Open Appeal for Straight Talk on Iran
by Ray McGovern
Dear Admiral Fallon:
I have not been able to find out how to reach you directly, so I have drafted this letter in the hope it will come to your attention.
First, thank you for honoring the oath we commissioned officers take to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic. As you are doubtless aware, that oath has no expiration date; it remains on active duty, so to speak.
You have let it be known that, even though you are now retired, you do not intend to speak, on or off the record, about the looming war with Iran.
You are acutely aware of the dangers of attacking Iran, but seem to be allowing an inbred reluctance to challenge your erstwhile commander in chief to trump that oath, and to prevent you from letting the American people know of the catastrophe about to befall us if, as seems likely, our country attacks Iran.
Two years ago I lectured at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. I found it highly disturbing that, when asked about the oath they took upon entering the academy, several of the “Mids” thought it was to the commander in chief. This brought to my mind the photos of German generals and admirals (as well as top church leaders and jurists) swearing personal oaths to Hitler. Not our tradition, and yet…..
I was aghast that only the third Mid I called on got it right — that the oath is to protect and defend the Constitution, not the president.
Attack Iran: Trash the Constitution
No doubt you are very clear that an attack on Iran would be a flagrant violation of the Constitution of the United States, which stipulates that treaties ratified by the Senate become the supreme law of the land; that the United Nations Charter treaty — which the Senate ratified by a vote of 89 to 2 on July 28, 1945 — expressly forbids attacks on other countries, unless they pose an imminent danger; that there is no provision allowing some other kind of “pre-emptive” or “preventive” attack against a nation that poses no imminent danger; and that Iran poses no imminent danger to the United States or its allies.
You may be forgiven for thinking: Isn’t 41 years of service enough; isn’t it enough that I resigned in order to remove myself from a chain of command with no conscience or respect for national or international law — that I shuddered at the thought of being charged in some earthly or heavenly court as a war criminal, if I “just followed orders” and helped start an unprovoked war on Iran? Isn’t making my misgivings known to journalists last year, realizing fully that this could be a career-ender — isn’t all that enough?
With respect, sir, no, that’s not enough. The stakes here are extremely high, and together with the integrity you have already shown goes still further responsibility. Sadly, the vast majority of your general officer colleagues have, for whatever reason, ducked that responsibility. You are pretty much it.
In their lust for attacking Iran, administration officials will do their best to marginalize you, but you do not strike me as one likely to be deterred by that. And, prominent a person that you are, the corporate media surely will try to do the same, if you exposed the lies given as justification for attacking Iran.
Indeed, there are clear signs the media have been given their marching orders to support an attack on Iran-to include pre-censorship of factual stories exposing administration hyperbole and fecklessness, as the White House and the Pentagon paint a dubious portrait of the dangers posed by Iran.
Preparing a Captive Audience for War…
At the CIA I used to analyze the Soviet press, so you will understand when I refer to the Washington Post and the New York Times as the White House’s Pravda and Izvestiya. Sadly, these days it is as easy as during the days of the controlled Soviet press to follow our own government’s evolving line with a daily reading of our own controlled press.
In a word, our newspapers are dutifully revving up for war on Iran, and are even trotting out some of the most widely discredited cheerleaders for war on Iraq — the New York Times‘ Michael Gordon of aluminum tubes fame, for example, who is again parroting what he gets from administration officials and casting it as news.
In some respects the manipulation and suppression of information in the present lead-up to an attack on Iran is even more flagrant and all encompassing than in early 2003 before the invasion of Iraq.
It seems entirely possible that you are unaware of a recent misadventure that speaks volumes about this — unaware precisely because the media have put the wraps on it. So let me adduce one striking example of what is afoot here. The example has to do with the studied, if disingenuous, effort over recent months to blame all the troubles in southern Iraq on the “malignant” influence of Iran.
Sadly, some of your erstwhile colleagues are among the dramatis personae.
