Bush's War

David Kay

photo of kay

Kay was appointed by the CIA to lead the Iraq Study Group on June 11, 2003 and resigned from the position on Jan. 23, 2004 after testifying before Congress that his team had found no evidence that Saddam Hussein had amassed weapons of mass destruction since the Gulf War. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Dec. 13, 2005 for the 2006 FRONTLINE film The Dark Side.

[What kind of weapons of mass destruction did you find in Iraq after the Gulf War?]

... [W]hat we discovered from '91 to really about mid-92 ... is the chemical program was huge. The actual storage area of their main chemical weapons dump was larger than the District of Columbia, a place called Muthanna [State Establishment]. So it was huge.

In the nuke area, whereas before the war there were two facilities identified, ... instead we discovered 25 main sites that we had had no knowledge of, and that they, at that point, were probably six to 18 months away from having their first working nuclear device. It wouldn't have been a pretty device, and it wouldn't have launched on a missile, but it would have been a working device, and then rolling progressively forward on that area.

Finally, when the biological program was fully exposed in the mid-90s, we discovered that not a single site that had been hit in the air campaign of the first Gulf War had actually had an active biological program. They had moved them all to sites that we did not know about, successfully hid them. In fact, they had a very large anthrax program, botulinum toxin program, ricin, and a quite accomplished biological program.

So it is against that background of a, not only their not having a sizable program in the late '80s and early '91 period but [b,] the world having missed it, having misjudged what it was. And those two facts really shape going into 2002-2003. ...

[From the fall of 2001 through to the president's State of the Union in January '02 it becomes clear that the administration is interested in military intervention in Iraq. The first, most obvious rationale,] because it's a war on terror, would be that Al Qaeda is connected to Saddam Hussein. Do you have any firsthand knowledge of that?

My firsthand knowledge is we found no evidence during inspections we carried out of a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam in the … [sense] of actual collaboration and interaction and a common strategy. I don't think there is any evidence of that because I don't think it existed. ...

So obviously ... to drive this thing, the rationale is going to have to be information based on weapons of mass destruction.

... I think it's true after 9/11, and certainly true by January of '02 when the president makes his State of the Union address, that the president has started looking at the world very differently than he did six months before: ... It's more dangerous; there are more threats; those threats can land up in the homeland. ...

If you look at the president's face as he's passed the news of what's happened in New York on 9/11 [as] he's reading to schoolchildren in Florida, and the pictures taken by photojournalists during the next 24 hours, here's a man who has suddenly looked into the abyss and seen failure. ... And so he starts viewing everything through that prism.

If you're not looking through that prism, Iraq looks like it looked largely to the Clinton administration and actually to his father's administration after the first Gulf War: It's a horrible place, Saddam is horrible, but it doesn't present an immediate threat to Americans here at home. It's clear after that [9/11], that everything looked different and might be a possible threat that could visit us. You do have, in the case of Saddam, this added dimension that tags along with him; that is, we were surprised that he had weapons of mass destruction to the extent that he had them after the first Gulf War.

Indeed, you can wonder whether, in fact, we would have acted quite the same way if we really had good intelligence in 1991 and knew how close he was on many of these things, in particular his biological program, which wasn't close -- it existed; we just didn't know about it. That suddenly becomes not something you can push aside. It's out there, it becomes real, and it becomes conflated with attacks by terrorists in the United States. ...

I really don't believe it was, "I've got to find a rationale for doing something I really want to do in Iraq." I don't think he really wanted to do anything in Iraq prior to 9/11. That's not to say that there weren't people in the administration that had plans for it; [then-Undersecretary of Defense] Doug Feith and that crew had plans for it well before the president was elected; they published papers on it; it's a known fact. But I think the president really didn't. 9/11 made a huge difference. ...

And the difference is determination, awareness?

No ... You have to realize that when you're dealing with intelligence, if you have an honest conveyor of intelligence, first of all, what they've got to tell you is mostly we don't know. … I know what color shirt you're wearing because I can see it. That's not often the world of intelligence. It's inference, drawing conclusions from very few facts and facts which are of dubious truth. ...

The president, he knew what he didn't know, but he had seen and remembered in 9/11 what people who were determined to hit the U.S. were capable of doing. So he just became less willing to run risk, and that made him more determined to try to protect the American people in the one area he had seriously failed in 9/11, and [that] is preventing that from occurring.

... Help me understand George Tenet: his role, who he was, from your perspective, what you saw, what you knew.

