You Will Know the Truth… and the Truth Will Set You Free

An interview with CIA veteran Ray McGovern

BustedHalo: What led you to leave your work with the CIA and when did you leave? Did you have a conversion experience? Or did the CIA have a conversion experience to where you felt you could no longer work there in good faith?

Ray McGovern: I had wanted to work for justice in a more hands-on way in the inner city, where I had done a number of things as a volunteer, as president of the Board of Bread for the City, for example. My ties with the Servant Leadership School and other ministries of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour gave inner-city work a special appeal and challenge.

I had done all I had aspired to at the CIA; qualified at age 50 for early retirement; watched the main substantive issue (and my specialty), a threatening USSR dissolve…it was 1990 and time to leave.

Leaving was made all the easier by the politicization of intelligence that I watched budding (but was able to avoid) during the eighties. It had become harder to “tell it like it is,” and folks who played the game and got promoted to positions of power were not the kind I enjoyed being around. By the time George Tenet was told much later (in September 2002) to commission a thoroughly dishonest National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” he had become heir to a whole generation of yes-men and women, and readily found willing accomplices to do the administration’s dirty work. It was painful enough watching that happen from the outside.

Conversion experience? No. People who ask that are not aware of the thoroughly moral atmosphere that existed in CIA’s analysis directorate, at least prior to the arrival of director William Casey and his protégé, Robert Gates, both of whom institutionalized the politicization. Until then, our job was about finding and telling the truth–and we had job protection for doing so. By the time I left that ethos was eroding big time. The inevitable result was the debacle in Iraq.

I was able to speak truth right up until the day I retired. But I had the huge advantage of having both the opportunity to retire at 50, and the attraction of work in a totally different realm, the inner city.

Could I work at CIA now? No. A major overhaul would be necessary for me to come back. I would not want to be associated, even remotely, with agency managers and employees who simply saluted when the president gave them authority and encouragement to cook analysis to the recipe of high policy and, still worse, torture people, and then went ahead and did it.

BH: Is the CIA of today change from when you entered?

RM: What is necessary to remember is that the CIA is largely a function of the president who is its main client and who appoints its director. Character counts, and so does integrity. It is absolutely necessary to have both qualities in both individuals. But this has not obtained since the late seventies, when Admiral Stansfield Turner served as director under President Jimmy Carter.

So much damage has been done that I seriously question whether it can be repaired in my lifetime. And then there are always the rays of hope, the honest people who produced the latest NIE on Iran that estimates it will be about a decade before Iran is likely to have a nuclear weapon, for example. And don’t forget the folks (not necessarily intelligence folks) who gave that information to a Washington Post reporter. There are signs of what, in biblical terminology, would be called a “faithful remnant.” And the recent rash of patriotic truth-tellers (aka leakers) provides further hope that integrity still lives somewhere in the bowels of the agency and apparently among at least a handful of managers as well. Otherwise the NIE on Iran would have emerged as distorted/politicized as the one on Iraq during the fall of 2002.

BH: There have been allegations that the CIA has secret prisons in Eastern Europe. Do you think this is true?

Our faith has to do, first and foremost with justice. Justice is what Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus of the Christian scriptures really cared about. Doing justice requires involvement in the political realm. There is no way around it. Justice without politics is a skeleton without flesh.

RM: I only know what I have read in the press, but a very excellent reporter with very good sources has carried this story for quite a long time. It seems to be an open secret now that there were indeed such prisons, relatively small ones, in Eastern Europe (specifically in Poland and Romania, I believe) but that under the glare of unwelcome publicity, they have now been moved to Africa. Again, this is according to the press reports I have read, which strike me as plausible

BH: The CIA has been under media spotlight about its use of torture and whether or not torture should be allowed. Do you feel torture is a necessary component of the intelligence community in order to gain valuable information?

RM: Torture is intrinsically evil; like rape, or slavery–it is always wrong. Until President George W. Bush and his vice president hired some lawyers to tell him otherwise our country did not differ from other civilized countries in condemning torture under any circumstances.
Let me list five considerations, in ascending order of importance, arguing against torture:

1. Torture gives our country a bad name. This is indeed important, especially in the longer run, but not as important, I believe, as…
2. Torture puts our own troops at greater risk of receiving the same treatment if they are captured;
3. Torture brutalizes not only the victim but also the brutalizer. Is this what we send our sons and daughters to Iraq to do? To appreciate what happens to those who let themselves be snared into doing this kind of evil, just talk to some of the troops who have witnessed, or taken part in, torture.
4. Torture doesn’t work. Any experienced intelligence officer will tell you that information extracted by torture is notoriously unreliable, and…
5. Torture is just wrong, not because there are laws against it. It’s the other way around: There are laws against it because it is wrong!