…But Covering Up Fiasco
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters on April 25 that Gen. David Petraeus would be giving a briefing “in the next couple of weeks” that would provide detailed evidence of “just how far Iran is reaching into Iraq to foment instability.” Petraeus’ staff alerted U.S. media to a major news event in which captured Iranian arms in Karbala would be displayed and then destroyed.
Small problem. When American munitions experts went to Karbala to inspect the alleged cache of Iranian weapons they found nothing that could be linked credibly to Iran.
News to you? That’s because this potentially embarrassing episode went virtually unreported in the media-like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no corporate media to hear it crash. So Mullen and Petraeus live, uninhibited and unembarrassed, to keep searching for Iranian weapons so the media can then tell a story more supportive of the orders they have been given to find ways to blame Iran for the troubles in Iraq. Luckily for them, a fiasco is only a fiasco if folks know about it.
Media suppression of this misadventure is the most significant aspect of this story, in my view, and a telling indicator of how difficult it is to find honest reporting on these key issues.
Meanwhile, the Iraqis announced that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had formed his own Cabinet committee to investigate U.S. claims about Iranian weapons, and to attempt to “find tangible information and not information based on speculation.”
Dissing the Intelligence Estimate
Top officials from the president on down have been dismissing the key judgment of the National Intelligence Estimate released on December 3, 2007, a judgment concurred in by the 16 intelligence units of our government, that Iran had stopped the weapons-related part of its nuclear program in mid-2003.
Always willing to do his part, the malleable CIA chief, Michael Hayden, on April 30 publicly offered his “personal opinion” that Iran is building a nuclear weapon-the National Intelligence Estimate 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.”
Voicing his various “opinions,” Hayden is beginning to sound like the overly clever lawyers who advised him, orally, that it would be just fine to order NSA to violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and like the other attorneys who approved water boarding.
And, please; tell me why we should care about Hayden’s “personal opinion?” My neighbor Suzie, who gets her news from FOX, keeps voicing her “personal opinion” that all Muslims want to kill Americans, that generals with blue uniforms are the most trustworthy, and that weapons of mass destruction will still be found in Iraq.
But, seriously, I don’t need to tell you about the Haydens and the other smartly saluting, desk-riding headquarters generals here in Washington.
The Price of Silence
What I would suggest is that you have a serious conversation with a real general, Gen. Anthony Zinni, one of your predecessor CENTOM commanders (1997 to 2000). As you know probably better than I, this Marine general is an officer of unusual integrity. Nevertheless, when placed into circumstances very similar to those you now face, he could not find his voice. And so he missed his chance to interrupt-or at least slow down-the juggernaut to war in Iraq. You might ask him how he feels about that now, and what he would advise in current circumstances.
Zinni happened to be one of the honorees at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on August 26,2002, at which Vice President Dick Cheney delivered the exceedingly alarmist speech, unsupported by our best intelligence, about the nuclear threat and other perils awaiting us at the hands of Saddam Hussein. That speech not only launched the seven-month public campaign against Iraq leading up to the war, but set the terms of reference for the Oct. 1, 2002 National Intelligence Estimate fabricated — yes, fabricated — to convince Congress to approve war on Iraq, which it did ten days later.
Gen. Zinni later shared publicly that, as he listened to Cheney, he was shocked to hear a depiction of intelligence that did not square with what he knew. Although Zinni had retired two years earlier, his role as consultant had required him to stay up to date on intelligence relating to the Middle East. One Sunday morning three and a half years after Cheney’s speech, Zinni told Meet the Press. “There was no solid proof that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction…I heard a case being made to go to war.”
Zinni had as good a chance as anyone to stop an unnecessary war-not a “pre-emptive war,” since there was nothing to pre-empt — and Zinni knew it. What he and other knowledgeable officials could — and should — have tried to block was a war of aggression, defined at the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal as the “supreme international crime.”
