Bush's War

Vincent Cannistraro

photo of cannistraro

From 1984 to 1987, Cannistraro was director of intelligence for the National Security Council, and was chief of operations and analysis at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center from 1988 until 1991. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Dec. 12, 2005 for FRONTLINE's 2006 report The Dark Side.

Who is Tenet and how does he become director [of central intelligence]? What is the view of him from inside the agency itself?

George Tenet at the time was a holdover from the Clinton administration. He was a Democrat; he had been staff director up on the Hill for a Senate committee headed by Democrats. He was basically a person viewed by the incoming George Bush administration as a short-term holder who would be replaced within six months. ...

But I think what happened during that six months is that George did a great deal to endear himself to President Bush. George is a very people-oriented kind of personality: develops rapport very easily with people, a sports nut. At least according to people I've talked to who observed the situation, he seemed to share a lot of things in common with the president and got along very well with him. So ... they decided to keep George in office.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing for the director of the CIA to be tight with the president?

It's both. It could be a good thing; it could be a bad thing. The good thing is that CIA then gets some access to the president, to the chief policy-maker. That's a good thing. But it's a bad thing when there becomes political identification between the director of CIA and the people that we're really working for; that is, the policy directors themselves.

You have to have an interchange in order to discuss exactly what's required, what's needed, because the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community are really just tools for the policy-makers to work with. And they're inefficient tools if they're not really providing the kind of thing the policy-makers need to make decisions. On the other hand, at the same time, you want to keep a distance between the policy-makers and the analysts. So it's a dynamic process, a very difficult balancing act; there's no question about that. ...

On the other hand, policy-makers can distort the process themselves. There have been a lot of reports, for example, about intelligence reports that went over to the vice president in the form of the daily briefing. The President's Daily Brief is briefed both to the vice president and to the president. A CIA briefer goes over there in the morning, it used to be; now the briefing staff works directly under the director of national intelligence … but the concept is the same.

In the early days after 9/11, [Vice President] Dick Cheney would task that CIA briefer in the morning to find out additional information on who carried out the attacks of 9/11. ... The CIA's assessment was pretty much the consensus assessment within the intelligence community, [that] it was Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and that's where the threat was generated from.

But ... Dick Cheney, [then-Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz already had a different mind-set. They were convinced in their own mind that it had to come from Iraq, and the reason they felt that is because they had already been conditioned to believe that Saddam Hussein was behind every act of terrorism since 1990, 1991. ... Of course it's absurd when you look at the facts, but nevertheless this was certainly the environment in which this administration came to office, with this preconception.

In fact, the [Bush administration's] first NSC [National Security Council] meeting, the subject matter was Iraq, and how to go to war with Iraq.

It's very clear. In fact, there was a President's Daily Brief on the 21st, I believe, of September 2001, which addressed the question, because those questions had been coming from the vice president's office consistently about who was responsible for Sept. 11. And the President's Daily Brief on the 21st said it was not Saddam Hussein; there was no evidence of it. It was Al Qaeda.

But of course that wasn't enough; that wasn't the answer anybody wanted.

No, it wasn't the answer that anybody wanted, and that began the process of perverting the intelligence that was going to the administration, because analysts are only human, and if they keep getting the same question time after time after time, it's obvious to them that their customer is not accepting their assessment and their analysis and wants to hear something else. So you start looking very hard for anything at all that will support that answer that the vice president wants, that the Defense Department wants.

So the analysts [are] catering more and more to these preconceptions. You have the director of central intelligence, who really wants to stay in office, doing everything possible to endear himself to the president of the United States. He knows that he has a problem with Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld really wants to take over all intelligence, but he still --

Does he know that?

Oh, yeah, sure. George knows that because he's being told every day. He's very close to [then-Secretary] Colin Powell and [his deputy] Rich Armitage at the State Department. They've made a tactical alliance against the Defense Department because these are the so-called moderates in the administration, and they're under attack from Cheney's office and from Rumsfeld and all the people that work for Rumsfeld. And this is a constant refrain: "We've got to get rid of George. Colin Powell is popular, but he really isn't the kind of man we want. We're going to war, and we're going to war against these people."