First of all, you have to understand George Tenet took over as director of the CIA following the two most unsuccessful directors of the CIA in its history. ... The CIA's budget had been slashed significantly; its morale had gone down; and most important in Washington, it was seen as an institution that was of no value to the president. In this town, your power and your prestige and esteem is entirely reflected from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If the president thinks you're important and shows you're important, people will treat you very differently [than] if the president isn't interested in you. Clinton didn't take personal briefings from the head of the CIA, the DCI [director of central intelligence], and he didn't meet with them. So Tenet came in realizing that if the institution he was now in charge of was going to succeed, he indeed had to be useful to the president. …

It's a Faustian bargain, because ultimately, anyone who heads an intelligence agency has got to speak, if he's serving the interest, truth to power. And very often that's going to be telling policy-makers either things they don't want to hear, or telling them things that seem so ambiguous that they can't figure out why they're being told it.

George Tenet was primarily, is still, a relationship guy. He's a very gregarious. He's an enjoyable friend to have. He wraps his hand around you, chewing on an unlit cigar. He loves to talk sports. He's a man's man, in that trite phrase. And he was performing what I think he viewed as an important act of government; that is, making the CIA relevant and useful again to the executive.

... [I]n the spring of 2002, what does the Central Intelligence Agency actually know about what's going on [in Iraq]?

This is, for someone like myself, a discouraging part of the story. ... During the period from '91, when I took the first teams in, up until '98, when the U.N. inspectors were withdrawn, on-ground inspectors provided something that had been completely absent during the 1980s. That is, when you got leads, when defectors came out and told you stories, when the satellites picked up something that was suspicious, when the National Security Agency heard a conversation that was totally ambiguous but might have been useful, you had people on the ground that you could feed that to, and they could go out and check the reality. And the reality was quite often quite different -- sometimes supporting; sometimes, more often than not, it had perfectly innocent explanations for what occurred.

In '98 the inspectors left. The sad thing is the CIA -- by that I really mean all of U.S. intelligence; it's true of Defense Intelligence [Agency (DIA)] agents as well -- the U.S. had no operatives inside the reported WMD program of Iraq or Saddam's upper echelons. ...

… [Satellite maps] seem marvelous, revealing that you can read license plates or outsides of buildings, but they don't tell you what's going on inside the building, what's going on in a conversation like between us, what's going on in a conversation with a WMD scientist and Saddam. … Quite frankly, the world that we now live in, people understand the fragility of communications so they don't talk, mostly, on satellite telephones or cell phones or anything you can easily pick up, so that we suddenly were plunged into a zone of darkness.

Now, policy-makers after '98 still want to know what was going on in Iraq, and they knew that they couldn't get it on satellite maps. ... So in desperation, the intelligence community -- and really against its own better judgment; they understood the traps -- started falling into using defectors, people who came out of Iraq, fleeing Saddam, wanted a better life somewhere else and had very few trade goods. And the defectors quickly understood -- sometimes because they were coached and briefed, sometimes simply because they were smart people and they could understand the questions that intelligence agencies were asking them when they came out. … Intelligence agencies were asking the questions that policy-makers wanted the answer to; that is, WMD. So, to no one's real surprise, they started telling us about weapons of mass destruction.

Absent agents on the ground to verify that, you have no way of knowing, except internal consistency and sometimes polygraphs, which are pretty useless in this case, of figuring out whether you're being fed a line of bull or it's the truth. The usual rule of intelligence is you do not pass along a report of a human source unless you can verify it in some other means, particularly a defector or a refugee. The books are filled with stories -- it goes back well beyond the Soviet era -- how people would come out and tell fanciful stories. But unfortunately there was no alternative, and we didn't develop an alternative.

So the picture from '98 down to 2002 that was being built up about Iraq was based primarily on fragmentary information coming from technical collection, satellites, communication intercepts and that sort, and what defectors were telling various groups as they came out; not just U.S. intelligence, but German and French and British as well.

[How do you think Vice President Cheney viewed this intelligence situation?]

... I always found him asking very tough and very hard questions. I think it's fair to say that, from the questions, the vice president is a person who is drawn to dark interpretations, dangers as opposed to opportunities. And that's partly maybe where you sit. It's easy when you're outside of government to see opportunities, whereas if you've got that fatal responsibility for the safety of the American people, dangers, particularly after 9/11, become what dominate your thinking. I think it's fair to say that the vice president was drawn by that.

I think there's one other thing that influences him, at least in my conversations. He remembered as clearly as I remembered how wrong intelligence had been in 1991, because he had been secretary of defense. I had just been on the ground afterward trying to clean up the mess. He had been briefed that there wasn't a nuclear program, there wasn't a biological program, and that the chem[ical weapons] program was considerably smaller than it turned out to be. That's at the forefront, at least in my conversations with him about Iraq: They were wrong before; they didn't get the evidence; how do we know what they know now?

