President Kennedy famously threatened to break the CIA into a thousand pieces. He was quoted by the New York Times. There is some dispute about the quote. The late Vincent Bugliosi, by then a famed former prosecutor, researched, but was unable to find any witness who heard those words.
It was no secret that the President was angry at being deliberately misled by his intelligence team. They had been committed to the overthrow of the Castro regime in Cuba. Their reports were a major factor in convincing him to secretly support a group of Cuban exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs on the shore of Cuba.
Kennedy had, from the first, insisted that overtly assisting the exiled dissidents would endanger US interests and increase the possibility of war. He completely ruled it out and made sure his top planners knew it. He made especially certain the CIA knew it.
No US forces. Period.
As the plan to overthrow Castro unraveled, it became evident to Kennedy that the head of the CIA had his team manufacture false information calculated to force the administration to commit US forces. Operatives had even promised the exiles that Kennedy would do exactly that.
When he didn’t commit US troops or air power, Cuban lives were lost.
The relationship between Washington officials and the intelligence service has often been contentious.
In 1949, State Department intelligence experts predicted the fall of Nationalist China to communist forces led by Mao Zedong. Conservatives didn’t want to hear it.
When Mao actually did take over the largest country on earth, with 20% of the world’s population, conservatives went after the State Department’s “China hands.” Specialists on China were soon purged from the State Department.
Experts in the CIA were lucky, by comparison. The head of the CIA was Allen Dulles, whose anti-communist credentials were unchallenged. He was able to protect his employees from the conservative purges that focused on other parts of government.
But Dulles misled John Kennedy. Breaking up the CIA never happened. But Dulles deserved breaking and he soon lost his position.
Four decades later, the Bush/Cheney administration pushed the CIA to get evidence, by torture if necessary, that might show that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in league with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. Vice President Cheney was especially determined to show that Iraq has sponsored the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
On the surface, the charge was an absurdity. Hussein was Sunni, as was bin Laden. al Qaeda was dedicated to killing off as many Shiite Muslims as they could. And Hussein treated the Shia in Iraq with remarkable brutality. But the parallels ended there. It would be hard to be more secular than Hussein. The mutual disdain between the Iraqi dictator and the terrorist religious group was intense.
Torture is not a good method at finding truth. Too many false leads come from desperate pain. But torture can be remarkably effective in producing confessions. A thousand years of the use of torture has convicted the innocent of everything from witchcraft to war crimes.
In this case, even torture could not produce the evidence conservatives wanted. At least not evidence of Iraq’s involvement in using aircraft filled with innocent passengers to bring down buildings filled with innocent occupants.
But the head of the CIA at the time, George Tenet, promised that he could make the case that Iraq was about to get nuclear weapons. He called it a “slam dunk.” Connecting the image of falling towers in New York City with Saddam Hussein in Iraq turned out not to be convincing. But the image of a possible mushroom cloud over New York could be compelling.
The administration scattered misinformation like pixie dust throughout American media sources. The illusion of corroboration was effective. Mushroom clouds were on everyone’s mind.
When a former Ambassador did his own research and found the mushroom cloud theory to be full of falsehoods, the Bush/Cheney administration went on the attack. His wife was a vulnerable secret operative working for the CIA in other countries without the protection of any diplomatic cover. The administration blew the secret cover of Valerie Plame, exposing everyone in other countries who had ever helped her. The warning to other CIA personnel was clear. Cooperate or be exposed.
But contentious as the relationship has sometimes been, the role of intelligence has been essential. How often CIA intelligence has helped American Presidents avoid nuclear war is not knowable.
…presidents from Harry Truman to George H. W. Bush have been advised by military commanders to use nuclear weapons, but presidents have refused.
Joseph Cirincione, Ploughshares Fund
During the 1962 missile crisis, President Kennedy found the CIA to be an invaluable resource, determining how much time he had to pressure the Soviet Union into getting nuclear weapons out of Cuba.
When Presidents refuse to hear the information gathered by intelligence services, the results can be tragic.
In early August 2001, the daily intelligence briefing provided to George W. Bush was dismissed by the President. The item on terrorism was entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” The reaction of President Bush was derisive. “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.” The next month America was under attack.
Current events continue the pattern. Officials in the Trump campaign team have attacked the CIA for revealing how Russia had assisted his Presidential campaign with a program of computer hacks and disinformation.
These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Statement from the Transition Team, December 9, 2016
Separately, he has refused to sit through most of the daily intelligence briefings that have been compiled and summarized for him.
I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.
Donald Trump, December 11, 2016
We begin the administration with a President who believes an intelligence briefing is intended to make him intelligent.
The CIA has been assailed by liberals and denounced by conservatives. But the equivalence ends there. Liberals have criticized intelligence operations for their failures, and for allowing themselves to be used to misinform the American public. Kennedy’s anger in 1961 at being misled parallels liberal reaction after the invasion of Iraq.
Conservative attacks have been ideological. From the anti-China purges of 1949 through the Valerie Plame affair to the Trump campaign, they have disparaged intelligence operations for revealing what conservatives deeply feel ought not to be true.
Liberals have attacked US intelligence for being wrong, and for doing wrong.
Conservatives attack US intelligence for being right.
Mr. Trump attacks US intelligence as unneeded, because he is intelligent enough already.
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