When the Tonkin Gulf incident took place in early August 1964, I was a journeyman CIA analyst in what Condoleezza Rice refers to as “the bowels of the agency.”
Out of that experience I must say that, as much as one might be tempted to laugh at the bizarre theatrical accounts of Sunday’s incident involving small Iranian boats and U.S. naval ships in the Strait of Hormuz, this is—as my old Russian professor used to insist—nothing to laugh.
The situation is so reminiscent of what happened—and didn’t happen—from Aug. 2-4, 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin and in Washington, it is in no way funny.
At the time, the U.S. had about 16,000 troops in South Vietnam. The war that was “justified” by the Tonkin Gulf resolution of Aug. 7, 1964, led to a buildup of 535,000 U.S. troops in the late Sixties, 58,000 of whom were killed—not to mention the estimated two million Vietnamese who lost their lives by then and in the ensuing 10 years.
Ten years. How can our president speak so glibly about 10 more years of a U.S. armed presence in Iraq? He must not remember Vietnam.
What follows is written primarily for honest intelligence analysts and managers still on “active duty.”
The issuance of the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran was particularly welcome to those of us who had been hoping there were enough of you left who had not been thoroughly corrupted by former CIA Director George Tenet and his malleable managers.
We are not so much surprised at the integrity of Tom Fingar, who is in charge of national intelligence analysis. He showed his mettle in manfully resisting forgeries and fairy tales about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction.”
What is, frankly, a happy surprise is the fact that he and other non-ideologues and non-careerist professionals have been able to prevail and speak truth to power on such dicey issues as the Iranian nuclear program, the upsurge in terrorism caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the year-old NIE saying Iraq is headed for hell in a hand basket (with no hint that a “surge” could make a difference).
But those are the NIEs. They share the status of “supreme genre” of analytic product with the President’s Daily Brief and other vehicles for current intelligence, the field in which I labored, first in the analytic trenches and then as a briefer at the White House, for most of my 27-year career.
True, the NIE “Iraq’s Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction” of Oct. 1, 2002, (wrong on every major count) greased the skids for the attack on Iraq on March 19, 2003. But it is more often current intelligence that is fixed upon to get the country into war.
The Tonkin Gulf events are perhaps the best case in point. We retired professionals who worked through the Tonkin Gulf incident are hopeful that Fingar can ensure integrity in the current intelligence process as well.
Given the confusion last Sunday in the Persian Gulf, you need to remember that a “known known” in the form of a non-event has already been used to sell a major war—Vietnam. It is not only in retrospect that we know that no attack occurred that night.
Those of us in intelligence, not to mention President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy all knew full well that the evidence of any armed attack on the evening of Aug. 4, 1964, the so-called “second” Tonkin Gulf incident, was highly dubious.
But it fit the president’s purposes, so they lent a hand to facilitate escalation of the war.
During the summer of 1964, President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were eager to widen the war in Vietnam. They stepped up sabotage and hit-and-run attacks on the coast of North Vietnam.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later admitted that he and other senior leaders had concluded that the seaborne attacks “amounted to little more than pinpricks” and “were essentially worthless,” but they continued.
Concurrently, the National Security Agency was ordered to collect signals intelligence from the North Vietnamese coast on the Gulf of Tonkin, and the surprise coastal attacks were seen as a helpful way to get the North Vietnamese to turn on their coastal radars.
The destroyer USS Maddox, carrying electronic spying gear, was authorized to approach as close as eight miles from the coast and four miles from offshore islands, some of which already had been subjected to intense shelling by clandestine attack boats.
As James Bamford describes it in “Body of Secrets:”
“The twin missions of the Maddox were in a sense symbiotic. The vessel’s primary purpose was to act as a seagoing provocateur—to poke its sharp gray bow and the American flag as close to the belly of North Vietnam as possible, in effect shoving its 5-inch cannons up the nose of the Communist navy. In turn, this provocation would give the shore batteries an excuse to turn on as many coastal defense radars, fire control systems, and communications channels as possible, which could then be captured by the men...at the radar screens. The more provocation, the more signals...
“The Maddox’ mission was made even more provocative by being timed to coincide with commando raids, creating the impression that the Maddox was directing those missions and possibly even lobbing firepower in their support....
“North Vietnam also claimed at least a twelve-mile limit and viewed the Maddox as a trespassing ship deep within its territorial waters.” (pp 295-296)
On Aug. 2, 1964, an intercepted message ordered North Vietnamese torpedo boats to attack the Maddox. The destroyer was alerted and raced out to sea beyond reach of the torpedoes, three of which were fired in vain at the destroyer’s stern.
The Maddox’s captain suggested that the rest of his mission be called off, but the Pentagon refused. And still more commando raids were launched on Aug. 3, shelling for the first time targets on the mainland, not just the offshore islands.
