The NIE is the highest-level document generated by U.S. intelligence agencies. The one issued in October 2002 was titled "Iraq's Continuing Programs of Weapons of Mass Destruction" and was produced in just a few weeks because Congress was nearing a vote on going to war with Iraq. Its key findings were later proven wrong -- but not before they had seeped into President Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech and, a month later, into Secretary of State Colin Powell's U.N. presentation that argued the case for war. Here, a range of authorities give their views on this flawed document and the politics and decision-making that surrounded it.
- Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with
- John Brennan
- Vincent Cannistraro
- Tyler Drumheller
- Carl W. Ford, Jr.
- Melvin Goodman
- Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.)
- David Kay
- Richard J. Kerr
- W. Patrick Lang
- John McLaughlin
- Paul Pillar
- Lawrence Wilkerson
Iraq Weapons Inspector 1991-1992, Iraq Survey Group, 2003-2004
...The 2002 NIE comes out. ... How do you feel about that estimate?
[When] I took the job [leading the Iraq Survey Group], I had the opportunity to see the classified estimate. ... The difference between the classified and the unclassified version is practically trivial. And there's no substance. So that's when I started to get worried because I realized that very little was known that I hadn't known in 1998; that there wasn't a lot new there that you could dig in[to].
I think it was a poor job, probably the worst of the modern NIE's, partly explained by the pressure, but more importantly explained by the lack of information they had. And it was trying to drive towards a policy conclusion where the information just simply didn't support it.
What do you mean pressure?
I mean the pressure of producing an NIE to satisfy the Congress's demand that there be one. I think NIE's in many ways have become sort of not real intelligent documents. They're estimates about things of which policymakers have strong views.
The appropriate time to do a national intelligence estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction would not have been two weeks before the vote. It's something that should have been prepared in 2001. ... The assumption was, in something like this, you would always have one to be updated every year, every two years when you thought there were significant changes. It hadn't been produced because, in fact, they didn't have any information. ...BACK TO TOP »
By the middle of 2002, heading into the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] in the fall, it's been reported that Tenet is feeling pressure ... to do things about Iraq, pressure to write things about weapons of mass destruction. Did you ever have a conversation with him about it, or are you aware of that kind of pressure?
I think there was a feeling within the agency that intelligence was increasingly becoming the meat in the sandwich on this one; that we were being asked to do things and to make sure that that justification was out there. Responding to the requests from the Hill for that National Intelligence Estimate in a very short period of time and compressed schedule to do something as major and as significant as that, there was concern that intelligence was being pushed forward as the justification for war. ...
We talked to [former National Intelligence Officer] Paul Pillar last December, really trying to go through what he was feeling and observing from his vantage point as an intelligence analyst ... Did he ever talk about it?
Well, Paul had the responsibility of making sure that this [NIE] estimate was truly a community-coordinated estimate. It was not a CIA product; it was something that had the imprimatur of the intelligence community, of all the different elements. Paul had that responsibility, to orchestrate that effort
What Paul wanted to do, my impression, is to ensure that the key questions were going to be addressed, but at the same time to ensure that the analytic augmentation and basis was solid and firm. The tight deadline that it was produced under, I think, was responsible for some of those mistakes and the due diligence that didn't take place.
But there was a lot of information in that estimate. You can only pull so many of those threads. And people tried to do the best job they could. Looking back on it, some of that intelligence was faulty, because that estimate was based on a wide body of intelligence that had built up over the years. A lot of the previous intelligence was included in it, but it was not revalidated, so some of that foundation was faulty, unknowingly at the time. Paul was trying to do his level best to make sure that the product that came out was a fair and balanced one.
He told us that ... even at the time, he wasn't aware about how politicized it was, but he was -- especially as he looks back on it, especially around the "white paper" -- really embarrassed, I think is the word he used at how faulty it was. Did it feel that way at the time, or does it just look that way in hindsight?
At the time there were a lot of concerns that it was being politicized by certain individuals within the administration that wanted to get that intelligence base that would justify going forward with the war.
Could I ask you who?
