Out Damn Blot
A Letter to Colin Powell
By Ray McGovern
-- -- You have said you regret the “blot” on your record
caused by your parroting spurious intelligence at the U.N. to
justify war on Iraq. On the chance you may not have noticed, I
write to point out that you now have a unique opportunity to do
some rehab on your reputation.
If you were blindsided, well, here’s an opportunity to try to
wipe off some of the blot. There is no need for you to end up
like Lady Macbeth, wandering around aimlessly muttering, Out
damn spot…or blot.
It has always strained credulity, at least as far as I was
concerned, to accept the notion that naivetÚ prevented you from
seeing through the game Vice President Dick Cheney and then-CIA
Director George Tenet were playing on Iraq.
And I was particularly suspicious when you chose to ignore the
strong dissents of your own State Department intelligence
analysts who, as you know, turned out to be far more on target
than counterparts in more servile agencies.
It was equally difficult for me to believe that you thought
that, by insisting that shameless George Tenet sit behind you on
camera, you could ensure a modicum of truth in your speech
before the U.N. Security Council. You were far savvier than
That is certainly the impression I got from our
every-other-morning conversations in the mid-80s, before I went
in to brief the President’s Daily Brief to your boss,
then-Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, one-on-one.
I saw the street smarts you displayed then. The savvy was
familiar to me. I concluded that it came, in part, from the two
decades you and I spent growing up in the same neighborhood at
the same time in the Bronx.
On those Bronx streets, rough as they were, there was also a
strong sense of what was honorable -honorable even among thieves
and liars, you might say. And we had words, which I will not
repeat here, for sycophants, pimps, and cowards.
Your U.N. speech of Feb. 5, 2003 left me speechless, so to speak
- largely because of the measure of respect I had had for you
Outrage is too tame a word for what quickly became my reaction
and that of my colleagues in Veteran Intelligence Professionals
for Sanity (VIPS), as we watched you perform before the Security
Council less than six weeks before the unnecessary, illegal
attack on Iraq.
The purpose - as well as the speciousness - of your address were
all too transparent and, in a same-day commentary, we VIPS
warned President George W. Bush that, if he attacked Iraq, “the
unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”
That’s history. Or, as investigative reporter Ron Suskind would
say, “It’s all on the record.”
You have not yet summoned the courage to admit it, but I think I
know you well enough to believe you have a Lady Macbeth-type
conscience problem that goes far beyond the spot on your record.
With 4,141 American soldiers - not to mention hundreds of
thousands of Iraqi citizens - dead, and over 30,000 GIs badly
wounded, how could you not?
What Did You Know…and When?
Here is what could be good news for you, Colin.
Information that has come to light over the past two years or so
could wipe some of the blot fouling your record. It all depends,
I guess, on how truthful you are prepared to be now.
Much of the new data comes from former CIA officials who,
ironically, have sought to assuage their own consciences by
doing talk therapy with authors like Sidney Blumenthal and Ron
At first blush, these revelations seem so outlandish that they
themselves strain credulity. But they stand up to close scrutiny
far better than what you presented in your U.N. speech, for
If you now depend on the fawning corporate media (FCM) for your
information, you will have missed this very significant,
In brief, with the help of Allied intelligence services, the CIA
recruited your Iraqi counterpart, Saddam Hussein’s foreign
minister, Naji Sabri, and Tahir Jalil Habbush, the chief of
Iraqi intelligence. They were cajoled into remaining in place
while giving us critical intelligence well before the war -
actually, well before your speech laying the groundwork for war.
In other words, at a time when Saddam Hussein believed that
Sabri and Habbush were working for him, we had “turned” them.
They were working for us, and much of the information they
provided had been evaluated and verified.
Most important, each independently affirmed that there were no
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, information that should
have prevented you from making a fool of yourself before the
U.N. Security Council.
The Iraqi Foreign Minister
The FCM gave almost no coverage (surprise, surprise!) to the
reporting from Naji Sabri, which continues to be pretty much
lost in the woodwork.
In case you missed it, we now know from former CIA officials
that his information on the absence of WMD was concealed from
Congress, from our senior military, and from intelligence
analysts - including those working on the infamous National
Intelligence Estimate of Oct. 1, 2002.
That NIE, titled “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for WMD,” was the
one specifically designed to mislead Congress into authorizing
the president to make war on Iraq.
One question is whether it is true that Sabri’s reporting was
also concealed from you.
Tyler Drumheller, at the time a division chief in CIA’s
clandestine service, was the first to tell the story of Naji
Sabri, who is now living a comfortable retirement in Qatar. On
CBS’s “60 Minutes” on April 23, 2006, Drumheller disclosed that
the CIA had received documentary evidence from Sabri that Iraq
had no WMD.