And I think it's fair to say that he had as good an understanding as anyone in the U.S. government of the limitations of U.S. intelligence, that they didn't have sources on the ground. Now, for a lot of us, that made us think you can't depend on it and it might be less bad than otherwise. The vice president, he viewed those limitations as real dangers; it could be much worse than we think it is. ...

[Then-Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld?

... In the course of taking the job, I always found his questions probing, very intelligent. I was most impressed that for him Iraq, particularly what I was doing, was like the tar baby, and he was smart enough to know he didn't want to have anything to do with it. When I took the job, one of the proposals was that I would report directly to both Rumsfeld and George Tenet. Secretary Rumsfeld said, "No, you report to Tenet," … divorcing himself from the issue. By that point, remember, when I took over the job in June, the weapons hadn't been used in the war and hadn't been found in the two months after the war.

I've got a lot of respect for Rumsfeld as a bureaucratic infighter. I've got a tremendous amount of respect that he never loses a battle, because if he loses a battle he'll refight the next morning. ... A man of that age and with so many responsibilities, you've got to be impressed by his doggedness, his energy. And I was always impressed by his intellect; he's a very smart, bright man. Which isn't to say that I agree with any of his positions, I should add. I know many of them; I think they are absolutely wrong. But I do respect him as an individual. ...

In the 2002 NIE [National Intelligence Estimate], the list of weapons, basically the list of what we need to worry about, comes out. How did you feel about that estimate?

I saw the unclassified estimate, remember, until I took the job, and then I had the opportunity to see the classified estimate. I thought the unclassified estimate was not the most powerful NIE I had seen, but I assumed -- remember, ... it was a requirement to get a vote in the Congress, and it was produced at the last moment. I viewed the inadequacies as, they're probably trying to protect targets, because I had no doubt we were going to war. ... I thought they were protecting sources and methods and trying to paint just an adequate job to get passed the vote; that there must be more there.

When I read it [the unclassified NIE] in 2003 after I took those responsibilities -- there's an old Peggy Lee song that I like that came to mind, "[Is That] All There Is?" ... The difference between the classified and the unclassified version is practically trivial, and there's no substance.

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. I think it was a poor job, probably the worst of the modern NIEs, partly explained by the pressure, but more importantly explained by the lack of information they had. And it was trying to drive toward a policy conclusion where the information just simply didn't support it.

What did you mean, pressure?

I mean the pressure of producing an NIE to satisfy the Congress' demand that there be one. ... NIEs in many ways have become sort of not real intelligence documents. They're estimates about things of which policy-makers 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. It should have been on the table.

... [W]hen Sen. [Carl] Levin [D-Mich.] asked for it and the answer was from George Tenet, "Well, we don't have one," I thought, how odd, because the assumption was in something like this you would always have one; it would 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.

And yet this is October of '02. As you say, war is under way, all the preparations, the early logistics. So what are they going on through the spring and the summer?

... All of the commissions, both the U.S. commission ... and the Butler commission [in the] U.K., essentially say the same thing; that is, this was the perfect storm in which everyone knew Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They were going on the shared assumption that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The U.N. inspectors had found some, hadn't been able to get complete elimination, had left in frustration, and so what is there to talk about? He's got them. Sure, we don't know in detail, we don't know where they are, but it's a totalitarian regime in which we have little access.

The time to get worried in intelligence, but also in most of the rest of your life -- hackles go up on the back of my neck when someone says, "Everyone knows that." Usually if everyone knows something, there's something wrong there, and this was the classic case that proves that.

What everyone knew was basically what you knew in '91.

Essentially, the extension without evidence. Remember, the criticism of the intelligence community coming out of 9/11 is they didn't connect the dots. More dangerous than not connecting dots is connecting dots when you haven't collected dots. And in fact, what had happened from '98 right up to the time of the war in 2003 is no dots had been collected. But yet that didn't stop them from connecting them. They were connecting dots we had collected from 1991 through 1998. ...

[Tell me what you knew about the yellowcake story.] ...

As with much of Iraq, there is something to the yellowcake story. That is, it's true in the 1980s, as we found in 1991 when we were there, that Iraq had imported yellowcake from Niger. That was part of an illicit, unreported to the National Atomic Energy Agency part of Saddam's early program. We found the yellowcake; we documented it. We actually know how they flew it in on Iraqi aircraft in the '80s and got it in. …

How the reports [of new yellowcake] came to prominence, in fact, is still a subject of some investigation, as you probably know. … It was based on intelligence provided [to] the U.S. by another country, the United Kingdom being one, Italy apparently being another. ... So it fit into a pattern: They had done it before. There are no inspectors there, and remember, we had no intelligence operatives there. ...

