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Veracity in Government
A Quality That is Sometimes Hard to Find

I recently had lunch with an old friend who described how a fellow army officer had, back in April 2008, attended a mandatory all hands meeting at the National Defense University in Washington. The purpose of the meeting, which was held in the university’s largest auditorium, was to promote a book written by noted neocon Doug Feith called War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. Feith, a clever Ivy League lawyer who claims to read Edmund Burke for fun, dutifully performed for the audience, explaining how he had helped shape policy at the Pentagon that had resulted in the successful invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He described one crucial meeting at the Pentagon where he had been a key player, able to convince the Defense Department brass to take his advice which had produced success on the battlefield.

Now think back to early 2008. Iraq was really a mess, with tens of thousands of civilians dead, Fallujah in ruins, hundreds of thousands displaced, and most of the Iraqi people experiencing lower living standards and worse health than had been the norm under Saddam. The country was politically on the verge of falling apart and security was breaking down in many areas. The “surge” of additional American troops, which ran from the spring of 2007 through the summer of 2008, was still surging and was given credit in the US media for stabilizing the situation. But the American public was not aware that the decline in violence had largely come about after a decision by the leading Shia militia not to oppose the increased American presence coupled with the process of buying off the Sunnis by giving them weapons and money. Nevertheless, the lowering of the intensity of the internal conflict enabled the usual crowd of neocons in Washington and the media to boast that the invasion and occupation of Iraq had been a success. This view was contradicted by the 61% of Iraqis who believed that the presence of foreign troops was actually making the situation worse, but no one was talking to the Iraqis.

Since that time it has become clear that Doug Feith was indeed one of the key enablers of the invasion of Iraq, which, using the Nuremberg standard, was a war of aggression and therefore a war crime. Feith was the Undersecretary for Policy, the third highest Pentagon position. He had created the secretive Office of Special Plans to find and evaluate information that was not being considered by the existing intelligence organizations. Much of the information he collected had in fact not been taken seriously by CIA analysts because it was false or misleading, intended only to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein was a threat. Rather than subject the phony intelligence to the scrutiny of genuine professional analysts Feith’s team instead picked out the best bits, referred to as “cherry picking,” and sent them directly to Scooter Libby and Dick Cheney in the White House, a process referred to as “stovepiping.” So lies shaped policy which led to a war that has been described as America’s greatest foreign policy disaster of all time.

In any event, in 2008 Doug Feith was still regarded by many as a hero when the Army officer in the audience stood up and challenged his narrative, explaining that he had been tasked with taking notes at the meeting that Feith was referring to and it was his recollection that the Pentagon’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy was not even present, let alone playing a leading role. Feith reportedly turned red and was unable to continue.

The Feith story reminded me of how much lying goes on in government. The recent big lie by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper comes to mind immediately, telling Congress and the public that the National Security Agency (NSA) does not routinely “wittingly” spy on American citizens while knowing that it was doing exactly that. His explanation, when he was exposed, was that his had been the “least untruthful” response that he felt he could give, and, curiously enough, he still has his job. And then there is the big lie about the effectiveness of the NSA program itself, when General Keith Alexander claimed that the information obtained had been critical to the thwarting of 54 terrorist plots in a number of countries. It turned out that the correct number is actually zero, that there has been no disruption of terrorist activity attributable to the vast ocean of information that the NSA was collecting on innocent Americans and foreign citizens.

And consider the intermittent cheating scandals at the service academies or the recent revelations from the United States Air Force describing how a drug related investigation has detailed how ninety-two officers in the strategic missile force have been punished for colluding on their monthly proficiency reports. The officers involved are not running post exchanges in Okinawa, they are the folks with their fingers on the nuclear trigger and the reports relate to their knowledge of under what circumstances they would fire their missiles, so the allegation of fraud is remarkable and also suggests that there is far too much covering up and going with the flow in the federal bureaucracy. The Secretary of the Air Force provided her own fudge in explaining the kerfuffle, saying “I want you to know this was a failure of some of our airmen. It was not a failure of the nuclear mission.” Whatever that is supposed to mean.

Proficiency and fitness assessments are key components for promotion within the military system, so it is inevitable that some officers would try to game the system while the raters themselves would avoid creating problems by expressing too much candor if someone were considered a marginal performer. I can personally recall from my time in military intelligence in Berlin in the late 1960s how the unit operations officer, a major, would routinely have the box on his annual proficiency form checked indicating that he was in excellent physical condition. In reality, he weighed 300 pounds, had trouble walking up a flight of stairs, had hemorrhoids that were so painful that he would work at his desk standing up, and his eyes were so bad that he had trouble reading.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) too had more than its share of liars and the lies grew much bigger as one moved up the ladder because more appeared to be at stake. A Chief of Station (COS) in Ankara who spoke no Turkish would go to his weekly meeting with his Turkish counterparts accompanied by his reports officer who did speak the language. He would return to the office and dictate to her what had been said at the meeting. First time around she objected, noting that it was not what had taken place, but the chief sent her a clear message by telling her that he would decide what was important. It seems that the chief was promoting himself at headquarters as someone who would fix the liaison relationship with the Turks after some years of tension over Cyprus, so on paper that was what he was doing even though it was to a certain extent a self-serving lie.

Over in Istanbul I was finding Turkish intelligence surveillance all over me every time I went out and dutifully reported the same to Ankara, which refused to report the incidents to counter-intelligence staff at headquarters because it would challenge the narrative of how everything was rosy in Turkey. On one occasion while walking to lunch with a British diplomat the Turkish surveillance lost me temporarily and, when they started running to find me again, they actually crashed into the two of us headlong, knocking us to the ground. The COS told me later that what I experienced could not possibly have taken place. So Washington was fundamentally misled on what was going on in Turkey for three years but the chief did get his promotion.

CIA promoted its overseas officers based on recruitments of sources, which meant that numbers fraud replaced any sense of whether the assets were actually needed or if they even knew that they were working for CIA. When moving to a new post, it was routine to question the value of any recruitments made in the last six months of the predecessor’s tour because it was automatically assumed that they would be phony. The need to appear active also trickled down into the Station reporting on developing cases. A lunch with a fellow diplomat in which absolutely nothing occurred might be written up as demonstrating interesting vulnerabilities and promising to become an important developmental. The perception that the station had a number of promising cases would work its way up through the system with smiles and handshakes all around. One officer in Rome made his career by claiming that he had recruited everyone he played tennis with at the Foreign Ministry Club while two officers I knew in Turkey would write reports on alleged contacts without actually meeting anyone.

And now we have an Undersecretary of the Navy resigning over a contracting scandal, with his boss explaining in govspeak how Robert Martinage was forced to step down “following a loss of confidence in his abilities to effectively perform his duties.” I am citing these examples of government lying to make the point that lots of people dissimulate or cheat when they think they can get away with it. There are probably more liars in government because people there believe that they are protecting either confidentiality or a preferred agenda by lying and they are also operating under the conviction that their lies will never be exposed because of government secrecy. They never think of themselves as liars but rather as “perception managers.” The lesson learned from all of this might well be that one should never believe what anyone in the government is saying unless it can be independently verified by numerous credible witnesses. Back several weeks ago when I first started pulling together this article President Barack Obama was promising to stop retaining information on Americans even though he will allow the NSA to continue to collect it. So why would he collect it in the first place? Sure sounds like a lie to me, a real whopper.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: CIA, Doug Feith, Iraq War 
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