You think they knew almost right away that they were going to do this war with Iraq?

Well, I think that from every witness that we have who was there at the time, the answer is yes. I mean, [former national counterterrorism coordinator] Richard Clarke certainly has witnessed part of that story and has written about it. Certainly people who were in the administration -- out of the administration now, all of the names I won't mention because some of them will not go public yet -- certainly reported that this administration came into office determined to get rid of Saddam Hussein. ...

George Tenet puts a fine edge on it by explaining the political realities in Washington to [then-MI6 head] Sir Richard Dearlove, who goes back to the U.K., writes his [July 23, 2002] memorandum with his trip, submits it to [then-Prime Minister] Tony Blair and says, basically: "They've already decided on the policy. They're going to fix the facts around this policy." And that's exactly what they did. ...

The policy was, "We're going to invade Iraq, get rid of Saddam Hussein, and we're going to prepare the American people for this by showing them that it was necessary to do this." So he described very accurately the campaign of distorting intelligence, polluting intelligence in order to make the case. ...

When Cheney said the "dark side" on Meet the Press, we all know it meant black sites and all kinds of other things. Did it mean something about Cheney? Was it also Dick Cheney going to the dark side in a way that he hadn't gone before?

It's hard to know how he changed psychologically after 9/11. But in any event, 9/11 affected him tremendously; there's no question about that. And he came to the conclusion that the world had changed significantly, and we had to change significantly in order to deal with the world.

He had already thought of the CIA as kind of a soft, squishy instrument to use in a real war, so I think that led him to really ride herd on the agency, and particularly the agency's war on terrorism: how it implemented that war, what methodologies it would use, etc.

Very early on, the inspector general at the agency voiced concerns about interrogation; the general counsel's office voiced concerns. They went to the Justice Department and said: "Look, we're not comfortable with this dark side. We need to know legally what we can do and what we can't do."

And the Justice Department comes up, eventually, with a judgment that they can do a lot of things that used to be considered torture in the old days. Waterboarding, for example, the attempt to persuade the prisoner that you're going to kill him by drowning unless he cooperates. And you can bring that person to a point where he's seconds away from drowning in order to accomplish that goal. By any definition, it's torture. The Justice Department called it "enhanced interrogation methods," and it approved seven of them, including waterboarding. That made a lot of people uncomfortable.

Did a lot of people get subjected to waterboarding or taken into custody as part of this dark war? Yes, absolutely. Will people die as a result of some of these methods? I think so. The inspector general is currently investigating some; at least one case has already been turned over to the Justice Department for prosecution; probably others will be as well. ...

Is the impetus for a lot of the legal thinking ... generated by the vice president's office, do you figure?

I think that's really the basis for all the later methodologies that are used. The interpretation is, we're at war, and under the laws of war we can do these things. And even though you're a civilian agency, CIA, you can do these things, too, because you're under war, and [during] war times CIA comes under military control. ...

There's certainly a lot of forward inclination by the counterterrorism people to do everything that they can, and if Justice says it's OK to do this, then it's OK. But the problem is, once you've opened those floodgates, there is no closing. The floodgates include hiring people who come from a different kind of a background [than] the normal intelligence professional, people hired as interrogators, hired to do a certain job that the agency's never done before. ...

The fact of torture itself -- I mean, it is more about the people doing the torturing than about the people being tortured. It demeans and dehumanizes the people doing it, which leads them to do other things. ...

And the dark sites and the extraordinary rendition and all of that?

Extraordinary rendition was something that had been a legal opinion in the Justice Department many years ago, which predated the Bush administration. Basically it said that you can engage in extraordinary rendition and bring that person back to the United States for a trial in a civil court and that would not prejudice the case; that was legal to do under U.S. law. But you had to have an indictment of that person.

What this administration did was take that concept of extraordinary rendition and take it to mean rendering someone to another country, not to U.S. law. ... In most of the cases of rendition that I'm aware of, these were all done in cooperation and collaboration with the host government. ...

