The deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000 to 2004, and its acting director following George Tenet's resignation in July 2004, John McLaughlin has served 11 CIA directors. Here, he offers his perspective on some of the decisions and challenges during the months after 9/11 and then, the run-up to war in Iraq. He discusses the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that George Tenet backed, but which was soon proven wrong regarding Iraq's WMD capabilities. And he talks about the lessons the CIA learned from its intelligence failures and its involvement in the politicization of the intelligence process during this period. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 11, 2006.
- Some highlights from this interview
- General optimism about the new Bush administration
- The Camp David war cabinet meeting four days after 9/11
- The story behind the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate
- How and why the CIA has changed since he first entered it in 1972
It's 2001. New administration. Tell me where you are in the CIA and your hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations about this new administration and how they will be vis-à-vis your agency.
I had been deputy director of central intelligence for about five or six months. I was appointed by President Clinton, confirmed in October of 2000. ...
At that point in time, George Tenet and I had no idea whether we would remain through the Bush administration. We were just trying to do the best jobs we could. We were at the front end of a rebuilding process in the CIA, which we called Strategic Direction. We had designed it in 1997, implemented it between '98 and '99. We were ... rebuilding our clandestine service, developing techniques to enhance the expertise of our analysts, developing new collection strategies, because we recognized early in our tenure ... that we were in a new era. Technology had changed; the target had changed; the challenges had changed; and we had to change. So we were at the front end of a program designed to do all of those things.
We were very short of resources. Recall that the decade of the '90s was a decade in which the intelligence community was reduced by about 23 to 25 percent depending on which set of figures you look at. Our clandestine service -- basically our people who recruit agents and acquire secrets through human intelligence -- was, in the mid-90s, reduced dramatically to the point where we were training only a dozen or two case officers a year. Mid- to late '90s, believe it or not, there were more special agents from the FBI in New York City than we had clandestine collectors around the world.
As the Bush administration comes into office, we're hoping that this will be an administration that will devote resources to intelligence, not just to the CIA but to reinvestment in collection strategies and collection systems. Our big technical collection systems decay, and just like anything else, they need to be replaced. By the time the Bush administration came into office, many of our collection systems were near the end of their life cycle. ...
Also, [at] that point in time, we were very seized with the terrorism threat. I have a different view on the war on terror than you typically hear. Most people tend to think that it began 9/11, and for most people it did. For the CIA, it began much earlier.
We formed a bin Laden unit in 1996, a unit to follow bin Laden. We recognized at that point that he was a more-than-average terrorist. We followed him carefully for the next couple of years. By the time he carried out the Africa embassy bombings [in Kenya and Tanzania] in 1998, we were moving toward a more offensive posture toward him.
In 1999, we put together something we called The Plan, which was intended to ramp up our counterterrorism capabilities. In the year 2000, in October, his guys, of course, killed 17 of our sailors on the USS Cole. In this same period of time, we go through a series of counterpunches against bin Laden, so it is not just losses that we are taking here. ...
When I say I think a little differently about the war on terror here, to me it is a continuum. We were at war since the mid-90s. We had lost some things. We had lost some big ones -- Africa, the Cole. We won some, ... and then we took the big loss on 9/11. ...
We had made an effort to reprioritize our targets in this period of time, because the Soviet Union is gone, long gone. People who say that the CIA and the intelligence community took a long time to wake up to this are simply wrong. We figured this out instantly, and throughout the '90s adjusted all of our targets. So as the Bush administration comes into office, that is roughly how we are postured.
And your perception of how the new president and the vice president [who was also a] very experienced secretary of defense, view the agency, in bureaucratic and resource struggle terms, at that moment?
We had a feeling of support at that point in time. I think the new president was feeling his way with regard to intelligence, but he was eager to engage. He was someone who wanted to know a lot about intelligence and about operations in particular. The vice president helpfully visited all of the agencies in the intelligence community and spent a number of hours there personally absorbing what they had to say about their capabilities and their direction.
Did you come across [Cheney] when he was secretary of defense [under George H.W. Bush]? Had you had any dealings --
I did not personally know him when he was secretary of defense, but he showed a particularly strong interest at the beginning of the administration. Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, of course, came into office with the experience of having headed a commission looking at the intelligence community's work on missiles. I can't read his mind, but I think he had certainly a strong desire for good intelligence and understood the importance of good intelligence.
