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Defending Intelligence

February 5, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, reaction from two key senators: Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; and Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, currently a member of that committee. Senators, welcome.

Senator Shelby, in general, what did you think of Director Tenet’s defense?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I thought it was unusual, that is the CIA director making a public defense of the agency, but I think we have to look at the record. I supported the war. I think that the change of regime was justified. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t look back and see if the intelligence was there. And I think that’s why we’re going to get a presidential commission. He can defend everything and we do have good intelligence. But it’s not good enough. We’ve had too many failures for too long and this commission will look at it as … just as the commission is looking at the failures leading up to Sept. 11.

JIM LEHRER: So you don’t buy what George Tenet said today?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I don’t buy it but I don’t want to condemn all of it because some of the things he said is true. I have no dispute on that. We do have good intelligence. We do have a growing human intelligence cadre, but we are not there yet. We don’t have enough. And I think that David Kay is an honorable man. He was appointed to this job, suggested by George Tenet, and he has said basically as I recall that the intelligence community hasn’t served president that well, I agree with that.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bayh., first what is your general reaction to Tenet?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, Jim, I have got a lot of empathy for George Tenet, a lot of what he said is exactly right. This is inherent ambiguity in a lot of this intelligence analysis; you have circumstantial evidence, conflicting evidence, gaps in the evidence, denial and deception on the part of the people who are trying to determine what they’re up to.

It’s a very difficult line of work and we have some great people and they got a lot right. But I do agree what my friend, Senator Shelby said, I think when all this comes out there was serious mistakes that were made and we need a serious inquiry into this, Jim, to determine not what we can do going forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again and to do a better job — I think we’ll see when it comes out you’ll be surprised about the lack of evidence in some cases, the real scarcity of evidence and we need to figure out how we can do a better job of collecting more accurate and more information.

JIM LEHRER: You mean scarcity of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in this particular case?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Yes, in the biological area, in the chemical area. The director was very careful in choosing his words before the war that the weapons did exist and now it’s their determination he had the intent to acquire them. Well, those are two very different things. And I hope we can make as much this public as quickly as possible because our nation’s credibility is at stake. I think you’ll find conclusions were reached on the basis of evidence but in some cases there was not a lot of evidence, and we need to do a better job in the future of double checking some of the analyses that are reached.

JIM LEHRER: Who is the “we” in this case, senator?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Our intelligence committee, Jim. In fairness to them, the French, the Germans, the Brits, they all felt the same way but we have to make difficult cases in some cases about whether to go to war, not on conflicting and inadequate information and we need to try and do a better job, and I say we, as a country, we.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, you said this was most unusual for a CIA director to do that. What do you mean by that?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I served eight years on the Intelligence Committee. During that eight years I was on it, I don’t recall the director of CIA defending everything publicly. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t defend his people. He should defend what he believes in and what is right. But I think the record speaks for itself here. The evidence speaks for itself. The commission that will be looking at this will, I think, be the most objective group to analyze and say what’s wrong, what’s right, rather than just the director of the CIA.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, Mr. Tenet said, hey, this process on the ground in Iraq is not over yet and he said it’s not even 85 percent complete in terms of looking for the weapons of mass destruction. David Kay on this program about ten days ago said that that approach doesn’t make sense to him. He thinks that what is known is already known and those weapons are not there. How do you feel about that?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I think you have to put a lot of credibility with David Kay because I think he’s a straightforward talking man. He knows a lot about the subject matter, but there is always a chance that we could find something that we haven’t found thus far. The chances are that we won’t. Were there weapons of mass destruction? Well, we know that Saddam Hussein used gas against the Kurds. We knew he had that. We knew he would have liked to have had nuclear weapons and so forth, but the fact remains look at the record.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bayh, what’s your view on this, about this? Mr. Tenet said it today. Secretary Rumsfeld said it in Senate hearings yesterday: “Hey, process isn’t over; we’re still looking.” What, could you think of that?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Jim, this is a perfect illustration of just how subjective this process inherently is. You’ve got two honorable men. David Kay spent months looking into this, he’s made it his life work in some respects, and you’ve got George Tenet, who I also think is an honorable man.

They have both been involved; they have both gone through all the evidence; they have different opinions. I think the chances of us finding the kind of evidence, it is still possible but I tend to agree with Dr. Kay — it’s unlikely. But this is only part of the case for removing Saddam Hussein and that’s a whole different debate we’ll have as a country.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of a debate why do you think the administration is still hanging in there on this? What’s your interpretation on this, why will they not concede the search is not over yet?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, I think to some extent they may believe that. There is a possibility that we’ll find the proverbial needle in the haystack. I think there is also a reluctance to admit error.

