Every winter for the past several years, the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation has held a glittering dinner around Washington attended by hundreds of top intelligence and corporate officials. The stated purpose of the event, where the cost of sponsor tables ranges from $12,000 to $100,000, is to help raise money for the spouses and children of agency operatives killed in the line of battle since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But it also serves as an annual reunion of sorts for top intelligence officials and the corporate chieftains of America’s biggest military contractors.
This year’s off-the-record event, officially the Ambassador Richard M. Helms Award Ceremony, named for a Cold War-era CIA director, honored former President George W. Bush, an odd choice, it would seem, given all the trouble his administration caused the CIA (and NSA) during its eight years in office.
Whatever its accomplishments in Afghanistan and Iraq--or theaters unknown--the CIA seemed constantly in hot water under the Bush administration, from its failure to disrupt the 9/11 plot, to its false reports on Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to its use of torture on detainees under White House guidance. And more.
But all that was forgiven, apparently, when the former president was honored at the foundation’s hitherto unreported March 4 dinner at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, a few miles down the road from the spy agency’s headquarters in Langley.
In past years, the CIA and the White House have helped publicize the dinners. In 2014 the agency posted a keynote address at the dinner by agency director John Brennan on its website. This year, however, even though Brennan introduced Bush, the agency was mum on the event, declining to comment and referring an inquiry to the foundation.
”[W]e just don't talk about this dinner,” John McLaughlin, the former acting CIA director who chairs the foundation’s board, said in an email. “It's a private affair that benefits the children and spouses of agency officers who've lost their lives while in service--a number that has increased by more than a quarter since 9/11. That's all there is to it--an unassailably worthy cause like Wounded Warriors.”
In 2013, the foundation raised $701,000 to help support the families of slain agency operatives and CIA contractors, its website says. Over 800 people attended this year’s pricey dinner, including Brennan, the director of national intelligence James Clapper and five former CIA directors, probably helping the foundation top that amount. Corporate contributors include such major defense and intelligence contractors as Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon and BAE; financial giants JPMorgan Chase and Citi; and major charitable foundations.
“The CIA family does not forget its fallen colleagues and proudly looks after those they leave behind,” the foundation’s website says. “Thanks to the generosity of people just like you, the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation continues to expand its program of financial aid to a broader range of deserving CIA families.”
As for honoring Bush, McLaughlin said, “It's not an intelligence award. It's an award for ‘service to the nation.’ Henry Kissinger, not an intelligence official, received the award last year.”
Gerald Komisar, a longtime former CIA veteran who is president of the foundation, told Newsweek, “We were very happy that [Bush] was able to accept our invitation.” Several senior members of the Bush administration also attended, including former White House chief of staff Andrew Card, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Homeland Security Advisor Frances Fragos Townsend. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was deeply involved in the manipulation of Iraq WMD intelligence, according to numerous reports over the years, passed up the event. “We tried to reach out to him but we couldn’t pin him down,” said Komisar, a veteran of 31 years at the CIA. “He was busy.”
Bush was honored for the “totality of the eight years he was in office,” Komisar said in a phone interview. “There were a lot of people there who attested to the fact that he did a great deal for and with the intelligence community.”
Komisar, a China specialist who is now vice president of the Starr Companies, a New York-based global financial services firm headed by former AIG chief Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, acknowledged the many intelligence controversies that erupted under the former president, but portrayed Bush as a voracious consumer of CIA intelligence reports. And the people who briefed him appreciated the attention, he said.
“You know, there are always going to be bumps in the road, there are always going to be differences of opinion,” Komisar said in a telephone interview, “but if you look at the totality of the record of entire eight years, his dependence on intelligence, his constant access, whether he was in Crawford [Texas] or Washington, D.C., at Camp David or wherever, he always had his intelligence briefer there. He had an intelligence briefer with him on the plane when 9/11 happened. He was a consumer of intelligence, and was always very, very clear on what he felt he needed in order to make policy decisions.”
“We all know the Iraq thing was very unfortunate,” Komisar added, “But if you look at the totality of his relationship with the intelligence community, particularly the CIA, and his fondness, his genuine fondness for the people he was briefed by—from George Tenet to John McLaughlin as directors, right down to the analysts that he was often exposed to--that’s why we reached out to him.”
It hardly needed saying that the agency’s use of torture on terrorist suspects, under White House direction, “never came up” at the dinner, Komisar added with a slight chuckle. “It was a positive evening, and I don't think anyone wanted to go down that road.”
“There was an oblique reference of the report that Senator [Dianne] Feinstein,” chairman of the intelligence committee, “put out—no names were mentioned,” Komisar added, “but hopefully we’re moving beyond that. As I say, there are always dark clouds,” but the dinner “was just a night celebrating eight years of a solid relationship.
“It had the atmosphere of a reunion.”
Jeff Stein writes SpyTalk from Washington, D.C. He can be reached more or less confidentially via email@example.com.
Correction: The article originally incorrectly stated that 2011 was the year of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The year was 2001.