The Obama administration announced Friday the appointment of John E. McLaughlin, former deputy CIA director, to head the internal investigation of the intelligence failures that led to the Christmas Day attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight headed for Detroit. With this appointment, President Obama has assured that the culture of intelligence cover-up will continue. Mr. McLaughlin has participated in the cover-up of many of the CIA's most egregious failures and misdeeds during the last decade. When he left the CIA, he served as the agency's chief apologist.
Most of official Washington views Mr. McLaughlin as the mild-mannered, professorial CIA bureaucrat whom former CIA director George Tenet called the "smartest man he had ever met." Few people understand, however, that Mr. McLaughlin played the central role in providing the Bush administration with false intelligence to justify the use of force against Iraq in 2003. Washington insiders remember that it was CIA director Tenet who told President George W. Bush, "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk," in response to the demand for stronger intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Few people remember that it was Mr. McLaughlin who actually delivered the "slam-dunk" briefing to the president in January 2003.
Mr. McLaughlin was behind much of the politicized intelligence before the war. He perverted the intelligence process, ignored high-level briefings on the weakness of the WMD evidence and tried to silence David Kay, the chief of the Iraq Survey Group, when the weapons inspectors found no sign of WMD in Iraq.
Mr. McLaughlin was also behind the CIA's preparation of Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the U.N. in February 2003 that used phony intelligence to convince an international audience of the need for war. According to Larry Wilkerson, Mr. Powell's chief of staff, Mr. Tenet and Mr. McLaughlin lied to the secretary of state about the sourcing of serious allegations dealing with Saddam Hussein and WMD. The most serious allegation came from an Iraqi con man known as "Curveball," who maintained that Iraq had mobile biological laboratories, a key charge in the justification for war. German intelligence officials who debriefed Curveball warned the CIA that he was unstable and there was no validation for his claims. Tyler Drumheller, the chief of the CIA's European Division, knew that Curveball was a liar, and he urged Mr. McLaughlin to drop all references to the mobile labs from Mr. Powell's speech. Mr. McLaughlin ignored him too.
Five weeks after the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Powell and Mr. McLaughlin shared a table at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where Mr. McLaughlin, an amateur magician, performed a few magic tricks with coins and bills. Everyone at the table laughed except for Mr. Powell. According to Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote an authoritative book on Curveball, Mr. Powell requested another trick: "Let's see you find the WMD in Iraq." Mr. McLaughlin looked surprised, and his broad grin faded. "We will," he replied. "They're there, and we'll find them."
In addition to being one of the ideological drivers for the CIA's policies of torture and abuse, secret prisons and extraordinary renditions, Mr. McLaughlin demonstrated early in his career that he was willing to do what was necessary to advance his career. In the 1980s, when CIA director William Casey and his deputy Robert Gates were "cooking the books" on intelligence dealing with the Soviet Union, Mr. McLaughlin offered no dissent. When the CIA did an internal investigation of one of the worst examples of politicization of intelligence, the case for Soviet complicity in the attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II in 1981, Mr. McLaughlin made sure there were no references to politicization in the final report and made every effort to hide Mr. Gates' role in preparing the intelligence assessment. (When Mr. Gates' nomination as CIA director was in trouble during the confirmation process in 1991, it was Mr. McLaughlin who stepped forward to defend his former boss from charges of politicization.)
President Obama has made many mistakes in his handling of the CIA that could be attributed to his inexperience and his reliance on intelligence officials who are themselves part of the culture of cover-up. He has named weak figures to be director of national intelligence and CIA director and has named no one to replace the CIA's inspector general, who announced his retirement nearly 11 months ago. His administration has threatened the British government with the cut-off of sensitive intelligence if a British court revealed details of CIA renditions in Europe and has resorted to a state security defense to prevent revelations of renditions policies in U.S. courts as well.
Mr. Obama has also been unwilling to release photographs that document torture and abuse by intelligence officers, and he has permitted the day-to-day operations of the CIA to remain in the hands of those operational officers, Steve Kappes and Mike Sulick, responsible for the program of renditions, detentions and interrogations.
The president's early mistakes demonstrated that he simply didn't get it; the appointment of Mr. McLaughlin indicates that the president doesn't want to get it.
Melvin A. Goodman of Bethesda was a CIA analyst from 1966-1990. His e-mail is email@example.com.