BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.
President Bush this week went up that hill to among other things remind us that we "remain on the offensive" against the forces of terror.
One way to do that is to be sure we have the best intelligence possible about what bad guys are really up to. That's a point the President himself made while defending his power to tap some international phone calls without court permission. But national security experts say we also need to be sure that the information we do gather doesn't get twisted and distorted as it filters through the corridors of power behind us.
A case in point, what we really knew about Iraq during the march toward war. Administration officials were wrong about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but the question is, when did they know that? Bryan Myers produced our report.
It was one of the most anticipated speeches of our generation. On the morning of February 5th, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell sat down before the United Nations to make the case for war.
COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE speech (Feb. 5, 2003): The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world.
BRANCACCIO: If ever the whole world was watching, this was it. Powell played secretly recorded phone calls, waved a vial of powder representing anthrax, and showed off diagrams of weapons factories. Not since Adlai Stevenson displayed photos of Cuban missiles in 1962 had the U.N. seen such a multi-media tour de force.
POWELL: My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.
BRANCACCIO: Lawrence Wilkerson was at the center of the action that day, working as a top aide to Colin Powell. What he later found out shocked him: much of Powell's speech was false.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF, STATE DEPT.: I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community, and the United Nations Security Council. How do you think that makes me feel?
BRANCACCIO: As Powell's Chief of Staff, Wilkerson was intimately involved in preparing that U.N. address. Wilkerson is so upset by what happened, he says he can no longer remain silent.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: A hoax, that's quite a word.
WILKERSON: Well, let's face it. It was. It was not a hoax that the Secretary in any way was complicit in. In fact, he did his best. I watched him work to try and hone the presentation down to what was a slam dunk. Firm. Iron clad.
I recall vividly the Secretary of State walking into my office. And he said, looking out the window, just musing. He said, "I wonder what we'll do if we put half a million troops on the ground in Iraq and comb the country from one end to the other and don't find a single weapon of mass destruction."
BRANCACCIO: And that's what's happened.
WILKERSON: That's what's happened.
BRANCACCIO: Wilkerson is a former colonel in the U.S. Army, a decorated Vietnam vet, and a life-long Republican. Wilkerson first met Powell in 1989, shortly after Powell left the Reagan White House. Powell was looking for an assistant; Wilkerson signed on. He's followed Powell ever since through the first Gulf War, Powell's brief fling as a potential candidate for president, and eventually, to the State Department.
Lately, Wilkerson's been doing a lot of soul searching, trying to figure how that watershed speech could have gone so horribly wrong. Wilkerson had put together a team that spent a week at the C.I.A., painstakingly fact checking what Powell planned to say. Powell even brought the then Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, to New York.
WILKERSON: I remember when we were doing the dress rehearsal in New York City. We were at the top floor of the U.S. mission in New York City. And I had laid out the room to look like it was the Security Council, complete with little placards. We came to the end, and the Secretary turned to Mr. Tenet and he said, "George, you back up everything, right? One last chance." And Mr. Tenet said, "Absolutely, Mr. Secretary." And the Secretary said, "Well, that's good George, because you're going to be with me tomorrow. You're going to be in camera with me. And if you'll look at the film, there's Mr. Tenet sitting beside Powell."
BRANCACCIO: In fact, there were major doubts inside the intelligence community about about everything that was being said about the Iraq threat, even as Powell's speech was being planned and delivered. Lawrence Wilkerson now suspects the administration may have used Powell.
BRANCACCIO: Is it reasonable to think the administration knew about this skepticism?
WILKERSON: Six months ago, I would have said no. Since that time, however, there have been some revelations.
BRANCACCIO: Those revelations are fueling Wilkerson's concern that the administration may have known its claims were anything but a slam dunk. And in recent weeks, there have been a string of them. Take just one example: the claim that Saddam Hussein had mobile laboratories to produce deadly germs like anthrax.
POWELL: We have first hand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails.
BRANCACCIO: David Kay used to be the chief American weapons inspector in Iraq. He was also at the U.N. that day. Of all the things Kay heard, he says the words "mobile factories" frightened him most.
