An Interview with Former CIA Analyst Ray McGovern

“Ray McGovern, a former CIA officer who gave the daily brief for President George H.W. Bush, is pretty well known in the intelligence community. He's become a Christian antiwar leftist who goes around bearing witness. Whatever his views, he's harmless.”

—Sidney Blumenthal in an email to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, February 18, 2011

When Ray McGovern was a fresh-faced recruit to the CIA during the Kennedy administration, he was awestruck by the words from the Gospel of John engraved on the entrance of the original headquarters building: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

Those words have stuck with him throughout his career—first during his twenty-seven years as a specialist in Soviet foreign policy at the CIA, and now as a critic of the CIA and U.S. foreign policy. McGovern says there was no damascene moment in his transition from being an analyst to being a dissident, and that he remains a true-believer in the original mission and political independence of the CIA. He argues that, beginning in the 1980s and culminating in the “intelligence fixing” that led up to the Second Gulf War, the analysis branch of the CIA, which was supposed to be an objective fact-finding department, gradually became subservient to the political goals of the executive branch.

McGovern’s indignation at this development was on full display at a press conference in 2006 when he challenged Donald Rumsfeld to explain his September 2002 claim that there was “bulletproof” evidence of links between Al Qaeda and the government of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. A four-minute exchange ensued, with Rumsfeld denying that he had lied. (You can find the exchange on YouTube.)

McGovern has met with both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and maintains an active schedule speaking and writing on U.S. foreign policy and intelligence. In March, I had a chance to speak with him about Syria and U.S. foreign policy at large.

Nicholas Haggerty: Why did it take five years to get to a ceasefire in Syria?

Ray McGovern: When the Arab Spring moved to Syria, initially it was a grassroots movement. There’s no denying that Assad clamped down with great cruelty, and that served to inflame the situation. But it was not very long till the CIA was sent in there to find “moderate” rebels so that they could assist in causing Assad all manner of troubles and perhaps even bring him down. Why did we do that? What’s in it for Washington? Assad was not a threat to us. He was cooperating with the United States in the War on Terror. He was helping to find terrorists and he was one of the people who took some of our detainees to be tortured and held in prisons while we figured out what to do with them.

One of the main factors is that Israel has inordinate influence on the policymakers at the State Department and in the White House. Syria has been on Israel’s list of countries for regime change since 1996, when several U.S. neocons wrote a paper for Netanyahu just before he became Prime Minister the first time. The paper was “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” The authors made it very clear that the objective would be to foment real problems in Iran, Syria, and Iraq—against all manner of countries in the Middle East that might support Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

In early 2013, Assad and his army had dislodged many of the rebels from the places they had occupied for a couple of years. The Syrian government was starting to win the war. After the Ghouta chemical-weapons attack in August 2013, a former Israeli official told the New York Times how the Israeli government felt about the situation in Syria. Here’s what he said:

'This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win—we’ll settle for a tie,' said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. 'Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.'

That was the Israeli policy then. It’s the Israeli policy now. While Sunni and Shia are killing each other off in Syria and in other countries in the general area, as Pinkas says, “as long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.” You can make sense of U.S. policy toward Syria over these past five years if you understand that, for whatever reason, the people running our policy are so identified with Israeli interests that they do Israel’s bidding and disappoint Israel very rarely.

NH: Saudi Arabia is also worried about Syria and Iran. One could argue that we’re doing their bidding too, even though they are hostile toward Israel. Isn’t the situation more complex than the U.S. doing Israel’s bidding?

RM: There are of course other factors in play regarding Washington’s policy toward Syria. Turkey and Saudi Arabia also support the violence against the government of Bashar al-Assad. As usual, the Turks’ preoccupation is with suppressing the Kurds, who in recent years have increased their control over parts of northern Iraq. Needless to say, Turkey does not want the Kurds to have similar success in northern Syria. For the Saudis, the violence in Syria has the trappings of a medieval kind of religious war—in this case, Sunni vs. Shia—backed by an inexhaustible bag of Saudi cash with which to arm and support rebels (“moderate” or not) trying to remove Assad. Why are U.S. protests against this Saudi support for ISIS and other real terrorists so flaccid? U.S. legislators and the foreign-policy elite are reluctant to risk offending the Saudis who have been offered $100 billion worth of arms from U.S. manufacturers during the President Obama’s tenure as president (half of these offers have been approved). The Saudis could, of course, could go elsewhere to spend their oil money on sophisticated weapons.  Those on the cash end of the arms trade “drenched in blood” (as Pope Francis described it to Congress) would prefer that those dollars didn’t go elsewhere.

But in my view, Israel has had the most disproportionate influence over the decisions of U.S. policymakers—especially the neocons, who frankly find it quite difficult even to distinguish between the strategic interests of Israel and those of the United States. I can be this blunt because with the analysis I did during my twenty-seven years at the CIA, the coin of the realm was telling the truth as we saw it—corny as that may sound these days. Also, it helps not to be running for any office or seeking financial support.

NH: How do you respond to critics who say such criticism of the Israeli government springs from anti-Semitism?

RM: I respond with the stubborn facts that leap out of events over recent years. The reason I do not take offense at that question is that most Americans, including my closest friends, are in fact misinformed about the facts relating to Israel’s influence on U.S. policy on the Middle East.