Some of the neocons that you refer to were determined to make sure that the intelligence was going to support the ultimate decision. Looking back on it now, as we put pieces together, it probably is apparent to some, including Paul, that it was much more politicized than in fact we realized. It wasn't a secret, though, at that time that there were certain people who were strong advocates of going to war, almost irrespective of what the intelligence was. ...
Did [Tenet] believe the stuff that was in the NIE and the stuff that Powell ultimately said before the U.N.? ...
He had to rely on what the community provided to him in that estimate, the language that was in there, and so he wanted to make sure that that was going to be presented fairly. Did he know all the details under ... that whole report? Nobody did at that point, because it wasn't reinvestigated and revalidated. But he, I think, felt as though it was his appropriate place to stand behind or sit behind Secretary Powell at the U.N., because it was an intelligence case that was being made, and there were a lot of long, long nights that went over that material as best they could at the time, so that the legal brief or the intelligence brief could be presented to the world. ...BACK TO TOP »
... [The NIE] was so weak that if you go back now to all of the key judgments -- and I saw this estimate in a classified form as well as an unclassified form -- every key judgment was wrong. ...
What makes it so bad?
The unfortunate thing about that estimate was that from 1998 on, the intelligence really doesn't change in that we don't pick up any new intelligence. So if you look at CIA statements about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction before 1998, they're carefully written; there are caveats; there are gray areas. They recognize various subtleties in the argument. They know that you can't be sure about a lot of this.
[From] 1998 on, they lose the best intelligence collection they have; that is, the CIA had infiltrated the United Nations inspection team. There were CIA operational people on the U.N. inspection team. When the U.N. team leaves and then tries to get back in and Saddam says, "No, you left. You're not getting back in," the CIA basically lost its collection capabilities against weapons of mass destruction and against Saddam Hussein.
So their information becomes weaker and there's less of it, yet they become more certain, after October of 2002, [of the existence of WMDs], which leads Hans Blix to make that wonderful remark that I'll never forget, that he's never seen a situation in which a government could have 100 percent certainty of weapons of mass destruction and zero percent knowledge of where they are. And that's exactly what happened. And if you look at the key judgments of the national intelligence estimate -- all of this certainty, and all of the knowledge is wrong.
Tick them off for me.
Vast amounts of chemical weapons, vast amounts of biological weapons, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] that could attack the United States with chemical or biological weapons, a reconstituted nuclear program. The Niger [yellowcake] forgery becomes a factor in the estimate. ...
You have said that Tenet didn't really want to [put together the NIE]. ...
The exact timing was September of 2002. Sen. Bob Graham -- to his credit -- wondered why no National Intelligence Estimate had been prepared. He was on the Senate [Select Committee on Intelligence], and he was told that no one asked for a National Intelligence Estimate. So Graham said, "Well, I will."
The fact of the matter is, the CIA didn't want to produce one. The White House didn't want one because they didn't want to allow any venting of whatever opposition there was to what they wanted to be the conventional wisdom on weapons of mass destruction. But Graham got his way, and the CIA produced this estimate in three or four weeks. They didn't produce it very well, but basically they produced the case that the administration wanted.
This was comparable to sort of judge shopping in the courthouse: If you want a certain verdict on a decision, you usually know which judge you can go to. ... George Tenet and John McLaughlin picked the very people in the National Intelligence Council ... who had a very hard line on all of these issues.
So three or four key people were picked to write this estimate that was a fraud; I don't know how else to describe that National Intelligence Estimate. It should be fully released. I don't know why they're protecting sources and methods because the sources were obviously specious or flawed in one way or another. The methodology, obviously, was a disgrace. And it should be studied; it should be part of the national understanding of how we went to war. ...BACK TO TOP »
... 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. ...
[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. ...BACK TO TOP »
W. Patrick Lang
...What did you think of the evidence presented in the NIE?
I thought it was really a lot of nonsense. You could look at these various bits and pieces of things and see that it only made sense in the light of this enormous overweaning fear which had possessed the country, that you could believe some of this crap.
The thing about the aluminum tubes -- it says in the NIE, in fact, that the Department of Energy and the INR [Bureau of Intelligence Research at the State Department], said that it doesn't look like these are the right thickness at all.