Sure, Zinni would have had to stick his neck out. He may have had to speak out alone, since most senior officials, like then-CIA Director George Tenet, lacked courage and integrity. In his memoir published a year ago, Tenet writes that Cheney did not follow the usual practice of clearing his August 26, 2002 speech with the CIA; that much of what Cheney said took him completely by surprise; and that Tenet “had the impression that the president wasn’t any more aware of what his number-two was going to say to the VFW until he said it.”
It is difficult to believe that Cheney’s shameless speech took “slam-dunk” Tenet completely by surprise. We know from the Downing Street Minutes, vouched for by the UK as authentic, that Tenet told his British counterpart on July 20, 2002 that the president had decided to make war on Iraq for regime change and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”
Admiral Fallon, you know this to be the case also now with respect to the “intelligence” being fixed to “justify” war with Iran. And no one knows better than you that your departure from the chain of command has turned it over completely to smartly saluting martinets. No doubt you have long since taken the measure, for example, of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. So have I.
I was his branch chief when he was a young, disruptively ambitious, CIA analyst. When Ronald Reagan’s CIA Director William Casey sought someone to shape CIA analysis to accord with his own conviction that the Soviet Union would never change, Gates leaped at the chance, proved his mettle, and bubbled right up to be chief of analysis. After Casey died, Gates admitted to the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus that he (Gates) watched Casey on “issue after issue sit in meetings and present intelligence framed in terms of the policy he wanted pursued.” Gates’ entire career showed that he learned well at Casey’s knee.
So it should come as no surprise that, despite the unanimous judgment of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran stopped the weapons-related aspects of its nuclear program in mid-2003, Gates is now repeating the party line that Iran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Some of his earlier statements were more ambiguous, but Gates recently took advantage of the opportunity to bend with the prevailing winds and freshen his own loyalty oath — to the president.
In an interview on events in the Middle East with a New York Times reporter on April 11, Gates was asked whether he was on the same page as the president, Gates replied, “Same line, same word.” I imagine you are no more surprised at that than I. Bottom line: Gates will salute smartly and transmit the order, legal or illegal, if Cheney persuades the president to let the Air Force and Navy loose on Iran.
You know the probable consequences; you need to let the rest of the American people know.
A Gutsy Precedent
Can you, Admiral Fallon, be completely alone; can it be that you are the only general officer to resign on principle? And, of equal importance, is there no other general officer, active or retired, who has taken the risk of speaking out in an attempt to inform Americans about President George W. Bush’s bellicose fixation with Iran. Thankfully, there is.
Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, took the prestigious job of Chairman, President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board when asked by the younger Bush. From that catbird seat, Scowcroft could watch the unfolding of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Over decades dealing with the press, Scowcroft had honed a reputation of quintessential discretion. Thus, it was all the more striking when he did what he decided he had to do to warn Americans about what may be the president’s most dangerous fixation.
In an interview with London’s Financial Times in mid-October 2004 Scowcroft was harshly critical of the president, charging that Bush had been “mesmerized” by then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “Sharon just has him wrapped around his little finger,” Scowcroft said. “He has been nothing but trouble.”
Needless to say, Scowcroft was given his walking papers and told never to darken the White House doorstep again. His very troubling observations have been largely shunned in the media, and banned from polite conversation here in Washington, although the insight they provide is worth a thousand erudite op-eds. Testifying before Congress on June 16, 2005, I alluded to Scowcroft’s comments, and was widely pilloried in the media the next day for being, you guessed it, “anti-Semitic.”
A Bush Commitment?
There is ample evidence that Sharon’s successors believe they have extracted a commitment from President Bush to “take care of Iran” before he leaves office, and that the president has done nothing to disabuse them of that notion — no matter the consequences.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum at Sharm el Sheikh on Sunday, Bush threw in a gratuitous reference to “Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.”
“To allow the world’s leading sponsor of terror to gain the world’s deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”
Pre-briefing the press, Bush’s national security adviser Stephen Hadley identified Iran as one of the dominant themes of the trip, adding repeatedly what seemed to be the PR formula of the day; namely, that Iran “is very much behind” all the woes afflicting the Middle East, from Lebanon to Gaza to Iraq, even to Afghanistan.