Now, the question really became, what do you do with these people? How do you dispose of them? What do you do with a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? Everyone knows that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the number three in Al Qaeda; he was the author of 9/11 itself. ... The people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others at that level in Al Qaeda can be prosecuted under U.S. law; you can indict these people. ... You can go on and on with any number of Al Qaeda prisoners ... who should be turned over to U.S. justice and have not been. ...

So in those first days [after 9/11], when the bright white lines get moved around a little bit because we're all angry and we're all scared, there's fear in the air as part of things, fair enough. When it all begins to get a little nastier or harder is a little bit later, I suppose?

Well, it's a little bit later. ... I think the problems begin actually very early on, when [we captured] people like [Ibn] al-Sheikh al-Libi, who was the man that Osama bin Laden had left in command of Al Qaeda forces at Tora Bora in December 2001 when he was being besieged by tribal chiefs in Afghanistan. ...

So we capture Sheikh al-Libi, and we interrogate him and find out we're not getting a damn thing out of him. Now, he is a Libyan citizen, but at that point, 2001, we still don't have the closer relationship with the Libyan government that we develop later on. So we turn him over to another ally in the Middle East that has facilities to deal with people like this, and it has the Arabic capability and apparently has the determination. And that's the Egyptian government.

So al-Libi goes to Egypt. He's carried off to Egypt and falls in the hands of the Egyptians for torture. We know that he's going to be tortured. ... Anyone who's worked on Egypt, has worked on other countries in the Middle East, knows that. It's just pure naivete to say that we have an agreement, and they're not going to harm these people in custody. They're turned over to get things that we ourselves are not willing to do, and to get information.

So the Egyptians torture him, and he provides a lot of information. Now, what is the result of that? Well, that information is funneled in the form of intelligence reports to the vice president, to the secretary of defense, in fact to the entire administration, and it says that Saddam Hussein provided training in chemical weapons to Al Qaeda. Well, that was untrue; it was not true at all. But that's the result of Egyptian debriefing of someone using torture as a methodology. ...

And don't forget, the Defense Department sets up a channel for intelligence analysis that's outside the institutional intelligence community, because they don't trust the institutional intelligence community. ... They believe they're overlooking the Saddam connection to terrorism, and we're going to take some of the primary information they produce, we're going to analyze it according to our own optic, and we're going to come out with different answers.

Unfortunately, what happened is that they became very proactive in collecting information that satisfied their preconceptions, and there's a very good chance that a lot of the information that they analyzed was fabricated information that found its way into the statements of policy-makers, the vice president himself, that bypassed the safeguards on the institutional intelligence community. ...

It was the Office of Special --

The Office of Special Plans. Before that it began as a kind of counterterrorism evaluation group. And then it evolved, under Abe Shulsky, into a full-fledged office that built the parallel intelligence. That parallel intelligence meant also using a number of contractors ... to go around collecting information. And in many cases that meant establishing intelligence channels to people that were known in the intelligence community as fabricators. ...

The real question that I have in my mind is, how could some very bright people like Abe Shulsky [be] involved in this not know that some of the stuff was fabricated? In other words, was some of it deliberately fabricated with the knowledge of government officials? That's kind of a frightening concept; I hope that's not true. But, unfortunately, there are a lot of murky areas regarding the infamous Niger documents that claim that Saddam Hussein was obtaining uranium, yellowcake from Niger. These were fabricated documents, as we all know now. How could these documents be fabricated and get into the U.S. intelligence system and some officials in the U.S. not know that they were fabricated? ...

And once it goes in, take me along the path. How does it get up the chain?

That's still not entirely clear. We do know it gets circulated first by the CIA and then later by DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] as an intelligence report based on a foreign liaison service; the foreign liaison service is the Italians. We also know we received a report from the British. They don't tell us where they got it from, but when you investigate it fairly closely, it all comes back to the Italian Niger documents. In other words, the British source, the American source, the Italian source were all the same source: fabricated documents.

