Petraeus: Can He Tell It Straight?
The news that President Barack Obama has picked Gen. David Petraeus to be CIA director raises troubling questions, including whether the commander most associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will tolerate objective analysis of those two conflicts.
What if CIA analysts assess the prospects of success in those two wars as dismal and conclude that the troop “surges” pushed so publicly by Petraeus wasted both the lives of American troops and many billions of taxpayer dollars? Will CIA Director Petraeus welcome such critical analysis or punish it?
The Petraeus appointment also suggests that the President places little value on getting the straight scoop on these key war-related issues. If he did want the kind of intelligence analysis that, at times, could challenge the military, why is he giving the CIA job to a general with a huge incentive to gild the lily regarding the “progress” made under his command?
Petraeus already has a record as someone who looks at skeptical CIA analysts as gnats to be swatted away before they bite. That is why he relegated them to straphanger status during the key decision-making process in late 2009 on what to do about Afghanistan. When Obama expressed doubts about the value of a major escalation in Afghanistan, Petraeus assured him that he and his generals had it all figured out, that 33,000 additional troops would do the trick.
CIA analysts weren’t even assigned to do a formal National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which normally is a de rigueur step before making any significant presidential decision like a large-scale escalation of a war. Remarkably, no NIE was prepared before the President’s decision to up U.S. troop levels to 100,000 in late 2009.
To his credit, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, who became Director of National Intelligence in August 2010, insisted that two NIEs be prepared last fall — one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan.
The one on Afghanistan concluded that the U.S. could not prevail without a firm decision by Pakistan to interdict the Taliban along the border with Afghanistan. The one on Pakistan said, in the vernacular, there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that the Pakistanis would make such a decision. Ergo?
The sobering conclusions of the NIEs were supported by a treasure trove of 92,000 documents written mostly by U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009 and released by WikiLeaks on July 25, 2010.
This more granular reporting from WikiLeaks laid bare the brutality and fecklessness of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan — particularly the forlorn hope that the Pakistanis will change their strategic outlook and help pull the U.S. chestnuts out of the Afghan fire. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Afghan War Leaks Expose Costly Folly.”]
Good Luck Persuading Pakistan
Perhaps the most explosive revelations disclosed the double game being played by the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Der Spiegel reported: “The documents clearly show that this Pakistani intelligence agency is the most important accomplice the Taliban has outside of Afghanistan.”
The documents revealed that ISI envoys not only are present when insurgent commanders hold war councils, but also give specific orders to carry out assassinations — including, according to one report, an attempt on the life of Afghan President Hamid Karzai in August 2008.
Former Pakistani intelligence chief, Gen. Hamid Gul, is depicted as an important source of aid to the Taliban and even, in another report, as a “leader” of the insurgents. The reports show Gul ordering suicide attacks and describe him as one of the most important suppliers of weaponry to the Taliban.
Though the Pakistani government has angrily denied U.S. government complaints about Gul and the ISI regarding secret ties to the Taliban and even to al-Qaeda, the evidence certainly raises serious questions regarding what the Pakistanis have been doing with the billions of dollars that Washington has given them.
No matter. In 2009, President Obama decided to bless Gen. Petraeus’s “counterinsurgency” campaign, with U.S. Special Forces kicking down Afghan doors at night, drones terrorizing alleged “militants,” and whole villages destroyed in order to “save” them from the Taliban – a truly strange way to go about winning hearts and minds.
Back stateside, U.S. intelligence analysts looked on with dismay. Those with some gray in their hair were reminded of similar failed tactics and warped intelligence assessments of the U.S. military command in Vietnam.
The Ghost of Westmoreland Past
As I watch Petraeus perform, I often see the ghost of Army Gen. William Westmoreland against whom charges of deliberate distortion and dishonesty were proven once intelligence analysts had their day in a post-Vietnam-War court of law — literally.
Back in 1967, in order to demonstrate “progress” in the war, Westmoreland ordered his intelligence officers not to go higher than 299,000 for the total count of Communists under arms in South Vietnam. The fear was that if journalists did some basic arithmetic, the body counts and “war of attrition” would all be proven a sham.
All the U.S. intelligence agencies except the Army’s agreed that the actual number of Communists under arms was almost twice that, and were soon proven tragically right during the country-wide Tet offensive in late January — early February 1968.
So, what is Petraeus’s actual estimate of the number of Taliban his forces face in Afghanistan? Is there no such estimate – or is it too secret or too embarrassing to reveal? As for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence does have an estimate of 50 to 100 — no, not thousand, just 50 to 100.
Moreover, little serious thought seems to have been given to the daunting challenge of the resupply of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In Vietnam, resupply was a piece of cake compared to the challenge of getting supplies through Pakistan, over the Khyber Pass, and into Afghanistan.