I believe he approached the discipline with a fair amount of skepticism about just how good it was. But he is a skeptical man. He questions a lot, and that's appropriate.
Did you worry about a potential head-butting with the Defense Department?
No. I think any director of central intelligence or deputy realizes that while there is always potential for conflict with the Defense Department, it is also true that any head of the intelligence community has to have a good working relationship with the secretary of defense. Why? Because if you try and prioritize our missions, and you think of it as I always have, in terms of concentric circles, with the most important things being at the innermost circle, what are they? Well, protecting the lives of Americans and the lives of American servicemen, protecting the physical security of the United States -- those are the things that are right at the core.
Therefore, you are inevitably going to end up with the mission of supporting our Defense Department in important ways, particularly during conflict. No head of the intelligence community really wants to be butting heads with the Defense Department.
There are always conflicts, because that's government. There are not infinite resources. Choices have to be made every single day, choices that involve tradeoffs, risks. In fact, as a leader of the intelligence community, every day you make some choice where you know you are taking a risk that something won't be covered and something can be missed because you don't have the capacity to cover things in an infinite way. So you want to have that dialogue with the secretary of defense. I wouldn't say at the outset that we had great concerns there.
From the beginning, lots of people we talked to said the great thing about Director Tenet was his ability to establish a personal relationship with this president of the United States, that it gave the agency a kind of face time that was critical. Would you agree with that?
Well, yes. Director Tenet established a good personal relationship with President Bush. And President Bush was someone who wanted to be personally briefed by the director of central intelligence. That was an important factor, too. He chose to do it that way. ...
So would you go with Director Tenet to those briefings?
He took a senior CIA officer who would be up since about 2:00 in the morning preparing for that event. The director would read, himself, all the material, starting at about 5:30 in the morning. When he wasn't in town, I would be in his place.
And how is President Bush about consuming that information?
... I would just say that he is an avid consumer of intelligence. He asks a lot of questions. He probes. He is a very interactive person to deal with in that setting. ...
You were already at full speed presumably on counterterrorism, thinking a lot about Osama bin Laden. When do you remember it rising to your level of "Maybe we should start thinking about, is Al Qaeda connected to Iraq? Are there things happening in Iraq?" Is there appetite by the White House to know more, to wake up and pay closer attention?
... In that first year, I would say that Iraq received a reasonable amount of attention, but not an excessive amount of attention. It was an issue that was debated and discussed; in particular, the question of whether the sanctions regime ought to be changed in some way.
There was a concern, of course, about the fact that we were still flying in the no-fly zone south and north and that American pilots and British pilots were being exposed to danger there. Those things were looked at carefully. But it did not in that first year, in my personal experience, rise to an extraordinary level of attention. ... [I]n the first year, it didn't strike me as something they were waking up every morning thinking about, ... but clearly it was important to them.
But not in any way that you guys felt you need to get more than the usual analytic teams together, start putting stuff together in any way with a future need that they might have?
Well, I think we all realized that we needed to know more about Iraq. At the point when President Bush comes to office, it had been some length of time since inspectors had been in Iraq. Therefore, a period had elapsed in which the principal source of our ground troops was not there, so we were aware of that. But bear in mind here, in the first year of the Bush administration, we were quite concerned about terrorism.
You get into the summer of 2001, and the expression you hear is that our hair is on fire because of the intensity of warning signals that we were picking up here. Then, of course, 9/11 hits before that first year is up, and from that moment on, those of us leading the intelligence community wake up every morning with one objective: that this never happen again. So you have to understand our frame of mind at that point, and you have to go back to what I said earlier about there [being] hundreds of things in the world that require more intelligence.
... Again, go back to my continuum here. Where are we? ...We are at sort of the nadir of our resource picture. We are at the end of a decade of reductions. We are at the point of asking ourselves, "What do we need to know more about in the world?" Well, there are a lot of other places. There is Iran; there is North Korea; there is China -- China, not an enemy, of course, ... but lots of uncertainties associated with it that we need to understand and be prepared to ascertain; India and Pakistan -- remember we had a nuclear test in 1998 in India, [and] Pakistan followed shortly thereafter. We had a potential for nuclear confrontation on the subcontinent.
We, in the latter part of the [first] Bush administration, had come through a wrenching period on the Balkans, where intelligence played an enormous role in everything from ascertaining who was behind the ethnic cleansing to supporting military action in Bosnia. So in our priorities, we're all over the map at this point, and we were struggling to adjust with a diminished resource base to an accelerating set of tasks.