Then there was the weird thing about the remotely piloted aircraft: They were going to fly off freighters and bomb the United States with biological weapons stuff. The Air Force -- in the same NIE -- took a footnote, ... and they said that these things didn't seem suitable at all for that kind of thing.
So there were a lot of indicators in there, and if you knew everything you knew about Iraq and how badly we had put down their WMD programs in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the whole thing just looked like nonsense, just absolute rubbish.
And I think, you know, INR and Carl Ford, who was in command over there at the time, should be given enormous credit for the fact that they stood up for this as best they could and tried to tell them. It was just a silly document in many ways, and it was part of the marketing of this thing. It wasn't an NIE in the sense that I understood it.BACK TO TOP »
... Does the NIE prove that the CIA is done as a fighter in the fight over intelligence?
Yeah, that's one way of interpreting it. The National Intelligence Estimate, which is classified -- only an unclassified version is circulated around -- is fatally flawed. It basically says that there are hundreds of tons of chemical biological weapon stores in Iraq, and that's not true. It's just flatly wrong. There is a dissent on the aluminum tubes, but it's a very small one that comes at the end of the report; it's a footnote. The report, basically, is just dead wrong. It's shepherded 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 policymakers are looking for. It's a fatally flawed document, and it should never had seen the light of day.
The effect of it is what? It goes to Congress; that's the evidence for war. 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 president's daily brief staff was a pretty feisty group. 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 ..." -- putting the briefer himself, who really is not an expert in everything, on the spot. ...BACK TO TOP »
... I didn't even know they had drafted the NIE. See, [Iraqi defector] Curveball wasn't our source; he was a DHS source -- Defense HUMINT Service source. So we were not involved with Curveball at all until they came up. They wanted us to vet him.
Who asks you to vet him?
Tenet asked me. He started.
And what does he say?
This is all in the Silberman-Robb report. Late September, he asked me to see the guys who were handling [Curveball]. ... In fact, he said to Jim [Pavitt] -- Jim said it to me. He said, "Ask him about that defector, the biological weapons defector." I didn't know who he was, but I didn't want to say, "Well, I don't know who that is." So I went back, and I asked my executive officers, "Who's that guy who defected in '99, and Curveball?" ...
We did some research on it and found that as early as, I think it was September of 2000, the chief of the German service was warning that they couldn't confirm what this guy was saying. In the meantime, DIA had put out over 100 intel reports from this reporting. Now, these went to the concerned analysts and people in the community and became part of the war of Iraq, but were forgotten specifically in detail.
But what was he saying in the early [reports]?
That they had these mobile [biological weapons] labs, and that they were building these, and they had this accident, and he saw guys dying. It was very detailed stuff on the place where he was supposed to work. ...
What's very important -- and this is what I've told everyone I've talked to about this -- is that the way it's being portrayed now is that they have this reporting from the agency through the NIE. When they got that, they said, "Oh my God, we're about to be attacked by the Iraqis." Well, that's not true. ... If you look at what they said, the administration's statements about the danger of this all predated the NIE. The NIE came back because people said, "Let's pull everything together in one place and see what we have."
The other part of it is, there's all sorts of caveats in the NIE. INR [the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research] put a very strong caveat in. People said, "Well, policy-makers only have time to read the headlines." Well, if you're going to go to war, you'd better read more than the headlines in something like that. ... If you really are going to go to war and commit people's lives to that, you want to have a definite view of what you're doing, and you'd better think about how you're doing it. To me, that's the story of the NIE.
And why didn't they?
For whatever reason -- and I can't read their minds -- I think many of them really, honestly believed that defeating Iraq will bring democracy and stop terrorism. I think they really believed that. But for whatever reason, I think they wanted to go. The plan was to knock out Iraq.
But they didn't write the NIE --
No, it was written by WINPAC [Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Center] and by the analysts at the agency. But again --
So why would the analysts, why would WINPAC --
Because it's a bureaucracy. We had one officer that was working on the Iraqi ops tell one of my chiefs of station, and this was in the fall, "Look, we've got information that contradicts this." This isn't about intel; it's not about WMD; we're into regime change now. ... They were gambling, too, that when they got on the ground, they would find these things. ... And the amazing thing was -- this makes me look like an idiot, but the fact was I really believed Curveball couldn't possibly be the only source they had on that, but it was. ...
