Memo to the president

A 27-year CIA analyst pleads with Bush to take a briefing from the country’s intelligence community before going to war

Photo by Jana Birchum

Ray McGovern worked as a CIA analyst for 27 years. He co-authored this article with other members of the Steering Group for Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, which includes Richard Beske, Kathleen McGrath Christison, William Christison and Patrick Eddington.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations on February 5 requires context. We give him an A for assembling and listing the charges against Iraq, but only a C- in providing context and perspective.

What seems clear to us, Mr. President, is that you need an intelligence briefing, not grand-jury testimony. Powell effectively showed that Iraq is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of not cooperating fully with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441. The chief U.N. inspectors already had demonstrated this. For Powell, it was what the Pentagon calls a “cakewalk.”

But the narrow focus on Resolution 1441 has diverted attention from the wider picture. It is crucial that we not lose sight of that.

We intelligence-community analysts are finding it hard to make ourselves heard above the drumbeat for war. Speaking both for ourselves, as officers of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity steering group, and for colleagues within the community who are increasingly distressed at the politicization of intelligence, we feel a responsibility to help you frame the issues. They are more far-reaching and complicated than “United Nations vs. Saddam Hussein.” And they need to be discussed dispassionately, free of sobriquets like “sinister nexus,” “evil genius” and “web of lies.”

Flouting U.N. resolutions: The key question is whether Iraq’s flouting of a U.N. resolution justifies war. This is the question the world is asking. Secretary Powell’s presentation does not come close to answering it.

One might well come away from his briefing thinking that the Iraqis are the only ones in flagrant violation of U.N. resolutions. Or, one might argue that there is more urgency to the need to punish the violator of Resolution 1441 than, say, of Resolution 242 of 1967, which required Israel to withdraw from the Arab territories it occupied that year. More urgency? You will not find many Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims who would agree.

Mr. President, it is widely known that you have a uniquely close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This presents a strong disincentive to those who might otherwise warn you that Israel’s continuing encroachment on Arab territories, its oppression of the Palestinian people and its pre-emptive attack on Iraq in 1981 are among the root causes not only of terrorism, but also of Saddam Hussein’s need to develop the means to deter further Israeli attacks.

Containment and material breach: You have dismissed containment as being irrelevant in a post-9/11 world. You should know that no one was particularly fond of containment but that it has been effective for the last 55 years. And the concept of “material breach” is hardly new.

In the summer of 1983, we detected a huge early warning radar installation at Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan declared it an outright violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. At an ABM Treaty review in 1988, the United States spoke of this continuing violation as a “material breach” of the treaty. In the fall of 1989, the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate the radar at Krasnoyarsk without preconditions.

We adduce this example simply to show that, with patient, persistent diplomacy, the worst situations can change over time.

Letter from the CIA: You have said that Iraq is a “grave threat to the United States,” and many Americans think you believe it to be an imminent threat. Otherwise, why would you be sending hundreds of thousands of troops to the Gulf region? In your major speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, you warned that “the risk is simply too great that Saddam Hussein will use instruments of mass death and destruction or provide them to a terror network.”

Your intelligence agencies see it differently. On the same day you spoke in Cincinnati, a letter from the CIA to the Senate Intelligence Committee asserted that the probability is low that Iraq would initiate an attack with such weapons or give them to terrorists, with one exception: “Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions.”

For now, continued the CIA letter, “Baghdad appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or chemical/biological warfare against the United States.” With his back against the wall, however, “Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a weapons-of-mass-destruction attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.”

Your Pentagon advisers draw a connection between war with Iraq and terrorism, but for the wrong reasons. The connection takes on much more reality in a post-U.S.-invasion scenario. Indeed, it is our view that an invasion of Iraq would ensure overflowing recruitment centers for terrorists into the indefinite future. Far from eliminating the threat, an invasion would enhance the threat exponentially.

Chemical weapons: With respect to possible Iraqi use of chemical weapons, it has been the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community for more than 12 years that the likelihood of such use would greatly increase during an offensive aimed at getting rid of Saddam Hussein.

When listing the indictment particulars, Powell said, in an oh-by-the-way tone, that sources had reported that Saddam Hussein recently authorized his field commanders to use such weapons. We find this truly alarming. We do not share the Defense Department’s optimism that radio broadcasts and leaflets would induce Iraqi commanders not to obey orders to use such weapons or that Iraqi generals would remove Saddam Hussein as soon as the first U.S. soldier sets foot in Iraq. Clearly, an invasion would be no cakewalk for American troops, ill-equipped as they are to operate in a chemical environment.

Mr. President, no one has a corner on the truth; nor do we harbor illusions that our analysis is irrefutable or undeniable. But, after watching Secretary Powell, we are convinced that you would be well-served if you widened the discussion beyond violations of Resolution 1441 and beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.