So yes, Iraq was in there. But now, as everyone looks back to the clarifying prism of hindsight, it's easy to say, "Well, why didn't Iraq jump to priority number one?" ...
As 9/11 happens, ... what do you do? What is your first task?
... The reaction in our building and among our counterterrorism people and among our leadership was pretty simple: anger and resolve. People were deeply angry and deeply and firmly resolved to do something about this, because as I explained, this to us was a continuum. We were fighting these guys, and they won a huge victory on that day. And it was a huge defeat for us.
So ... during the course of that day, of course, there were numerous meetings with the president as people tried to figure out what's going on here. I would say within several hours we had strong reason to conclude that this was Al Qaeda. We had some plane manifests that came into our hands early. One of our analysts ran into one of these meetings we were in and said: "I recognize some of these people. This is Al Qaeda."
Interestingly, looking back at it now, because I did a lot of briefings that first week, it's hard to believe now that the theme of the briefings was often who did this. Yes, most people thought it probably was Al Qaeda, but there was a thirst to establish that. So throughout the week I briefed in the well of the House to any House member who wanted to come twice. That was the theme, along with what else might happen: Are there other targets? ...
We began to formulate a plan during the course of that week, which we put on the table on Sept. 15 at Camp David when the president convened his war cabinet. Four days after 9/11, I'm proud to say we put a plan on the table for attacking Al Qaeda in dozens of countries around the world, starting with Afghanistan. For the most part, that plan was adopted and played out over subsequent years.
What was the feeling in that room [at Camp David] at that time?
Hard to describe the feeling in the room. People were quite calm and deliberative and resolved. By calm I don't mean indifferent. They were focused. And there was very careful deliberation of this whole event: Why did it happen? Who did it? What are our options for responding? What should the relationship be between the military and the CIA in our response? How should we begin? Who should take the lead?
There were enormous questions: Would conventional military action work in a place like Afghanistan if that was to be the place of response? All of these things had to be noodled through, had to be discussed, and they were. At one point, I think everyone broke. The president told everyone to take a break for some lunch, take a walk in the woods, clear your head and come back, and we would then consider what are the options. ...
Afghanistan is very much on the table so famously, according to Mr. [Bob] Woodward and others; Iraq for a while in the morning meeting, argued for by [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz. Can you characterize the response [to that]?
... There was discussion of Iraq and whether Iraq was behind this and whether Iraq should be included in a targeting. That discussion went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The agency argued that that was not appropriate, not the right conclusion to draw at this point.
Based on our conviction that Al Qaeda was behind this. We had been projecting a spectacular attack by Al Qaeda. Here it was. We had the names of some of the people involved that we recognized. They were Al Qaeda.
... The president, in my judgment, tends to keep his counsel in situations like that and listen to everyone. ... At the end of all this deliberation, the president says: "Thank you all very much. This has been a very good discussion. I'm going to think about all of this on Sunday, and I will call you together Monday and tell you what I've concluded."
Monday we all assembled in the Cabinet room. The president lays down about 12 decisions just like that, machine-gun fashion.
What did he say?
Well, of course, the thing that stands out in my memory, because it hit me vividly, was he said, "I want CIA in there first." We had discussed the possibility of being able to put our people in, because we had since the late '90s been revivifying our relationships with members of the Northern Alliance in northern Iraq, and we had a network of human sources and contacts that enabled us to be able to go in there. ... The great thing about, as you look back at the Afghan operation, with whatever flaws people may see in it, it married up the human intelligence and the cultural affinity and the linguistic talents of the CIA officers with the lethality that special forces officers could bring to the targets. ...
Some of the guys who know about Afghanistan, ... were, when they talked to us, very unhappy. They say: "Yes, it looked like a big success for the Central Intelligence Agency in America, but they did not call on the resources of the people who actually knew Afghanistan, ... and frankly it was a huge error to form a relationship with the Northern Alliance, huge error to take baskets of money and pass it around. ... They should have asked us. If they would have asked us, ... we would have had different ideas, and we would own that country now."
Well, it's always possible. Everyone will look back at a situation like this and say, "It could have been done better." There is probably not a single event in human history that could not have been done better. The point I would make, though: This was an incredible national emergency, and the CIA responded to it in a fashion that has led to a very good outcome -- an imperfect outcome, to be sure.
