIA Web site—if you have any experience in intelligence, you could see what a thin reed they were relying on, and that there was little possibility of substantiating Dick Cheney's claim that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. That, of course, is the mushroom cloud that scared Congress into ceding its power to wage war.

Sojourners: Why is that significant?

McGovern: It's the first time that I've seen such a long-term, orchestrated plan of deception by which one branch of our government deliberately misled the other on a matter of war and peace. Here was a very calculated plan, proceeding from a "Mein Kampf" type of document. All one need do is consult the Project for the New American Century on the Web to see the ideological and strategic underpinnings of this campaign. The first objective was to deceive Congress into approving the plans. They succeeded masterfully. They had their war, and they thought that in the wake of the war, with Iraqis opening their arms to us, no one would really care whether there were, in fact, weapons of mass destruction. They were absolutely wrong on that. People do care, as one by one our servicemen and women are killed in a war fought on false pretences.

David MacMichael: The use of deception to frighten Congress and secure its consent for the October resolution reflects the way our government has been functioning in the area of war and peace for more than half a century. Congress has effectively resigned its power in these areas to the executive. This has been done over and over again, mostly notably in the case of Vietnam, and the response of Congress has been nearly always to pass what is, by my definition, a plainly unconstitutional act, the War Powers Act.

Sojourners: Do you think that those deceptions amount to high crimes and misdemeanors?

MacMichael: It's rather more serious than misleading about dalliances with interns.

McGovern: I was strongly in favor of the impeachment of Bill Clinton, because he lied under oath. When a president of the United States lies under oath, he should be impeached, in my view. Certainly deceiving Congress and the people of the United States into waging an unprovoked war is a matter of a different scale altogether.

Sojourners: Bush administration officials claimed to have no knowledge that the allegations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were thoroughly discredited and the "evidence" proven to be forgeries before it was made public. Are they telling the truth?

McGovern: I go back to Yul Brynner's famous line in The King and I: "It is a false lie." The real sin was committed back in September 2002, when that false lie was dragged out and used as the most persuasive evidence that Saddam Hussein was about to get nuclear weapons in his hands. It was a PR masterpiece. That was where the damage was done. That's where the constitutional crisis comes in.

Sojourners: So you'd say that the intelligence was being used to support policy, not to shape it?

McGovern: That's correct. That's the unpardonable sin for an intelligence analyst. That is a violation of our ethic. It's a violation of honesty, and it's a violation of the orderly progress of government. If a president cannot go to the CIA and say, "Look, I want a straight answer here. I don't care what the State Department says, or what the Defense Department says. I want you to tell me what you really think." If he cannot do that, then the president is missing an essential tool for the orderly conduct of foreign policy.

Sojourners: It appears in that formulation that the president honestly went for a candid assessment and didn't get it. Is that how you see the situation?

McGovern: Whether the president was aware of all the chicanery around him or not, I don't know—but I ask you, which would be worse?

Sojourners: Tell us about your journey. How did you get to where you are today?

MacMichael: In the early 1980s, I was working at the National Intelligence Council over at Langley, in the analytic group. Our main task was the preparation of National Intelligence Estimates, and I had the dubious honor of heading the drafting of one or two of these. It was then that I became totally convinced that the Reagan administration was seriously misrepresenting the evidence used to justify its supposedly covert war on Nicaragua.

After returning from a trip to Nicaragua, I wanted to find some way of trying to alter the ongoing policy the government followed both in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and came across Witness for Peace. I helped out filing papers for a little while until I got some knowledge of who these people were and what they were about.

Sojourners: Doing some investigation of them, as it were.

MacMichael: Precisely. Just because people put a cross on their door doesn't mean they're people I want to associate with!

After several events in Nicaragua—including the attacks on the airport, the mining of the harbors, and a few other things—I became convinced that we were in real danger of an open U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. I said, "Well, if I'm going to speak out, I'd better do it before the event instead of after it."

If I required moral justification for what I was doing, it was my acquaintance with inspiring figures like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Father Miguel D'Escoto in Nicaragua, whom I came to know well. That helped me to believe that what I was doing was not only necessary but also right, and that has helped me sleep better at night.

Sojourners: Ray, what was your work with the CIA?

McGovern: I considered my work with the Central Intelligence Agency to be the best job ever. It involved preparing and presenting the president's daily brief, briefing one-on-one to the vice president, secretaries of State and Defense, the assistant to the president for national security affairs, and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. My experience was that we on the analytic side of things were able to do what the scripture says on the entrance to the building, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." It's not always possible to know the truth, but it's always possible to gather the evidence and that, by and large, is what we were able to do.

Sojourners: For many of us, the CIA represents illegal assassinations, the overthrow of duly elected governments, and the like more than it does truth-telling. Do you think one can live a life of integrity while working inside the system?

MacMichael: There is an inherent seduction in being on the inside—the belief, which is sometimes justified, that you can have more influence if you are on the inside "speaking truth to power," or at least maybe speaking half-truths to power. C.S. Lewis in his trilogy pointed out that that is a seduction, and it almost always leads to failure. Ray alluded to Nazi Germany. If properly organized, a system need only have a small minority of its officials involved directly in the apparent evil-doing. The others shuffle the papers and write the memoranda and don't have to go down into the torture chambers.

Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), which we founded in January, recently challenged U.S. intelligence officers who believe their work is incorrectly represented by the administration that they have an ethical duty to stand up and tell the general public, "This is wrong."

Sojourners: What led you to go public in your opposition to what the government was doing?

McGovern: Toward the end of World War II, one of the few Germans who spoke out against the war, a man named Albrecht Haushofer, was imprisoned in Berlin. The people in charge of the prison were required to get an admission of guilt from a prisoner before execution. Just days before his death, Albrecht composed a sonnet he titled "Guilt," which says in part, "Okay, I acknowledge I was guilty, but it is other than you think. I should have earlier recognized my duty. I should have more sharply called evil evil. My own heart, my own conscience, I too long betrayed. I lied to myself and others for too long, because I knew earlier what this whole course would lead to. I warned, but not hard enough and clear." I believe we are all guilty of that, even those of us who did warn. We didn't warn early enough and we didn't warn sharp enough and we didn't warn "clear."

I see that as our task now. As we recognized that intelligence would play an incredibly important role in how the war would be "justified," we founded VIPS. This movement is directed at speaking clearly, speaking definitively enough from our own experience in intelligence so that our fellow citizens can make their own judgments with respect to the rectitude or deception attending this war.

Sojourners: You've mentioned a colleague at the CIA named Sam Adams who wrestled with these issues during the Vietnam War.

McGovern: Sam uncovered the fact that there were twice as many Vietnamese Communists under arms as the military in Saigon was willing to admit. Over lunch Sam told me of a cable from Gen. Creighton Abrams that said in effect, "We can't very well say that there are twice as many Viet Cong as we thought there were. The press would have a field day about this." I said to myself, My God, that cable needs to be taken to The New York Times. I never suggested that to Sam. He never did do that. The Tet offensive just two months later demonstrated that Sam was right—at great human cost. And the war dragged on for seven more years.

A senior CIA official later made the mistake of jocularly asking Adams if he thought the Agency had "gone beyond the bounds of reasonable dishonesty." I had to restrain Sam, who had not only a keen sense of integrity but firsthand experience of what our troops were experiencing in the jungles of Vietnam. Adams himself became, in a very real sense, a casualty of Vietnam. He died of a heart attack at 55, with remorse he was unable to shake. You see, he decided to "go through channels." He allowed himself to be diddled for so many years that by the time he went public the war was mostly over—and the damage done.

The reason I didn't go public myself was because I had just been selected for a plum assignment abroad. Rather than face into it, I equivocated. I said to myself, "This is a great career, and if you stay in here you may get to fight better battles and do even more good"—all these seductive, intoxicating pretexts for avoiding facing the issue and saying this is a major lie perpetrated by our country. I regret that very much. I failed.

Sojourners: Are we going to be seeing the same kinds of intelligence estimates about Iran's alleged weapons of mass destruction and the peril thereof as we did about Iraq? Is Iran next?

MacMichael: It's a matter of near certainty that the United States will apply diplomatic, public relations pressure on Iran, an already designated rogue state. But in terms of taking the type of military action that we took against Iraq, I don't anticipate that that will happen, if for no other reason than we have our military hands full in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

McGovern: The war on Iraq was just as much prompted by the strategic objectives of the state of Israel as it was the strategic objectives of the United States. The people running this war are people who are well attuned to Israel's objectives. The authors of the Project for the New American Century have set out for the United States to become the dominant power in the world. Israel is hell bent on remaining the dominant power in the Middle East. The confluence of objectives is striking.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, during his last visit here to Washington, raised the possibility that Israel might take out the nuclear facilities that are being constructed in Iran. This is exactly what they did, with respect to Iraq, in 1981. The Osirak nuclear facility was taken out by Israeli Mirage bombers. Vice President Cheney endorsed that attack and cited it in his speech a year ago. We later learned that Cheney has a photograph of the destroyed Osirak reactor on the wall of his office. One can by no means rule out the possibility that Sharon, with the tacit encouragement of the Pentagon, would fly his fighter bombers right into Iran and take out their nuclear facility, with consequences that one can hardly imagine.

Sojourners: What are some things that give you hope in what seem like dark times?

MacMichael: If there's anything that makes me hopeful, it's that we still have a relatively open society. Whether this in itself is a snare and a delusion, I don't know. If, in fact, you are merely being allowed to speak out because it's having no effect on the decision-making process, it's not so hopeful. I certainly hope for change, and we do have an election coming up next year. Maybe we'll see something then.

McGovern: I have five grandchildren, so I don't have any option but to be optimistic. I think folks like Sojourners, Catholic Workers, and other people who often seem like they're crying in the wilderness do have an impact. Then there's the hope of communications that are no longer national but international. You can't hermetically seal even the American people off from what's going on in the world.

There even might be a chance the churches will come forward. I don't see the institutional churches doing that, but I see folks who are more flexible, more informal, more ecumenical coming forward and speaking out in a prophetic way. We need to be followers of Jesus. If you look at the unvarnished Jesus, you'll see what he would have done in these circumstances. Will we be successful? I'll leave that for history to judge.

For a complete transcript of this interview, click here.

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