Monthly Archives: January 2019

What to Do When You Disagree and Yet Want to Be Polite

Maybe it’s because I’ve never been comfortable being labeled, and maybe it is that I had a chance early in my career to portray myself as whistleblower and declined, but as long as I can remember, I’ve had an aversion to being a member of a certain club.

Now that club has come knocking at my door for me to join, formally and through the Twittersphere, I’ve been asking myself how to respond in a thoughtful way.

Here are excerpts from the email I received from Ray McGovern of “Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)”:

Bill —

Thanks for your parting-NBC email.

We highly regard your work.  On behalf of VIPS, we cordially invite you to become a member… you are aware that we have done some good work.

When we in VIPS see a need to speak out corporately, we do so — usually by preparing a “MEMORANDUM FOR: The President ……” just as some of us used to do when we were on “active duty,” so to speak.  We prepare, on the average, 4 memos a year, most of them addressed to the President on key — often very current — policy issues.  We have some evidence that a couple of our memos, or excerpts from them, have been seen by Trump.

Our memos are normally published first on Consortium News, which also keeps our Archive …  Like you, we reported no-holds-barred on the fraudulent “intelligence” served up by many of our former colleagues to “justify” the attack on Iraq before it took place.  In fact, after watching Colin Powell disgrace himself on Feb 5, 2003 at the UN, a drafting group of two (out of our first five founding members) cobbled together a memo which we got out on the AFP wire at a little after 5 PM that same day. … as you will know all too well — virtually no one was interested.  (We did get a whole bunch of FOREIGN inquiries/interviews, etc.)

… You would be loosely affiliated with the likes of Larry Wilkerson, Greg Thielmann, Bill Binney, Scott Ritter, Coleen Rowley, Matthew Hoh, Larry Johnson, Ed Loomis, John Kiriakou, and myself — some combination of whom wind up as signatories, with normally just one doing the initial draft.…

Congratulations for what you just did, and the way you did it.  Let’s hope for hundreds of principled “copy-cats,” so to speak….

This is a serious invitation. We would love to have you on our (non-existent) VIPS roster.

I won’t be joining VIPS precisely because their sanity is as insane as that of the accepted mainstream narrative — fraudulent intelligence and lying – and even some set of truth-tellers who need to and are needed, to set the public (and even President Trump straight).  Central to the argument of most whistleblowers – no matter how much they do know – is not only that what they know is vitally important for all to know. And not only is it important, but that whatever it is that they do know the unmitigated truth. It is a stance that is accentuated by deep frustration and some kind of psychological makeup, and it is one that generally solidifies in the “system” reacting with indictments and banishment, a rejection often so complete and categorical that it might appear that they have nothing to say, these possessors of sanity, when in fact in many cases (in most) what they have to say is a piece of the puzzle, even if there are many others.

My problem here, besides not being a joiner, is that I don’t agree with their central proposition on the 2003 Iraq war. Even if it could have been avoided, the reason it wasn’t some evil conspiracy of a few at the top. Said another way, there was no conspiracy. Arrogance.  Group think. Ignorance. Mistakes galore. That’s my opinion. If you agree with me, you shouldn’t just rush off to try to appropriate my opinion (and expertise) to fit some pro- or anti-whistleblower narrative. The official, the conventional and the “sanity” narratives all leave much room for improvement.

First some important biographical context: I’ve never met or corresponded with Mister McGovern. He doesn’t know me and though I’ve met a couple of people on his list, I don’t know any of them nor have I sought out their help to explain anything to me. There is no “like you” in what I’ve written that corresponds to their “good work.” In fact, I’m mostly unfamiliar with their work, though I know individually what many of them argue.

So with regard to the 2003 Iraq war or probably any other subject, it is important to establish that I’ve never reported on what I believe to be “fraudulent intelligence”.  What I’ve written, and what I believe, is that the intelligence community failed to do their jobs – that is, to accurately portray the status of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program – and they probably also failed in many other tasks over many years in conveying accurately (or with any depth) the nature of either Saddam Hussein or the country of Iraq. But the WMD failure wasn’t about anyone lying to “justify” an attack. Don’t get me wrong, some agencies (such as DIA in the Curveball episode) demonstrated spectacular ignorance and myopia, but “fraudulent intelligence” creates the wrong impression as to both the problem and thus the solution.

