Tenet told students at Georgetown University, ”No one told us what to say or how to say it.”
He cautioned that “in the intelligence business, you are never completely wrong or completely right. … When the facts of Iraq are all in, we will neither be completely right nor completely wrong.”
Defending the National Intelligence Estimate of October of 2002, Tenet said CIA analysts’ assessments “differed on several important aspects of [Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons] programs, and those debates were spelled out in the estimate. They never said there was an imminent threat.
“Rather, they painted an objective assessment for our policy-makers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests,” he continued.
In a direct rebuttal to assertions that former lead U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq David Kay made in late January, Tenet said the search for banned weapons is continuing and “despite some public statements, we are nowhere near 85 percent finished.”
Tenet said CIA analysts were “generally on target” about Iraq’s missile program, but that the agency may have “overestimated the progress that Saddam was making” on reconstituting a nuclear program.
Tenet outlined the sources of the CIA’s prewar estimates, explaining that they were based on years of U.N. weapons inspections. After the inspectors left in the late 1990s, estimates were based mainly on informants and on technical intelligence.
Regarding chemical weapons, Tenet told the students: “My provisional bottom line today is that Saddam had the intent and capability to quickly convert civilian industry to chemical weapons production, however we have not yet found the weapons we expected. … We need more time.”
The CIA was told by two sources with high-level access to Saddam’s regime that in the fall of 2002 it was involved in the ongoing production of biological and chemical weapons, Tenet said.
Those sources “solidified and reinforced … my own view of the danger posed by Saddam’s regime,” Tenet said.
After Kay resigned two weeks ago, his statements that U.S. prewar weapons assessments on Iraq were “almost all wrong” have sparked an intense debate over the intelligence the Bush administration used to justify the war.
Bush was expected to announce another commission this week to review the intelligence community. At least five other inquiries into prewar intelligence are already under way.
While acknowledging some intelligence shortcomings in Iraq, Tenet cited other agency successes during the speech.
He credited U.S. intelligence on Iran and Libya’s nuclear programs with their recent decisions to cooperate with international arms inspectors.
Tenet agreed with Kay’s comments that the United States didn’t have enough human spies in Iraq and acknowledged that the CIA did not penetrate Saddam’s inner circle. But he said it is strong in other countries and “a blanket indictment of our human intelligence around the world is dead wrong.”
“We have spent the last seven years rebuilding our clandestine services,” he said.
Tenet credited CIA spies with the arrests of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, purported mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Asia’s leading terror suspect, Riduan Isamuddin, who goes by the name of Hambali.
In response to a question about the influence of neoconservatives outside of the CIA, Tenet said, “Everybody has different views of what the intelligence means or doesn’t mean. I can tell you with certainty that the president of the United States gets his intelligence from one person and one community — me. And he has told me firmly and directly that he’s wanted it straight and he’s wanted it honest, and he’s never wanted the facts shaded. And that’s what we do every day.”