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CIA Chief Saw No Imminent Threat in Iraq

Times Staff Writers

Fiercely defending the intelligence community, CIA Director George J. Tenet on Thursday said his agency never warned President Bush that Saddam Hussein’s government posed an “imminent threat,” and the top spymaster backed away from several claims about weapons of mass destruction that the White House had used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

In a hastily arranged speech at Georgetown University, Tenet said years of intelligence collection and Hussein’s “cheat and retreat” tactics made it “difficult for analysts to come to any other conclusions” than that Baghdad was actively amassing stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, even though none have been found.

Despite his defiant posture and impassioned tone, Tenet retreated from the agency’s prewar claims on nearly every front. He admitted that the CIA had few if any human sources in Iraq, acknowledged that it may have “overestimated” Hussein’s nuclear weapons programs, and said that “we do not know” if Iraq produced biological weapons before the war.

The most damaging disclosure was Tenet’s admission for the first time that the CIA had allowed “fabricated” information from an “unreliable” Iraqi defector about suspected mobile germ-weapons labs to appear in two key prewar assessments: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s dramatic presentation to the United Nations Security Council one year ago Thursday, and the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate provided to members of Congress shortly before they voted to approve the use of force in Iraq.

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The administration insisted at the time that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was seeking to build more weapons of mass destruction.

An intelligence official said later that the Iraqi National Congress, then an opposition group headed by exile Ahmad Chalabi, had delivered the defector to the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency for debriefing. Although the DIA initially circulated the informant’s claims about mobile labs, the Pentagon agency later backtracked and warned the intelligence community that “this individual was possibly fabricating or embellishing his information.”

But for reasons still unclear, analysts “didn’t notice” the warnings, the official said, and failed to prevent the bogus claims from becoming part of Powell’s presentation and the official weapons estimate for Congress.

The CIA had long been suspicious that Chalabi’s group fed it exaggerated claims from unreliable informants to bolster the case for ousting Hussein. In the mid-1990s, the CIA and the State Department had severed their connections with Chalabi, but he retained close ties to influential Pentagon officials -- today he is a leading member of the U.S-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. In this case, the official said, the CIA accepted the defector’s claims because he had passed a polygraph test and his information appeared consistent with other intelligence.

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Tenet also backed away from CIA’s assertions in a white paper last May, which is still posted on the agency’s website, that the “only consistent logical purpose” of two truck trailers found in Iraq after the war was to produce germ warfare agents. Vice President Dick Cheney said last month that the trailers were “conclusive” proof of Iraq’s illicit weapons programs.

“There is no consensus within our community over whether the trailers were for that use or if they were used for the production of hydrogen,” Tenet said Thursday.

Tenet’s stand did little to quell charges that the failure to find chemical or germ weapons, or programs to produce nuclear arms, over the last 10 months amounted to an intelligence fiasco. His comments sparked new calls for his resignation and a bitter new round of finger-pointing on Capitol Hill about who bears the most responsibility for the apparently exaggerated prewar claims of Iraq’s weapons capabilities.

Tenet’s insistence that the CIA did not portray Iraq as an imminent threat put new pressure on the White House to explain its decision to launch a preemptive war, and created a potential division between Tenet and the president.

At a speech in Charleston, S.C., Bush made his most direct acknowledgment to date that there were problems with the administration’s prewar claims that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was working on delivery systems.

“We have not yet found the stockpiles of weapons that we thought were there,” the president said. But he continued to defend the war, saying, “We had a choice -- either take the word of a madman or take action to defend the American people.”

Aides said Tenet had not vetted his speech with the White House and only showed a copy to officials there early Thursday morning, shortly before he walked on stage. Asked if the president still has confidence in Tenet, White House spokesman Scott McClellan replied, “Director Tenet is -- the president appreciates the job he’s doing, and he is in that position and we appreciate his service.”

Aides said Tenet’s speech, his first public appearance since May, was quickly written -- and completed at 10 p.m. Wednesday -- in response to last week’s Senate testimony by David Kay, the former chief of the CIA’s hunt for illicit weapons in Iraq. Kay had angered and alarmed senior intelligence officials when he told a congressional panel that “we were almost all wrong” about Iraq’s banned weapons programs before the war.

