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.

2 responses to “What to Do When You Disagree and Yet Want to Be Polite

  1. Mr. Arkin,
    I once communicated congenially with Ray McGovern, and lunched with him in Everett, Washington probably, oh, nine or ten years back. Today I’m perplexed, appalled even, at what VIPS has become and what its people do and say. I applaud your rejection of their invitation. (And your departure from NBC, btw.)
    In the small world department we share something else. In the 1980’s, as a Director and sometime VP of the American Forestry Association, I consorted now and then with the Natural Resources Defense Council. At this distance in time I recall only three identifiable souls: “Charlie,” whose last name escapes, Gus Speth, and John Adams, with whom I chatted amiably both in D.C. and in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana.
    Aside from ticking off crossed trails, I do have another reason to contact you.
    I clipped this from your piece:

    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 than an accurate representation of the historical record and facts.

    I can’t claim to know the truth, the whole truth about the Bush Administration’s wars, but I couldn’t have tried any harder to find it. I’d like to share with you the “historical record and facts” I’ve turned up.
    I’m polishing the draft of a short book (18,000 words), “The Bait-and-Switch “War on Terrorism”: George Bush’s Legacy of Endless Warfare.” Ryan Grim of The Intercept will publish it under his Strong Arm Press imprint in late spring.
    I’d appreciate immensely your reading and critique of the draft, and if you are willing I can send a PDF version easily and soon.
    Richard Behan

    (Your email address under “Contact Me” is no longer operative.)

  2. I’ve encountered articles of W.Arkin before but the name didn’t stick. I like the thinking here and will read more.

    I’m in two minds about this. One the one hand I’m happy that someone points out that when we think of officials lying that there generally is a large component of groupthink and that the lying part is much smaller. There is no ‘clean’ center of power which is in the know and which makes a clear distinction between what is really true and really false and which puts out lies, taking care nobody from the inner crowd is contaminated by them.
    So my first reflex about the designation ‘lies’ is that it is inaccurate. It is intellectually insatisfactory. But that is personal. A second factor is more relevant.
    If you call out these officials as liars you instantly lock out yourself because they will think of the parts they actually consider as true and dismiss the rest of your argument. It closes the door.
    I’m using groupthink in a wider sense here as a self catalysing netwerk of sources you take seriously and don’t mind to be associated with. It may be a good network or a bad one. It’s only the bad ones for which the name was invented unfortunately but there is a whole spectrum.
    So yes I agree that even in the case of Iraq 2003 a lot of the untruths were not strictly lies. And it brings us to a third factor: Realizing that would also allow to ask different questions. I would have asked Powell if he thought that whatever chemical weapons Saddam was making amounted to a significant military force. Scott Ritter convinced me at the time (before the war)because he avoided the question of the principle of existence of CW but he could answer a different question: that it could not possibly amount to much. It could not be militarily significant.

    There is another side to the refusal to be associated with VIPS. In practice those calling out the liars are relatively correct, much more so than those who think the sources are honest and I think VIPS are overall doing a good job.
    There always is another factor at play, and it should be mentioned here and I see it isn’t. That factor is closely related to group think, it is about reputation. Sources with good reputation are sources you take seriously. It doesn’t necessarily mean you instantly believe them, just that they have an amount of credit, a degree of trust, and you’re willing to invest the time in reading them and you can accept the reasoning . You’re also not afraid of being associated with them.

    There is somewhat of a divide between mainstream and dissident media, and it is about whom to trust and whom to distrust. In the mainstream the dissident media have a low reputation. Not only are they not worth reading, it is also bad for your reputation to be associated with them. Nobody wants to be seen with the conspiracy theorists or their extended family, the dissident media. Those who could consider to be seen with them will give them little credit: they will be very critical and intolerant of mistakes.

    So I suspect an unspoken factor: the mistakes VIPS make are not tolerable because they have a low reputation in the mainstream. They don’t have any credit to spend.

    It works both ways by the way. The mainstream, that is where the people live who believe what the CIA says.

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