During the Veterans for Peace National Convention in Seattle, I conducted an interview with Ray McGovern. McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
In the final installment of this interview series for Truthout, McGovern discusses links between US/Israeli policy, the need for change if there is to be true security for either country, the Bush administration’s use of torture, and the likelihood of a US attack on Iran.
DJ: What is the solution for this dysfunctional entanglement between the US and Israel regarding their failed policy in the Middle East?
RM: It is very hard to perceive a solution to the entanglement between our country and Israel. No one has more power than the Israeli lobby. We know the study that professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt did was criticized, as they predicted, as being anti-Semitic. But they didn’t tell half of the story. They omitted, for example, the USS Liberty.
Let me tell you about the USS Liberty. It was off the coast of Israel during the 1967 war. It was an intelligence collection ship. The Israelis knew what it was. The ship had a great big American flag flying on top of it. On the 8th of June, three days into the war, Israeli fighter bombers reconnoitered the ship and then came back an hour later and did their damnedest to sink it. Not only that, but torpedo boats participated in this, knowing that it was a US ship. 34 US sailors were killed, 171 US sailors were severely wounded. The ship limped back on its own power into Malta.
In the midst of all this, during the engagement, the commander of the 6th Fleet, having been apprised of what was going on, immediately ordered fighter bombers to do battle with whoever was attacking the USS Liberty. Guess what happened? They were called back halfway. They were called back halfway. By whom? By President Lyndon Johnson and by Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara.
When the sailors who survived got off that ship, they were allowed to sleep one night. The first thing the next morning, they were told they would be court-martialed if they ever mentioned that Israel had deliberately tried to sink their ship. They were sworn to secrecy. And that secrecy held for about 20 years, but now the story is out. The navy lawyers who were cajoled into suppressing the real story have come out and told exactly what the story was.
Why do I mention all this?
Among other things, Admiral [Thomas Hinman] Moorer, who had been chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, did his own investigation and came up with the fact that the Israelis did this.
Now, Congress suppressed this information, our press suppressed this information, so what effect did this have on the Israelis? I think the Israelis concluded that this was pretty good – that they could literally get away with murder. They could literally get away with murder, and the US government would not criticize Israel even if they killed 34 US soldiers and wounded 171. That was 1967.
Since then, the Israeli lobby in this country has become even more powerful. And the money they disperse to various candidates, congressman and senators has become even more grandiose, and it’s not possible to discuss this or get politicians to be honest about this sort of thing. So what do we have to do? I think we just have to plug away at the media and do alternative media, studies and articles and point out that this is precisely what George Washington warned against and that Israeli interests are not the same as ours. That the neo-cons have great difficulty distinguishing what they perceive to be Israeli interests and those of the US and we have to adopt a more balanced policy.
I’ll conclude by pointing out that over the last several decades, US policy has been very consistent in the Middle East. Two major objectives: 1. To secure the safe provision of oil and natural gas; 2. To secure the state of Israel within secure and internationally recognized borders.
Now, in a sense, George W. Bush’s policy is consonant with those two aims. The only difference is that he thought it was OK to start a war of aggression to achieve those aims. And that’s a little different, I would suggest. What we have now is a policy that was adopted at the very first meeting of the National Security Council (NSC), on the 30th of January, 2001, well before 9/11. That was a meeting in which two things happened. Number one, the president said: “This honest broker business in the Middle East, this attempt to mediate between the two and adopt some sort of even-handed policy – that’s for the birds. We’re jettisoning that. We’ll tilt towards Israel. Who knows this fellow Sharon?” Colin Powell, Secretary of State, raises his hand, “Yeah, I know him.” Bush says, “Well, I think we’ll just let him cope with the Palestinians the way he wants to. Sometimes a show of force can do a lot of good.”
How do we know all this? We know all this because Paul O’Neill, the secretary of the treasury, was there. He was aghast, and he looked at Powell and described Powell as “startled.” This is the first time Powell knew about this. So he gently, in his manner, remonstrated and said, “Mr. President, that would give Ariel Sharon a free hand.” Bush responded, “That’s all right, let’s see what happens.”
Well we know what happened. Ariel Sharon did have a free hand, and most people forget that he didn’t wait 24 hours after 9/11 before sending his US-built tanks into the West Bank and wreaking havoc there.
That was a major departure in US policy, and it has caused all manner of reverberations in the Middle East.