Drumheller added, “We continued to validate him the whole way
Then two other former CIA officers confirmed this account to
author Sidney Blumenthal, adding that George Tenet briefed this
information to President George W. Bush on Sept. 18, 2002, and
that Bush dismissed the information as worthless.
Wait. It gets worse. The two former CIA officers told Blumenthal
that someone in the agency rewrote the report from Sabri to
indicate that Saddam Hussein was “aggressively and covertly
developing” nuclear weapons and already had chemical and
That altered report was shown to the likes of UK Prime Minister
Tony Blair, who was “duped,” according to one of the CIA
Worse still, the former CIA officials reported that George Tenet
never shared the unadulterated information from the Iraqi
foreign minister with you, the Secretary of State and Naji
Sabri’s counterpart. Again, whether that is true is a very large
The Chief of Iraqi Intelligence
Again, Colin, I am assuming you take your information from the
FCM, so let me brief you, as in the old days, on what else has
popped up over the past couple of weeks.
Two other CIA clandestine service officers have told author Ron
Suskind that Iraqi intelligence chief Habbush had become one of
our secret sources on Iraq, beginning in January 2003.
I hope you are sitting down, Colin, because Habbush also told us
Iraq had no WMD. One of the helpful insights he passed along to
us was that Saddam Hussein had decided that some ambiguity on
the WMD issue would help prevent his main enemy, Iran, from
thinking of Iraq as a toothless tiger.
Habbush, part of Saddam’s inner circle, had direct access to
this kind of information. But when President Bush was first told
of Habbush’s report that there were no WMD in Iraq, Suskind’s
sources say the president reacted by saying, “Well, why don’t
you tell him to give us something we can use to make our case?”
Apparently, Habbush was unable or unwilling to oblige by
changing his story.
Nevertheless, later in 2003, when it became clear that he had
been telling the unwelcome truth, Habbush was helped to resettle
in Jordan and given $5 million to keep his mouth shut.
Suskind also reveals that in the fall of 2003, Habbush was asked
to earn his keep by participating in a keystone-cops-type
forgery aimed at “proving” that Saddam Hussein did, after all,
have a direct hand in the tragedy of 9/11.
This crude forgery was not unlike the one that originally gave
us the yarn about yellowcake uranium going from Niger to Iraq.
You will hardly be surprised to hear there is evidence, much of
it circumstantial, that Vice President Dick Cheney was the
intellectual author of both incredibly inept forgery operations.
Sorry to have to bring this up, but there is something else
about Habbush that you need to know. He had actually been in
charge of overseeing what was left of the Iraqi biological
weapons program after the 1991 Gulf War, and reported that it
was stopped in 1996.
Sabri vs. Curveball
Before the attack on Iraq, Tenet’s deputy, John McLaughlin, was
repeatedly briefed on Sabri’s information, but complained that
it was at variance with “our best source” - a reference to the
infamous “Curveball,” the con-man whom German intelligence had
warned the CIA not to take seriously.
You may recall hearing that on the evening before your U.N.
speech, Drumheller warned Tenet not to use the information from
Curveball on mobile biological weapons laboratories; Tenet gave
Drumheller the brush-off.
The CIA artists’ renderings of those laboratories, to which you
called such prominent attention during your speech, were spiffy,
but bore no relationship to reality. Tenet and McLaughlin knew
this almost as well as Sabri and Habbush did.
“We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories
on wheels and rails,” you will recall telling the world. Later,
you lamented publicly that you had not been warned about
McLaughlin seemed to confirm that this was so, in an interview
with the Washington Post in 2006: “If someone had made those
doubts clear to me, I would not have permitted the reporting to
be used in Secretary Powell’s speech.”
This is highly disingenuous, even by McLaughlin’s and Tenet’s
standards, since they had deliberately chosen to ignore
Drumheller’s warning. I know Drumheller; he is a far better bet
for truthfulness that the other two.
Although I am against the death penalty, I can sympathize with
the vehement reaction of normally taciturn Carl Ford, head of
State Department intelligence at the time. Ford has revealed
that both Tenet and McLaughlin went to extraordinary lengths,
and even took a personal hand in trying to salvage some
credibility for the notorious Curveball.
In an interview for Hubris, a book by Michael Isikoff and David
Corn, Carl Ford spared no words, asserting that Tenet’s and
McLaughlin’s analysis “was not just wrong, they lied…they should
have been shot.”