... So with whatever flaws there may be, I continue to be proud of how the CIA handled it. We brought people in from around the world who had some experience in Afghanistan or the language or the culture or who had served there or who had served in Pakistan. Gary Schroen is a good example. Gary Berntsen, who has written a book, [Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA' s Key Field Commander], is another fine example of someone that we brought in from outside the region, [someone who] was serving somewhere else but who had the skills and the background necessary to do well in Afghanistan.
Sunday, [Sept.] 16, , the vice president is on [Tim Russert's] Meet the Press, and he utters the paragraph about "We are going to have to go to the dark side, Tim. The American people are going to have to understand we are going to go to the dark side to fight this enemy and do this threat." You live in the dark side. Was he talking about you when he was talking about the dark side, do you think?
Well, I don't know what that means. There is no one in the CIA who looks like Darth Vader. I guess we are the dark side in the sense that we are the clandestine service of the United States. We are the agency charged with carrying out covert action. If you don't want someone to do those things, go to the State Department.
This is an intelligence service, and therefore he may have had us in mind. But I think more broadly, ... he was saying this is a very unconventional enemy. This is an enemy who doesn't fight by the rules. This is an enemy that we've never faced before, certainly not on our own territory.
This is the big difference here from Pearl Harbor. We were attacked within a major American city on the mainland -- not that Pearl Harbor was not an attack on America, but it was a different type of attack by a conventional enemy. I think that is what he had in mind. ...
Until Americans and the world had the clarifying event of 9/11, it was beyond everyone's capacity to envision that we would go on the offensive in a country [Afghanistan] like that.
I don't think the real dividing line here is between the Bush and Clinton administration or anything like that. I think it is 9/11 itself. It was a clarifying event in a way that something like the atomic bomb being dropped was a clarifying event, in that that is when the atomic age began, not when physicists theoretically figured out something about atomic energy. Everyone could not visualize the enemy.
On Sept. 21, it has been reported, now 10 days out, that the CIA tells the president or tells whoever it is that you can find -- "no connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda." In a way saying: "This is not fertile ground there ... looking for state sponsorship of terror." Do you remember that?
... We certainly said that. I just don't remember the dates. We said at some point in the timeframe that we had no evidence linking Iraq to Al Qaeda and to those attacks. ...
When are you aware, then, that the president of the United States is very interested in Iraq, do you remember when you first heard about it?
... Sometime in 2002, it becomes apparent that the administration is increasing its focus on Iraq. The vice president's speech in the summer, I believe in August of 2002, makes clear that he's expressing a high level of concern about the dangers Iraq poses. ...
Is a speech like that vetted through the CIA? Would he have come to you and been briefed before he went to do it and [said] the things he said?
To my recollection, that particular speech was not vetted through us.
Would they have been normally?
Not at that point. At that point, speeches were vetted through us episodically when someone felt the need to do so. But we were not at the point that we eventually arrived at, of looking pretty carefully at any speech on a subject like that.
So it's the spring of 2002, sometime in the early summer. Things are cooking. The Department of Defense has started their counterterrorism information-gathering, alternative intelligence agency. Tell me what you know about those guys.
We know very little about them. It was not something that was on our screen. In fact, I think the first time that I heard about that operation was when Secretary Rumsfeld mentioned to Director Tenet that they had an interesting briefing and we ought to hear it. My understanding is Director Tenet agreed to hear it, and they sent some people over. [Rumsfeld] was there momentarily at the beginning and introduced them and left the room.
Our analysts heard the briefing. At the end of it, I'm told they agreed with some and disagreed with the rest. It wasn't clear to me at that point that this was a special unit or anything. It was just a group of people who had plowed through the intelligence reports and come to some conclusions about them. That was basically what we knew about that unit.
Did it have a meaning to you that they existed, that they were created and --
Not at that point. I think later in our tenure the director made clear, when asked in congressional testimony whether a unit like that had a right to speak for the intelligence community, he made quite clear that it did not and that he, as the director, was the only person authorized to speak for the community. But at that point it wasn't clear to us is this was a special or extraordinary unit.
At some moment it shows up in The Weekly Standard [in the Nov. 24, 2003, article by Stephen Hayes, "Case Closed"], 50 ways that Al Qaeda is connected to Saddam Hussein. What did you think of that story? Did you see it?