The second part of that NSC meeting on the 30th of January, 2001, was devoted exclusively to Iraq. The president himself made it clear that Condoleezza Rice, who was national security advisor at the time, would be orchestrating these meetings and had orchestrated this one.
At that point she said, “George Tenet [resigned director of the CIA] has a photo he brought along with him, and he would like to show it.” So Tenet put up a satellite photo of a building in Iraq, and he said, “We suspect that this building is involved in chemical/biological warfare agent production.” Someone asked, “Do you have any corroboration?” Tenet said, “No, we don’t have any corroboration. We just suspect that this might be the case.”
He took the picture down, and the conversation immediately proceeded to which targets in Iraq would be the best to hit first. This was the 30th of January, 2001, 10 days into the first term of the regime of George W. Bush. And most of that first meeting was devoted to how we get Saddam.
Paul O’Neill, who has reported all of this in great detail, was shaking his head as he left that meeting, saying, “I just don’t understand. There must be something I don’t get. But I never thought the primary policy of this administration would be to invade and get Saddam. What kind of threat is he posing?”
So that’s the way the Middle East policy was laid, and of course George Tenet, to my great regret, showed himself a willing pawn in the shell game, showing a picture and saying, “Well, we suspect this might be a really dangerous sort of thing.” And Condoleezza Rice, having orchestrated the thing, said, “See! Let’s go to Don Rumsfeld now. What about the targets, Don?”
The whole thing is so corrupt. The whole thing is so disingenuously deceitful that it’s hard to believe that our elected leaders and the people they appoint could be so corrupt.
DJ: What might a first step be toward bringing US/Israeli relations into a more functional paradigm?
RM: Our job now is to get the truth out about the realities of US/Israeli relations. We have to be willing to be called anti-Semitic. We have to be willing to face what happens whenever somebody says, “Hey, there’s an elephant in the living room. There’s an elephant in the living room, and its name is Israel.”
We have to be willing to approach this in a more objective way. We have to be willing to openly discuss it, at least as freely as they do in the state of Israel. There is much freer discussion there in their press. We have to be willing to do this, because the truth will set us free.
The bottom line, really, is that we do Israel a great service, as well as doing a great service for our own country, by pointing out the short-sightedness, the myopia that attends this policy – that you can just bomb the hell out of a country, that you can send rockets and tanks to catch a resistance group like Hezbollah Ö It never has been done. You will not be able to defeat Hezbollah any more than you’ll be able to defeat the resistance in Iraq.
The sooner that both our countries realize that, the sooner that that truth gets out and the American people know that’s the truth, the sooner we can hope for some change in policy.
Still, vouching for the defense of Israel – nobody wants to see Israel pushed into the sea, but that’s not the problem. Israel’s not going to be pushed into the sea with 300 nuclear weapons. They’ve got to make peace with their neighbors.
You have to take official pronouncements pretty seriously. Take those from Osama bin Laden. In our media coverage of his press announcements, they leave out something that they find inconvenient. And what they find inconvenient is what he says about the motivation for what he and other insurgents are doing. And that is that they are acting out of extreme hatred for US policies, the primary policy being our one-sided support for the state of Israel, vis-á-vis the Palestinians. Also, of course, our support for the corrupt regimes in places like Saudi Arabia.
I remember Osama bin Laden, just a couple of months after 9/11, included a story in his tapes. The story depicted an Arab camel driver. The camel driver was tying up the camel across the street from where another camel was. And the other camel was at the hands of a butcher and the butcher was hacking into this camel in the full sight of this other camel driver and his camel. The Arab camel driver’s camel broke his ropes and ran over and bit the butcher’s hand off.
Osama’s comment on this was, “So it will be. So it will be with Arab mothers who see their children being slaughtered, being hacked to death. They will rise to the occasion and bite the hand of the invader.”
I should add that when the 9/11 Commission was preparing their report, something that escaped media attention was that in the midst of their drafting, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, was captured. On page 147, even though this commission was appointed to look into the background, and why it all happened, there is just one sentence that says Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, when asked why he devised the 9/11 plan, said, “I did it out of violent hatred for the effects of one-sided US support for the state of Israel.” Then there is a footnote at the back of the book that says [paraphrased], “Indeed, this is what Ramzi Yousef, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nephew, said, after he tried to knock down one of the Twin Towers in 1993 and was arraigned, convicted and sentenced to 243 years in a Federal Prison.” What he said was, “I’m proud to have done this deed, I’m sorry I failed to knock down the whole building. But I did it out of my extreme violent hatred for US policies, one-sided in the favor of Israel.”
