CIA Web Site Offers Astonishing Peek at Intelligence Errors

May 1st, 2006 - by admin

Jonathan Curiel / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-05-01 00:14:02

SAN FRANCISCO (April 30, 2006) — The Web site of the Central Intelligence Agency ( is less sober-sided than you might expect. For starters, there’s a homey virtual tour of CIA headquarters.

And then there’s the smorgasbord of patriotic and pseudo-propagandistic offerings – whether it’s the heart-tugging tale of Nathan Hale (the Yale grad and CIA precursor who, just before being hanged by British soldiers in 1776, said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”), the agency’s mission statement (“We are the eyes and ears of the nation. … In pursuit of our country’s interests, we put Nation before Agency”), or its video plug from Hollywood actress Jennifer Garner (she urges online visitors to consider applying for one of the CIA’s “important, exciting jobs. … If you’re an American citizen and seek a challenging, rewarding career where you can make a difference in the world and here at home, contact the agency”).

Given the patriotic gushing, what seems odd is that the spy agency also would willingly tell visitors about America’s intelligence failures past and present. But that’s what the CIA does — though not with the same ebullience of Garner’s slick job-recruitment pitch. Instead, Washington’s spy masters have published dry, formerly classified documents that challenge America’s image as a self-assured, competent, morally correct power.

These unvarnished Web pages are the missing link in American history. Together, they form a kind of confessional that good intelligence can be corrupted (or ignored) by higher-ups with steadfast agendas.

Take, as one example, Washington’s pre-Iraq War analysis (, which reveals the State Department doubted that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And take, as another example, the CIA’s Vietnam collection (, which shows the agency was pessimistic that the United States could win the Vietnam War in March 1968, when publicly, the federal government still trumpeted its resolve.

The government is releasing its documents to satiate the growing demand — among scholars, researchers, journalists and others — to study Washington’s historic war-related papers and transcripts. The State Department, for example, has released a treasure trove of information relating to foreign policy and the presidencies of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

In a January 1970 memo to Nixon on vice-presidential stationery (, Spiro Agnew writes about his private meeting with Afghanistan’s “intense” king, and suggests the White House could use him to bring about a Cold War detente with the Soviet Union. The letter is a window into the convoluted relationship that would connect the three countries for the next three decades.

In an October 1962 letter typed during the height of the Cuban missile crisis (, Kennedy tells Nikita Khrushchev (he addresses him, “Dear Mr. Chairman”) that the Soviets started the contretemps by supplying Havana with weapons. At the same time he’s being accusatory, Kennedy preaches restraint, telling Khrushchev that “I am concerned that we both show prudence and do nothing to allow events to make the situation more difficult to control than it already is.” As a whole, the missive reveals Kennedy’s forceful diplomacy at a moment when nuclear war was a serious threat.

In a March 7, 1968, memo to Johnson (, special assistant Walt Rostow suggests the president suppress his optimism about the Vietnam War. Rostow emphasizes the advice of then-Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, who urges “great caution” about presenting a rosy picture of the Vietnam War, which was then turning against U.S.-backed forces.

Presidents, of course, can ignore their advisers, which is what Johnson did with Rostow — and the CIA specialists who warned him about the military power of the Viet Cong and its allies. In an 11-page memo dated March 1, 1968 (go to and type in 3/1/68), the CIA cautioned that, without an increase in American troops, “there is a high risk that both the ARVN (South Vietnam’s army) and GVN (South Vietnam’s government) will be seriously weakened in the next months, and perhaps decisively so.”

What did Johnson and his Cabinet say publicly? On March 12, 1968 — five days after getting Rostow’s note and 11 days after the CIA issued its dire warning — Johnson gushed in a White House ceremony, “I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become willing victims of our own despair, if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

A day earlier, Secretary of State Dean Rusk told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (and a national audience watching on TV) that there were “grounds for encouragement” about Vietnam, that the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese were “recapturing the initiative,” and that “no one in the world wants peace more than the president of the United States.”

A few days later, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., rode a wave of anti-war sentiment to make a stronger-than-expected showing against Johnson in New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary. Within weeks, Johnson decided to withdraw his candidacy for another term. In Vietnam, the government’s intelligence seemed to be prescient.

“In the 1980s, at (Harvard’s) Kennedy School of Government, we used to teach about Vietnam using the impact of the Pentagon Papers and the summer of 1965 documents, and what you came away with from those documents was how good the intelligence actually was,” says Gregory F. Treverton, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. and former vice chair of the government’s National Intelligence Council, as well as a frequent contributor to Insight. “But policymakers either didn’t believe the intelligence — they thought they were getting worst-case military analysis — or they didn’t understand the implications of what they were reading.”

With the Iraq War that started in 2003, much of the intelligence was wrong, as we now know. Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, negating Washington’s main stated reason for going to war. These intelligence mistakes are now posted on the Web, for all the world to see at ( ( There, we see the October 2002 conclusion from the National Intelligence Estimate: “We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of U.N. resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of U.N. restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.”

According to the CIA, the National Intelligence Estimate is “the most authoritative written judgment concerning a national security issue prepared by the Director of Central Intelligence.” Iraq has forced a widespread reassessment of America’s intelligence capabilities.

The legacy of American spy-gathering is a mixed one. For better or worse, both the blemishes and high points of Washington’s once-secret vaults are now open for public inspection on the Internet.

E-mail Jonathan Curiel at

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