None of that is to say that I excuse the bumbling of the Bush administration. Colin Powell was snookered and acted as the good soldier conveying bad intelligence and false certainty at the United Nations and in other public venues. But the path towards war with Iraq was actually the Clinton administration policy of “no normalization of relations without regime change”. Maybe to the White House before 9/11 it seemed humanitarian and even a rhetorical flourish with little globe-changing consequence. Thus even though the Powell theatrics at the U.N. will go down in infamy, it was a theatrical performance to justify something that the Bush inner circle had already decided they wanted to do. And in that decision, the inner circle monumentally failed in thinking how easy an easy military victory over Iraq would equally blossom into a transformation of the country.

But on the question of lying and covering up – seemingly the favorite of VIPS and its roster of truth-tellers, their truth is wrong and the history is more complicated.

Complicated here doesn’t mean accepting the vacuous pabulum of conventional wisdom, nor on Iraq, does complicated comport with the self-justification and retelling of Powell, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Tenet or others who were the key decision-makers and have never admitted their mistakes nor the mess they created. But if the narrative is left to officialdom on one side and the “truth tellers” on the other side, we may never get to the truth. And here I don’t define truth in any other way that an accurate representation of the historical record and facts.

We need to first dispense with the intelligence community (IC). These professionals at VIPS want us to accept their characterization of the CIA and other institutions associated with U.S. intelligence. And they assert that on Iraq and WMD, that the IC is guilty of “lying” to justify the Iraq war. Now let me just say that in my long writing and reporting career I’ve been lied to many times by government officials, but I’ve never had the experience of a working analyst lying or producing fraudulent intelligence (that is, not since the Vietnam era).  There are systemic reasons why “intelligence” fails to convey the big picture beyond a narrow question.  And in many cases I’ve found analysts terrifically uninformed or myopic, surprised by their lack of curiosity or indeed openness as to other explanation.

But having said that, let me be clear: It’s been the rare CIA director or other high official in the intelligence world who hasn’t blatantly lied to sell their organization or policy preferences. But even here lying is mostly the white lying of government, a sort of game of ‘I know more’ and ‘if only you know’ that more often than not results in bad policies and actions.

I anticipate that some will still defend the characterization of “fraudulent intelligence” and “lying” on the part of the IC in the run up to the Iraq war, pointing to their own personal experiences and to contradictory conclusions reached by the CIA or other intelligence components regarding both WMD and the Iraq war.  “Proof” that the CIA lied here morphs into an argument that they weren’t listened to, and truthy types like VIPS often point to some analysts predicting that indeed the aftermath of the military battle would descend into a complicated and anarchic mess. On this, these analysts were right, and their conclusion got little traction, but as I said above, policy-makers had already made up their minds.

Policy-makers had already made up their minds. But they also knew that on some things (the war’s aftermath) that the intelligence might be right and on others (WMD) the intelligence might be wrong. They might have chosen to ignore counter evidence but they also operated from this fundamental truth: they might be right and they might not be.  So it is precisely up to the policy-makers to take the intelligence and “use it” if you will to make bigger decisions because there are too many cases on both ends of the spectrum.  So it isn’t intelligence that determines things (it rarely does).

I also know that many of those named above think they had the truth and that their truth was the smoking gun that might have saved the country from an Iraq war, avoided 9/11 or stopped NSA’s mass surveillance. But in my experience and opinion, they are mistaken. Just as a cocksure Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz are mistaken in thinking that they know it all and know better. Intelligence is not perfect and policy decisions travel in the same boat. But having said that, that doesn’t mean that I think there shouldn’t be accountability for errors. I just don’t think it is ever going to happen until we accurately convey actual malfeasance or the supposed crimes committed on the part of the powerful.

