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Reasons for the War with Iraq

July 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: And joining us now to assess where all this leaves the questions about prewar intelligence are two senators who attended the closed-door Intelligence Committee with Tenet: Republican John Warner of Virginia and Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana.

Welcome to you both.

Senator Bayh, after this entire week of back and forth, what is… do you have a conclusion yet on the broader question of whether intelligence was used appropriately by the administration before the war or whether it was manipulated or used selectively to essentially justify a preordained decision?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: I’m not sure we have the answer to that yet, Margaret, because we’ve only heard one side of the story from the CIA the day before yesterday. We need to hear from the officials in the White House as to why they were coming back to try and include this information in the speech, as you and David pointed out, after it had been taken out in October before a speech in Cincinnati, and whether that was simply one over zealous staff person in the NSC, or whether that was based upon instructions from some higher authority, so I think there are really two issues here: One is the substantive case. Is it good that Saddam is gone? The answer to that is yes. Was he attempting to pursue weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear?

I think the answer to that in my opinion is probably yes also. But the other question is: Was the White House overzealous? Did they push the envelope in trying to make that case to the American people and in so doing damage their credibility? That’s a very real question right now. We have to continue to pursue it in order to get a full answer to your question.

MARGARET WARNER: Where in your mind, Sen. Warner, does this question stand about the use of the intelligence?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, first and foremost, I come from the old school. I don’t talk about what goes on in the Intelligence Committee. I had a tour eight years ago and was vice chairman; I’m back on now, and I’ve always followed throughout my government service of thirty years, five years at the Pentagon and the Navy Secretary, twenty-five years in the Senate, you don’t talk about it.

But I can just say this much: From my own conclusions of the facts: Mainly that this committee of intelligence in the Senate is very carefully methodically and fairly reaching the facts, bringing them in so that we can at some point in time as a committee decide on what we’re going to release and I would urge as much possible it be shared with the public. As we saw today, the president very wisely put out the NIE, which in your earlier segment didn’t say that it was clearly classified and not released to the public when it came out in October and just released.

But, you know, the question, the underlying question you have did this administration any one or several administration officials take facts and try and cast them in a light different than solid intelligence in a way to make a political point? Speaking for myself I say no, and the reason is they didn’t have to do it. There were ample facts to predicate a sound decision by the president and really ratified by the Congress in a 70 plus vote to use force to remove Saddam Hussein; he had violated 17 resolutions; he’d used weapons of mass destruction against other people, we discovered weapons of mass destruction in ’91, after we went in, and eventually confirmed that he was moving rapidly to develop a nuclear weapons program.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Bayh, that is essentially the case that the White House is making, which is always focus on that 16 words, it’s really making a mountain out of a mole hill, that there was a larger case that he’d pursued these weapons in the past; you couldn’t trust that he wasn’t. Why… is it really important to get to the bottom of how those 16 words add up in the president’s speech and, if so, why?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Margaret, it’s absolutely important because, as I mentioned, you have two issues here: One is the substantive case, which John laid out. The other is the method in which the administration pursued it, and did they call into question our credibility in pushing the envelope too far? Our credibility is a precious national security asset. The president’s credibility is a precious national security asset. In my opinion they had a strong case to make on the nuclear question based upon half a dozen other items that weren’t mentioned in the president’s speech. Why… why seize on this one item of dubious credibility to put in the speech? Was it because there was public polling data that suggested potential purchases of uranium was more convincing to the American people than these other things that we knew about? That’s what we have to get to the bottom of. Credibility is important, Margaret. Even if the substantive case is reliable, you have to pursue it in an honest, truthful way. Otherwise, you damage yourself down the road.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that point, the credibility issue is key?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Always it’s key in terms of any presidential decision, whether it’s this or a whole range of decisions, but in this instance you used the word, my good friend and colleague, untruthful. I don’t think anybody is being untruthful. George Tenet publicly said I made a mistake; I hold myself accountable; I should have been more forceful in saying to the White House this intelligence, while it’s undisputed by the British as being correct, and we cannot disprove it in a sense, is probably not at the level deserving of a presidential State of the Union. All this is out in the open. Nobody is trying to conceal anything.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Bayh, George Tenet did of course take the blame, but as I understand it from the reports in your session, he said he actually didn’t even know this was in the speech. What can you tell us, one, about how culpable you really think Tenet is, or whether you think the responsibility lies elsewhere.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: In my opinion, Margaret, George Tenet is a stand-up kind of guy. He took responsibility for inadequacies in the vetting process in the CIA and the fact that his subordinate hadn’t forcefully enough insisted that this material not find its way into the speech. I think said that it takes two to tango. There was someone in the National Security Office in the White House who was a party to that conversation as well, and you know kept looking for ways to include this in a speech when at least that person’s superior had been informed in October it shouldn’t be in the speech.