None of that has appeared in the American press, but it happens to be part of the reality. If we want to stem terrorism, we have to be a little more enlightened, educated and sensible. Because the way you defeat terrorism is the same way you defeat malaria.
With malaria you find the swamp that breeds mosquitoes and you station sharp-shooters all around that swamp and you try to hit every one of those mosquitoes when they try to leave the swamp, right? Not really. What you do is you drain the swamp.
Now, we have to drain the swamp of legitimate grievances that come from over four decades of concentration-camp type living on the part of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Of grievances that come from our support for dictatorial regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia. We have to address those grievances.
If you believe what the president says about why they hate us, “They hate our freedom,” well I have a bridge of mine in Manhattan that goes to Brooklyn I’d love to sell you. You have to look a little deeper than that. The reason they hate us is because they have these un-redressed grievances and there are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world and they see, every night on their TV, what is going on. They see the Israelis using our weaponry to suppress their brothers and sisters.
Osama bin Laden uses the line about the Palestinians in his addresses because it is effective. Even if he doesn’t truly believe it himself, it is effective because the broad majority of Muslims listening know these un-redressed grievances all too well, and that is why it is effective as a rallying cry.
We all warned before the invasion of Iraq that the recruiting lines for al-Qaeda would go around the corner. If we thought we would lessen the threat of terrorism by going into Iraq, we were sadly mistaken – because before we attacked Iraq, there were no terrorists in Iraq. I repeat: There were no terrorists in Iraq.
What Saddam Hussein was doing was paying some of the families of suicide bombers who did their dastardly deeds in Israel, or elsewhere. But that was the extent of the terrorism in Iraq.
But now Iraq is teeming with terrorists. This is important because if, as I believe to be the case, one of the main reasons the US thought they would invade and take over Iraq was to make that part of the world safer for the state of Israel, then the situation now is just the opposite of that.
The situation now is much more precarious with all of these terrorists in Iraq. Israel is much less safe, and the bottom line as far as US policy is concerned is that it’s much more difficult to contemplate withdrawing forces from Iraq under these conditions.
If you put yourself in the place of the Israelis, I can understand the concern, of course. During the first Gulf War there were 39 Scud Missiles shot towards Israel. That’s pretty scary. So the Israelis were hell-bent and determined to make sure there were no scuds left in Iraq.
As we know, Colin Powell said in his infamous speech in front of the UN on February 5, 2003, that our best estimate was there were about two dozen scuds left in Iraq. Now, he happened to be off by only 24, because there were no functioning scuds in Iraq. But if I were an Israeli citizen, I’d like to make damned sure that was the case.
Well, they did make damned sure that was the case. But they could have done that through traditional intelligence sources. They didn’t have to do that by encouraging the US to invade Iraq and clean it out, because the results speak for themselves. An upsurge in terrorism, very long recruiting lines for al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the others, and no draining of the swamp. No coherent policy toward addressing the grievances of those who then become terrorists.
Don Rumsfeld, he’ll scratch his head as he did two years ago and say, “You know, I just don’t understand what would possess someone to put a bunch of explosives on their body and blow themselves up just to kill other people. Why do people act this crazy?”
My advice to Secretary Rumsfeld is he really ought to tune into Al Jazeera for just one evening and see the diet that 1.3 billion Muslims are getting – a diet of weaponry provided by the US to the state of Israel and to others, weapons that are used against Arabs and Muslims, people who have been repressed for more than 50 years now. And that would give Don Rumsfeld some insight as to why people act this “crazy.”
I’d suggest that our policy is more deserving of that label than the terrorists.
DJ: Do you see any time-frame within which the Bush administration would like to drag Iran into this?
RM: It’s hard to discern whether Iran would come before Syria. The best thing to do would be to read the “Clean Break” document, and some of the others and try to figure it out for yourself, because they’ve had to adjust things a bit.
But as far as Iran is concerned, which would be the main threat, the way I see it, the reason I give such urgency to the question is because the president is in real trouble. His numbers are very low. There are these midterm elections coming up in November and the stakes are really high. Because if the Democrats take the House, my view is that John Conyers wouldn’t wait two weeks before initiating impeachment proceedings against the president for due cause. What would that mean? That wouldn’t necessarily mean conviction, because who knows what would happen in the Senate, but it would mean the president would be bogged down for his last two years in defending himself for crimes committed. Demonstrable crimes. Witness only the violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Deliberate violation. Admitted violation, where the president brags about having authorized violation 29 times.