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In his speech, Tenet sharply disputed several of Kay’s claims, including that the weapons inspection team’s job was 85% completed and that the CIA had been “surprised” by recent revelations of illicit weapons programs in Iran and Libya.

Kay did not back down, however, telling reporters later Thursday that Tenet was engaging in a well-tested strategy to deflect criticism.

“Every time the CIA gets into trouble, they say, ‘If you only knew what we know,’ ” Kay said. “If that doesn’t work, they give you a few success stories to titillate you. Then they pull the kimono closed again.”

Kay applauded Bush’s plans to appoint a bipartisan commission to investigate the collection and analysis of weapons-related intelligence in Iraq and elsewhere. But Kay said Thursday that the panel should also examine whether the Bush administration misused intelligence to make the case for war.

“I believe the independent commission ought to look to see whether there was abuse by the political leaders of the data,” Kay said during a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.

Tenet, in his speech, acknowledged “difficulty penetrating the Iraqi regime with human sources.” He said the CIA made “an aggressive effort” to recruit spies after U.N. weapons inspectors were forced out of the country from December 1998 to November 2002. “The record was mixed,” he said.

Tenet said that the CIA “did not ourselves penetrate the inner sanctum” of Hussein’s regime. “Our agents were on the periphery of WMD activities, providing some useful information,” he said.

But he said a trusted foreign intelligence agency sent the CIA “several sensitive reports” in the fall of 2002, as the administration was arguing its case for war, from two spies in Iraq, including one “who had direct access to Saddam and his inner circle.”

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Tenet said the spy said Iraq was “aggressively and covertly developing” a nuclear weapon and was “stockpiling chemical weapons” and had “mobile launchers” to fire them at enemy forces and Israel. The source also said that Iraqi scientists were “dabbling” with biological weapons, “but the quantities were not sufficient to constitute a real weapons program.”

“Now did this information make a difference in my thinking?” Tenet said. “You bet it did.... And I conveyed this view to our nation’s leaders.”

A U.S. intelligence official said later Thursday that the source “was viewed as established and reliable at the time,” but that his credibility was now in question.

“He was a person who was in position to know these things,” the official said. “Whether he was speaking honestly, whether he was speaking beyond what he knew about, whether it was accurate, hasn’t been discovered yet,” the official said.

Overall, Tenet acknowledged that weapons hunters in Iraq since the war began last March had confirmed few of the agency’s most alarming prewar claims.

“Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon,” Tenet said. “He still wanted one and Iraq intended to reconstitute a nuclear program at some point. But we have not yet found clear evidence that the dual-use items Iraq sought were for nuclear reconstitution. We do not yet know if any reconstitution efforts had begun, and we may have overestimated the progress Saddam was making.”

The CIA had said before the war that Iraq had a sophisticated germ warfare program, but Kay said his investigation had uncovered no active bioweapons production programs. Tenet argued that evidence showed that Iraq had intended to develop biological weapons.

“Clearly, research and development was underway that would have permitted a rapid shift to agent production if seed stocks were available,” Tenet said. “But we do not know if production took place -- and just as clearly -- we have not yet found biological weapons.”

He similarly backed away from the CIA’s prewar assessments that Iraq had produced 100 to 500 tons of nerve gases, mostly after 2001. Hussein’s regime, Tenet said Thursday, “had the intent and the capability to quickly convert civilian industry to chemical weapons production. However, we have not yet found the weapons we expected.”

He said the CIA was “generally on target” on Iraq’s clandestine programs to develop new missiles that could fly farther than permitted by U.N. resolutions. Before the war, U.N. inspectors had destroyed several dozen such missiles.

Democrats seized on Tenet’s speech to bolster their case for an inquiry into whether Bush and other administration officials exaggerated the Iraq threat or pressured the intelligence community to skew its analysis.

“Director Tenet raised additional new doubts about the accuracy of statements made by senior administration officials to convince Congress to authorize the war in Iraq,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). “This troubling new claim underscores precisely why we need a truly independent and comprehensive investigation of both the intelligence community’s work and what the administration did with their analysis.”

The White House earlier buckled to pressure and declared that it would empanel an outside commission. Officials said Thursday that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would be among those selected for the panel. But the administration has resisted calls by Democrats to allow congressional leaders to help choose who is named to the commission and to investigate the White House’s use of intelligence to make its case for war.

