Old Sailors Never Die: 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman on the War Path

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Blame
the CIA. That’s a political agenda that has found bipartisan support
in Congress. Both the right and the left saw the departure of CIA
chief George Tenet as a first step toward improving U.S. intelligence
capabilities.

This
month two bipartisan committees — the independent 9/11 commission
and the Senate Intelligence Committee — reviewing U.S. counterterrorism
policy and the administration’s response to 9/11 have fingered the
CIA as having led the U.S. government astray. This assessment conflicts
with the popular assumption that right-wing politics and ideology
have driven all decisions by the Bush administration, including
the war on Iraq. But rather than blaming the politicization of intelligence,
the congressional bodies have followed the traditional route of
scapegoating the CIA.

One
of the most vocal critics of the CIA’s performance has been John
F. Lehman, Jr., former Navy secretary under President Reagan and
member of the independent 9/11 commission, which will release its
final report later this month. Lehman is also a leading candidate
to replace Tenet as director of central intelligence.

The
Present Danger, Then and Now

Over
the past four decades Lehman has been a consistent advocate of U.S.
military supremacy and ever-increasing military budgets. During
his tenure as Navy secretary, he oversaw the expansion of the U.S.
naval fleet in opposition to many in the Navy who believed that
the young hotshot — who took over the job at the age of 38 — vastly
overestimated the Soviet threat. He pushed out highly regarded officers
such as Adm. Hyman Rickover, while winning the admiration and friendship
of the most ideologically driven members of the administrations,
such as assistant defense secretary Richard Perle and national security
adviser Robert McFarlane.

Unlike
many of the neocons and militarists who have shaped and supported
the aggressive foreign policy of President George W. Bush, Lehman
is no chicken hawk. As a Naval Reserve Officer, Lehman flew combat
missions during the Vietnam War. But he has long traveled in the
same ideological circles of the militarist right wing. He has been
a longtime critic of the CIA, not because of its propensity for
covert operations but because of its passivity and timid threat
assessments. He blames for the CIA for misleading assessments of
the tactics of the Vietnamese guerrilla armies and for downplaying
Soviet military strength.

Lehman’s
ideological and class origins have catapulted him into national
politics and into the center of the military-industrial complex.
A scion of one of Philadelphia’s oldest and wealthiest families,
Lehman owns his own investment firm and sits on the board of directors
of numerous corporations, many of which are major defense contractors.
His credentials as a Navy secretary dedicated to expanding the fleet
and technological capabilities of the Navy, combined with his family
background in investment banking, have made Lehman a major figure
in the new frontier of private equity investing in aerospace and
defense industries. A member of Philadelphia’s high society, Lehman
can trace his family line back to an aide to William Penn, founder
of the Quaker colony. The late Grace Kelley was Lehman’s cousin,
and while a student at Cambridge, Lehman frequently spent weekends
at the palace of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace in Monaco.

As
a student, Lehman also began associating with the emerging right-wing
elite. He joined the Intercollegiate Student Institute, founded
by William Buckley, Jr., and as a graduate student roomed with Edwin
Feulner, who would later become the president of the Heritage Foundation.
Although a national security aide to Henry Kissinger during the
Nixon administration, Lehman by the late 1970s had moved further
to the right. He joined the Committee on the Present Danger that
was sharply critical of the moderate national security policies
of both political parties and blamed the CIA for underplaying the
Soviet threat. But as time proved, the CIA national intelligence
estimates provided in the 1970s were largely correct, while the
independent threat assessments advanced by the Committee on the
Present Danger and the closely associated Team B proved wildly overstated.

Lehman’s
penchant for ideology and political agendas over fact-based intelligence
was one of the reasons he was forced out of the second Reagan administration.
In 1987, when he left with such other hardliners as Richard Perle
and Frank Gaffney, it was increasingly apparent even to the most
die-hard anticommunists that the Soviet Union was beginning to implode.
After leaving the Reagan administration, Lehman dedicated himself
to investment banking and private equity ventures in defense industries.
He also became a trustee of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy
Research Institute, a conservative think tank. In his writings in
such conservative publications as the Wall Street Journal, American
Spectator, and National Review, Lehman bemoaned the post-cold
war decreases in the U.S. military budget.

Although
one of the harshest critics of the CIA for its pre- and post-9/1l
intelligence, Lehman has in his own policy advocacy not let facts
stand in the way of his political agenda. Just eleven days after
September 11, Lehman signed a statement by the Project for the New
American Century that presaged the administration’s own foreign
policy initiatives.

Common
Knowledge about Iraq

PNAC’s
September 20 letter to President Bush stated: “It may be that the
Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent
attack on the United States. But even if evidence does not link
Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication
of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to
remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such
an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender
in the war on international terrorism.”

Lehman
signed another PNAC statement at the onset of the Iraq invasion
that urged the president “to accelerate plans for removing Saddam
Hussein from power in Iraq. As you have said, every day that Saddam
Hussein remains in power brings closer the day when terrorists will
have not just airplanes with which to attack us, but chemical, biological,
or nuclear weapons, as well. It is now common knowledge that Saddam,
along with Iran, is a funder and supporter of terrorism against
Israel. Iraq has harbored terrorists such as Abu Nidal in the past,
and it maintains links to the Al Qaeda network.”

Although
the two congressional committees on the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent
U.S. response concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies got their
facts wrong, Lehman himself persists in supporting the administration’s
claim that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were in cahoots.

Lehman
told NBC’s Meet the Press on June 20 that the commission
had documents captured in Iraq that “indicate that there is at least
one officer of Saddam’s Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was
a very prominent member of al Qaeda.” Lehman succeeded in giving
new life to the administration’s claims, although the CIA quickly
dismissed the assertion, saying that the documents did not support
Lehman’s allegation. In fact, the CIA had investigated this alleged
link “a long time ago” and concluded that one officer in Hussein’s
militia merely had a name that was similar to that of an al-Qaeda
operative. However, Lehman claimed on national television that it
was new information, as yet unexamined by the commission or other
government entities.

Bad
Intelligence

Lehman
has long charged that the CIA has dismissed dissenting points of
views. He has faulted the CIA for not giving adequate attention
to theories that Iraq was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing,
the 9/11 attacks, and even the anthrax attacks of the fall of 2001.
And Lehman continues to parrot the arguments of the neoconservatives,
regularly appearing in the Weekly Standard, that al-Qaeda
and Saddam Hussein were close collaborators.

That
John Lehman has even been considered as capable of directing the
overhaul of the badly flawed U.S. intelligence system underscores
the degree to which right-wing ideologues and agendas continue to
shape U.S. national security strategy. The main lesson for intelligence
reform that should be drawn from recent U.S. foreign policy misadventures
is that politicized intelligence is bad intelligence.

Certainly
the CIA fell short in providing fact-based intelligence about the
al-Qaeda threat and the alleged Iraqi threat. But, as it has done
in the past, notably under pressure from Team B and the Committee
on the Present Danger in the late 1970s, the CIA reworked its own
intelligence estimates to reflect the ideological convictions of
the administration. But John Lehman — along with the neoconservatives,
the trigger-happy militarists like Rumsfeld and Cheney, and the
liberal hawks in the Democratic Party — also got it very wrong.
Conveniently, they all join together again in blaming the CIA for
its faulty fact-checking.

July
15, 2004

Tom
Barry is policy director of the Interhemispheric
Resource Center
(IRC). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy
in Focus
.

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