TOPICS > Politics

Under Fire

September 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: This past weekend saw two new twists in the ongoing controversy over the administration’s prewar claims about Iraq.

Yesterday The Washington Post reported that the Republican chairman and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee had written CIA Director George Tenet, criticizing the intelligence community for basing its prewar assessment of Iraq’s weapons on “circumstantial” and “fragmentary” information.

“The absence of proof that chemical and biological weapons and their related development programs had been destroyed was considered proof that they continued to exist,” the letter said.

A CIA spokesman rejected the charge, and yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell responded on ABC.

COLIN POWELL, ABC’s This Week: Our intelligence has to do the best they could and I think they did a pretty good job. And to say that, well, since you don’t have positive information or you don’t have information that satisfies us, we should assume that all of these weapons are gone or they weren’t there in the first place defies the logic of the situation over the years and what we know about this regime.

MARGARET WARNER: Also yesterday, the Post reported that the Justice Department, at Tenet’s request, was looking into whether Bush administration officials leaked the identity of a covert CIA agent after her husband challenged the president’s prewar claims.

The husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, wrote an op-ed in July saying he’d told the CIA, after traveling to Niger in 2002, that it was “highly doubtful” Iraq had obtained uranium there. Wilson questioned why President Bush repeated the charge in his state of the union address months later.

A week after Wilson went public, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, citing “two senior administration officials,” said the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger at the suggestion of his wife, Valerie Plame, an “agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” Yesterday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice responded to the Post’s account that “two top White House officials” had called a half-dozen journalists to disclose Wilson’s wife’s identity.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I know nothing of any such White House effort to reveal any of this, and it certainly would not be the way that the president would expect his White House to operate. My understanding is that in matters like this, as a matter of routine, a question like this is referred to the Justice Department for appropriate action, and that’s what’s going to be done.

MARGARET WARNER: For more, we go to two members of congressional intelligence committees. Representative Jane Harman of California is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee; she co-signed the critical letter to CIA Director Tenet. And Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia; he serves on the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. Welcome to you both.

Congresswoman, let’s start by… if you would flesh out the criticism you and Chairman Goss made in your letter. We don’t have a full text of that letter, but you seem to be saying that essentially the intelligence was based on outdated information.

REP. JANE HARMAN: Well, we make a number of points, Margaret. Let me say that the letter has not been released by the committee. It is an unclassified letter, but nonetheless, the committee has not decided to release it, so I’m not releasing it. But we… as part of our preliminary review of 19 volumes of material, including numbers of interviews and closed and public hearings, say in our letter to George Tenet that we think that the sources of information on which the prewar intelligence judgments were based were sketchy and inadequate, and I say — Porter Goss, our chairman, disagrees with this — that the analysis was also inadequate, and it more boldly stated conclusions than the basic under lying information justified.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying that you believe that the intelligence community itself had faulty analysis.

REP. JANE HARMAN: I think some of the analysis was faulty — faulty in this sense: The vetting that could have occurred, the pointing out, for example, in that last clip you quoted Colin Powell that there might be alternative hypotheses that could have occurred didn’t occur fully. And the conclusions reached did not include the caveat they should have included, an assertion that was made in the big intelligence product, called the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published in October of 2002, as we were ramping up for war, said Iraq has chemical and biological weapons.

That assertion was not supported by the underlying information.

MARGARET WARNER: And why do you think this occurred?

REP. JANE HARMAN: Well, I think it occurred in part because the NIE was a rushed job. It was prepared in three weeks in response to a request by Senator Graham.

I think it occurred in part because, unfortunately, our sources were fairly poor after 1998, when the U.N. inspectors left Iraq, and we didn’t have the information that I wish we had. It occurred because we underinvested in human intelligence in the ’90s, a point that I know Porter Goss strongly shares, and I’m sure that Saxby Chambliss does, too. There were lots of reasons why it occurred.

But the bottom line is, our intelligence needs to be timely, unbiased, and accurate. And our intelligence products need to include caveats and say that the evidence on which they’re based is circumstantial or sketchy so that policymakers, whose job it is to make tough decisions when they refer to inside intelligence, make accurate statements as well.

And that’s another problem here, that the policymakers’ statements were even bolder than the conclusions reached in the intelligence products.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Chambliss, based on intelligence you’ve seen as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, do you share these concerns?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, I certainly do share a number of concerns about the fact that the intelligence community submitted information, some of which had caveats, some of which did not have caveats.

And the information which we got highlights a problem that Jane and I looked at — with reference to the intelligence community — leading up to September 11, and the same problem existed leading up to Iraq.

And that is that we lacked human intelligence, information, which is by far the best information that you can get. When you lack human intelligence information, then, as this letter indicates, you have to take the best information available. Some of it is caveated, some of it isn’t caveated, and that certainly continues to highlight this problem, and is an ongoing problem within the intelligence community that has got to be addressed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in this particular case, Senator, once the U.N. inspectors had left in ’98, it appears from reports that the administration relied to a great degree also on exiles, Iraqi exiles who said they were in touch with Iraqis still there. Did their information prove to be dubious?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, that’s what we referred to as “liaison information.” And when you rely on somebody else to gather information for you, you’re basically making your determinations upon hearsay. If that were in a court of law, it would be very questionable as to whether or not you could rely on it.

But the fact of the matter is, once the 1998… in 1998, when the missiles were fired into certain parts of the Middle East in an attempt to get back at bin Laden when we fired some missiles in other parts of the world close to Iraq, we were kicked out.