NH: How do you explain Obama’s rejection of further involvement in the region, particularly after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack?

RM: Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Assad government of responsibility for the August 2013 sarin attack no fewer than thirty-five times. Evidence is accumulating that the Ghouta incident was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence and “allied” intelligence agencies, in order to mousetrap Obama into open war on Syria. That evidence includes Turkish court documents presented to the Turkish Parliament showing how the transport of precursor chemicals from Europe to rebels in Syria was facilitated by Turkey.

Recently, President Obama himself told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that National Intelligence Director James Clapper paid the president a surprise visit to caution that the evidence of Syrian government responsibility for the sarin attack was not a “slam dunk.” The Turks, Saudis, and other Gulf kingdoms (all of them highly lucrative customers for U.S. arms sales) were as determined as Israel was to see that Assad wouldn’t “win.” Obama was on the verge of being drawn into yet another unnecessary regime-change war, and has now declared himself proud that he was able—even if just at the last minute—to change his mind and call it off.

His pride is well placed. He needed to face down virtually all of his pro-Israel, pro-Saudi, pro-Turk advisers, many of whom are still wet behind the ears. Obama showed he could resist the misbegotten advice of his sophomore advisers and two seniors—Vice President Joe Biden and John Kerry. In short, the president found he had it within him to act like a President. The experience gave him the confidence to bang enough heads in Washington, including Kerry’s, to drive home the nuclear deal with Iran, perhaps his second-most-important foreign-policy success. His first, in my view, was saying no to an open U.S. attack on Syria two years before.

NH: What led to the ceasefire?

RM: The Russian intervention changed things. The United States was not making very good progress against ISIS. The bombing campaign was sort of helter-skelter. More and more terrorists were coming into Syria and Iraq through Turkey and other countries north of Iraq.

The Russians have their own problems with jihadists. They have had problems all over central Asia. Thousands of Chechnyans and others are being trained, equipped, and paid to go into Syria, to go into Iraq as members of ISIS. They are being paid by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and by other wealthy Gulf States. Why? It’s hard for me to understand. But they’re Sunni, and they really hate Assad (who is Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam).  They want to get rid of him, and they saw this as a good opportunity by taking advantage of the original Arab Spring.

Putin met with Obama on September 28, 2015, at the U.N. I wasn’t a fly on the wall there, but it’s very clear what happened. Putin must have said to Obama, “Mr. President you have to understand, you have an ocean between you and the jihadists. We don’t. We have much more incentive to stop ISIS and to stop the other terrorists like al-Nusra before they make it so perilous for us in our soft underbelly that we can’t contend with them. Mr. President, we’re not impressed by your bombing campaign. So you have watched us put in aircraft and other armaments earlier this month. We just want to let you know that the day after tomorrow we are going to enter the fray, and we going to go after the people trying overthrow Assad and, of course, ISIS.

Obama had a choice. He could bow to pressure from the same neocons that opposed the deal with Iran. Or he could instruct John Kerry to work something out with the Russians, which is what he ended up doing. He instructed Kerry and Putin instructed Lavrov [Russia’s foreign minister] to get together to initially “deconflict”—to make sure the aircraft they are sending on these bombing missions don’t run into each other or shoot each other down. That was October and November of last year. Now we have the next couple of steps. We have people convening in Vienna – 19 countries, without preconditions. Now that’s big. To convene a meeting like that, the United States had to stop saying “Bashar al-Assad has to go before we talk.” Think what you will of a great power determining who should rule a country oversees, but the U.S. dropped that precondition and the negotiations started. That was a concession on the part of President Obama. And there was another concession that was equally important—that Iran was allowed to sit at the table. Had they been prevented before? Of course they had been, because the neocons and the Israelis hate the Iranians and didn’t want them to have any role in this thing.

So the negotiations got started with the UN involved in a big way. Then, on February 22, we have this agreement that is blessed by the presidents themselves—Obama and Putin—which calls for a cessation of hostilities in areas where ISIS and al-Nusra are not trying to overthrow the government in Damascus. It remains to be seen whether that will be implemented, because it will require the United States to lean very hard on Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Israel. It’s going take a lot of pressure. The only reason it gives me some hope is that the president showed himself up to facing some of that pressure when he was working out that deal with the Iranians on their nuclear program.

NH: We hear often from Obama and Clinton that the U.S. must remain the world’s sole superpower, lest a Russia or China occupy the vacuum of power. Are they right?

RM: China has so many internal problems. And Russia has its own economic and other problems. In my view, there’s not much evidence that the Russians or the Chinese have pretensions to have the kind of empire that we have enjoyed since the end of World War II. We’re overstretched. I recently listened to the Army Chief of Staff testifying on the Hill, and he says, “We just have to have more troops. Our troops are in 140 countries, and they’re spread so thin.” Well, there’s another way to get enough troops and that is to pull them out of at least half of those 140 countries. What happens to empires when they overstretch? Look at the British Empire, for example.

What’s behind this rhetoric of the United States remaining the world’s superpower is the military-industrial-congressional complex. Why is the U.S. wagging its finger at China about developing those islands in the South China Sea? You can’t justify building another aircraft carrier or three more nuclear submarines unless there’s an enemy out there, and China is a good candidate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nicholas Haggerty is a former editorial intern at Commonweal.

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