Early on Aug. 4, the Maddox captain cabled his superiors that the North Vietnamese believed his patrol to be directly involved with the commando raids and shelling. That evening at 7:15 (Vietnam time) the Pentagon alerted the Maddox to intercepted messages indicating that another attack by patrol boats was imminent.
What followed was panic and confusion. There was a score of reports of torpedo and other hostile attacks, but no damage and growing uncertainty as to whether any attack actually took place. McNamara was told that “freak radar echoes” were misinterpreted by “young fellows” manning the sonar, who were “apt to say any noise is a torpedo.”
This did not prevent McNamara from testifying to Congress two days later that there was “unequivocal proof” of a new attack. And based largely on that, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution bringing 10 more years of war.
By the afternoon of Aug. 4, the CIA’s expert analyst on North Vietnam (let’s call him “Tom”) had concluded that probably no one had fired on the U.S. ships. He included a paragraph to that effect in the item he wrote for the Current Intelligence Bulletin, which would be wired to the White House and other key agencies and appear in print the next morning.
And then something unique happened. The Director of the Office of Current Intelligence, a very senior officer whom Tom had never before seen, descended into the bowels of the agency to order the paragraph deleted. He explained:
“We’re not going to tell LBJ that now. He has already decided to bomb North Vietnam. We have to keep our lines open to the White House.”
“Tom” later bemoaned—quite rightly: “What do we need open lines for, if we’re not going to use them, and use them to tell the truth?”
Two years ago, I would have been tempted to comment sarcastically, “How quaint; how obsolete.” But the good news is that the analysts writing the NIEs have now reverted to the ethos in which “Tom” and I were proud to work.
Now the analysts/reporters of current intelligence need to follow suit, and we hope Tom Fingar can hold their feet to the fire. For if they don’t measure up, the consequences are sure to be disastrous.
This should be obvious in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf reporting experience, not to mention more recent performance of senior officials before the attack on Iraq in 2003.
The late Ray S. Cline, who was the current intelligence director’s boss at the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident, said he was “very sure” that no attack took place on Aug. 4. He suggested that McNamara had shown the president unevaluated signals intelligence which referred to the (real) earlier attack on Aug. 2 rather than the non-event on the 4th.
There was no sign of remorse on Cline’s part that he didn’t step in and make sure the president was told the truth.
We in the bowels knew there was no attack; and so did the Director of Current Intelligence as well as Cline, the Deputy Director for Intelligence. But all knew, as did McNamara, that President Johnson was lusting for a pretext to strike the North and escalate the war. And, like B’rer Rabbit, they didn’t say nothin’.
Commenting on the interface of intelligence and policy on Vietnam, a senior CIA officer has written about:
“... the dilemma CIA directors and senior intelligence professionals face in cases when they know that unvarnished intelligence judgments will not be welcomed by the President, his policy managers, and his political advisers...[They] must decide whether to tell it like it is (and so risk losing their place at the President’s advisory table), or to go with the flow of existing policy by accentuating the positive (thus preserving their access and potential influence). In these episodes from the Vietnam era, we have seen that senior CIA officers more often than not tended toward the latter approach.” (“CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes, 1962-1968,” Harold P. Ford)
Back to Iran. This time, we all know what the president and vice president are lusting after—an excuse to attack Iran. But there is a big difference from the situation in the summer of 1964, when President Johnson had intimidated all his senior subordinates into using deceit to escalate the war.
Bamford comments on the disingenuousness of Robert McNamara when he testified in 1968 that it was “inconceivable” that senior officials, including the president, deliberately used the Tonkin Gulf events to generate congressional support for a wider Vietnam War.
In Bamford’s words, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had become “a sewer of deceit,” with Operation Northwoods and other unconscionable escapades to their credit. Then-Under Secretary of State George Ball commented, “There was a feeling that if the destroyer got into some trouble, that this would provide the provocation we needed.”
It is my view that the only thing that has prevented Bush and Cheney from attacking Iran so far has been the strong opposition of the uniformed military, including the Joint Chiefs.
As the misadventure last Sunday in the Strait of Hormuz shows, our senior military officers need all the help they can get from intelligence officers more concerned with the truth than with “keeping lines open to the White House” and doing its bidding.
In addition, the intelligence oversight committees in Congress seem to be waking from their Rip Van Winkle-like slumber. It was Congress, after all, that ordered the controversial NIE on Iran/nuclear (and insisted it be publicized).
And the flow of substantive intelligence to Congress is much larger than it was in 1964 when, remember, there were no intelligence committees as such.
So, you inheritors of the honorable profession of current intelligence – I’m thinking of you, Rochelle, and you, Rick – don’t let them grind you down.
If you’re working in the bowels of the CIA and you find that your leaders are cooking the intelligence once again into a recipe for casus belli, think long and hard about your oath to protect the Constitution. Should that oath not transcend any secrecy promise you had to accept as a condition of employment?
By sticking your neck out, you might be able to prevent 10 years of unnecessary war.
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This story was published on January 12, 2008.