And the issue of gathering human intelligence from that point in time was null and void, so we had to rely on somebody. We did rely on the best information that was available. Whether or not it was accurate or not is an ongoing issue. But as of right now, it appears that it may have been somewhat suspect.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Harman, what about Secretary Powell’s point that given Saddam Hussein’s past record of pursuing these weapons, that in the absence of proof that he had abandoned them, it in fact would have been irresponsible to assume he had abandoned them?

REP. JANE HARMAN: Margaret, I think it… I have a mixed reaction to what he said. Certainly, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. I strongly supported — and I know that Saxby Chambliss did too — the goals of regime change — Congress voted for that in 1998 when we were both members of Congress — and the goal of dismantling the weapons of mass destruction. The U.N. was supportive of those goals, too. So having said all that, this was a bad guy, and we needed to pay very, very key attention to him.

But saying that the absence of proof… that something is destroyed is proof, is proof that it exists, is… could be a very careless comment. And my point is that we needed corroborating evidence, that we needed to test out alternative hypotheses to see if they might in fact be better. And we needed to tell the policymakers, like Colin Powell, that this might be true, it might not be true.

The evidence as presented in those days was pretty bold. Remember, I just read you the key judgment from the National Intelligence Estimate. It said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. That didn’t include the possibility that he never had them, that he may have destroyed them years earlier, that the stockpiles may have lost their potency, that, you know, any number of other things could have happened.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Chambliss, let me shift gears here, if I may, and ask you now about the controversy over the leaking of this CIA agent’s name, Joseph Wilson’s wife. What do you make of this whole argument?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, the main thing I make of it is it was a very serious breach. And I don’t know what happened, none of us know what happened at this point in time, but it’s pretty obvious that the White House has taken it just as seriously as Congress has taken it.

We’ve had this under discussion for the last several weeks. And it’s time that we moved forward with having the Justice Department look into it to see what we can find out about it.

You know, back last year, we had a major leak from the joint inquiry of the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee. We immediately had the FBI come in and take a look-see to see what they could find out. We need to do something similar at this point in time, because exposing individuals who are agents of the Central Intelligence Agency is a serious, serious breach in our intelligence community. And it needs to be looked into and to see exactly what happened. If somebody did intentionally leak this, then they need to be dealt with in the most severest manner.

MARGARET WARNER: And how damaging is it to have a name like this leaked?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, certainly it takes that individual out of doing any further covert action, and covert action is the way by which we gather our best intelligence.

It’s not easy to find those people who can infiltrate terrorist organizations and any other groups around the world. So, it’s critically important we have those individuals. They are in great demand and the supply is limited. So when you lose an agent like that, it’s of critical importance to us.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Harman, weigh in on this, and I particularly want to ask you about something that Joseph Wilson has said repeatedly: He said he thinks it was done to intimidate people like him, who might have administration ties but also might have information, from being critical of the president or the administration in the handling of this war. And I’m curious to know whether you think it would have had that effect?

REP. JANE HARMAN: Well, what we have so far are allegations, but nonetheless, they’re very serious. And clearly, Joseph Wilson’s wife’s name has been revealed. In fact, you just revealed it on your program. And that hurts her career. It may hurt, you know, put her in danger in some ways, hurt her contacts. And clearly, it sends a message to the CIA. That is a very, very bad message. And I applaud George Tenet for asking that this be fully investigated.

Will it have a chilling effect on others who might step forward? You bet it might. It surely might. I think Joseph Wilson, who I’ve never met, is right about that. This was wrong. And those who did it, if they did it, did something not just wrong, but they violated the law and they can be subject to imprisonment and stiff penalties.

And I urge the attorney general promptly to investigate this issue to decide whether he under his own authority should set up an independent counsel, or seek legislation restoring the independent counsel law, which has now expired. But whatever happens going forward, this administration has to prove that it can handle this investigation competently and quickly, or there certainly will be calls quickly in Congress to set up an independent investigator.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, in fact, Congresswoman, Senator Charles Schumer has already said today that he thinks it has to be some sort of a special counsel. He says there’s just too much conflict of interest to have the attorney general investigating when it could implicate people in the White House. What’s your view of that?

REP. JANE HARMAN: Well, that may be true. I think we need to find out a lot more about it. We have had very serious leaks over recent years, as Saxby Chambliss just pointed out, and they’re damaging and terrible leaks.

I don’t know of one that rises to this level, at least in recent time. And so that may be true. And I certainly will support that if the attorney general doesn’t make clear in the next short period of time that he can handle this in a way that will be credible. But there is a normal way to handle this, and I urge him to get on with it. I think there’s lots of information there to act on. This information has been out for about a month.

Many of us on the Intelligence Committee, on a bipartisan basis, have expressed concern to senior CIA officials. And again, I think the CIA is handling this exactly correctly. And among other things, this woman agent whose identity was revealed is one that we should all be interested in protecting at this point.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Chambliss, briefly, do you think the Department of Justice can handle this, and should handle this?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, certainly it’s too early to tell whether or not any kind of independent investigation should be carried out here, because we don’t know what the facts are. Jane’s exactly right.

We’ve got to look into this, we have procedures in place to handle it. Let’s look at it and see where the indications point. Then we’ll know whether or not we have any further or different type of investigation that needs to be made. But before you know what even the preliminary facts are, you don’t want to be pointing fingers, you don’t want to be talking about an independent counsels until you can make an educated judgment on just where it looks like it’s going.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Saxby Chambliss, Congresswoman Jane Harman, thank you both.