Wait a minute. You said there's a debate in the fall. [But the Curveball intel] shows up in the NIE as one of the central pillars of the NIE?
Yeah. Actually, when they asked me to check on it, the NIE had already been drafted, or it was pretty much done. This was people saying, "We'd better find out about this source." I didn't know all that at the time. ... So the people that drafted the NIE of course had a very emotional stake in defending their analysis of it. I stayed out of most of it -- the operations chief and the group chief deal with it because it was at that level -- but it was as pugnacious and angry meetings as I've seen. WINPAC were very, very set on this; they saw us as throwing in unwanted complication. ... In our professional view, the operational part of this was extremely weak, and there's no validation of this source. No one's ever seen anything; no one's ever really talked to him at any length.
When you say angry or pugnacious, you mean literally people yelling at each other?
Yes, a very strident meeting. ... There was strong language. There was all --
Like what kind of language?
Cursing, and really angry and lots of implication: "Well, you guys don't know what you're talking about. It makes sense scientifically." And then, "How do you know it makes sense scientifically?" "Well, we've checked it on the Internet." "Well, don't you think he could have done that?" A lot of back-and-forth like that. ...
And then we got our backs up, and we were angry, too. Then, in all of this -- I don't know the exact sequence -- ... all of the e-mails, the summaries, the work we'd done was sent up to the special assistant for McLaughlin so that they had it, because I wanted to make sure they really had it at this point. It dawned on me, even on me, that this was something; that this was a key element.
Did you by now know that he was the primary, the only source?
Yes, at that point.
How did you? When did you learn?
I learned it from McLaughlin's chief of staff. I was talking to him, ... and he said, "Man, I hope not, because this is really the only substantive part of the NIE." I said, "You've got to be kidding." And he said, "No, this is the only substance in the NIE." I said, "Oh my God." ... [T]here were just too many questions about the validity of the source, and to go to war on something like this -- and I said, "Man, we're going to be responsible for starting a war if they don't do something." ...BACK TO TOP »
...Do you think [the NIE] was a good document?
Well, in retrospect, there were certainly significant flaws in it, or it reflected significant flaws in the tradecraft, which mainly had to do with insufficient checking of the credibility of sources, which later were revealed. ...
Specifically what happened?
A lot of intelligence analysts were caught up in several things: a previous consensus against which there just wasn't enough intelligence to challenge it; the consensus being that yes, there were programs. The atmosphere in which they were working, in which a policy decision clearly had already been made, in which intelligence was being looked to to support that decision rather to inform decisions yet to be made, was a very important part of the atmosphere.
Exactly how that may have affected the individual judgments of particular analysts, it's impossible to say. It probably had some effect, particularly since most of the shortcomings of the analysis we're talking about come down to matters of nuance, caveat -- whether the language is too strong, that sort of thing. There were many, many opportunities for things to be shaded in the preferred direction rather than in another direction.
Even if they weren't shaded in a sense of being directly politicized, what the analysts knew was we were going to war, so there might have been an erring in the direction of warning. ... The last thing any intelligence officer would want to have happen is American armies invade and they are caught by surprise by something like chemical weapons or biological weapons, so quite possibly, there might have been a bias for that reason as well. ...
I don't know how many people have walked in here in the last couple of days and said to me that the 2002 NIE, forgive me, was just garbage. People who know say, "Poorly thought out, poorly written, wrong; criminal; just terrible; that it caused a war; that it allowed" --
It did not cause a war, as indicated by the fact that the administration didn't even ask for it. And by the way, as has been reported, very few Congressmen even read it. ...
So you feel good about what you did?
