Ray McGovern served God and country for 27 years as a member of the CIA by keeping his work secret. Today, along with a group of other Intelligence veterans, he tells the truth about the corruption of US Intelligence gathering to anyone who will listen.
When he graduated Fordham University during the height of the Cold War, he decided to put his degree in Russian studies to use with the CIA in the fight against the “godless Communism” of the USSR. His work called him to Moscow, Germany and back to the United States. Along the way he also studied at Harvard Business School and Georgetown University. In his later years of service, he was one of two men in charge of then Vice President George H.W. Bush’s daily briefings. McGovern—a father of five, grandfather of six—was proud of the work he did and the effect he was able to have.
In 1990, the self-described “ecumenical, feminist catholic in the tradition of John XXIII” left the CIA to work in inner city Washington, DC with the Church of the Savior ministries. He was drawn back to Intelligence issues however during the long build-up to the war in Iraq in 2003. That was when he and a few other Intelligence veterans formed Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) a group that attempts to shed light on the disastrous effects of the politicization of the Intelligence community in the US. McGovern now works with the publishing arm of the Church of the Savior writing and speaking domestically and internationally about the current state of the U.S. intelligence community.
In our interview, conducted via email, the sixty-six-year-old Bronx native referred to the biblical passage chiseled into the marble entrance at the CIA headquarters: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” He believes it is a credo that the CIA he originally went to work for in the 1960s operated under. Since his retirement, McGovern has spent a good deal of his post-CIA career speaking the truth about the politically distorted mess that Intelligence gathering has become in recent years. In what follows, McGovern speaks candidly not only about the current Bush administration’s “war on terror” and the recent wiretapping controversy but also about the role that faith has played in his own quest to seek the truth.
BustedHalo: You studied Russian as an undergraduate and that led you into a career with the CIA. Could you tell me more about what attracted you to working in this field?
Ray McGovern: At first I took Russian because I had to take a modern language (in addition to Latin and Greek) and I was tired of French. Russian seemed exciting; Fordham had a strong program; and I enjoyed it. Thanks to a good student counselor, I decided to major in it…and then all hell broke loose in the USSR. Sputnik, ICBMs, threats to Berlin, U-2 shoot down, Cuba. I became quite interested in all that, and acquired a taste for life abroad by spending three months in Europe between sophomore and junior year in college. I enrolled in Army ROTC, mostly because there was good chance one would be drafted in those days and I thought I owed it to my country to serve as an officer. After I graduated the Army put off my call to active duty for a year while I took advantage of a fellowship to get my MA in Russian Area Studies. As an undergraduate, I sought out the CIA recruiter. I had learned a good bit about the agency and its charter to act as a central place to analyze all available information, so there would never be another Pearl Harbor; and to be the place that could tell the president the truth, since it was to have no policy axes to grind or other agenda. It did turn out to be that kind of place, very exciting and important work, until toward the end of my 27 years, when objective analysis fell prey to politicization and corruption, and those willing to play that game, not the real professionals, got rewarded with top management positions.
BH: You stayed with the CIA for close to 30 years. Why? What kept you there?
RM: What kept me at CIA was the work. The environment was excellent; the people were bright and committed; the job was very important, exciting and varied. Lots of writing, briefing, orchestrating the intelligence community at large; a sense of satisfaction that comes from doing something that matters a lot, helps enables arms control agreements, sometimes even demonstrably saves lives. The ability to tell it like it is, speak truth to power…and have career protection for doing exactly that was also part of the attraction. I was glad that I qualified for early retirement when the culture began to change in significant ways, corrupting both process and product…as can be seen in the agency’s collaboration in the deliberate tricking of Congress, using cooked intelligence into approving an unnecessary war.
BH: Being a Catholic who grew up in the 40s and 50s, did you feel that your work was, in some ways, a higher calling?
RM: Yes, I did. It was the height of the Cold War. The opponent was “godless Communism” that threatened our own freedoms and wrought havoc with East Europeans and others whom the Soviets dominated. It was part of a higher calling, reflected in the scripture verse chiseled into the marble at the entrance to CIA headquarters: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I think they have now changed that to “We cook intelligence to go.”
BH: What did you do during your career with the CIA?
