9/11 Commissioner John Lehman on the War Path
By Tom Barry July 11, 2004
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 hot-shot-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 Jr. 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 deceases 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.
Tom Barry is policy director of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (www.irc-online.org) and author of numerous books on international relations.