I did. ... What they did in that story was to aggregate in a list dozens of reports that could -- underline "could" -- be interpreted to support the idea of a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. What the reports could not do, and what we always resisted doing, was drawing the conclusion that there was some sort of an operational connection here, that Al Qaeda was in any way working for Iraq or was an extension of Iraq or was directed by Iraq.
There were a lot of reports there that could arguably be amassed to draw the conclusion that there had been contacts and that they were aware of each other and intersected at different times, but it didn't to us add up to operational direction and control.
I've had many people who worked for you come in this room and say: "It's like the Internet. You can go and find anything you want and make any kind of connections you want. But if you are not an analyst, a real analyst, you don't know what you are seeing."
There was a feeling in some parts of the government that we weren't taking reports that were on paper seriously enough. But with every [report], particularly human intelligence report -- and some of the errors made by intelligence demonstrate this -- you've got to ask yourself, what's the motive? Where did it come from? Why should we believe it? Is it contradicted by something else? Is it reinforced by something else?
It is a puzzle-solving enterprise. It is like a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. Frequently it is not clear until you put it all together. And yeah, there are reports coming through the transom all the time, and you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes we do it well, and sometimes we do it not so well.
So what were these guys really doing?
I don't know what they were doing. It is not a secret now that they had skepticism verging on derision, perhaps, for the efforts of some of the professional intelligence analysts who were working this problem and felt that some of the people that were working it were not rigorous enough in their assessment of these sources. It was a difference of opinion. ... They were trying to demonstrate that there was data there that could get you to this conclusion, and we disagreed. ...
These guys, the [Policy] Counterterrorism Evaluation Group [PCTEG], their stuff is going up to [Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen] Cambone, [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith, Rumsfeld, office of the vice president. ... It does seem to be true that they are liking the information they are getting. They are using it. They are passing it back and forth to each other.
Well, this is not unusual in any administration on some issues. I've been around a long time. I served 11 directors and I don't know how many presidents, and every administration I've been in, there is some issue where the administration will react that way, because intelligence addresses many agendas of an administration, whether we like it or not.
If it addresses a positive agenda, an affirmative agenda -- that is, something that you want to do or something they believe instinctively -- administrations tend not to question intelligence, because it tends to affirm their belief. If, on the other hand, intelligence flies in the face of their objectives or their beliefs, as it frequently does, or if you walk into the room and say, "Hey, I'm the skunk at the picnic today; I've got some really bad news about a policy that you've been following because we've just uncovered something that shows it isn't working," well, no administration likes that. So this not a surprise. I can find an issue in every administration where the reaction has been like that.
"Let's go build our own intelligence agency"?
No, I've never encountered that before. ... You know, the CIA is not perfect. It has done many things brilliantly and extraordinarily well. It's made some big mistakes, and I think these guys were on the side of those who thought it was mostly making mistakes. ...
These [Pentagon] guys I talked to, they say: "I'm looking at this stuff, and I see [9/11 hijacker Mohamed] Atta meets with Saddam Hussein's guy in Prague. ... I see it, and I'm going to report it. We shared that with the CIA, and we put it back into the system and said, 'Help us confirm this,' and we never heard from the CIA." ... So that is the sort of argument they can make.
Well, on something like the Atta meeting in Prague, we went over that every which way from Sunday. We looked at it from every conceivable angle. We peeled open the source, examined the chain of acquisition. We looked at photographs. We looked at timetables. We looked at who was where and when. It is wrong to say that we didn't look at it. In fact, we looked at it with extraordinary care and intensity and fidelity. We just came to a different conclusion.
And why did the vice president stick with that?
I have no idea. One of the reasons that people sometimes stick with an argument based on intelligence long after there is a consensus that it is wrong is that in any intelligence case, there is always some margin of uncertainty. There is always some reason to question it. It may be thin, but you always have the sense that if you can find just one more piece, it will throw it into a different light. Perhaps he thinks that. But beyond that, I'm not sure, because having looked at that case myself pretty carefully, I came to the conclusion it just didn't add up.
Well, my recall is that the National Intelligence Estimate was requested by the Senate, that the request came in September sometime, and we had about a month to prepare it. That is less time than we normally take to prepare a National Intelligence Estimate. It was prepared over the next month and approved around the 2nd of October and then given to the administration and the Congress. That is sort of the timetable in that period.
How was it? What did you think of the NIE?