Why do I cite that among other indignities? That happens to be one of the indictment counts that the House Judiciary Committee passed to impeach President Nixon in 1974. So it’s an impeachable offense, demonstrably by precedent.
All I’m saying is that the president has to look with great concern at a takeover of the House by the Democrats. Not only will he be under the gun, but every committee will be looking into crimes and misdemeanors by other departments and other agencies. And the next two years would be completely wasted in terms of his achieving more of the neo-con agenda.
Not only that, there is personal liability here. Take torture for example. When the president decided he’d like the CIA to start torturing folks who were captured in Afghanistan, they came back to him and said, “We have 12-13 people who are willing to do this, they are all special-ops guys from Vietnam and know how to do this. But Mr. President, we have this little paper we’d like you to sign.”
It was then and only then that the president called in Alberto Gonzales, his White House Counsel and said, “Hey, can I authorize this torture of Taliban and al-Qaeda?” Gonzales goes to the vice president’s lawyer, David Addington, who then drafts this memo that Gonzales signs. This is the one, dated January 25th, that says Geneva is quaint and obsolete and according to Gonzales, “you don’t really have to worry about international law like that. However, Mr. President, there is unfortunately US Law, 18 US Code 2441, called the War Crimes Act, and it has very, very stringent penalties, including death, and it’s all tied explicitly to the provisions of the Geneva Convention. So that’s a little sticky, but we believe there is a reasonable basis in law where you can escape prosecution if at some later date some mean-spirited special prosecutor is appointed and decides to move against you juridically.”
Now, there wasn’t and there still isn’t a respectable lawyer in this country who says that was a good opinion. But George W. Bush acted on that opinion, and two weeks later, on February 7, 2002, he wrote a memorandum that parroted this business and said in the final bottom line, “As a matter of policy, the US Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva.”
Now my friends, that is the loophole through which Don Rumsfeld drove the Mack Truck of torture. “To the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity.” Who decides that? Don Rumsfeld and his folks. So what I’m saying is these people are criminally culpable, in my view, criminally liable under US Code, criminal statute for war crimes. This is something that has to worry them, and it’s precisely why they are trying to change the law. They are trying to change the US War Crimes Act of 1996 to permit the kinds of things that they’ve already done. I’ve never seen the likes of it.
How does this all play out?
If I were they, I would be very receptive to a Karl Rove and a Dick Cheney who would come up and say, “Mr. President, we have to do something to prevent this. And the best thing we can think of is: you did pretty well as a war president. You like that role. So we think if we take off after Iran, because of course it is threatening Israel, and juice that as the justification and the fact that they are still trying to get a nuclear weapon – we can make people think that. Then you’ll be a war president again. It’s risky, these damned armed-forces guys are a bunch of cowards and warn that all hell could break loose, but look at the downside here. Let’s say the Democrats take the House. We are in very deep kimshei. So this is what we advise. We advise using these smart bombs, and the Air Force guys say they can do it, even though the Army and Marines are being a bunch of wimps about this, they are afraid of having to go in and clean up after the Air Force. But the Air Force guys say they know where most of the targets are and the Israelis could start it. We could finish it up. The domestic ramifications would be OK because of the control of the media and the Israeli lobby and there’s a good chance that if you could become that kind of war president, maybe it would be accompanied by a minor terrorist incident – which we could certainly arrange – you have a decent chance of hanging onto the House.”
Is that Machiavellian? Is that un-American? Is that beyond the pale? Yeah, it is! But I would not put that past this crew. Watching Cheney, watching the lawyers they got out of the yellow pages to justify torture and stuff like that, I would not put it past them. I would say that the sycophants that have risen to the rank of general, I’m talking about the armed forces now and especially the Air Force, that they would probably tell Cheney and Rumsfeld what they thought they wanted to hear, “Yeah, we could do the job.” And we’d have Vietnam all over again when the Air Force told MacNamara, “Yeah, we’ll bomb the hell out of them and they’ll come to their senses.”
So that’s what worries me. And you ask about the timing – I think the timing is just as likely to happen in the next couple of months before the election, that there is this additional incentive to do it before the election. And I must say that not all of my colleagues agree, and I dare say most people think it won’t happen until early next year, but that’s how I come at it and that’s the rationale that I use.