Not everything I did. The issues of tradecraft errors, nobody feels good about that. If you're looking at things that I didn't feel good about doing, I would refer to the unclassified "[white] paper" that was laid out. In retrospect, although people who worked on it, including myself, didn't have substantive problems with it at the time, it was clearly requested and published for policy advocacy purposes. This was not informing [a] decision. What was the purpose of it? The purpose was to strengthen the case of going to war with the American public. Is it proper for the intelligence community to publish papers for that purpose? I don't think so, and I regret having had a role in that. ...BACK TO TOP »
... [M]y involvement in this begins in the late summer of 2002. We had a meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a closed meeting with Director Tenet, and several of us ask him as he was presenting the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, "What did the National Intelligence Estimate say about this issue?"
The NIE is the highest level of intelligence product of our community. It represents not one agency, but all of the agencies. It encourages dissent, conditions, nuances, so that the reader can see, "Is this 100-0 confidence, or is it 45-55 confidence?"
The answer that we got from Director Tenet is: "We've never done a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, including its weapons of mass destruction." Stunning. We do these on almost every significant activity -- much less significant than getting ready to go to war. ... We were flying blind.
What did you think?
I was stunned. So we immediately utilized congressional authority. We said, "We want to have a national intelligence assessment." Tenet was reticent to do that. He said: "We're doing a lot of other things. Our staff is stretched thin." We said: "We don't care. This is the most important decision that we as members of Congress and that the people of America are likely to make in the foreseeable future. We want to have the best understanding of what it is we're about to get involved with." ...
[And does the public see the same intelligence report that you see regarding Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction?]
Well, let's distinguish between two stages. The first stage was the classified version, which was tilted towards weapons of mass destruction but contained a number of areas of disagreement with that conclusion. We asked that that classified version be scrubbed; that is, any security-related information be redacted and then the rest of it be made available to the American people.
Well, what we got three days later was not a redacted version of the original classified report but a wholly new report, which had eliminated all of the conditions and doubts and was a full-scale argument for weapons of mass destruction: imminent threat; we don't get Saddam Hussein now, you're responsible for putting the American people at risk. I was incensed at that point that the American people were being told one thing, and we, in a classified situation, [who] were prohibited from saying anything about it, were being told a significantly different assessment of how sure we were of Saddam Hussein's capabilities, and particularly his intentions.
In the first report, there was a statement that said Saddam Hussein would not use any weapons of mass destruction which he had unless he was first attacked. What does that say? If you don't attack him, even if he has them, our best assessment is he won't use them. That statement of intention was left out of the version that went to the American people. ...
[That second version of the intelligence report, called the "white paper," how was that version put together?] ...
Well, The Washington Post reported subsequent to all of this that in the late spring of 2002, the White House had called down a number of CIA professionals and told them that they wanted a document which could be used to convince the American people that the threat from Iraq was sufficiently serious that that should be our first priority. So beginning in April or May, the CIA started to put together such a document. ... That was what we got as the public version of their conditional, nuanced-with-dissent classified version.
What does it say to you?
Well, it says to me that the decision had been made that we're going to go to war with Iraq; all of this other [talk] was just window dressing, and that the intelligence community was being used as almost a public relations operation to validate the war against Saddam Hussein. ...BACK TO TOP »
... I am somewhat concerned now. To this point I have maintained that no one in the upper echelons of the leadership of this country spun the intelligence in a way that I would find clearly disturbing as a citizen of this country. I believe they believed what they were saying, that they were fooled, just as I was, just as Colin Powell was.
But I've heard some things lately that are disturbing to me. One of those things is this business about Sheikh al-Libi, who was an Al Qaeda operative in Afghanistan, who was rendered to another country and whose confession [was] then obtained under methods that were certainly not Geneva Convention-blessed methods. [He] gave some information about Baghdad providing chemical and biological training to Al Qaeda operatives that was later recanted, but was at the time [a major piece of evidence in the case for war against Iraq].
Roughly at the time the information was gained, a major dissent was rendered by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Well, I had a DIA representative with me at the CIA, and DIA was plugged into everything we were doing at the CIA, and no one ever, ever, ever mentioned that dissent to me.