At home, Americans grouse about having to pay $4 a gallon for gasoline. It costs $400 to get a gallon into a U.S. Army or Marine vehicle inside Afghanistan.
Aside from the obscene expense, the long supply lines are extremely vulnerable — not only to attack from folks who don’t want U.S. troops in their country, but also to the caprice of Pakistani officials who can choke off the supply routes at will.
Last weekend, for example, a large crowd protesting U.S. drone strikes demanded that the attacks end in one month or demonstrators would cut off a key supply route for Western troops in Afghanistan.
The two-day protest clogged up a major road used by trucks to ferry supplies across the border.
"We will block NATO supplies from Karachi to Khyber everywhere if drone attacks are not stopped in one month," said Imran Khan, a former Pakistani cricket star-turned-politician, to the crowd of protesters.
Progress in Afghanistan?
But the core problem of Petraeus as CIA director is that his reputation is inextricably tied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and whether they are judged successes or failures. Put differently, will CIA Director Petraeus demand that his analysts see the glass half full rather than half empty, just as he has as a commander in those conflicts?
In March, Gen. Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee about the Afghan War, “While the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible.” Thus, he insisted, it would be unwise to abandon the mission. If the “fragile but reversible” formulation has a familiar ring, you may recall that Petraeus lifted it out of the cliché cabinet several times in early 2008 to characterize security progress in Iraq.
The general clearly finds the line a convenient, one-size-fits-all sound bite. So far, Congress and the Fawning Corporate Media have let him get away with it.
Are we to expect that once Petraeus takes the helm at CIA, the career analysts will still be able to call the war in Afghanistan a fool’s errand? If the new CIA director insists on seeing progress – however “fragile and reversible” – will vulnerable analysts risk his wrath by contradicting him?
We’ll know, I suppose, as soon as we hear that sound bite showing up in the CIA's analytic assessments. For now, we already know that Petraeus’s professional optimism is not widely shared among rank-and-file analysts at CIA. And the grim statistics continue to build. Just this week, the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan passed the 6,000 mark, with 43,184 the official figure for the number wounded.
An additional 54,592 have required medical evacuation from combat. Thus, about 104,000 U.S. troops — a conservative minimum not including the walking wounded, those with traumatic brain injury, attempted or successful suicides, and civilian contractors — are casualties of these long wars.
Against this background, I find it hard to believe that President Obama would fritter away his best chance to get an unvarnished assessment — without fear or favor — from intelligence specialists with career protection for “telling it like it is,” the views of the boss notwithstanding.
The conundrum is hardly unprecedented. Think back to the 1980s and the challenges faced by honest analysts trying to report on the Contra war in Nicaragua, even as it was being run by the boss, then-CIA Director William Casey.
Finding ‘Intelligence’ on Iran
Iran will continue to loom large as a target for intelligence analysis during Petraeus’s tenure at CIA. What is disconcerting on that front is that Petraeus has been eager to serve up “intelligence” to portray Iran in the worst light. One rather strange but instructive example comes to mind. It involved a studied, if disingenuous, effort to blame all the troubles in southern Iraq on the “malignant” influence of Iran.
On April 25, 2008, Joint Chiefs Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, told reporters that Gen. Petraeus in Baghdad would give a briefing “in the next couple of weeks” providing detailed evidence of “just how far Iran is reaching into Iraq to foment instability.” Petraeus’s staff alerted U.S. media to a major news event in which captured Iranian arms in Karbala would be displayed and then destroyed.
Investigative reporter Gareth Porter noted at the time that the idea was to fill the airwaves with spectacular news framing Iran as the culprit in Iraq for several days, with the aim of “breaking down congressional and public resistance to the idea that Iranian bases supporting the meddling would have to be attacked.”
There was a small problem, however. When American munitions experts went to Karbala to inspect the alleged cache of Iranian weapons, they found nothing that could be credibly linked to Iran.
Adding to Washington’s chagrin, the Iraqis announced that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had formed his own Cabinet committee to investigate the U.S. claims and attempt to “find tangible information and not information based on speculation.” Ouch!
The embarrassment for Petraeus might have been greater, but the U.S. media conveniently forgot the promised briefing. After all, the general has long been a darling of the FCM. U.S. media suppression of this episode was a telling reminder of how difficult it is to get unbiased and accurate information on touchy subjects like Iran.
The NIE That Stopped a War
Another key question is whether, as CIA director, Petraeus will be able to summon the integrity to face down the neocons and others who are determined to magnify the “threat” from Iran and increase pressure for military action against nuclear-related facilities in Iran.