DAVID KAY, WEAPONS EXPERT: You know, my background as an inspector, the worst thing that could happen is trying to find something that is in fact not physically fixed, but is mobile. There are tens of thousands of trucks running around Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: After the war began, David Kay and his team went to Iraq. The first thing they went looking for: those mobile labs.
KAY: When I get access to the complete file, I discover that this is really based on something that I would have been embarrassed to have a six year old take in as a class science project.
BRANCACCIO: And who was the basis of that information, says Kay? A secret source code-named "Curveball."
BRANCACCIO: You've been quoted as saying that Curveball's allegations were, I think your phrase was, total hokum.
KAY: Well, they were a complete fabrication. They were made up, as far as we could tell, out of whole cloth.
BRANCACCIO: Curveball was an Iraqi defector who came into the custody of German officials in early 2000, claiming to be an expert in biological weapons. In fact, he was lying. It's now reported Curveball was simply an asylum seeker looking for a visa, a free ride to the West.
BRANCACCIO: According to THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, German officials had repeatedly told the Americans that Curveball's information was not proven. British intelligence, too, warned that Curveball might be lying nearly a year before Powell's speech. Even the lone American agent who met Curveball before the war had doubts concerns Lawrence Wilkerson found out after it was too late.
BRANCACCIO: You started looking at these documents that said that that information was in fact much more flimsy than you had been led to believe. You must have hit the ceiling.
WILKERSON: It happened over time. It happened very poignantly for me as the Secretary would enter my office, which he did half dozen times a day usually, and he would say, "This wasn't valid either." And he would enumerate some part of his presentation. It was very painful.
BRANCACCIO: And now, new information about the hours leading up to Powell's speech: a former high ranking C.I.A. official has told us he warned his boss, George Tenet, not to let Powell use Curveball's story.
Tenet was with Powell in New York the night before the U.N. address, working out last minute details of the speech. Our source says Tenet called him to check a fact, and that's when he raised his objections about Curveball. Tenet, he says, blew him off. Lawerence Wilkerson was with Powell that night too.
BRANCACCIO: Did the concern get to you?
WILKERSON: No, no. As a matter of fact, it was one of the two or three areas in the presentation where Mr. Tenet, on more than one occasion, assured the Secretary that this was ironclad.
BRANCACCIO: We requested an interview with Mr. Tenet, the former Director of Central Intelligence. He declined. Mr. Tenet has told others the phone call did take place but denies any mention of Curveball. Tenet also denies misleading Powell or anybody else.
BRANCACCIO: In the case of pre-war intelligence, are we just talking about not listening to dissenting views?
WILKERSON: I think that's a big part of it, but it's larger than that. I think there's a certain amount of politicization of intelligence. I don't think you can escape it, because of human nature. Particularly if you have a D.C.I. like George Tenet who is frequently in the presence of the President. Then he is going to absorb during those meetings what the President wants, what the President is looking for, what the angle of attack the President has is. And he is going to search for intelligence that will support that angle of attack.
BRANCACCIO: The business about mobile labs wasn not the only claim administration officials were making based on false information. Anyone with a TV would have noticed they were also intent on linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda.
CHENEY: Al Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained…
RICE: The head of training for al Qaeda, they sought help…
RUMSFELD: When I say contacts, I mean between Iraq and al Qaeda.
BRANCACCIO: The president said so too, most notably in a prime time speech to the nation in October 2002.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH speech, Oct. 7, 2002: We've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.
BRANCACCIO: According to the administration, these were more than just suspicions: they claimed to have a first hand, eyewitness account. In his U.N. speech, Secretary of State Colin Powell spelled it out.
POWELL: Fortunately, this operative is now detained and he has told his story. I will relate it to you now, as he himself, described it.
BRANCACCIO: That operative who said Iraq was working with al Qaeda was an al Qaeda official named Al Libi. Al Libi was captured in 2001 and sent to a prison in Egypt where he may have been tortured, according to published reports. It was during his imprisonment in Egypt that al Libi "confessed."
BRANCACCIO: There's only one problem with al Libi's confession: it was most likely false. It was only after the invasion the C.I.A. admitted as much. But here's the thing-there were doubts about this guy going back years.
SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI), press conference Nov. 14, 2005: The intelligence community said, "That's not what we believe."
BRANCACCIO: Senator Carl Levin is a Democrat from Michigan. A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he gets secret briefings. He says when it comes to dubious claims about a link between Iraq and al Qaeda, the public doesn't know the half of it.
Levin's been working to declassify what he can. One item he recently brought to light: a Pentagon assessment of al Libi that goes back to a year before the war. It reads, "it is…likely this individual is intentionally misleading debriefers." And there's more, agents wrote that Iraq was, "wary of Islamic revolutionary movements," like al Qaeda, and was, "unlikely to provide [them] assistance."
LEVIN: There is a clear difference between what the administration was saying in that regard, and what the intelligence community was saying.
BRANCACCIO: Levin says before the war, intelligence officials told members of Congress they didn't believe Iraq was working with al Qaeda certainly the White House must have known that too. Levin eventually voted against the war.
LEVIN: The administration was making statements, repeated statements, that there was a relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, the people who attacked us. Those statements were exaggerated, they were misleading. And the C.I.A. had concluded that, in fact, there was no significant relationship at all between the two.
BRANCACCIO: So did the administration mislead the public? The President says he was just conveying the best information he had at the time. The White House refused to comment for this story. But late last year, Vice President Dick Cheney had this to say:
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY speech (Nov. 21, 2005): Any suggestion that pre-war information was distorted, hyped, or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false. Senator John McCain put it best: "It is a lie to say that the president lied to the American people."
BRANCACCIO: Senator Levin believes at the very least, the administration played fast and loose with the facts. Consider, he says, the president's now infamous line about uranium from his 2003 State of the Union speech.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH speech (Jan. 28, 2003): The British have learned that Saddam recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
BRANCACCIO: The administration has admitted that statement was false. But just weeks ago, another damaging revelation: this newly declassified memo from the State Department. It shows administration officials were warned before the President's speech that the uranium claim was probably untrue.
LEVIN: The only purpose, the only purpose, of telling the American people that the British have learned that Saddam was seeking uranium in Africa was to create the impression that we believed it. But we didn't believe it. The intelligence community did not believe it.
BRANCACCIO: Levin believes Vice President Dick Cheney also played with language in a way that is not accidental. One of Cheney's oft-repeated remarks? Unsubstantiated reporting of a meeting between the Iraqis and one of the 9/11 hijackers.
CHENEY (NBC News, "Meet the Press", Sept. 8, 2002): "We have reporting that places him in Prague, with a senior Iraqi intelligence official."
LEVIN: The CIA did not believe that meeting took place. "We have reporting that places him in Prague." Technically, that was true. But it creates the impression we believed something we didn't.
BRANCACCIO: You can't talk about the build up to war, and not talk about Vice President Dick Cheney. It's been widely reported that behind the scenes, Cheney was the one pushing the Iraq/al Qaeda connection. And it was Cheney who would emerge as the administration's most aggressive public voice.
CHENEY speech (Aug. 26, 2002): Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.
BRANCACCIO: In a speech last fall Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former aide, even went so far as to say that Vice President Cheney was the leader of what he labeled "a cabal" which hijacked the decision-making process leading up to the war.
WILKERSON speech (Oct. 19, 2005): What I saw was a cabal between the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, and Secretary of the Defense Donald Rumsfeld…
BRANCACCIO: There's an argument that swashbuckling executives-- making executive decisions without involving the bureaucracy is very efficient, gets the…
WILKERSON: Oh, yes.
BRANCACCIO: …job done.
WILKERSON: Oh yes.
BRANCACCIO: But think about it. Involving just for starters the entire National Security Council on, for instance, evaluating the intelligence. That's going to slow things down. They're going to be dissenting opinions. You're never going to get the war done.
WILKERSON: You mean kind of like what our founding fathers intended when they put the Constitution together? Checks and balances, dissent would be listened to, and so forth and so on? I'm worried, and I would rather have the discussion and debate in the process we've designed than I would a dictat from a dumb strongman.
BRANCACCIO: You're worried that we may not have come to that, but that we're heading down this path of…
WILKERSON: Oh, I think it's come to that.