I suppose that Mister McGovern highlights VIPS’ work on the 2003 Iraq war because that’s generally pointed to as the greatest intelligence failure since 9/11.  And though I’m mildly curious about what they are working on today, what sanity they are purveying from their experienced perches, “fraudulent intelligence” conveys a message that in many ways allows the policy-makers then and now to get off the hook for the decisions they made that had nothing to do with the VIPS narrative.

Though I’m virtually declaring war on this group in either not answering or contradicting their narrative, the truth of the matter too is that my experience is also that it is the rare bird indeed that sees a big enough picture to adjudicate complex intelligence and then fit it into the larger question of American interest or war policy. I point this out because I also firmly believe that there is unquestionably American interest that might diverge from the rest of the world, even our friends. And yet the assertion of this point – by Donald Trump for instance – has been met with almost universal derision, an overall narrative that wants everyone to believe that the only policies that are sound are the ones that are the most uncontroversial, or garner the largest support group.

The narrative of the ignoramus president not listening to the experts and the intelligence community didn’t start with Trump (it goes back at least as far as Reagan), the overall message being that the experts or the system knows more and should be listened to, which is the origins of all the deep state angst we face today. Therein is the genesis of the argument I’ve made for our current love affair with the CIA and the intelligence community and the experts – as well as with procedure and protocol – above all else, something that seems to unite conventional wisdom with the war mongers and VIPS types, I imagine an unlikely and uncomfortable club.

Washington is an ugly place, and the secret recesses of Washington have gotten too used to operating in a certain way, serving the president no doubt but also manipulating and undermining public debate when they do emerge from the shadows. Rarely does a president individually cut through this permanent system. Iraq from Clinton to Bush was the same, and I wonder even if Al Gore had been elected in 2000 whether an Iraq war would have been avoided.  Obama, with all of his promises and hope and smarts, similarly found himself hostage to continuity. Trump the same; even when he trips into good ideas, the system ultimately decides.

Is the maintenance of this unchanging system nourished by lying and fraudulence? I don’t think so. And in that is a better insight into the excessive power that has accreted to the national security custodians. They do not have the answers and they are operating from a giant bubble of their own hyper-regarded information. But to call them liars and conspirators is to also to rob us – the people – from any possibility to see the truth for what it is, that they are just wrong-minded and even just wrong much of the time, a truth that might start us along the path of taking their power away.

My Departure Letter from NBC

Note to readers:  I circulated this letter to NBC colleagues on January 2 and since it quickly leaked and got recirculated all over, I’d thought I’d post it here, on my own laconic blog:

January 4 is my last day at NBC News and I’d like to say goodbye to my friends, hopefully not for good. This isn’t the first time I’ve left NBC, but this time the parting is more bittersweet, the world and the state of journalism in tandem crisis. My expertise, though seeming to be all the more central to the challenges and dangers we face, also seems to be less in value at the moment. And I find myself completely out of sync with the network, being neither a day-to-day reporter nor interested in the Trump circus.

I first started my association with NBC 30 years ago, feeding Cold War stories to Bob Windrem and Fred Francis at the Pentagon. I became an on-air analyst during the 1999 Kosovo War, continuing to work thereafter with Nightly News, delighting and oftentimes annoying in my peculiar position of being a mere civilian amongst THE GENERALS and former government officials. A scholar at heart, I also found myself an often lone voice that was anti-nuclear and even anti-military, anti-military for me meaning opinionated but also highly knowledgeable, somewhat akin to a movie critic, loving my subject but also not shy about making judgements regarding the flops and the losers.

When the attacks of 9/11 came, I was called back to NBC. I spent weeks on and off the air talking about al Qaeda and the various wars we were rushing into, arguing that airpower and drones would be the centerpiece not troops. In the new martial environment where only one war cry was sanctioned I was out of sync then as well. I retreated somewhat to writing a column for the Los Angeles Times, but even there I had to fight editors who couldn’t believe that there would be a war in Iraq.  And I spoke up about the absence of any sort of strategy for actually defeating terrorism, annoying the increasing gaggles of those who seemed to accept that a state of perpetual war was a necessity.