... It was a document that contained, in my judgment, more grist for debate than people understand. If you added up the number of pages in it that contained alternative views or dissenting opinions, it would probably come to at least 10, some say 15, depending on who you count as a dissenter. While it was clear in its conclusions about Saddam possessing chemical and biological weapons, there were dissents clearly expressed on the nuclear program.
The State Department dissented in a major way, and the Department of Energy, it is not often realized, had three full pages of dissents on the role of aluminum tubes, expressing the skepticism that they were intended for centrifuge and therefore for uranium enrichment. There were dissents also on things like the potential for unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] to be used for disseminating biological weapons. The Air Force expressed that dissent and dissents on other issues.
So there was a lot of grist in that NIE for a serious debate, and I don't think that it was looked at carefully enough to bring out some of that dissension. ...
When you looked at it as a very experienced Central Intelligence Agency officer yourself, how did you feel about it?
... At the time when I read it, I accepted its judgments generally. I was pleased that we had expressed the dissents that it included. I thought it had a lot of texture.
With hindsight, I think the thing that the NIE could have most included and most benefited from would have been greater expression up in the front of the document of the uncertainties. That is, the first five or six pages that summarize the conclusions, with hindsight, is too affirmative on some of the points.
To some degree, this is an art form. In other words, frequently when you put the uncertainties up front in a document like that, the policy-maker will say to you: "OK, well, I know there are uncertainties. I just want to know what you think." In this case, the intelligence community might have fallen too easily into the "Here's what I think" mode, not at anyone's direction. ...
There are a lot of lessons that have been absorbed from the NIE. It is very important that the American public understand that intelligence, when it judges, when it is shown to be wrong, does not simply shrug that off. Within a couple of months after the end of hostilities, we have already initiated an extensive "Lessons Learned," when weapons of mass destruction were not appearing. We put some of our very best people on that case to figure out, scrub everything we said, every resource, every sentence. We covered walls with charts documenting what we had said day by day and report by report.
In my judgment, we came to the conclusions about what had gone wrong well in advance of any of the commissions that have looked at us. I can tell you from having looked at some of the subsequent product that the American public need to understand that the intelligence community has absorbed lessons from this and now approaches its work on National [Intelligence] Estimates in a way that gives great attention to things like uncertainties and alternative views and makes them very prominent in the document.
One of the things we have heard about the National Intelligence Estimate -- I don't know whether it is true, but I've seen it often enough that I suspect it might be -- [is] that only about six people in Congress read it. If you look at some of the speeches made in the debate a week after the receipt of the National Intelligence Estimate, even my people who say they read it, they are in some cases more affirmative on some of the issues than is the National Intelligence Estimate. ...
What did you and Director Tenet think about the vice president's request to come up to Langley so many times and talk to analysts and be briefed in situ?
It may surprise you that this didn't particularly bother us. In other words, one of the things that deserves the most attention as we think about the future of intelligence is this relationship between intelligence and policy-makers. There needs to be a better understanding of what that is all about. Our reaction was, the vice president is entitled to come out here and ask anything he wants, as is the secretary of state, secretary of defense and assistant secretary of state and assistant secretary of defense, senior director at the NSC [National Security Council]. They are all customers of intelligence; they are all consuming, so they are all entitled to come out here and go toe to toe if they want to.
One of the things that a previous director said is that the contentiousness of the issues we deal with seldom shows through in the finished product. These are contentious issues, and they deserve argument. They deserve interchange, ... and I don't recall that these sessions were ever particularly contentious.
But I've talked to guys who have said: "It felt like he was leaning on the analysts. It was implied as part of the process that he was out there to get answers and he was going to keep coming until he got the answer he was looking for -- you know, tailor it a little bit for the client here; nuance it. ..."
That's a complicated dynamic you are talking about there. When a policy-maker asks a question persistently and keeps asking it over and over again, you start to suspect that they are looking for a certain answer. But you know what I always told analysts? And I supervised analysts for three years. I had in my office a sign that said, "Subvert the dominant paradigm," which meant, "Challenge the conventional wisdom."
What I always told analysts was: "Look, people are entitled to ask you over and over and over again. Your job is to tell the person what you honestly think, not to be close-minded about it and keep your mind open to the possibility that someone else might have an interesting idea here," because people can also shut their minds down. They can dig in.