There are already several inquiries underway into the quality of the prewar intelligence. Tenet’s speech came the same day that the Senate Intelligence Committee gave members their first glimpse of a classified 300-page report the panel’s staff produced after poring over tens of thousands of intelligence documents in recent months.

Some lawmakers, in calling for Tenet to resign, said he is now trying to back away from the important role he played in making the case for war. “Mr. Tenet now says that the CIA never claimed Iraq was an imminent threat,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. “He had plenty of chances to make that clear to Congress and the American people” before the war, he said.

Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story from Charleston, S.C.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

What they said before the war

President Bush said Thursday that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein “had the intent to arm his regime with weapons of mass destruction.” Bush also declared that, “knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq.” But in the drumbeat leading up to war, he was adamant that the weapons existed and that the threat was grave. Here is a brief history of prewar comments by the president and other administration officials about Hussein’s weapons and the nature of the threat posed by the dictator:

PRESIDENT BUSH

* He [Hussein] is a dangerous man who possesses the world’s most dangerous weapons. (March 22, 2002)

* What I do believe the American people understand is that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of leaders such as Saddam Hussein are very dangerous for ourselves, our allies. (Aug. 10, 2002)

* But Americans need to know I’ll be making up my mind based upon the latest intelligence and how best to protect our own country, plus our friends and allies. (Aug. 16, 2002)

* The decision is how to disarm an outlaw regime that continues to posses and develop weapons of mass destruction. (Letter, Sept. 4, 2002)

* Saddam Hussein is a serious threat. He is a significant problem. And it’s something that this country must deal with. (Comments, Sept. 4, 2002)

* In one place [Iraq] -- in one regime -- we find all these dangers, in their most lethal and aggressive forms, exactly the kind of aggressive threat the United Nations was born to confront. (Sept. 12, 2002)

* Speaking about barbaric regimes, we must deal with probably one of the most -- not probably -- one of the most real threats we face, and that is the idea of a barbaric regime teaming up with a terrorist network and providing weapons of mass destruction, to hold the United States and our allies and our friends blackmail.... It is time for us to deal with the true threats, it’s time with us to deal with Saddam Hussein, it’s time for us to secure the peace. (Sept. 17, 2002)

* The danger to our country is grave and it is growing. The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given. The regime has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist groups, and there are Al Qaeda terrorists inside Iraq. This regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile material could build one within a year. (Sept. 28, 2002)

* It [Iraq] possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. While there are many dangers in the world, the threat from Iraq stands alone -- because it gathers the most serious dangers of our age in one place. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant who has already used chemical weapons to kill thousands of people. The danger is already significant, and it only grows worse with time. If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today -- and we do -- does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons? Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

(Oct. 7, 2002)

* Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. (March 17, 2003)

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY

* Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network or a murderous dictator or the two working together constitutes as grave a threat as can be imagined. The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action.

(Aug. 27, 2002)

* Saddam Hussein promised the U.N. that he would destroy and cease further development of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, and that he would submit to unrestricted inspections. He has flatly broken these pledges, producing chemical and biological weapons, aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons program and working to develop long-range ballistic missiles.

(Sept. 27, 2002)

SECRETARY OF STATE

COLIN L. POWELL

* We know that he has been working hard on developing a means to disseminate those weapons. He had artillery, he had rockets, and I’m sure he is looking at other technologies. We have evidence that he has been looking at aerial vehicles.... Just having ... a stockpile doesn’t do you any good; you have to have a means of delivering it. And that’s what concerns us. (Sept. 8, 2002)

Source: Times research

Los Angeles Times

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

EXCERPTS

‘Were We Right or Were We Wrong?’

Excerpts from CIA Director George J. Tenet’s address Thursday at Georgetown University in Washington, as transcribed by eMediaMillWorks Inc.:

By definition, intelligence deals with the unclear, the unknown, the deliberately hidden. What the enemies of the United States hope to deny we work to reveal.

The question being asked about Iraq in the starkest terms is: Were we right or were we wrong? In the intelligence business, you are almost never completely wrong or completely right.