I thought then that there was great danger in the embrace of process and officialdom over values and public longing, and I wrote about the increasing power of the national security community. Long before Trump and “deep state” became an expression, I produced one ginormous investigation – Top Secret America – for the Washington Post and I wrote a nasty book – American Coup – about the creeping fascism of homeland security. Looking back now they were both harbingers for what President Obama (and then Trump) faced in terms of largely failing to make enduring change.

Somewhere in all of that, and particularly as the social media wave began, it was clear that NBC (like the rest of the news media) could no longer keep up with the world. Added to that was the intellectual challenge of how to report our new kind of wars when there were no real fronts and no actual measures of success. To me there is also a larger problem: though they produce nothing that resembles actual safety and security, the national security leaders and generals we have are allowed to do their thing unmolested. Despite being at “war,” no great wartime leaders or visionaries are emerging. There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict. And though there might be the beloved perfumed princes in the form of the Petraeus’ and Wes Clarks’, or the so-called warrior monks like Mattis and McMaster, we’ve had more than a generation of national security leaders who sadly and fraudulently done little of consequence. And yet we (and others) embrace them, even the highly partisan formers who masquerade as “analysts”. We do so ignoring the empirical truth of what they have wrought: There is not one country in the Middle East that is safer today than it was 18 years ago. Indeed the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous.

As perpetual war has become accepted as a given in our lives, I’m proud to say that I’ve never deviated in my argument at NBC (or at my newspaper gigs) that terrorists will never be defeated until we better understand why they are driven to fighting. And I have maintained my central view that airpower (in its broadest sense including space and cyber) is not just the future but the enabler and the tool of war today.

Seeking refuge in its political horse race roots, NBC (and others) meanwhile report the story of war as one of Rumsfeld vs. the Generals, as Wolfowitz vs. Shinseki, as the CIA vs. Cheney, as the bad torturers vs. the more refined, about numbers of troops and number of deaths, and even then Obama vs. the Congress, poor Obama who couldn’t close Guantanamo or reduce nuclear weapons or stand up to Putin because it was just so difficult. We have contributed to turning the world national security into this sort of political story.  I find it disheartening that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.

I’m a difficult guy, not prone to either protocol or procedure and I give NBC credit that it tolerated me through my various incarnations. I hope people will say in the early days that I made Brokaw and company smarter about nuclear weapons, about airpower, and even about al Qaeda. And I’m proud to say that I also was one of the few to report that there weren’t any WMD in Iraq and remember fondly presenting that conclusion to an incredulous NBC editorial board. I argued endlessly with MSNBC about all things national security for years, doing the daily blah, blah, blah in Secaucus, but also poking at the conventional wisdom of everyone from Matthews to Hockenberry. And yet I feel like I’ve failed to convey this larger truth about the hopelessness of our way of doing things, especially disheartened to watch NBC and much of the rest of the news media somehow become a defender of Washington and the system.

Windrem again convinced me to return to NBC to join the new investigative unit in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign. I thought that the mission was to break through the machine of perpetual war acceptance and conventional wisdom to challenge Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness. It was also an interesting moment at NBC because everyone was looking over their shoulder at Vice and other upstarts creeping up on the mainstream. But then Trump got elected and Investigations got sucked into the tweeting vortex, increasingly lost in a directionless adrenaline rush, the national security and political version of leading the broadcast with every snow storm. And I would assert that in many ways NBC just began emulating the national security state itself – busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.

I’d argue that under Trump, the national security establishment not only hasn’t missed a beat but indeed has gained dangerous strength. Now it is ever more autonomous and practically impervious to criticism. I’d also argue, ever so gingerly, that NBC has become somewhat lost in its own verve, proxies of boring moderation and conventional wisdom, defender of the government against Trump, cheerleader for open and subtle threat mongering, in love with procedure and protocol over all else (including results). I accept that there’s a lot to report here, but I’m more worried about how much we are missing. Hence my desire to take a step back and think why so little changes with regard to America’s wars.