There has been growing pressure to jettison the unanimous judgment, reached “with high confidence” by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, that Iran had stopped the work on a nuclear weapon in mid-2003. Despite strong pressure from Washington’s influential neoconservatives to water down that key judgment, the leaders of the intelligence community have remained firm — so far — and reaffirmed that judgment earlier this year.
In one section of his memoir, former President George W. Bush laments that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran had tied his hands “on the military side.” Bush added this (apparently unedited) kicker:
“But after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”
Not even Vice President Dick Cheney could persuade Bush to continue driving the pro-war-on-Iran juggernaut forward with its tires punctured by the NIE. The avuncular Cheney has made it clear that he was disappointed in his protégé.
On Aug. 30, 2009, Cheney told “Fox News Sunday” that he was isolated among Bush advisers in his enthusiasm for war with Iran.
“I was probably a bigger advocate of military action than any of my colleagues,” Cheney said when asked whether the Bush administration should have launched a pre-emptive attack on Iran before leaving office.
It will be very interesting to see if Petraeus decides to tamper with the controversial but unanimous judgment that Iran has not worked on a nuclear weapon since mid-2003. And, if he does, whether there remains enough residual integrity in the ranks of analysts to resist such tampering.
Should Petraeus sense signs of revolt, he may simply choose to follow the example of the last general to head the CIA, Michael Hayden.
Ever ready to do his part for Cheney and the neoconservatives, the malleable Hayden, on April 30, 2008, publicly offered his “personal opinion” that Iran is building a nuclear weapon – the conclusions of the NIE notwithstanding.
For good measure, Hayden added: “It is my opinion, it is the policy of the Iranian government, approved to the highest level of that government, to facilitate the killing of Americans in Iraq. … Just make sure there’s clarity on that.”
Petraeus Careful on Israel
Petraeus also deeply values his relationship with prominent neoconservatives who have received extraordinary access to war zones – personally arranged by the general – in exchange for their service to him as his cheering section in influential Washington opinion circles.
A couple of e-mails that Gen. Petraeus inadvertently sent to an unintended recipient confirmed his cozy relationship with hard-line neocon Max Boot, as Petraeus begged Boot to head off any suggestion that Petraeus was less than 100 percent supportive of Israel.
The e-mails from Petraeus to Max Boot revealed the four-star general renouncing his own congressional testimony in March 2010 because it included the observation that "the enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests” in the Middle East.
Petraeus’s testimony continued, “Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. … Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons, Likud Conquer DC, Again.”]
Though Petraeus’s testimony might strike many of us as a no-brainer, not so for the neocons. They resist any suggestion that Israeli intransigence regarding peace talks on Palestine contributes to the dangers faced by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan or by the American people from possible acts of terrorism at home.
So, when Petraeus’s testimony began getting traction on the Internet, the general quickly turned to Boot, a writer based at the high-powered, establishment Council on Foreign Relations, and began backtracking on the testimony.
“As you know, I didn't say that,” Petraeus said, according to one e-mail to Boot timed off at 2:27 p.m., March 18, 2010. “It's in a written submission for the record.”
In other words, Petraeus was trying to demonstrate his orthodoxy by emphasizing that the comments were only in his formal written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee and were not repeated by him in his brief oral opening statement.
In another e-mail, as Petraeus solicited Boot’s help in tamping down any controversy over the Israeli remarks, the general ended the message with a military “Roger” and a sideways happy face made from a colon, a dash and a closed parenthesis, :-) — to boot!
The unintended recipient explained that he received the exchange by accident when he sent a March 19, 2010, e-mail congratulating Petraeus for his testimony and Petraeus responded by forwarding one of Boot’s blog posts that knocked down the story of the general’s implicit criticism of Israel.
Petraeus forwarded Boot’s blog item, entitled “A Lie: David Petraeus, Anti-Israel,” which had been posted at the Commentary magazine site at 3:11 p.m. on March 18. However, Petraeus apparently forgot to delete some of the other exchanges between him and Boot at the bottom of the e-mail.
The e-mails also reveal Petraeus brainstorming with Boot regarding how to finesse the potential controversy over the Senate testimony. At 2:37 p.m. on March 18, Petraeus asks Boot, “Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night?! And that I will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in mid-Apr at the Capitol Dome [?]”
Eight minutes later, Boot responded, “No don't think that's relevant because you're not being accused of being anti-Semitic.”
That’s when a relieved Petraeus responds, “Roger! :-)”
This kind of pandering is not reassuring as Petraeus trades in his bemedaled Army uniform and his Afghan War command for a civilian suit and the director’s suite at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer in the 1960s and then a CIA analyst for 27 years. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
This article appeared first on Consortiumnews.com.