That applies in full to the question of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. And like many of the toughest intelligence challenges, when the facts of Iraq are all in, we will neither be completely right nor completely wrong....

Much of the current controversy centers on our prewar intelligence, summarized in the National Intelligence Estimate of October of 2002. National estimates are publications where the intelligence community as a whole seeks to sum up what we know about a subject, what we don’t know, what we suspect may be happening and where we differ on key issues.

This estimate asked if Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. We concluded that in some of these categories Iraq had weapons, and that in others where it did not have them, it was trying to develop them.

Let me be clear: Analysts differed on several important aspects of these programs, and those debates were spelled out in the estimate.

They never said there was an imminent threat. Rather, they painted an objective assessment for our policymakers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests. No one told us what to say or how to say it....

As we meet here today, the Iraq Survey Group is continuing its important search for people and data. And despite some public statements, we are nowhere near 85% finished. The men and women who work in that dangerous environment are adamant about that fact.

Any call that I make today is necessarily provisional. Why? Because we need more time and we need more data.

A stream of reporting from a different sensitive source with access to senior Iraqi officials said he believed production of chemical and biological weapons was taking place ... and that prohibited chemicals were also being produced at dual-use facilities.

The source stated that a senior Iraqi official in Saddam’s inner circle believed ... Iraq knew the inspectors’ weak points.... The source said that there was an elaborate plan to deceive inspectors and ensure prohibited items would never be found.

Now, did this information make any difference in my thinking? You bet it did.

Now, I’m sure you’re all asking, “Why haven’t we found the weapons?” I’ve told you the search must continue, and it will be difficult.

As David Kay reminded us, the Iraqis systematically destroyed and looted forensic evidence before, during and after the war. We have been faced with organized destruction of documentary and computer evidence in a wide range of offices, laboratories and companies suspected of weapons-of-mass-destruction work. The pattern of these efforts is one of deliberate, rather than random, acts. Iraqis who have volunteered information to us are still being intimidated and attacked....

So what do I think about all this today? Based on an assessment of the data we collected over the past 10 years, it would have been difficult for analysts to come to any different conclusions than the ones reached in October of 2002.

However, in our business simply saying this is not good enough. We must constantly review the quality of our work. For example, the National Intelligence Council is reviewing the estimate line by line.

Six months ago, we also commissioned an internal review to examine the tradecraft of our work on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. And through this effort we are finding ways to improve our processes.

For example, we recently discovered that relevant analysts in the community missed the notice that identified a source that we had cited as providing information that in some cases was unreliable and in other cases fabricated.

We have acknowledged this mistake....

After the U.N. inspectors left in 1998, we made an aggressive effort to penetrate Iraq. Our record was mixed. While we had voluminous reporting, the major judgments reached were based on a narrower band of data. That’s not unusual in our business.

There was by necessity a strong reliance on technical data which, to be sure, was very valuable, particularly in the imagery of military and key dual-use facilities, on missile and unmanned aerial vehicle developments, and in particular on the efforts of Iraqi front companies to falsify and deny us the ultimate destination and use of dual-use equipment.

We did not have enough of our own human intelligence. We did not ourselves penetrate the inner sanctum.

Our agents were on the periphery of WMD activities, providing some useful information. We had access to emigres and defectors with more direct access to these programs. And we had a steady stream of reporting with access to the Iraqi leadership come to us from a trusted foreign partner.

Other partners provided important information. What we did not collect ourselves, we evaluated as carefully as we could.

Still, the lack of direct access to some of these sources created some risk. Such is the nature of our business.

To be sure, we had difficulty penetrating the Iraqi regime with human sources. And I want to be very clear about something: A blanket indictment of our human intelligence around the world is dead wrong. We have spent the last seven years rebuilding our clandestine service. As director of central intelligence, this has been my highest priority....

Our analysts, at the end of the day, have a duty to inform and warn. They did so honestly and with integrity when making judgments about the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein.

Simply assessing stacks of reports does not speak to the wisdom experienced analysts brought to bear on a difficult and deceptive subject.

But as all these reviews are underway we must take some care. We cannot afford an environment to develop where analysts are afraid to make a call, where judgments are held back because analysts fear they will be wrong. Their work and these judgments make vital contributions to the country’s security.


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