CIA puts out an intelligence report, says it doesn't make a lot of sense, but here it is, what we've heard. DIA puts out a report later, saying about the same thing. No one is endorsing it. Everyone is saying it really does sound implausible, and it is implausible, because, one, it's way beyond the capacity of the Niger government to produce 500 tons of yellowcake in a year; and secondly, the Iraqi government already has a stockpile of uranium that has been inventoried and sealed by the U.N. weapons inspectors, so why would they be trying to get additional ones? Well, then the implication would be ... they were trying to set up a parallel program that would not be known to the inspectors. In any event, it was a very implausible report. ...

And, like the al-Libi evidence, it lands on parched land where --

Yeah, it's immediately evaluated two different ways. The intelligence community, broadly, is skeptical of it, but the internal Office of Special Plans is a proponent of it, just as the OSP was a proponent of so-called evidence that Saddam Hussein was behind Al Qaeda, that he was training them. ...

I mean, this was really specious information, much of it founded on a base of false documents, false testimony, a number of so-called [defectors] ... who showed up in Brussels, showed up in Paris, showed up in Germany, provided information that all got fed back into the United States through an intelligence liaison, the famous or infamous Curveball, for example, in Germany, who provided information claiming that there were mobile weapons labs in Iraq.

Who was Curveball?

Curveball was a relative of a senior official of the INC, the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmad Chalabi. This was part of a broad campaign to pollute the U.S. policy process by feeding it false information, but information that would basically confirm conceptions already held by the administration that Saddam Hussein was an imminent danger and had to be dealt with. ...

[And the story of Mohamed Atta meeting with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague] was another one of the stories, right?

It was another one of the stories. It was based on an initial Czech report that turned out not to be true. Very early on, both CIA and FBI knew it wasn't true because the FBI had Atta in Florida at the time. ...

So basically ... you've got a vice president, again, who's eager to prosecute a policy. ... You've got a group like the INC who are listening to what he's listening for. And it seems, almost like magic, that that information begins to appear in the pipeline.

Well, that's the point, is that, was this just by magic? When you look at it, the U.S. taxpayer paid to have this false information fed to it. The INC was being funded by the U.S. Congress. The Defense Department was paying millions of dollars a month to the INC to collect intelligence. Of course, the INC itself was an advocacy organization that advocated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and its replacement by a government in which they would play a major part. So we were paying for a lot of this false information, but there was no question that it was false information.

The man who worked and works for Ahmad Chalabi today is, according to the U.S. intelligence community, to CIA in particular, an [Iranian] intelligence agent, a man who was responsible for providing a lot of the so-called defectors who showed up in Germany and in Europe and other places. He was responsible for managing this disinformation campaign.

There's another leg of that stool, too. There's the fellow, ... an INC guy, who says he's an engineer, fails the polygraph test administered by a CIA agent, but is talking about the buried nuclear stuff. Suddenly that third leg of the stool appears, and that's [journalist] Judy Miller. She was brought in, apparently, does a world-exclusive interview with the guy, and it shows up on the front page of The New York Times.

Well, there are a whole number of stories that appeared on the front page of The New York Times that were fed through The New York Times, sometimes through people like Judy Miller. But it all came back [to] the same common source; it came back to the Pentagon, the vice president's office. A lot of this stuff was being fed to willing members of the press. Judy wasn't the only one, but certainly she was an eager recipient. ...

So the people who were sitting at the CIA, the analysts there, seeing this stuff moving through the system, ... how are they pushing back? Are they able to push back?

I think an internal assessment was made on the analysts and how they reacted to the policy-makers. And one thing was very clear: that there was tremendous political pressure. There was huge pressure on the analysts. Now, the internal assessment says that the analysts did not bend to their pressure, but that it existed there was no question.