Though I’ve been around a while, I am not the best judge of
character, Colin, and perhaps I am being too credulous in giving
you the benefit of the doubt concerning what you knew - or
didn’t. It could be, I suppose, that you were fully briefed on
Naji Sabri, Habbush, Curveball, and all the rest of it, and have
been able to orchestrate plausible denial.
If that is the case, I suppose it would seem safer to you to let
sleeping dogs lie.
If, on the other hand, what my former colleagues say about your
having been fenced off from this key intelligence is true, your
reaction seems a bit … how shall I describe it? … understated.
Perhaps you are too long gone from the Bronx. Back there, back
then, letting folks use you and make a fool of you without any
response was just not done.
It was the equivalent to running away when someone was messing
with your sister. And letting oneself be bullied always set a
bad precedent, affirming for the bullies that they can push
people around - especially understated ones - and risk nothing.
In sum, the CIA had both the Iraqi foreign minister and the
Iraqi intelligence chief “turned” and reporting to us in the
months before the war (in Naji Sabri’s case) and the weeks
before your U.N. speech (in the case of Tahir Jalil Habbush).
Both were part of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle; both reported
that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
But this was not what the president wanted to hear, so Tenet put
the kibosh on Habbush and put Sabri on a cutter to Qatar.
So Here’s Your Opportunity
Either you knew about Sabri, Habbush and Curveball, or you did
not. If you knew, I suppose you will keep hunkering down,
licking your blot, and hoping that plausible denial will
continue to work for you.
If you were kept in the dark, though, I would think you would
want to raise holy hell - if not to hold accountable those of
your former superiors and colleagues responsible for the carnage
of the past five years, then at least to try to wipe the “blot”
off your record.
Granted, it probably strikes you as a highly unwelcome choice -
whether to appear complicit or na´ve. Here’s an idea. Why not
just tell the truth?
If House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers is any guide,
Congress seems quite taken with the explosive revelations in Ron
Suskind’s book “The Way of the World.”
On Thursday, Conyers joined Suskind on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy
Now,” and declared that he is “the third day into the most
critical investigation of the entire Bush administration.” (He
clearly was referring to the Suskind revelations.)
Conyers emphasized that, even though Congress is in recess,
“We’re starting our work, and … I’m calling everyone back. We’ve
got a huge amount of work to engage in.”
At the same time, though, Conyers said he is “maybe the most
frustrated person attempting to exercise the oversight
responsibilities that I have on Judiciary.”
A good deal of his frustration comes from stonewalling by the
Bush/Cheney administration, which will surely cite national
security or executive privilege to justify withholding any
Bush Visits CIA
It was, no doubt, pure coincidence that President Bush made a
highly unusual visit to CIA headquarters, also on Thursday,
before leaving for Crawford on vacation.
The official line is that he wanted an update on the situation
in Georgia and the Russian role there, but Bush did not need to
go to Langley for that
Rather, given the record of the past seven years, it is
reasonable to suggest that he also wanted to assure malleable
Mike Hayden, the CIA director, and his minions that they will be
protected if they continue to stiff-arm appropriate
congressional committees, denying them the information they need
for a successful investigation.
Pardons dangled as hush money? Not so bizarre at all.
Some will recall that George H.W. Bush, just before leaving the
White House, pardoned one of your former bosses, Casper
Weinberger, who had been indicted and was about to go to trial
for lying about his role in the Iran-Contra fiasco.
If past is precedent, sad to say, Conyers is not likely to get
to first base, UNLESS he can get knowledgeable witnesses to come
On Thursday he did not rule out a suggestion that Habbush be
asked to come before Congress to testify, but the CIA can easily
thwart that kind of thing - or delay it indefinitely.
In any case, your own credibility, though damaged, has got to be
greater than Habbush’s.
Let me suggest that you offer yourself as a witness to help
clear the air on these very important issues. This would seem
the responsible, patriotic thing to do in the circumstances and
could also have the salutary effect of beginning the atonement
process for that day of infamy at the Security Council.
If we hear no peep out of you in the coming weeks, we shall not
be able to escape concluding one of two things:
(1) That, as was the case with the White House Situation Room
sessions on torture, you were a willing participant in
suppressing/falsifying key intelligence on Iraq; or
(2) That you lack the courage to expose the scoundrels who
betrayed not only you, but also that segment of our country and
our world that still puts a premium on truth telling and the
Think about it.
With all due respect,
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the
ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.
During his 27-year career in CIA’s analysis ranks, he chaired
National Intelligence Estimates and briefed the President’s
Daily Brief to the most senior national security officials. He
is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
This article was first published at Consortium News
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