According to recent press reports, the Pentagon’s Inspector General is investigating whether officials from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) have skewed intelligence assessments to show more progress in the fight against the Islamic State than the facts would justify. Allegedly, these politicized assessments have made their way to senior officials right up to the president.
We do not yet know the full truth but these are serious allegations; politicization is one of the most profoundly unethical acts that intelligence officers can engage in. If the charges are substantiated, this will not be the first time that the U.S. military has cooked the books on a war. In 1967, the U.S. Intelligence Community produced Special National Intelligence Estimate 14.3-67, “Capabilities of the Vietnamese Communists for Fighting in South Vietnam,” which is available at the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act website. The sordid story of this estimate encourages us to take a hard line on politicization. It also reminds us, however, that intelligence is an inherently uncertain business.
Despite the use of the word “capabilities” in the title, the estimate really centered on the question of the Communist manpower available in South Vietnam, which included North Vietnamese armed forces and communist Viet Cong forces. The story is laid out in Michael Hiam’s book, Who the Hell Are We Fighting? The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars and in an official history from the CIA. MACV, the U.S. military command in Vietnam, consistently estimated the Viet Cong as numbering 100,000 to 120,000 and the total Communist order of battle in South Vietnam somewhat under 300,000. By contrast, CIA analysts thought the Viet Cong were so numerous that the total enemy order of battle was somewhere in the range of 500,000 to 600,000.
The most hard-line CIA view was that of analyst Sam Adams, who had plowed through vast troves of captured low-level Viet Cong documents from hamlets and villages across South Vietnam. Adams concluded that the Viet Cong counted as fighting forces large groups of auxiliaries that U.S. military intelligence did not count at all. Informal discussions between analysts did not resolve the problem. Reportedly, the head of MACV’s order of battle shop told a CIA counterpart, “our hands are tied; this is a command position; we have to stay within a total figure of 300,000; I personally share your 500,000 estimate, but we cannot accept it.” What the senior American commanders were concerned about, of course, was that high numbers would be leaked to the press and have a devastating impact on America’s will to stay the course in Vietnam.
Aware of the dispute between military intelligence and the CIA, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked the CIA to provide him with regular order of battle updates without military input. Concerned that this tasking could be highly disruptive, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Richard Helms personally commissioned a Special National Intelligence Estimate on the question and told the warring parties to come to an agreement.
In September, the CIA sent a high-powered team that included George Carver, the DCI’s Special Assistant for Vietnam Affairs; Sam Adams; and others to Saigon to discuss the matter further and smooth the way for the upcoming SNIE coordination meetings. To their dismay, in a series of confrontational meetings, the military would not accept a number higher than 298,000. Carver was forced to cave, though his reasoning remains unclear to this day. He accepted the military’s numbers with the caveat that the irregular forces that Sam Adams thought were so important would not be quantified. Adams came away enraged at what he perceived as “rug bazaar bargaining” over facts.
When the formal meetings to hammer out the SNIE took place in Washington not long thereafter, however, the military had reneged on the Saigon agreement and revised its numbers downward for no obvious reason. The military, again, could not be talked off of its position. In the words of the CIA historian, the SNIE as it was finally approved “represented a rout of CIA’s yearlong efforts to show that the enemy in Vietnam was far more numerous than MACV had been estimating.” The final order of battle number came in at a mere 208,000.
In 1984, the dispute was aired in court when CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a story based on a Sam Adams magazine expose accusing Gen. William Westmoreland of having cooked the books and he sued the network in response. The MACV chief intelligence officer and the head of MACV’s order of battle shop both testified that Westmoreland’s insistence on holding the enemy numbers at or below 300,000 was based on politics, not analysis of the facts.
And yet, there still remains room for doubt as James Wirtz of the Naval Postgraduate School has pointed out. The Viet Cong forces that took part in the Tet Offensive, launched in January 1968, did not seem large enough to be consistent with the CIA estimates. In addition, there is some reason to believe today that the low-level captured documents that Adams relied on to build his estimate may have been intended to mislead — not to mislead American analysts, but to mislead Viet Cong higher-ups that recruitment plans were being fulfilled.
It is the duty of intelligence personnel to speak truth to power. MACV failed that test in 1967 and the fact that it may have been right (or at least more right) but for the wrong reason cannot be an ex post facto excuse. President Johnson and his team deserved honest analyses in order to optimize their decision-making during the 1960s. President Obama and his team deserve the same today.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.