But if you end up saying to someone, some policy-maker, something that you don't believe because you think you are being leaned on, well, shame on you. You shouldn't do that. There is a system here. You can walk in my door any time and tell me that someone is leaning on you too hard. We have an ombudsman at the CIA who is a person of great integrity who you can go to. There is an inspector general. There is the Intelligence Committee. ...
Do you think Director Tenet, given how close he was with the president, given that he couldn't really know the details of anything he was briefing on, could actually be an honest broker of information to the president about some of this stuff? Did he get too close? Was it a double-edged sword, that access to the president?
I don't think so. There's a tension always in this business between the need to be close enough to understand where policy is going and where policy-makers are going in their minds, so that you have a sense for what intelligence needs to know yes or no on. There is a tension between that and getting too close, and that tension is always there. It's been there in every administration I have been in, but I saw Director Tenet take strong positions on things quite often that were very much against the grain of what people wanted to hear.
And he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy that when [then-Secretary of State Colin] Powell was sitting there at Langley getting ready for his speech and saying, "Do you vouch for this? Do you stand behind this, George?," he wouldn't have said, "Yes, I do," and not really have.
That's right. Bear in mind here, a director of central intelligence or a deputy director or a lot of other people at senior levels can delve into this material to some degree. But at some point you have to decide in your own mind whether you are going to accept the judgments of experts who are looking at it and who are spending 18 hours a day coming to conclusions.
I think that Director Tenet had confidence that what he was hearing from the intelligence community was correct. I don't think it is a lot more complicated than that. In no sense am I trying to displace responsibility or anything like that. It is just that there is a certain point here where you can't know everything. You have to accept the judgment of professionals. ...
[With regard to] the "white paper" [indicating the presence of] weapons of mass destruction, in the end [CIA analyst Paul Pillar] looks back at it and he says, "This is really not what our role should have been." What's your take on that?
... Things are alleged about the white paper that are not true. It is alleged that there is no reference to the differences of view over aluminum tubes. As I recall, there was. The problem with the white paper is that it was done before the NIE. That's the principal problem. And it was requested I think in the summer of 2002. ... The NIE is done some months later, and this white paper is just on the shelf. Then there is a call for the white paper -- I don't remember exactly where that came from -- and it is taken off the shelf. Some part of the NIE is put on because there is no summary on the white paper, so it was kind of stitched together in the last minute.
It wasn't in any sense an intentional attempt to present something different than what was in the NIE, but many people noted that there were differences. That is kind of how it came about. I would agree with the point that one of the lessons we learned out of all of this, going back to my earlier point, that it's probably a lesson learned here, is don't place so much weight on intelligence in presenting a public case for a major foreign policy decision. It can be a component of the argument, but it shouldn't be the centerpiece of the argument except in extraordinary circumstances where you have absolute certainty.
You have a very good guy who is in a hard situation who came out feeling bad about what he had done.
... [T]he individual you are talking about has cause for pride as well. There were papers done prior to the war that I think signaled rather clearly that a prolonged occupation would produce problems, including violence. I personally approved those papers. They were done by an individual you have interviewed, and I think the community can look back on those with some pride or satisfaction.
In fact, if you think about it, on Iraq, this whole discussion of Iraq continues to get constricted to the issue of prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction when, in fact, the CIA and the intelligence community were asked to do a number of things on Iraq.
... Anyone who tells you that the CIA shrunk in this period from telling it like it is wasn't there. I was there. We told it like it is, and I think when history looks back at this period, the CIA will be seen particularly in the postwar period as having a very clear-eyed view of what was going on in Iraq. ...
[When then-head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG)] David Kay was reporting back, realizing that they were not finding WMD, what is the thinking back at Langley? Is there a feeling that the CIA is going to take the blame on this?
No, no. This is a very important point. We hired David Kay to go out and find the truth. We told him that was his mission. He worked at it for six months or so and came back in September and reported a whole series of violations of [U.N. Security Council] resolution 1441, and reported in his interim report a lot of things he had found that led him at that point in time to be very suspicious of the truthfulness of the Iraqis on WMD.
He hadn't found weapons, but he found a lot of evidence of clandestine laboratories, things that hadn't been reported that should have been reported, research on missiles and so forth that was quite advanced but hadn't been reported. By December, I think David had concluded that his mission was over and that there were not weapons there.
