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."
As a current intelligence analyst responsible for Russian policy toward Southeast
Asia and China, I worked very closely with those responsible for analysis of
Vietnam and China.
Out of that experience I must say that, as much as one might be tempted to
laugh at the bizarre, theatrical accounts of last week'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 2 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.
Lessons From Vietnam and Iraq
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
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
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.
Salivating for a Wider War
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
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
As James Bamford describes it in Body
"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's 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."
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
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
Early on Aug. 4, the Maddox's 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.
Meanwhile, in the Trenches
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
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
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 that 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 Br'er Rabbit, they didn't say nothin'.
Commenting on the interface of intelligence and policy on Vietnam, a senior
CIA officer has written,
"[T]he 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-Undersecretary of State George Ball commented, "There was a feeling
that if the destroyer got into some trouble, that this would provide the provocation
Good News: It's Different Now
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 week 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
Reprinted courtesy of ConsortiumNews.com.