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On more substantive issues -- like the key one, "why they hate us" -- Clapper has advanced some imaginative theories about what makes terrorists tick. It's "self-radicalization," you see. Clapper promoted this bedeviling concept while a nominee for the post of Director of National Intelligence, which he -- having played fast and loose with the truth, aside -- still occupies.
At his nomination hearing Clapper was asked by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, about lessons drawn from the investigation of Army Major Nidal Hasan, the psychiatrist sentenced to death last week for killing 13 people at Fort Hood. Clapper responded that "self-radicalization" is a "daunting challenge. ... I don't have the answer to the challenge; identification of self-radicalization may not lend itself to detection by intelligence agencies. ... It's almost like detecting tendencies for suicide ahead of time."
Still Far From a Silk Purse
If intelligence community leaders have any pride left, they may also have been embarrassed by how last Friday's "Government Assessment" fit the old bureaucratic image of a camel as the arch-typical horse designed by committee. Seldom have my intelligence alumni colleagues and I seen a more meandering, repetitive, fulsome document. Full of verisimilitude, the document nonetheless includes this key acknowledgment: "Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence can take short of confirmation."
It seems a safe bet that during the next two weeks' testimony before the various national security committees of the Senate and House, Kerry and Clapper will claim that additional intelligence has "confirmed" what until now has been simply the "assessments" of the U.S. government. Let's hope that lawmakers have the good sense to ask for actual evidence that can withstand independent scrutiny.
Colin Powell's meretricious U.N. speech on Feb. 5, 2003, was at least well crafted and persuasively presented. In a same-day assessment, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) gave him an A for presentation, while almost flunking him (with a C-minus) for substance. In our Memorandum for the President that day, we urged that the discussion be widened beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we saw no compelling reason and from which we believed the unintended consequences were likely to be catastrophic.
If President Obama would let us in the door, we would tell him the same thing today, since he has surrounded himself with a menagerie of "tough guys and gals" as well as some neocons and neocons-lite. Before Kerry went on TV Friday, VIPS had already warned Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey "there are serious problems with the provenance and nature of the "intelligence' that is being used to support the need for military action." Those problems remain.
From my only personal life experience, there was another good example of how the prostitution of intelligence works: When the Tonkin Gulf incident (used to "justify" the Vietnam War) took place 49 years ago, I was a journeyman CIA analyst in what Condoleezza Rice has called "the bowels of the agency." As an intelligence analyst responsible for Russian policy toward Southeast Asia and China, I worked very closely with those doing analysis on Vietnam and China.
At the time, the U.S. had about 16,000 troops in South Vietnam, but there was mounting political pressure to dramatically expand the U.S. troop levels to prevent a Communist victory. President Lyndon Johnson feared that Republicans would blame him for "losing Vietnam" the way some tarred Harry Truman for "losing China." So the Gulf of Tonkin incident -- North Vietnamese allegedly firing on a U.S. destroyer in international waters -- offered Johnson the chance both to look tough and to get a congressional carte blanche for a wider war.
Those of us in intelligence -- not to mention President Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy -- knew full well that the evidence of any North Vietnamese attack on the evening of Aug. 4, 1964, the so-called "second" Tonkin Gulf incident, was highly dubious.
But it fit the President's purposes. The North Vietnamese could be presented as aggressors attacking a U.S. ship on a routine patrol in international waters. To make the scam work, however, the American people and members of Congress had to be kept in the dark about the actual facts of the case, all the better to whip them into a war frenzy.
Only years later was the fuller story revealed. During the summer of 1964, President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were eager to widen the war in Vietnam. They stepped up sabotage and hit-and-run attacks on the coast of North Vietnam. Defense Secretary McNamara later admitted that he and other senior leaders had concluded that the seaborne attacks "amounted to little more than pinpricks" and "were essentially worthless," but they continued.
Concurrently, the National Security Agency was ordered to collect signals intelligence from the North Vietnamese coast on the Gulf of Tonkin, and the coastal attacks were seen as a helpful way to get the North Vietnamese to turn on their coastal radars. The destroyer USS Maddox, carrying electronic spying gear, was authorized to approach as close as eight miles from the coast and four miles from offshore islands, some of which already had been subjected to intense shelling by clandestine attack boats.
As James Bamford describes it in Body of Secrets:
"The twin missions of the Maddox were in a sense symbiotic. The vessel's primary purpose was to act as a seagoing provocateur -- to poke its sharp gray bow and the American flag as close to the belly of North Vietnam as possible, in effect shoving its 5-inch cannons up the nose of the Communist navy. In turn, this provocation would give the shore batteries an excuse to turn on as many coastal defense radars, fire control systems, and communications channels as possible, which could then be captured by the men ... at the radar screens. The more provocation, the more signals...
"The Maddox' mission was made even more provocative by being timed to coincide with commando raids, creating the impression that the Maddox was directing those missions and possibly even lobbing firepower in their support. ... North Vietnam also claimed at least a twelve-mile limit and viewed the Maddox as a trespassing ship deep within its territorial waters."
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