But from my experience, Jim, when all the facts come out if we have made some mistakes, I think the rest of the world and the American people will understand that to err is human, but to persist in error or to deny the existence of error, that’s something that’s harder to understand — that undermines our credibility. The next time we go to the world and say, “Look, there are bad things happening in North Korea or Iran. We need do something about it.” If the reaction is, “why should we believe you?” — that’s not a helpful thing. So we need to try and air this out, restore our credibility, and then get on with the job of protecting the country.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: The information is intelligence and we make policy decisions based on it. We need the best and the most credible intelligence or information that we can get. I think with the billions of dollars that we spend and the great people that we have, we can do better. We have got a long way to go but we cannot look back, we can learn from looking back but we have got to go forward.

JIM LEHRER: If I hear you correct, Senator Shelby and also you, Senator Bayh, what you all are saying is that the emphasis should be on what went wrong, though, in other words, why did we not know more than we did rather than what we did know, is that correct? Am I reading you right, Senator Shelby?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Partially correct. I read the national intelligence estimate.

JIM LEHRER: The one he was referring to?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Absolutely at length and what was in there is a little different from what we found.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your own view of why there was one thing in the national estimate and one thing on the ground?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I think they made some assumptions that have not panned out and sometimes they do pan out based on the information that they had. I believe the real problem was and is we don’t have enough people on the ground, we don’t have enough human intelligence. We’re getting there.

Senator Bayh is in a position to push that and I know he will because he’s outspoken on that issue.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Jim, I think my friend is right about that. Unfortunately there are no quick fixes when it comes to human intelligence. It takes years and I think we should acknowledge we have a lot of great people in the intelligence community, they got a lot right — in my opinion they got an unacceptable amount wrong; we need to figure out why not for the purpose of scapegoating but why for the purpose of making sure it doesn’t happen again.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Senator Bayh, you’re on the committee now and obviously there are certain things you can’t talk about but George Tenet said in his speech that he said we did not have anybody inside the inner circle of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Do you think if we had, there would have been a different intelligence conclusion going in?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Could very well have but, you know, it appears from what Dr. Kay has said it was a pretty dysfunctional place.

We’re great at taking photographs; we’re great at listening to things; we’re getting better in the area of intelligence, Jim, but a couple of decades ago we really deemphasized that and it takes a period of years to really get the kind of resources in place that we need and until then we’re going to be more reliant than we would like on people like the Jordanians, the Moroccans, the Egyptians, some of our European friends for the kind of information that we need.

JIM LEHRER: Can you from the inside, from your committee perspective, confirm what Director Tenet said, that there is a big emphasis on improving human intelligence, Senator Bayh?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Yes that has been a real emphasis but again as Senator Shelby pointed out you can launch a new satellite and get it into orbit but it takes years to recruit the right people from the right ethnic groups who speak the right languages and have them work their way up to positions where they can obtain the kind of information that we need. It just takes time.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, back to the big picture. Do you share Senator Bayh’s concern a moment ago that there’s a lot more riding on this than what happened in Iraq, the whole future of how the United States might perceived when it takes any kind of action rests on the credibility of our intelligence — that’s why this is so important?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I certainly agree with Senator Bayh, he’s right. The credibility oftentimes of our foreign policy depends on the information that policy-makers have, that is intelligence to make the right decisions. When that is called into question, a lot of our foreign policy will be called into question.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, Senator Shelby, that this independent bipartisan commission President Bush is supposedly going to announce tomorrow, reportedly going to announce tomorrow, is a good thing?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I think it’s a good thing. I think it ought to be and I pray it will be a blue ribbon commission above politics, both parties.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, Senator Bayh?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, I agree. I think it’s absolutely necessary, Jim, for the purposes I said trying to clear the air and shoring up our credibility both at home and abroad. But in a political season with something this highly charged, we’re going to need nine folks like Caesar’s wife to get this job done in a way that would be credible, thorough and put the matter to rest.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bayh, the word is that the president is going to give him a deadline after the elections; now does that make sense to you?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, obviously it would be better to know before. This will touch upon some things. I think the American people have a right to know but it’s better the job be done thoroughly, Jim, and until we see exactly what the scope is going to be and what they need to look into it’s hard to give you a very realistic answer about how long it’s going to take.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I believe it’s the right decision to put politics beyond it. We are in a presidential race and if we put a blue ribbon commission together and they’re not involved in the political season, not reporting in the political season, we’ll get a better report.

JIM LEHRER: The wires are moving stories reported and in our News Summary a while ago, Senator Shelby, that your Republican colleague, Senator McCain, was going to be appointed as one of the nine members — what do you think of that?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: He would make an excellent member if he’s appointed and if he accepts. He’s very knowledgeable about the area, he’s outspoken — he has a great record in the area.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: That would be a refreshing choice, Jim because Senator McCain, as you know, has not hesitated to express criticism of the administration when he felt it was warranted so an appointment of someone like that would show this was going to be truly an independent commission.

JIM LEHRER: Do either of you know of any other names that are being floated about?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I haven’t heard other than that one, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: What about you, Senator Bayh?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: No, Jim. I haven’t.

JIM LEHRER: I thought maybe could I get a little scoop here. (Laughter) Thank you both very much.