Second: [Iraqi defector] Curveball. I am now reading that there was major dissent on Curveball -- Curveball being the source for the biological mobile laboratory which Mr. Tenet presented to the secretary of state as being absolutely firm. If this dissent existed in German intelligence [and] within the American intelligence community, why was it not surfaced during our preparation for the presentation to the U.N.? It was not. I never heard a single word of dissent on that either.
Now, let me tell you what might have happened if we had heard some dissent. Secretary Powell was not reluctant at all to throw things out completely. We threw the meeting between [9/11 hijacker] Mohamed Atta and Iraqi intelligence operatives in Prague out --
Despite the fact that that was Scooter Libby's favorite item?
They tried to get it back in when we threw it out.
On more than one occasion. The last occasion I remember vividly was the last rehearsal out at the agency before we relocated to New York [to give the presentation at the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 6, 2003]. [Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs] Steve Hadley ... said, "What happened to the meeting about Mohamed Atta in Prague?" And Secretary [Powell] said: "We took that out, Steve. Don't you remember?" And Steve rather sheepishly hung his head, slid back in his chair and said, "Yes, Mr. Secretary, I do remember."
But we did have qualifying information about the aluminum tubes that were supposed to be centrifuges for a new uranium enhancement program. And when we presented this to Secretary Powell, he became uneasy about it. I tried to explain to him all the different ingredients to this problem that were out there: For example, there were different laboratories that had evaluated the tubes. One laboratory at the Department of Energy had not spun the tubes to sufficient rpm [revolutions per minute] to verify that they could be centrifuges, so obviously, DOE's position was going to be, "Hey, they can't possibly be centrifuges. They must be just shielding for rockets," or whatever.
Over here you had another lab, and they spun it to rpm sufficient to be centrifuges. ... So there were all manner of, shall we say, "different perspectives" on the aluminum tubes. Secretary Powell said, "Fine, I'll qualify it." And check his presentation -- he did. He went with Mr. Tenet's general conclusion that they were -- at least some of them were -- for a nuclear program, and that Saddam was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program with centrifuges. But he said, "I realized there is debate about this out there," and he did qualify that particular part of his argument.
Would we have done that with Curveball? Would we have done that with the connection between Al Qaeda and Baghdad? I can't say, but we never had the opportunity to decide, because we never were presented with those dissents. ...BACK TO TOP »
Carl W. Ford, Jr.
Director, State Department Bureau of Intelligence, 2001-2003.
[T]ake this Niger issue as a classic example ... of the one-trick pony. This began when a foreign intelligence service told us that they had some information coming out of Niger that suggested that they were selling yellowcake uranium -- raw uranium that will be processed into nuclear weapons material -- to Iraq. ...
Well, that was important news. Iraq is a pretty important country, and [if] anybody [is] making weapons [there], you want to hear about that. So naturally somebody reported that current news, and ... clearly they got to the attention of the vice president, which suggests that they were in the President's Daily Brief [PDB]. They got that high up. ... It appeared in the State of the Union, where it was made an issue. It also was used in those statements when we went back and said to Saddam, "You haven't lived up to your agreements." ... So this is a pretty important issue.
To the best of my knowledge and to the best of the knowledge of the SSCI [Senate Select Committee on Intelligence] from their study [Note: PDF document; Adobe Acrobat required], nobody ever bothered to check it out. They reported it, but nobody went further and said, "Well, let me look at those documents." There were people that disagreed with the reporting, people in my office, for example. But nobody, my own office included, said, "Well, if I disagree, let's look at those documents more carefully and see what they say." ...
Now, those documents weren't even translated until after the State of the Union. And they weren't translated and widely disseminated until the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] actually did it themselves. I'm told that they did it within a matter of days -- that was a year after the fact that they should have been looked at. That was a year after we had made this an issue and brought it up to the president of the United States and the vice president and said, "You ought to know about this." ...
And made it a cause of war.
That's right. The fact is that even if the documents hadn't been bogus, this was an easy one: All they had to do was translate the documents. And as soon as they [translated them] a year later, everyone said, "Oh, well, they are bogus." ...
Do you believe the NIE is, as so many people ... told us, a tremendously flawed document?
Of course, but the problem is that that NIE is the most detailed and authoritative piece of intelligence done in that timeframe. That's the best that you are ever going to find. ... That is as good as we can do.