RM: I started as an analyst of Soviet foreign policy toward China, Southeast Asia, and the international Communist movement. I also studied and reported on domestic developments in the USSR for a brief period. I was then posted to Germany and eventually came back to take over the Soviet foreign policy branch of which I had been a member. It was my first management job and I screwed up royally. Substantive intelligence was good and that was important. Management approach was poor; that, too, was important. Well, I learned a lot, anyhow.
I went to Moscow for three months to support Nixon’s first summit there and the conclusion of major arms accords in 1972. Then, back at headquarters, I worked on Western Europe and had the opportunity to chair National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), the most authoritative genre of intelligence analysis. After a few years at that, I returned to Germany for another tour, this one lasting three years. In 1980 I briefly worked in Health and Human Services before transferring back to CIA to work on the President’s Daily Brief, briefing some combination of the vice president, secretaries of state and defense, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and the assistant to the president for national security affairs, one-on-one, every other morning, three days a week. In the late eighties I was deputy chief of the Analysis Group of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, working on things like “Is Gorbachev For Real?” based on open media sources. Very exciting work. I finished out my career as part of a product evaluation staff for the analysis directorate. I was awarded the Intelligence Commendation Medal on retirement, and at the ceremony received a very nice letter from then-president George H.W. Bush, for whom I had worked, off and on, for 14 years.
BH: Did you have to be secretive about where you worked and what you did?
RM: I could tell you, but then I would have to shoot you. Only kidding. As long as I do not prejudice sources and methods I can speak freely about where I worked and what I did.
BH: What was the most difficult aspect to your job?
RM: In retrospect, two things: I could not really share what I did, especially the most exciting and important aspects, with my wife or family. That has a corrosive effect, I now realize. And, second, the work was at times so demanding that I put in too much time at the office instead of at home. Toward the end of my career, it was very difficult to observe the beginning of the politicization/corruption of the agency.
BH: What was the most thrilling aspect to your job?
RM: Things like telling George H.W. Bush how to pronounce Gorbachev; telling Secretary of State George Shultz that the honest experts at CIA believed Gorbachev to be the real deal, despite word from the top levels at CIA that he was just a clever Commie. Speaking truth to power every other morning; sometimes getting people upset; but still keeping the job; watching the USSR implode…which I took to be further confirmation that my mission was complete and that it was time for me to follow my heart into work in the inner city.
BH: Toward the end of your CIA career you were responsible for helping to brief then Vice President Bush. Tell me about that. Are there particular memories that stand out for you?
RM: A colleague of mine and I briefed Vice President Bush six days a week (each of us briefed him every other morning). The day before and the very early morning of each briefing, we were immersed in the analysis that would be in the President’s Daily Brief that morning and had to read the information from overnight to equip us to answer likely questions that might arise. Vice President Bush was/is what we in the Bronx call a real Mensch. A thoroughly decent fellow, who, by virtue of his tenure as CIA Director, knew what we could provide to help him, the president and other senior officials. He appreciated our work. I bent over backwards to be thoroughly professional, objective and nonpartisan (to the point of deliberately refraining from laughing at political jokes as the expense of political rivals). He noticed that and seemed to accord me an additional increment of respect. He has a terrific sense of humor and a very decent respect for all. A pleasure to brief; a Mensch.
BH: Commentators often note that the first Bush administration (1988-1992) was very different from his son’s administration. Do you feel that is true? If so, how?
RM: They are like night and day, though I can only judge W’s administration from the outside. George W. Bush and the so-called “neoconservative” ideologues he brought in with him, with the eager-to-please assistance of former CIA Director George Tenet, corrupted the intelligence and military establishments and led them into an unprovoked war, the most serious strategic foreign policy error in our country’s history. Internationally, our country’s leaders have launched a war of aggression as defined by the Nuremberg Tribunal. It is considered the supreme international crime differing from other war crimes only in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil actions of the whole (think acts of torture, for example). Nationally, George W. Bush has found lawyers to tell him he is above US laws against torture and warrantless eavesdropping, and has exploited his party’s control of both houses of Congress to make the Fuehrerprinzip (aka the “unitary executive concept”) stick. In a word, the president asserts the right not to comply with laws duly passed by Congress. With the symbiotic relationship among government, large corporations, and the media well in place, the country is a baby step away from fascism. And das Volk, the simple people (most of whom are relatively comfortable but at the same time live in artificially whipped up fear of “terrorists”) also live in denial, like the good Germans who let it all happen, quite legally, in Nazi Germany. I’ll say the two administrations are different!