The Rhetoric is Ripening
In the coming weeks, at least until U.S. forces can find some real Iranian weapons in Iraq, the rhetoric is likely to focus on what I call the Big Lie — the claim that Iran’s president has threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” In his controversial speech in 2005, Ahmadinejad was actually quoting from something Ayatollah Khomeini had said in the early eighties. Khomeini was expressing a hope that a regime that was treating the Palestinians so unjustly would be replaced by a more equitable one.
A distinction without a difference? I think not. Words matter. As you may already know (but most Americans don’t), the literal translation from Farsi of what Ahmadinejad said is “The regime occupying Jerusalem much vanish from the pages of time.” Contrary to what the administration and corporate media would have us all believe, the Iranian president was not threatening to nuke Israel, push it into the sea, or wipe it off the map — or, as is so often heard, “destroy” it.
President Bush is way out in front on this issue, and this comes through with particular clarity when he ad-libs answers to questions. On October 17, 2007, long after he had been briefed on the key intelligence finding that Iran had stopped the nuclear weapons-related part of its nuclear development program, the president spoke as though, well, “mesmerized.” He said:
“But this — we got a leader in Iran who has announced he wants to destroy Israel. So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems you ought to be interested in preventing them from have (sic) the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously.”
Some contend that Bush does not really believe his rhetoric. I rather think he does, for the Israelis seem to have his good ear, with the tin one aimed at the U.S. intelligence he has repeatedly disparaged. But, frankly, which would be worse: that Bush believes Iran to be an existential threat to Israel and thus requires U.S. military action? — or that he knows it’s just rhetoric to “justify” U.S. action to “take care of” Iran for Israel?
What You Can Do
Admiral Fallon, you can surely speak authoritatively about what is likely to happen — to U.S. forces in Iraq, for example — if Bush orders your successors to begin bombing and missile attacks on Iran. I imagine you have spent more than one sleepless night sorting through the full array of Iranian options for serious retaliation.
And you could readily update Scowcroft’s remarks, by drawing on what you observed of the Keystone Cops efforts of White House ideologues like Iran-Contra convict Elliot Abrams, supported by amateurish covert action operatives and Israeli intelligence, to overturn by force the ascendancy of Hamas in 2006-07 and Hezbollah. (Abrams pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of misleading Congress about the Iran-Contra affair, but was pardoned by the first President Bush on Dec. 24, 1992.)
Clearly, it is the arch-neoconservative Abrams, aided, instructed, and abetted by the vice president, who is running U.S. policy toward the Middle East. And it is just as clear that the status of the secretary state has been reduced simply to “frequent flyer.”
It is easy to understand why no professional military officer would wish to be in the position of taking orders originating from the likes of Abrams — not to mention the vice president.
If you weigh in, as I believe your (non-expiring) oath to protect and defend the Constitution dictates, you might conceivably prompt other sober heads and courageous hearts to speak out. I hope you will agree that an attack on Iran can still be prevented, but it seems that this will take more outspokenness and energy than those of us who see what is coming have been able to muster so far. And the controlled press is a huge problem.
Were you to speak out strongly at this stage, the media could not ignore you. I cannot bring myself to believe that you, like so many on the Hill, would be cowed at the prospect of being pilloried by FOX and branded anti-Semitic. And, who knows; perhaps some of those former subordinate officers who admire you for what you have done, will be encouraged to go and do likewise.
And, in the end, if profound ignorance and ideology — supported by a captive corporate press and abetted by political parties supine before the Israel lobby — enable an attack on Iran, and the Iranians, for example, take thousands of our troops hostage in southern Iraq, you will be able to look in the mirror, and at the rest of us, and say at least you tried.
You will not have to live with the remorse of not knowing what you might have made possible, had you been able to shake your reluctance to speak out.
Leadership does not end with retirement; neither do oaths.
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
Ray McGovern, a veteran Army intelligence officer and then CIA analyst for 27 years, now works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.