There is, by the way, documentary evidence that the so-called “rotten apples” are at the very top of the barrel. In other words the president, the secretary of defense, and others deliberately authorized torture. And yet, there has been no independent investigation and the congressional committees have punted.

BH: The media has recently revealed that the Bush administration did not use the courts to request permission to spy on U.S. citizens. How do you feel about this? Do you think this was a necessary step in the “war on terror”?

RM: The president has admitted to an impeachable offense. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requires the executive to seek a court warrant for eavesdropping on Americans and yet the law is flexible. The president can initiate the surveillance as soon as he wishes and can carry it on for 72 hours before he is required to even tell a judge about it. And the judge has been a rubber stamp. And yet the president authorized a very large program that involves monitoring Americans as well as foreigners without going to the FISA court. Why did he not do so right after 9/11 when he says he authorized the program. It would have been a slam dunk given the “patriot-act mood” of the Congress at that time. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales let the cat out of the bag when he testified in January that he did take some soundings in Congress and was told that Congress would never approve what the White House wanted to do.

So the White House went ahead and did it anyway, asserting the president’s right to ignore the FISA law. Extraordinary.

And the president has thrown down the gauntlet: (1) Yes, I authorized it; (2) I re-authorized it some 30 times; (3) What is anyone going to do about it. This is a full-blown constitutional crisis, although no one would know that from our domesticated media. It looks very much as though Congress, controlled by the president’s own party, is not going to offer an effective challenge to the president’s assertion that he is above the law. Our founding fathers feared that at some point down the road some president would start acting like a king. That’s why they included in the Constitution an orderly process, a remedy for such a circumstance. It is called impeachment. But this Congress does not seem to have the stomach for it.

BH: Should Americans be concerned about the spying going on by the National Security Agency?

RM: Hell, yes. Our country is beginning to look more and more like the Soviet Union I observed so closely for thirty years.

BH: What, if anything, does our faith have to do with national security? Are we called as Christians to take a stand when issues of possible illegal spying arise? Are we called as Christians to take a stand on the “war on terror”?

RM: In my view, our faith has to do, first and foremost with justice. Justice is what Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus of the Christian scriptures really cared about. Doing justice requires involvement in the political realm. There is no way around it. Justice without politics is a skeleton without flesh. Politics is the form that justice or injustice takes. And if you are not aware of that, or prefer to look the other way, Hitler can build a Third Reich on your piety.

It is the intent behind intelligence gathering/spying that determines its morality. To oversimplify, but just a bit, to the extent such activities promote justice they are normally moral.

Of course we, as followers of Jesus are called on to take a stand on the so-called “war on terror.” To the degree it involves torture and other injustice, it must be roundly condemned. Sadly, as in the Germany of the 1930s, few have been able to find their voice to speak out. The parallel with Germany, where the Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran churches appeased Hitler’s regime and the media were co-opted is shocking. The photos of torture are available; the president and vice president reserve the right to authorize torture. What have we become? Where are the churches? If they dare not speak out on torture, they lose their last vestiges of moral authority.

The “war on terror” has been used to cover up the supreme international crime: a war of aggression.

BH: Is there an ethical angle to the recent accusations that the Bush administration ordered spying on U.S. citizens?

RM: The lying is enough for me. I suppose a case can be made for the moral right to the protections until now afforded by the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution, but I’m not a moral theologian. For me it suffices that it is illegal and, not incidentally, a gross violation of our Fourth Amendment protections.

BH: If the Bush administration went through the court protocol, would it have hurt their ability to gather good intelligence?

RM: There is no persuasive evidence that any “good intelligence” has been acquired by the Bush eavesdropping program. If there were some successes, one would assume that the administration would be advertising them and praising them to the skies. Instead, the president and others have fallen back on yarns that cannot bear close scrutiny. FISA is so flexible, and deliberately so, that the answer to your question is that there is no reason to believe that if the Bush administration abided by the FISA law, this would have hindered its ability to gather good intelligence.