There was yellowcake in Iraq. When the inspectors left in the mid-90s, we removed all the high-enriched uranium from Iraq, all the low-enriched, got everything out of there of any significance. But yellowcake is inherently not dangerous; it is the feedstock that can make something. But it was left there under seal, had been monitored by the U.N. even after the inspectors left. So we knew that yellowcake was there, but ... no one had any capability of going in and investigating, was there new yellowcake?

And the strange thing for me, as I tried to unravel the story as we were leading teams there, is the British government still maintained that there was something there, but they wouldn't tell us the basis for their information. Now, this is all too common in the intelligence world, that a second or third country will have a source of information which they feel that they cannot reveal to you the source, but they'll pass the information to you, and that's what happened in this case. The British passed to the U.S. the information that there was yellowcake. …

It wasn't believed in the CIA, wasn't really believed in the DIA or Department of Energy. But the Brits still maintained that there was a reality to that case. ... So if you look at the president's State of the Union speech, it's rather carefully drafted in that he … refers to the British: "It's come to our attention," etc. Now, what he didn't say is, no one in my own government, my own intelligence agency, believes it's true. I think that's widely recognized as a mistake. ...

What about the aluminum tubes?

The aluminum tubes are a sadder story. It's a story of incompetence and, I believe, of intellectual corruption in the U.S. intelligence process. The true story of the aluminum tubes is as fascinating as the false story.

The aluminum tubes, if you recall [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell's presentation [to the United Nations], were seen as sources of evidence that Iraqis had restarted their nuclear program. It was asserted that these tubes could have been used in a gas centrifuge program, which would take yellowcake and make it high-enriched uranium, and therefore there must be a program there. There was no other evidence that there was [a program] but the tubes, and the tubes were getting tighter and tighter in specifications. And as Colin Powell said, "As an old military man, I can tell you there's no military reason for doing that, so it must be nuclear."

The corruption in the intelligence process is that when the tubes became available to U.S. intelligence, rather than sending them out to people who are extraordinarily competent in that field in the U.S. -- and the U.S. has a number of them in the national labs and in other places around this country -- a very small subset of individuals were asked to review it. The tubes were physically kept away from others.

The report was that the tubes indeed were suitable [for uranium enrichment] because they had passed a spin test; that is, they've been spun up to supersonic speeds, and indeed they would work. What was not told and not passed along was that yeah, they spun them up, but they failed after just a few seconds of running. … This is one of those cases when people say in the Congress, look, we didn't have all the intelligence that the executive branch had, that the policy-makers have. This is a case that the policy-makers weren't told, either, that it had failed.

That's what I mean by corruption of the process. It was badly managed in the CIA. It goes beyond incompetence. You've got to believe that someone was out to prove something and had his conclusion in hand and didn't want to [dis]prove it.

Now, the interesting thing is, what's the real story about the aluminum tubes? Because that's equally fascinating. The aluminum tubes were an Iraqi attempt to re-engineer an Italian missile system. It was a multiple-launch rocket system in which you could fire multiple rockets at a source. It's better than artillery, longer range, more deadly. ... As the Iraqis did it, when they fired them, they didn't go far enough, and they splayed all over the battlefield. ... [T]he rocket fuel itself wasn't powerful enough, and it was inconsistent. In a normal process, what you would do is you would go and tell the people that make the rocket fuel, "You're not meeting specs; it's got to be like this; give us the fuel." The problem is the facility where the fuel was made, a place called Al Qaqaa, was run by a close friend of Saddam's two sons. So the head of the program said, when I suggested, "Why didn't you just tell them to produce what they were supposed to?," it was like I had asked him why he didn't commit suicide in the middle of Baghdad. He couldn't do it.

So what he did is order tubes that were thinner, and this is the famous higher and higher specs, because a rocket with a given weight, with a given propulsion will go so far. If you can't make the propulsion, the powder more powerful, reduce the weight and get the distance. It was a silly procedure.

The ultimate irony -- and this is why Powell should have recognized it -- when it came down to it, the military said, "We don't want the system; it's no good." The people running the Military Industrial Commission in Iraq said, "You can't back out of that system; we get a cut off each of the tubes," so they continued the contract even though the military didn't want it; it wasn't meeting specs.

And lo and behold, what they didn't know is we saw every order for tubes that were thinner and thinner as signs of a hidden nuclear program in those tubes. It wasn't. So on our part it was bad analysis, on the Iraqi part it was incompetence and corruption, and they came together in this perfect storm. It should never have happened.

... What about Curveball?

Curveball is the ultimate tragedy, both for misunderstanding the Iraq WMD program, but also for how seriously decayed U.S. intelligence capability has become. Curveball was a defector refugee from Iraq who showed up in a German refugee camp, and we have to admit, we don't know the full history of it. We know what the Germans have told us, but they've told various stories at various times.