I take a different view of it. The analysts are human beings, and they want to advance their careers. They understand [that] if their customer is not happy with them, their careers won't be advanced. And they, after a while, understand what they're looking for, and I think they trimmed. One of the reasons they trimmed is the fact that CIA and the broader intelligence community did not have good proprietary intelligence on Iraq. They had failed to develop the sources necessary to provide them independent information that was worthy of being made into a reliable intelligence report. They didn't have it. ...

But on the other part of it, some of the early analysis was good; it wasn't accepted. And they were beaten and beaten and beaten with the same drumbeat: the vice president going out there, [Cheney's then-Chief of Staff] Scooter Libby going out there, Newt Gingrich going out there. ... At the end, I think the agents and the analysts were just worn down.

... When does Tenet, in your estimation, give up?

It's very hard for me to say when he actually gives up, but he tries to do both things: He tries to protect the agency, ... but he's not making any headway, and he's got a president who beats on him. ... George makes the infamous statement … "Mr. President, it's a slam dunk," the case for the weapons. And there's no question that George thinks he's right. ...

There is no question that at the time that Colin Powell is preparing his speech to the U.N. Security Council on Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, he holes up over at CIA, and he says, "I am only going to use stuff that we are confident enough to share with our liaison partners, and I'm not going to use any of this horrible litany of information that we receive from the vice president's office, from Scooter Libby." ... He throws all that out.

So he only uses information that has been shared with the liaison partners: with the French, the Italians, the Germans, the Brits, etc. Unfortunately, that information itself is wrong because the intelligence process itself has already been polluted; this false stuff has already made its way into intelligence estimates. And the small voices of dissent are just that: small voices of dissent. And they're captioned in little tiny footnotes that don't make the summary and conclusions at the head of the report.

So this is the situation; this is how the secretary of state, who is cautious himself, is fooled. He's assured by George Tenet, who sits behind him, that this is a true appraisal of the situation. It is not. It is a terrible, terrible indictment. ...

Take me to the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction]. ... What happened? Does the NIE prove that the CIA is done as a fighter in this fight?

Yeah, that's one way of interpreting it. The National Intelligence Estimate, which is classified -- only an unclassified version is circulated around, and that's made part of the public record, but the classified version is not ... -- the report basically is just dead wrong. It's sheep-herded by a national intelligence officer who works very closely with the administration; works very closely with the vice president's office and with the National Security Council and people there who are very attuned to what the policy-makers are looking for. It's a flawed, fatally flawed document, and it should never have seen the light of day.

The effect of it is what? I mean, I know it goes to Congress, and I guess that's the evidence. Whenever the vice president now says, "You saw what we saw; you knew what we knew," is that what he's talking about?

I think that's basically what he's talking about, because before the vote endorsing the resolution to use all means necessary against Saddam Hussein, that version of the National Intelligence Estimate is made available to everyone in Congress. They have to go to a compartmented room -- a skiff, so-called -- in order to read it. Most people who do that just read the summary and conclusions; don't read the whole document itself. And yeah, that's what the vice president means when he says, "You saw what we saw."

Of course that's disingenuous, because they didn't see the President's Daily Brief, and the President's Daily Brief was saying some things that were not in the National Intelligence Estimate.

Critical things? Negative things?

Some critical things. The daily brief staff was a pretty feisty group, and they tried to call it as they saw it. And sometimes they didn't get a warm reception; sometimes the vice president would yell at them.

Yell at them?

Yeah. During the briefing itself, there were reports of briefers coming back feeling very somber and chastened because they had been queried and double-queried by the vice president: "Well, what about this, and what about that? And we've heard this, and what about" -- so putting the briefer himself, who really is not an expert in everything, on the spot.

But "what about this and what about that," what he was probably talking about was stuff that was coming from the Office of Special Plans?

They were being stovepiped to them from the Office of Special Plans, no question about it.

What do you mean by "stovepiped"? How do you define it?

It just means that instead of going through established bureaucratic channels, it bypassed that and just went directly to the customer; it didn't go through any of the safeguards. It was like a private reservoir of information available only to the vice president, the secretary of defense and the deputy secretary of defense.