So I’d like to see somebody in the NSE also say, look, we’re responsible for our process. We are going to make sure our people are not overzealous and then I think we will have gone as far as we possibly can to ensure this never happens again. If I could just add one last thing, my dear friend and colleague, Senator Warner, I didn’t mean to say that the president had been intentionally untruthful. I don’t believe that. But I do think we need to have a better standard for including material in his speeches than mere technical truthfulness.

MARGARET WARNER: What about this point? How do you feel about this point about Tenet’s responsibility and whether, even though he assumed all the blame, it really belongs with him?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: When I was vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, he was our staff director. And I’ve worked him for many years now as chairman of the Armed Services Committee. I find him a very credible, hard working and honest person, trying to discharge faithfully and fairly his duties. And in my judgment, he has stepped up, said he is accountable for procedures, which he himself said must be improved in the agency with regard to their role in preparing such speeches as state of the union. What more can you ask for? The man admitted it?

MARGARET WARNER: I guess my question here is, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, for instance, on this program the other night in a discussion here on procedure said ultimately, the state of the union when you are talking about national security matters, that’s the national security advisor’s ultimate responsibility. My question is whether you think it is broader than just Tenet and does go to the White House?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: It’s clear that you’ve answered your own question. The White House prepares that speech in consultation with various agencies and departments in the federal government, CIA being but one, Department of Defense, Department of State and other agencies. But the buck stops there and in due course will leave it to the White House how to answer what remains to be seen as to their procedures.

But you know what concerns me? This week’s Intelligence Committee hearing — there’s been some information that has come out of that which troubles me greatly because we cannot discharge our function of oversight duties in that committee or in my committee, for example, which handles the same intelligence, unless the witness can be assured they’re not going to read about it the next day. And furthermore, if I were in the White House today, I’d say would we want to send our people up there next week to tell what happened in the White House when we might read it and it be leaked out? It just shows you how difficult it makes for the leadership. We’ve got good leadership with the chairman and the ranking member in that committee right now. Let us not let that deter our ability to get to the bottom of this thing.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Bayh, from what the White House was saying both on background and today at the briefing, and you just heard David Sanger say it, there is a difference in the accounts or interpretation between the CIA and the NSE. How troubling is that to you as a member of the intelligence committee?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, when it involves an inconsistency on a subject of this importance, it is somewhat troubling and that’s why I think we should hear from the representatives of the White House from exactly — about exactly what happened their point of view. Look, if I were advising the White House, I’d say, you know, come clean on all this, have a public hearing. Let’s keep out the classified information but explain exactly what happened. If it was an innocent mistake, the American people will understand that. We’ll put into place mechanisms to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If Condi Rice needs to step up like George Tenet did and say look I’m responsible for this, I’ll take charge, then perhaps that needs to happen. But I think the more we can shine the sunlight on this, we can put this to rest and get on with the focus about what really matters and that’s how to prevent the situation in Iraq today from becoming a quagmire.

MARGARET WARNER: So what is the plan, Senator Warner, in terms of are there hearings scheduled for next week and what about Senator Bayh’s ideas of making them open hearings?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: First, I again disagree with my good friend. Nobody is not coming clean — they haven’t had the opportunity as such to speak. Now the chairman of the committee and Senator Rockefeller, the vice chairman, they are reviewing the procedure by which to invite witness from the White House to come up. Whether they’ll come is a question of executive privilege. The White House may look at other means by which to answer publicly such questions. They’re in no way in my judgment not coming clean with this.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you suggesting for instance, they might want to just answer them in writing?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Who knows. Let them decide it. I think it’s very important, whether it’s this president or other presidents, to have executive privilege. We cannot let Congress run all through the White House with people who are not subject to confirmation being subpoenaed before the committees of the Congress.

I think that’s an inviolate rule that has to be decided upon by each president and each situation. So let’s wait. But I bring up again should they come up before committees that are immediately in closed session, that material leaks out. We should hold those accountable if they have improperly violated the rules of the committee and the Senate in leaking out that information.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Bayh, two quick final questions. Do you find it troubling too much leaked out and two, do you see an executive privilege confrontation looming?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: I always find these leaks to be troubling. John and I agree on that. It is amazing to me how the Pentagon leaks, the intelligence agency leaks, the White House leaks. The Congress leaks. We’ve got to find a way to try and keep confidential information exactly that; confidential. Secondly, that’s up to the White House about whether to assert executive privilege. If I were advising him, though, unless there was some compelling reason to do that, I would advise them not to because as important as executive privilege is, their credibility and reassuring the American public and the international court of opinion that there was really nothing wrong here, is even more important because at the end of the day, our believability is a vital national security asset. We need to preserve that at all costs.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Bayh, Senator Warner, thank you both.