Curveball claimed that he was an engineer, young engineer out of the University of Baghdad, had gone to work for the Military Industrial Commission, had been put to designing equipment. And among the things he had designed, helped design, [was] this trailer which was to be a mobile biological production facility.

Now, the idea that the Iraqis might use mobile facilities for biological production actually goes back to the early days of the U.N. inspectors in which, as they were trying to deal with how the Iraqis were hiding things, one of the issues was, could they be doing some of this stuff mobile? You don't have to worry about that in a nuclear program; it's too big, you can't move it. Chemical program, really the volume is way too huge; you could produce assassination-level weapons but not warfare type.

Biological, on the other hand, is one that, at least at the level, it's not laughable. You could do it. It would be difficult, but ... inspectors never found any evidence of it.

Curveball comes out; he gives this to the Germans. The Germans refuse to let the U.S. talk to Curveball, interview him. They, in fact, refuse to give the U.S. the name of Curveball, so you didn't know who he was. But he tells, as relayed by the Germans, a rather complete, on the surface, story of a biological weapons facility, production facility, that would be on a truck. It could be pulled around and pulled into certain stations and produce biological weapons. ...

Normally in an intelligence setting, if you have a single defector that you do not have access to, you have no way of verifying what he's saying or probing him or pressing him and going through extensive interrogation, you wouldn't dismiss it, but you wouldn't let it go out of the room until you found independent evidence that would corroborate key parts of it. Never found. In fact, the so-called other sources that supported Curveball, one was a known fabricator whose information continued to be used up through Powell without being identified as a fabricator. Others just corroborated parts of Curveball's life, but not the basic story.

When we get into Iraq, one of the first things we want to do is find the mobile biological trailers and all. We have the advantage at that point, by a series of subterfuges we manage, despite the Germans' continual refusal, to find out who he was. And we eventually managed to find out where his parents live and went out to interview them. ...

We said, "We understand he doesn't like Americans." … His mother was sort of taken aback: "Doesn't like Americans?" She took a member of the team, grabbed him and took him into Curveball's bedroom, which was still there, and they had American pop idol posters. She said, "He loves America." And we said, "Well, we understand he doesn't speak English." "No, he speaks English. He wants to go to America."

So the story of the Germans started falling apart, as well as Curveball's story. Curveball had told us he graduated first in his class of engineering at the University of Baghdad; in fact, graduated last, which is a little bit of padding of the résumé. He didn't tell us he had been fired. ... One is a sexual harassment issue; another is a financial embezzlement issue. ...

The story just fell apart and apart. And, of course, by the very end the Germans said: "Well, we think he's an alcoholic; he's unreliable; he's making up this." But this was well after the war had ended, and we were in Baghdad. In fact, it was not until early 2004 that the Germans relented and gave the U.S. limited access to Curveball. It's a case of fabrication compounded by desperation of an intelligence community to find out what was going on when it had no agents of its own.

The things you're talking about -- the yellowcake, the aluminum tubes, Curveball -- ... it all seems, with hindsight, completely ludicrous, but at the time it felt like evidence, I guess.

I think if that's the case -- and I understand what you're saying -- it is a tragedy. ... Certainly the aluminum tubes, Curveball over biological labs, we had an adequate basis to find out a lot more about those stories before we went in and before the war took place. It was a failure of normal tradecraft practices by the intelligence community, simple asking of questions. It was really our failure there. One did not have to reach those desperate conclusions.

It was easier to do because we had a very, and I think reasonably, hostile view of Saddam. We realized he had done this in the past; he had fooled us, and he'd lied to us. And so suspicion begat suspicion, but that's no excuse for suspension of the normal codes of how you judge evidence, how you treat defectors, how you run technical tests on information. …

Who asked you to go [to Iraq to lead the WMD inspections]? ...

Technically it was George Tenet. It was Tenet and John McLaughlin, his deputy, that I had these discussions with. It was the president's decision to take the search for WMD away from the Defense Department and move it to the CIA, which was a really revolutionary change. The CIA is not generally in that business in a war campaign, and certainly not something as publicly visible as this was.

[What was the atmosphere in Iraq during your search and the reaction within the U.S. government when you didn't find any WMDs?]

... I had a habit of sending a weekly confidential "eyes-only" report to the director of central intelligence and his deputy. From very early on I said, "Things are not panning out the way you thought they existed here." And it was specific cases, whether we were talking the aluminum tubes, or we were talking about the nuclear program, in general, the biological program, the chemical program. ...