So that's why the vice president, when he gets this unadorned, unadulterated stuff --

He was receiving other information that didn't accord with us. And on occasion, as we would know now, he would write on some of these reports that came from the OSP: "This is really good stuff. Too bad CIA can't do the same." Again, the OSP was really set up to feed and reinforce preconceptions, and [that's] the antithesis of intelligence. In other words, intelligence, if it's really done right, is to discover what there is to discover to the best of your ability, and you present it as you find it. The OSP and other people basically started with a defined set of conclusions and then looked for things to fit into that.

And then they shove it up to the vice president, secretary of defense or whatever, and it goes like this: "I'm the vice president of the United States. I have it; my chief of staff has it; a reporter he knows has it." Now we're in a kind of Washington echo chamber.

You're in an echo chamber. You start getting false confirmation of your stories. … If a reporter got a certain story, and they went to the administration, "What do you have about this?," it's basically the same sourcing of the story, and they would confirm the story. It would be false confirmation. It was stuff they put out themselves.

And it played by the rules of journalism, of course, because you could confirm it: "I called the vice president's office, and" --

And they say, "Yup, that's what we understand, too." It's false confirmation, and that was going on constantly. ... The pollution and the contamination of the intelligence process was beyond belief. And the reason it's so serious is because we went to war on the basis of it.

How do you feel about that?

Terrible. It's disgusting, absolutely. I mean, to me this is a perversion of everything I did and worked for. People who worked at the agency, whether they worked in operations or intelligence, they always prided themselves on their independence, calling things as we saw them. ... That's all gone. And we spend billions and billions of dollars on intelligence. If the process is going to be polluted like this, then it's a waste of money. ...

... Tenet goes; he knows that there's a negative report coming, I gather, and decides that he's got to go, or decides to go.

Well, he decides the time has come to leave. He knows that there's nothing good coming out of this. He knows things have started to turn sour. He knows that the Senate has begun an investigation of the intelligence itself. He knows some of the things that he vouched for to Colin Powell for the U.N. speech were not true; he didn't know it at the time. So he decides to leave.

Plus, there are a number of leaks coming out of CIA, from CIA professionals, that are making their way into the press. Some of it comes from CIA; some of it comes from other parts of the government but based on CIA information. For example, an appraisal of the situation in Iraq is written by the CIA chief of station, and it gets disseminated to Washington. ... It is leaked by opponents of the war, say, in State Department and other places, because it has a very wide distribution placement. But it appears in the newspapers, and it has a very negative view of the war and how it's being prosecuted.

And the White House, Defense Department blame CIA. They say, "Here it is, CIA, the liberals again are trying to undercut Bush's policy in the administration." And this is before the re-election last November 2004. So this is another burden for George Tenet to have to bear, especially since he's never really satisfied his critics at the Pentagon; he hasn't been entirely their team player. ...

So yeah, he decides to leave, and the administration decides that they need someone that they can totally control and, more importantly, is totally loyal to the administration. And they have difficulty finding someone like that. A couple of people were offered the job and turned it down; they don't want it because they know what kind of a --

Mess it is.

Mess it is. And they don't want to be involved with it and be left holding the bag. And finally they persuade Porter Goss to go out there. And Porter is out there with instructions: Get a hold of that place; get rid of all the leakers; make sure everyone is onboard that supports the administration. We don't want any naysayers; we don't want any dissenters. ...

And the effect?

The effect is that the good people who are capable of voicing opposition and are eligible for retirement leave; they take an early retirement and leave. In some cases, people who are not eligible for early retirement but still do feel strongly leave anyway. …

[The CIA] was the elite intelligence service in the U.S. government. It was the intelligence agency that everyone else looked up to. It was first among equals; there was no question about that. And that position was guaranteed by the director, who was also the director of the Central Intelligence Agency; he headed the entire intelligence community. Now it's all been taken away from them.

So there's less of the esprit de corps that they had before; there's less of the sense of mission. There's less of the sense of independence, which I think is one of the gravest results of this whole episode.

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posted march 24, 2008; updated september 4, 2011

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