BRANCACCIO: It's Wilkerson's view the Vice President threw his weight around the C.I.A., twisting arms to favor certain intelligence outcomes. According to press accounts, Cheney, often accompanied by his aide Scooter Libby, paid at least ten visits to C.I.A. headquarters to meet with staffers working on the Iraq file.
WILKERSON: If the Vice President was exercising his right as one of the leaders of this country to go to one of its intelligence agencies, and to check on how they're doing. I find it difficult to believe that took ten times. It's equally absurd for the Vice President to assert that his trips out to the agency were not bringing undue influence on the agency. That preposterous. Anytime a leader of his stature visits a single agency that many times, he is by simply the virtue of his position bringing undue influence on that agency.
BRANCACCIO: So you can imagine a scenario where the Vice President's over there kind of leaning on the C.I.A.?
WILKERSON: I could imagine that scenario easily.
BRANCACCIO: On the morning of Powell's speech, Wilkerson himself was getting leaned on. Late the night before, Powell had cut some of the references to Iraq and al Qaeda from his speech.
WILKERSON: It was about eight AM in the morning. I kept getting cell phone calls. And I would tell the young man who was from the US UN mission in New York, I'm not taking any phone calls. And finally, a call came through, and he was very insistent. And I said, "I told you, I'm not taking any calls. I've got to get ready here." And he said, "Well, it's the Vice President's office."
BRANCACCIO: Wilkerson refused to take those calls, but says all through the process, Powell was getting pushed by administration officials to go further than he wanted to.
WILKERSON: So there was tension right up to the last minute on what went in and what didn't go into the Secretary's presentation.
BRANCACCIO: Hans Blix was sitting right across from Colin Powell that day. You may remember, Blix was the U.N. official sent to Iraq before the war to look for weapons of mass destruction. Blix is now retired from the United Nations. We recently caught up with him at his winter home in France. By the time of Powell's speech, Blix had already inspected many of the sites that concerned the Americans. He and his team went to nearly 500 sites in all before the war.
HANS BLIX, FMR. CHIEF U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: I think this is a very important element of the story, that we actually did go to sites given by intelligence and told them there was nothing.
BRANCACCIO: Reason, Blix believes, the administration should have known some of their claims were untrue. He also says the White House repeatedly showed a disdain for views that contradicted their own. He remembers one meeting in the fall of 2002. On his way to the Oval Office to meet with President Bush, he was pulled aside by the Vice President. Blix says Cheney made it clear: the Americans wanted to disarm the Iraqis by force, not by inspections.
BLIX: Vice President Cheney said that, I want to put you on notice, or I want to tell you that we will not hesitate to discredit you in favor of disarmament. That's what he said. And I was a little taken aback by it, because it seemed to use the word "discredit," at the time when we were doing our damned best, was not very-very friendly.
BRANCACCIO: We asked the Vice President's office for their response to all this. They declined to comment. But former American arms inspector David Kay said any blame for misleading claims about Iraq should not fall exclusively on the White House.
KAY: I mean look, policymakers always choose and I really believe that policy makers have a right to their own policy. What they don't have a right to is their own facts or their own intelligence. So for me, this would be a far more damaging story for policy makers if the intelligence community had been out there shouting, "No, there's no WMD, no, Curveball doesn't exist, he's a fabricator." You had the director of Central Intelligence who was becoming a cheerleader, just like the policymakers, for the war.
BRANCACCIO: As for Lawrence Wilkerson, he still calls Colin Powell "The Boss." But he admits his criticisms of the White House have cost him his friendship with Powell. Wilkerson says he's compelled to speak out, given the stakes, which go far beyond friendships, political careers, or the removal of a brutal tyrant like Saddam Hussein.
BRANCACCIO: Should we spend so much time focusing on whether or not the intelligence was good, or if people distorted that intelligence given what must be a decent goal of getting rid of a guy like that?
WILKERSON: I think it is very healthy, and very necessary for us to take a look at the things you just described because we have three more years to go with this Commander-in-Chief and we have Pyongyang with nuclear weapons, Tehran intent on a nuclear weapon. And we need to make sure that our intelligence is solid if we're going do this sort of thing.