We found a number of violations of the U.N. sanctions and U.N. program; that is, Iraq was doing things and importing things that it was not supposed to and had hid them from the U.N. inspectors, including Dr. [Hans] Blix's inspectors. Some of these were very significant. It's amazing it's gotten lost. The one area where Iraq was far more advanced than anyone gave them credit for and had a considerable amount of effort in a secret program, was in the missile-delivery area, in which they had gotten assistance from the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, scientists and engineers in those places, and were in fact moving ahead with programs that would have had a range capable of reaching parts of Europe. So we reported that.

But ... we didn't go to war because the Iraqis were working on missile programs; it was chemical, biological and nuke programs. In each of these, the explanations were ringing very hollow.

As it came out sort of in sequence, the tube issue was the first one to fall apart. ... That was a disturbing event, because Central Intelligence Agency, and particularly its deputy, John McLaughlin, had, in fact, made that such a personal issue [for] himself, the belief. And in fact, the people who had done the botched investigation of the tubes really worked directly at the heart of the CIA, so that was disturbing.

The next issue was Curveball. Curveball in many ways, I think, for people in Washington, for Secretary Powell particularly, was more of a shock than the aluminum tubes, because [biological weapons] had been a more frightening part of the Iraqi program; anthrax, botulinum toxin, mobile labs [were] a very high-keyed part of his presentation to the Security Council. So when I had to report back here, you know, "It's just not the way you think it is; it's based on a single individual; this single individual has fabricated vast amounts of material. He didn't have personal knowledge. The program really didn't exist," I think that was an earthquake, Titanic-type of shock to the system. ...

[When you reported that back, what was the response?]

The answer from the intelligence community side was not what I would like, but not unexpected. That is, "Yeah, yeah, keep working, keep at it." ... Realize I'm living in Baghdad. My headquarters is at the airport; I'm sleeping part of the time in the Green Zone, part of the time at the airport. I'm well aware of the insurgency. It became more and more difficult to send teams out, because, in fact, you were putting people's lives at risk. ...

I kept wanting to say, "Look, it's not an issue of continuing to work hard that we're going to find anything different; we may find" -- and they did even after I left -- additional details about the countries that had been suppliers to Saddam for the illicit imports.

But the story of whether there were weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological and nuclear, we had complete by November of '03. They carried on for almost 18 months afterward and concluded, in [Charles A.] Duelfer's final report, exactly as I reported when I testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, that there were no weapons of mass destruction at the time of the war. ...

The intelligence community didn't want to hear that. And I don't know whether it was because they knew the policy-makers wouldn't want to hear it, or because they realized -- and this is talking about George Tenet, John McLaughlin, very personally -- they realized that "slam dunk" case that they had stood for … was false, and that they bore some responsibility for saying it's a slam dunk. ...

And did you get any kind of a blowback, feedback from the White House, from the vice president, from anybody about what you were not finding? Anybody say to you, "Hold it; stop?"

No, no, not from the White House, I must say. ... I did not meet with the president until after I delivered the report. I found the president interested in it, [asking] very good questions about it, not at all disbelieving it.

Now, it is true that, for the president, I didn't see a shadow of doubt about the wisdom of the war, even though I told him there were no WMDs. His commitment for the war and for the mission that he saw there was independent of whether there existed weapons of mass destruction or not.

I think it's fair to say the vice president was, and remained for a considerable time, more skeptical of my judgment that there were no weapons, and hoping that they would come. ... But he's not alone. There were others, including several U.S. senators and members of the House, who thought there were still weapons there and that I just hadn't found them but that they would ultimately show up.

But I have absolutely no complaint about the way the White House treated it. Now, I must say the intelligence community was a lot less welcoming of the conclusion than the White House was.

How poorly were you treated by them when you got back to Langley?

Well, I wouldn't say poorly; I wouldn't use that term. Let's say coldly.

One part of it, it's almost comical to me. In fact, I laughed at the time because it was so much like a poor spy novel. I was given an office that didn't have a working telephone, that was surrounded by packing cases, at the depths of Langley, with a secretary that usually wasn't there. You'd have to have been pretty dumb not to have caught the signals of it. But not even to have a secure phone in the office where you can't talk to anyone, nor a computer where you can e-mail -- I understood it.

What did it say to you?

What it said to me is these guys really don't want the message. And the reason is, for the intelligence community, the message wasn't, "There are no weapons there." The message was, "Our system completely broke down and failed." It gave not only the wrong answer, it mishandled every piece of evidence that we have. So it wasn't a case of one individual that should be fired -- although interesting enough, as far as I know, no individuals were fired. In fact, one of the last things I had to do as I left Baghdad [was] have a number of the inspectors come in and complain to me because … they wanted to know why they were out here and the people who had gotten it so wrong were getting personal bonuses.

