Prove Us Wrong, Henry

President George W. Bush's appointment of Henry Kissinger to chair the commission that will investigate intelligence failures preceding September 11 has led to an outpouring of comment. Much of the opposition has focused on policies that Kissinger implemented as national security adviser and then secretary of state for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The secret bombing of Cambodia, escalations in Vietnam that still failed to win the war, the Chilean coup and subsequent repression, the miscalculations prior to and during the October War -- all raise questions about Kissinger's stewardship of U.S. foreign policy and are among the many reasons to doubt the appropriateness of this appointment. Unfortunately they are open to the simple objection that Kissinger is not being asked to take on a policy role but to examine questions about intelligence. Yet an examination of Kissinger's record on intelligence reveals his history of maneuvering to distort information -- a history that should raise as many eyebrows as his policy-related failures.

Kissinger reached the White House with the Nixon administration in January 1969. As national security adviser, he functioned as the traffic cop outside the Oval Office door. Within months, Kissinger became involved in intelligence manipulations concerning Russian nuclear missiles -- the first of many such manipulations to come. At the time, the Nixon administration was working on an earlier version of the ballistic missile defense still being sought today, and had made budget requests for a system designed to defend U.S. land-based missiles. The problem was that Soviet forces had little capability against these U.S. weapons -- meaning that the missile defense Nixon was seeking may have been unnecessary. In the summer of 1968, the Soviets had tested a new missile with three warheads. Analysis by the CIA and other experts presented soon after Kissinger came to Washington showed that the new Soviet missile lacked the combination of accuracy and nuclear yield that would have made it a threat. Only Pentagon and Air Force experts assessed this missile, called the SS-9, as a threat, claiming it had greater accuracy than was actually the case, and independently targetable warheads, which it did not. Kissinger not only repeatedly sent CIA analyses back to the agency -- as a blunt signal to get with the program -- but used the episode as an excuse to set up a National Security Council (NSC) subcommittee, which he chaired, to override future arms control intelligence.

A major subject of intelligence in 1969 and 1970, on a par with terrorism today, was, of course, the Vietnam War. In 1969 the CIA produced a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), one of its highest level reports, on efforts to win the loyalties of Vietnamese villagers through social reform and security programs. The estimate pointed up problems with this plan -- problems the administration did not want to hear about. Kissinger's NSC then nearly stopped asking for NIEs on Vietnam, instead requesting only spot reports called "special estimates" when specific measures were being considered. One of these, an interagency intelligence memorandum called "Stocktaking in Indochina," produced before the Nixon administration's invasion of Cambodia, warned against the consequences of that action. It was deliberately suppressed by then-CIA Director Richard Helms for reasons he later professed not to remember but which undoubtedly flowed from the knowledge that Kissinger and Nixon would be furious to see such an intelligence judgment circulated within the U.S. government.

As the Nixon administration moved into the Watergate years and gave way to Gerald Ford's presidency, the United States signed an arms limitation agreement with Russia. By that time, the Russians actually were testing independently targetable warheads on their missiles, and by using new launch techniques were able to exploit ambiguities in the agreement to field larger-than-anticipated rockets. Kissinger repeatedly imposed embargoes on CIA and other intelligence reports of the Russian weapons developments in order to avoid judgments by intelligence authorities that Moscow was violating the agreement.

In 1973, in addition to his other job, Kissinger became the secretary of state. And he used this unparalleled concentration of power to great effect. The State Department is an active participant in the intelligence community, and Kissinger thus became an intelligence player (in his role as secretary of state) as well as a consumer (in his role as national security adviser). This overlap influenced policy in Angola two years later, when the State Department exaggerated the Russian role in that country's civil war in order to build backing for an American covert intervention.

There were more scams as well. In late 1974 and early 1975, while trying to influence Congress to vote for increased military aid for the tottering Saigon government, the NSC ordered the CIA to produce an intelligence report on Russian and Chinese aid to the Vietcong. The report showed that Russian aid to Hanoi was down from its levels in former years (and that by raising prices to Hanoi, the Russians had actually been helping even less). In fact, the amount ($400 million) was less than U.S. assistance to Saigon ($700 million). Not satisfied, Kissinger had the NSC staff revise the CIA paper to make it say what he wanted -- he told the CIA to lump together Soviet economic aid with military aid to produce a larger overall number -- then got the agency to take responsibility for the product.

The most egregious examples of Kissinger's high-handed actions, however, arose in the context of investigations -- specifically the intelligence investigations of 1975. That year there were separate investigations of the CIA and the intelligence community by a presidential commission headed by Nelson Rockefeller, a Senate committee under Frank Church and a House of Representatives committee directed by Otis Pike. The Rockefeller commission was kept out of murky waters; the White House strictly monitored the others and dictated the degree of cooperation that they would be afforded. Following the first press accounts that led to the investigations, Kissinger told Ford at a Jan. 4, 1975, meeting, that "blood will flow" if the full stories behind the headlines came out. In the final volume of his memoirs, Kissinger openly asserts that he met twice with CIA director William Colby in an effort to get the CIA to shut up in the face of these investigations. Kissinger's NSC staff demanded advance warning of Colby's presentations to the committees, and the staff reviewed CIA documents slated for release to the committees, as well as all requests by the committees for material. On Feb. 28, before the Church inquiry had even gotten off the ground, Kissinger told Ford, "I think we need a CIA Steering Committee and White House corroboration." At the actual get-acquainted meeting between top Church committee members and the president, Kissinger interjected, "Asking for information is one thing, but going through the files is another." As for the House panel, Kissinger refused to cooperate with it at all, declining to hand over even State Department documents (on the 1974 crisis in Cyprus) that lacked the levels of secrecy with which intelligence materials are protected. Summoned to testify before the Pike committee, Kissinger discussed his stance with Ford the previous day. "If I explode," Kissinger had said, "it will be calculated." That day was Halloween, 1975.

All three of the 1975 intelligence investigations were stymied, in large part because of the specific actions of Henry Kissinger. Which brings us back to George W. Bush's motives in appointing Kissinger to chair an investigation of pre-September 11 intelligence failures. Bush's rationale for picking a man so mired in the practice of obfuscation cannot possibly have been to get to the bottom of the subject. Indeed, this is a case where the president himself is politically vulnerable because of the briefings he received in the summer of 2001 -- and his subsequent tolerance for a go-it-slow approach to planning for terrorism despite them.

This past weekend, Kissinger reacted to a New York Times editorial that had criticized his appointment. "I think The New York Times will apologize," he said, "when our report is submitted." It would be nice to believe that Kissinger has changed, and that he is indeed preparing to prove the Times -- and the rest of us -- wrong. But none of the signs point in that direction. The White House resisted the establishment of this commission for a full six months before outside pressure forced it to cave. Now the administration's goal is undoubtedly damage control and, if necessary, obfuscation -- and for that task, they have chosen the perfect person. After all, Henry Kissinger brings a wealth of experience to the job.

John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington D.C.

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