I know it is characteristic of our overexcited moment to blast away at former employers and mainstream institutions, but all I can say is that despite many frustrations, my time at NBC has been gratifying. Working with Cynthia McFadden has been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve learned a ton about television from her and Kevin Monahan, the secret insider tricks of the trade and the very big picture of what makes for original stories (and how powerful they can be). The young reporters at NBC are also universally excellent. Thanks to Noah Oppenheim for his support of my contrarian and disruptive presence. And to Janelle Rodriguez, who eventually came around to understanding deep expertise. The Nightly crew has also been a constant fan of my too long stories and a great team. I continue to marvel as Phil Griffin carries out his diabolical plan for the cable network to take over the world.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done with my team and know that there’s more to do. But for now it’s time to take a break. I’m ever so happy to return to writing and thinking without the officiousness of editorial tyrants or corporate standards.  And of course I yearn to go back to my first love, which is writing boring reports about secret programs, grateful that the American government so graciously obliges in its constant supply. And I particularly feel like the world is moving so quickly that even in just the little national security world I inhabit, I need more time to sit back and think. And to replenish.

In our day-to-day whirlwind and hostage status as prisoners of Donald Trump, I think – like everyone else does – that we miss so much. People who don’t understand the medium, or the pressures, loudly opine that it’s corporate control or even worse, that it’s partisan.  Sometimes I quip in response to friends on the outside (and to government sources) that if they mean by the word partisan that it is New Yorkers and Washingtonians against the rest of the country then they are right.

For me I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump’s various bumbling intuitions: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even in his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI.  Of course he is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I’m alarmed at how quick NBC is to mechanically argue the contrary, to be in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war. Really? We shouldn’t get out Syria? We shouldn’t go for the bold move of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula?  Even on Russia, though we should be concerned about the brittleness of our democracy that it is so vulnerable to manipulation, do we really earn for the Cold War?  And don’t even get me started with the FBI: What? We now lionize this historically destructive institution?

Even without Trump, our biggest challenge as we move forward is that we have become exhausted parents of our infant (and infantile) social media children. And because of the “cycle,” we at NBC (and all others in the field of journalism) suffer from a really bad case of not being able to ever take a breath. We are a long way from resolving the rules of the road in this age, whether it be with regard to our personal conduct or anything related to hard news.  I also don’t think that we are on a straight line towards digital nirvana, that is, that all of this information will democratize and improve society. I sense that there is already smartphone and social media fatigue creeping across the land, and my guess is that nothing we currently see – nothing that is snappy or chatty – will solve our horrific challenges of information overload or the role (and nature) of journalism. And I am sure that once Trump leaves center stage, society will have a gigantic media hangover. Thus for NBC – and for everyone else – there is challenge and opportunity ahead. I’d particularly like to think and write more about that.

There’s a saying about consultants, that organizations hire them to hear exactly what they want to hear.  I’m proud to say that NBC didn’t do that when it came to me.  Similarly I can say that I’m proud that I’m not guilty of giving my employers what they wanted. Still, the things this and most organizations fear most – variability, disturbance, difference – those things that are also the primary drivers of creativity – are not really the things that I see valued in the reporting ranks.

I’m happy to go back to writing and commentary. This winter, I’m proud to say that I’ve put the finishing touches on a 9/11 conspiracy novel that I’ve been toiling on for over a decade. It’s a novel, but it meditates on the question of how to understand terrorists in a different way.  And I’m undertaking two new book-writing projects, one fiction about a lone reporter and his magical source that hopes to delve into secrecy and the nature of television. And, If you read this far, I am writing a non-fiction book, an extended essay about national security and why we never seem to end our now perpetual state of war. There is lots of media critique out there, tons of analysis of leadership and the Presidency. But on the state of our national security?  Not so much. Hopefully I will find myself thinking beyond the current fire and fury and actually suggest a viable alternative. Wish me luck.