... I think the intelligence community understood that if the American people and the policy-makers really understood the message I was delivering that there would have to be a major shakeup of the way the American intelligence is done, because this was just inexcusable.

So it wasn't the WMD issue itself. It was, they jumped very quickly to understanding, this is a freight train that's going to run right through here.

[We've talked to some of them, and the picture we get is one of analysts feeling a lot of pressure from Cheney, from Powell, from Tenet -- especially given his relationship with Bush -- to confirm the administration's suspicions, and so they went along with it.]

... Believe me, the people who worked on biological weapons really believed the trailer story. They really believed they existed. They believed Curveball was telling the truth and that there would be something there. I had two members of my team have almost a nervous breakdown, had to leave Baghdad, who were lead analysts on that, when they came face to face with the fact that it didn't exist and they had failed as individuals and had been wrong. The nuclear analysts ... deeply believed that those tubes were used for it, and it wasn't because they were pressured to believe those tubes [were] there. ...

I think [that] the permeation of the belief that Iraq lied, cheated, deceived and had had a weapons program and therefore would always have a weapons program, and we just couldn't find it, was widely shared.

Quite frankly, I'm one of those who [does] not believe that it was a mistake for the vice president or Powell or anyone to go out there [to Langley]. If I have analysts working for me, and they can't stand up to intense question[ing] of doubters or proponents who have an agenda, and speak the truth, I don't want them working for me as analysts. ... Analysts ought to be prepared to undergo pressure. You don't want people who can't stand up to that sort of pressure.

Policy-makers have a right to policy; what they don't have a right to are their own facts. The job of the analyst is to speak -- I hate to say speak truth to power, because often you don't know it's truth -- it's to speak your vision of what the facts are, and to lay that out to policy-makers. ...

I think it is true that George Tenet wanted to be a player, and he understood that if you didn't give the policy-makers what they wanted, he believed, I think wrongly, that you weren't a player, and therefore your views wouldn't be taken, and you wouldn't be invited into the closed meetings, etc. He traded integrity for access, and that's a bad bargain anytime in life. It's particularly a bad bargain if you're running an intelligence agency.

But I must say, I wish it were only a problem of the people at the top, ... but it really was deeper than that. The system had lost its ability to understand how it comes to conclusions under conditions of great uncertainty. There was no manager that I know of who stood up and said: "Mr. Tenet, we don't have enough information to reach a conclusion. We have to say we don't know." ...

[Editor's Note: After FRONTLINE originally aired portions of this interview with David Kay in 2006, George Tenet took issue with Kay's claim that Tenet had "traded integrity for access." In his 2007 autobiography At the Center of the Storm, Tenet wrote, "Ringing allegations. Great TV drama. And as wrong as any words can be. Never did I give policy makers information that I knew to be bad. We said what we said about WMD because we believed it." Tenet denied FRONTLINE's request for an interview.]

Did you watch the Powell speech on television?

... Powerful. I thought it was a powerful performance. ... [H]aving spent so much time around intelligence data, when people speak of it in an unclassified manner, I tend to say if they're saying this, then there must be a lot that's hidden. It is the two-thirds of the iceberg that's under the water. …

Powell, remember, and his staff made it widely known that he'd spent two to three days at the agency going over the data, had kicked stuff. Everything was, "Powell had vetted this; Powell believed it." And that was part of the [significance] surrounding the speech. ... You had two people behind him: You had [then-Ambassador to the U.N. John] Negroponte, who's now the director of national intelligence, on one shoulder, George Tenet on the other. It looked like it must be soundly based.

Why did he do it?

You'll have to ask him. I have no idea. One suspects it's [because] he is a deeply loyal team player, and he must have believed it.

Now, in fairness to Powell, I now understand, for example, on issues like Curveball, he was not told the truth when he was at the agency. When he was going over the data, he was told this was based on not one source but multiple sources. One of the sources he was told it was based on was already known to be a fabricator. He was not told that the Germans had denied the U.S. access to it. He was not told that there had been warnings from the Germans [that] this guy was, to say the least, undependable, alcoholic. So all the fine-grain stuff that might have caused him even then not to use it, he wasn't given an opportunity to hear firsthand. ...

Now, what he believed in his heart of hearts, I don't know. I know he told me that he had spent a lot of time going over the material that went into that speech and proved to be terribly disappointed when in fact what we were discovering on the ground was -- that much of that was not true.

... Do you think it's possible that some of the weapons-of-mass-destruction information was intentionally cooked?

