Bush on the NIE: "We haven't had a very good presence in Iran since 1979."

Everyone is likely to pull their favorite quotes from President Bush’s presser today. Here’s mine, because it speaks to the history of our problems with Iran and how long those problems have actually festered and endangered us.

Notice what the president says at the end of the clip, about the US not having had a good intel presence within Iran since 1979. He’s obviously referring to the Ayatollah’s revolution that turned Iran from an American ally into an implacable enemy overnight. But the problems with intel collection in Iran actually go back to two years prior to the Iranian revolution, to 1977 and President Jimmy Carter’s “Halloween Massacre” at the CIA.

The new order at CIA under Turner was best known for what the clandestine services would call the “Halloween Massacre” of 1977, a purge attributed in part to budget cuts, but which also reflected a change of emphasis from paramilitary action to intelligence collection and analysis. Former CIA covert action chief Theodore Shackley has claimed that over 2,800 intelligence officers, many of them paramilitary specialists were fired or forced out of the CIA.28 Turner himself has given a figure of 820 staff positions cut from the clandestine service, but maintained that the tightening up of personnel policies had actually improved both human and technical intelligence collection capabilities.29 Turner’s critics also tended to be vociferous about the relative decline in the strength and status of the army Special Forces—the CIA’s partner in paramilitary action—which in fact began during the Nixon administration. Special Forces had diminished in number since their withdrawal from Vietnam in 1971, from a peak of 9,000 to about 2,000 in the late 1970s.30 The paramilitary side of covert action was indeed curtailed, if not to the extent suggested by Shackley and other ax-operatives.

That book has a pro-Carter bent, and doesn’t get at the nature of the 1977 CIA firings. The Carter administration eliminated about 820 overseas positions in friendly states as a gesture to show that his administration repudiated the bad old days of unsavory CIA clandestine activities in friendly and unfriendly states alike, as had been unearthed by the now infamous Church Committee. In 1977, Iran was a friendly state, and the Halloween Massacre had the effect of blinding US intel in the country at that time. This in turn led to a lack of solid information on the coming revolution, and with the revolution’s closing of Iran to the US, led to crippling US intelligence efforts in Iran ever since. Though I’m sure the intel community has tried to establish a reliable intelligence network in Iran ever since, it hasn’t recovered from the 1977 Carter administration’s unilateral gouging of its own eyes.

Fwiw, Iraq was also regarded mostly as a friendly state in 1977.

None of this is intended to excuse missteps made since 1977 or 1979, but I hope it does provide a little context to help explain why our intel agencies contradict themselves from one year to the next and often appear not to have any idea what’s going on. We once had a moralistic, somewhat naive president who took a well-intentioned action to reassure the world that the US is good. We’ve been living with the consequences of that boneheaded move ever since.