You mean ever?
Ever. Remember, the NIE used to be taking a very complicated and difficult subject and trying to put it in a page for the president and maybe four or five pages for the Cabinet and then maybe 10 or 15 pages of other sort of narrative. But that one page was always considered the most important, the one that went to the president.
And that one page was a distillation of 1,000 reports, researched over a three- or four-year period. ... All we are doing is we are taking current intelligence and writing it up. That is all there is. If you know what is in that estimate, you have everything that the president of the United States has.
Go back and read what the president said in that famous conversation with George [Tenet]. Remember what he said first. He said, "Is this all we've got?" And the answer should have been: "Yes, sir. Unfortunately that is all we've got." His instincts were right. He saw that there wasn't a lot there. But I guarantee you, that is everything we had. We gave him our best shot, and the president said, "Is this all we've got?"
And what did George Tenet say?
"Slam dunk." That was the "slam dunk" conversation. ... And so at that point, the issue became not is the estimate right or wrong -- because George has said it is right -- but "We've got to find a way to say this so that it represents the community's confidence in their judgment"; so that at that point, we were committing ourselves to saying: ... "We are certain about it. This is a slam dunk." Now, that was probably a bad choice of words on George's part, and I'm sure he would probably want to take that back if he could. ...BACK TO TOP »
... We've talked, of course, to some people including Paul Pillar, who had a hand in the NIE and wrote the white paper and knows a lot about all of this. I think he said, I think it's fair to say that he said and others said, they felt pressure. They felt a politicization of the process, especially around the white paper, that he's not very proud of.
Yeah, I've heard that about the white paper. ... I've heard that from other people that felt that there was a pressure ... but my view of that is fairly uncomplicated, I guess. All hard intelligence problems are that way. There's always pressure to say something or to do something different than you're doing. There's always pressure to make it conform to policy or to make it simpler or to be more explicit on things you can't be explicit about. So I guess I just take that as part of the business, and you either stand up to that or you wither away.
Did they stand up to it this time?
I think they did, yes, and I think part of the problem is I think they felt sometimes that they were being pressured without enough support from the bosses and the leadership. And you can be intimidated by senior officials who call you on the carpet, in effect, and say, "Why are you doing this rather than that? Why do you emphasize this report and not that one?" You have to protect analysts from them, and I think they felt a little unprotected.
What's your answer to that? Were they?
I think if a good analyst can't figure out how to do that, then they shouldn't be in the analytic business. ...
... [U]sually when an NIE comes in, there are 50,000 pages of stuff behind it -- in this case, the 17-page NIE was basically everything they knew?
I mean, it was created right out of whole cloth at that moment. There had not been a lot of work done on each of those major pieces of the estimate prior to the time the estimate was done.
How did that happen?
Iraq was one of many problems. I mean, it wasn't even the most important weapons problem. Iran was probably far more important, and North Korea was probably. Of the two major proliferation issues, those were probably much higher on the list in terms of collection and analysis than Iraq was until late in 2002. ...
I think it was always in the back of people's mind that Saddam was a continual problem. Terrorism was a continuing problem; Saddam and terrorism were probably connected. Proliferation was a problem; Saddam was connected to that. So when you look at those three things, you see Iraq keeps bubbling up. We spent, what, 10 years of semi-war with the Iraqis, in terms of flying missions in the south part of Iraq? And clearly, Iraq was going to continue to be a thorn in the sense that Saddam wasn't going to go away: He's hostile to his neighbors; he was a terrorist in the sense of his own people and his own opposition; he was willing to support terrorists and those who were committing suicide by paying them and the Palestinians, Hamas. So he's going to be a continual problem, there's no question about that. ...
So that by the August, when the vice president goes to the VFW and says, "We got to go for Saddam," then, of course, there's the NIE. Then, because there's a lot going on in Congress that says, "Jesus, we're going to war," the CIA only then really wakes up?
That's overstating it. It's not that they weren't following it, ... but as a primary focus of the analytic effort, I think it was only in that the summer, late summer, that we began to really focus on it. ...BACK TO TOP »