I think some of the information was cooked. We know that from interviews and interrogations in Iraq. That is, Saddam purposely wanted his military and what he saw as his potential opposition, particularly Shi'a and Kurds, to believe that he still had weapons of mass destruction. ... We did a series of interviews with military officers that had surrounded Baghdad in the defense phase, and to a person they said, "I don't have weapons of mass destruction, but the unit on my right or left do." And you go to the unit on the right or left and, "I don't have them, but --," because it had been part of the mystique of believing in Saddam, that Saddam would always have an ace in the hole that he would pull out at the last minute. And indeed he had an amazing record of surviving where other people certainly would not have survived disasters like the Kuwait invasion, the Iran-Iraq War, various assassination attempts. So he certainly cooked it. ...

Do I believe it was cooked in the U.S.? I cannot imagine anyone describing, that knew the information, as being a "slam dunk." The information, as it was known by your own analyst, was caveated. Even people who believed it understood how little information they had and how much they were going on suppositions and past behavior.

I think, on the aluminum tubes, that test data was cooked, and it was portrayed upward in a very dishonest fashion. And my greatest worry about the U.S. intelligence system and its reform is the lack of accountability, the failure to hold individuals accountable. If everyone is accountable, no one is accountable. And that was sort of the case here.

Every commission, including the British commission, came to the conclusion that since everyone believed he had weapons of mass destruction, no one was responsible for the wrong conclusion. Well, there were people who had greater responsibility than others and should have tested the data. And they're walking around as honored individuals today. And that's a mistake; it's deeply troubling.

Are you saying that Tenet said, "Mr. President, this is a slam dunk," and knew it wasn't?

He certainly should have, if he said that -- now we're all relying on Bob Woodward. ... But if indeed he said it was a "slam dunk," yes, I think he was in a position that he should have -- he knew and would have had to know that the data was not of a character that one could describe, even in a loose manner, and certainly not in the Oval Office to the president, who has expressed doubt about the presentation he's heard, "Don't worry, Mr. President, that's a slam dunk."

The data was not that solid. George Tenet knew we had no agents inside Iraq. George Tenet knew that on the case of Curveball, no American had ever talked to Curveball directly; no American had been given his name by the Germans. And you go down the line, he knew the holes in the data. And yes, I think he certainly knew it wasn't a slam dunk. ...

You said Powell was basically lied to on Curveball; ... he was not told certain things, and he was told other things that were incorrect. Who's responsible for that? Is that Tenet?

Well, ultimately, the boss always should hold the responsibility, but I think you can say there were multiple briefers. Certainly John McLaughlin as his deputy, who had more day-to-day responsibility, should have ensured, and was in the room, and certainly knew the story about both the tubes and Curveball, knew the limitations, should have made sure that he knew it. ...

What happened?

The system broke down. It's this: We all knew he had weapons, so don't let the data get in your way, and the limitations. ... Much of the argument is, we all knew we were going to war; therefore it didn't matter. I think that is misunderstanding the situation. I think while that's true, we did all understand that the policy was for military action, and short of a miracle, that was going to take place. But what was partly driving that is this shared belief that he had weapons of mass destruction, sort of independent of the data. …

Quite frankly, the thing that I find hardest to understand in this entire story is that when George Tenet tells the president, who's just expressed doubt about the presentation, he says it's a slam dunk -- where was the national security adviser? What did Condi Rice -- I must have known every national security adviser since Henry Kissinger, and there is not a one of them, that if a director of the Central Intelligence Agency had said to the president, who expressed doubt about something of importance, "Don't worry, Mr. President, it's a slam dunk," who would have left the White House with all his body parts intact. He would have been told, "If the president's doubtful, you've got to find out why he's doubtful, and you've got to understand it, and you've got to bring back a better case."

But it was allowed to slide. Here again, I think it was allowed to slide because we all know he's got weapons.

But let's be specific about Ms. Rice. What about her? What should she have done?

She should immediately have said to any DCI -- not just George Tenet; anyone who did that in the Oval Office: "No, you go back, and you come back with a better case. Here are the doubts the president has expressed. Let's see what's there." She should have dove into it and gotten the details and final responsibility.

Look, everyone who comes into the Oval Office has an agenda. They have their view of the story. The purpose of the White House staff is to help the president understand what the various agendas are and figure out what the truth is. …

In this case, I think, the record looks like the entire White House staff became a cheerleader for the policy of going to war against Iraq, primarily, at least publicly, on the basis of weapons of mass destruction, and did not serve as a vetter and [guarantor] of the truth to the president.

And who are those cheerleaders? The head cheerleader is the vice president?

I think the head cheerleader certainly is the vice president, and Condi Rice when she was national security adviser. Rumsfeld certainly bore a role. But Rumsfeld will say, and they have said to you, "Look, my job was to, if the president has a mission, is to be sure that we have the troops and strategy that will carry out that mission." And I think that, in fact, is an honest answer of what it should be.

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posted march 24, 2008

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