Our feeling at that time was we were quite prepared to come to that conclusion, but we ... didn't think we were done, and we wanted to be sure we were on solid ground with what we said. I was the one who oversaw [ISG head after David Kay] Charlie Duelfer's work during that period of time. I spent probably an hour or two a week on videoconference with him. I was very insistent, as was Director Tenet, that we protect his independence, that he be given the freedom to carry out what his mission was, which was very simple.
Charles Duelfer will tell you his only mission given to him was find the truth. He came back, and he said, "There were no weapons that we could find." He said also that Saddam had the intention to revivify his weapons-of-mass-destruction programs once sanctions were lifted, if they would be lifted, and he had the capability to do so in certain areas, even though he had not found weapons.
So Charles rendered a report that was subsequently held up as evidence of CIA failure. Fine. But the irony here is, of course, what no one gives the CIA credit for is that we hired him to ask him to go find the truth and did not hinder that effort and accepted the truth and applauded it and have now learned lessons from it. Someone needs to give the CIA credit for being able to stare a problem in the face, deal with it honestly and absorb the consequences, make corrections and move on. ...
What is your answer to the question [about] why everybody focuses on WMD and the "failures" of the Central Intelligence Agency?
Well, President Kennedy said it best, if I can paraphrase him: "Your failures will be trumpeted. Your successes will be unheralded." It's the nature of the business. To some degree it is just that way. I think it is partly, too, because successes don't make a lot of news. It's also because we don't talk a lot about successes, because to talk about them, to tell you how we took down the A.Q. Khan network [for Pakistan's nuclear program], would reveal so much that we wouldn't be able to take down another one if there were one. So your successes you guard.
Also, let's think about the nature of intelligence. It's a risk-taking enterprise. I completely reject the view that some people hold that this is a risk-averse agency. This is not a risk-averse agency, not when you have had people in harm's way the way we have over the last four years.
But when you take risks, it is an absolute mathematical certainty that something will go wrong, or it wouldn't be a risk. Therefore, it is inevitable that there are going to be problems; there are going to be mistakes; there are going to be failures. You try and keep them to minimum. But if you have an intelligence agency that is out there risking lives, taking chances, playing in dangerous situations, something is going to go wrong sooner or later, and that is what is going to get attention.
It is a different CIA, but we have to look at it in the context of the world. ... It is not the world that I came into in 1972, where all of your traffic was ripped off a printer in the operations center and piled up in your inbox. Now we capture a single terrorist, [and] if we are lucky enough to get the electronic media, you've got the equivalent of a small public library that you've got to work through.
It's a CIA that is in the midst of adapting to a technological revolution in the world which has affected its targets, has affected the weapons its targets use, and has affected the potential for those targets to do damage in the United States in different ways than we were dealing with at the time I came in with an existential threat in the form of the Soviet Union. That is gone.
Today, secrets: Secrets used to be in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people in ministries and embassies, a large recruiting pool. Today the secrets we want most are in the hand[s] of a couple of dozen people in hard-to-get places. Information sharing: It used to be you shared information with a handful of federal agencies and a few foreign partners. Now you've got to share it, and you should, with people who are on highway patrol in Indiana and CIA officers who are in Karachi. They need to be reading the same stuff, because that seam between domestic and foreign is gone. ...
The central challenges of central intelligence today have to do with something more prosaic than structure and organization. They have to do with the fusing of data, the gathering of data, algorithms that enable you to associate patterns of threat in large bodies of data.
We need, if anything, a Manhattan-style Project to create an information architecture that our intelligence communities can use to deal with this. What's the natural enemy of intelligence? Surprise. ... We are in a time where the potential for surprise, the major enemy of intelligence, is greater than at any time in my professional career. And that's a lot for intelligence. There is challenge here for intelligence. So yes, it is not the CIA that I joined. But does America still need a CIA? You bet.
The CIA is distinguished by many characteristics. But let me mention four: It is global. It is interdisciplinary. It's all source; people there look at everything. And here is the most important one -- and hang on to this: It is nondepartmental. It is the place in the U.S. government that is not affiliated with a department that makes or implements policy. And it is the only one of these intelligence agencies that has that characteristic.
Therefore, the challenge here is to be true to what Harry Truman had in mind when he created the CIA; that is, to have a place that integrates information from everywhere and presents it in as objective a way as it can be presented with the bark off. That is the ethic, the central ethic of the profession. If the CIA builds on the central and enduring ethic, it will be a very sound institution for years to come. ...