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Countering Intelligence

CIA Director George Tenet refutes claims that the intelligence community told the White House that Iraq was an imminent threat.
 
 
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In a major speech this morning addressing the failure to find WMD in Iraq, CIA Director George Tenet said the intelligence community never told the White House that Iraq was an imminent threat to America -- a stunning blow to the White House, considering its repeated and unequivocal claims that war was necessary because Iraq was an "imminent," "immediate," "urgent" and "mortal" threat. While the White House has tried to say it never claimed Iraq was an imminent threat, the record proves otherwise. Tenet's speech follows an interview last night on 60 Minutes II with the State Department's top intelligence officer Greg Theilmann, who said, "The main problem [before the war] was that the senior administration officials have what I call faith-based intelligence. They knew what they wanted the intelligence to show ... They were really blind and deaf to any kind of countervailing information the intelligence community would produce. I would assign some blame to the intelligence community and most of the blame to the senior administration officials."

Tenet's remarks are consistent with the intelligence community's repeated warnings to the White House that the President's WMD case for war was weak. Not only did the intelligence community not say Iraq was an imminent threat, but in many instances they acknowledged they had no hard evidence about Iraq's WMD at all. Consider this: In 1997, the International Atomic Energy Agency verified there were "no indications" that Iraq was able to produce nuclear weapons or had "clandestinely acquired such material." The Defense Intelligence Agency told the White House in September, 2002 that there was "no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons" and said, "a substantial amount of Iraq's chemical warfare agents, precursors, munitions, and production equipment were destroyed between 1991 and 1998 as a result of Operation Desert Storm and UN actions." The State Department's intelligence agency warned the White House against the WMD claims in October 2002, saying, "The activities we have detected do not ... add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquiring nuclear weapons." And just this week, Newsweek exclusively reported, two separate government panels -- including one chaired by Donald Rumsfeld -- reported before the war that assertions about Iraq's WMD "were based on suspicions, not hard data." The panels "got access to CIA materials" and concluded that the "absence of hard evidence was so striking" that they specifically developed a "Wizard of Oz theory: that the whole Iraq WMD program was smoke-and-mirrors, and Saddam was just a little guy behind a curtain." See American Progress's complete list of warnings.

In a Senate hearing yesterday, Rumsfeld yesterday tried to dodge his past claims about Iraq's supposed possession of WMD. Last March, when asked why troops had yet to find WMD in Iraq, Rumsfeld flatly replied, "We know where they are." Yesterday, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) pressed him on that statement, leading Rumsfeld to equivocate, conceding "that he had misspoken" and that his claim was actually his shorthand for "suspect sites," where "analysts believed chemical or biological weapons might have been stored." Reading the transcript of his original comments, his answer was to a direct question about WMD themselves, not "suspect sites." And his claim was part of a slew of similar claims by the rest of the Administration. For example, in May 2003, President Bush said, "We found the weapons of mass destruction." And Colin Powell further fed the flames, saying, "I'm absolutely sure that there are weapons of mass destruction there and the evidence will be forthcoming. We're just getting it now." Rumsfeld further dug himself into a hole when he said that David Kay's comments that "we were all wrong" was just a "hypothesis" to explain the difference between the prewar intelligence and what has been found on the ground.

Between August 2001, and January 2002, President Bush drastically changed his tune about whether Iraq possessed WMD. At first, he questioned whether or not Iraq even had any WMD, saying on August 7, 2001, "Saddam needs to open his country up for inspection so we can see whether or not he's developing weapons of mass destruction." But by January, that "whether or not" had veered into a statement of fact, with the President saying, "Saddam Hussein must disarm himself of all weapons of mass destruction." And by March, it was a definitive statement: "[Iraq is] a nation which has weapons of mass destruction." However, there was no significant change in the intelligence assessment of Iraq's arsenal. In fact, Condoleezza Rice admitted this past September that, "this president relied on the same basis of intelligence that three administrations relied on, that was gathered from intelligence services around the world and that the U.N. itself relied on in keeping Saddam Hussein under sanctions for 12 years."

Without significant new intelligence, what happened to change his position? One possibility: In September 2001, The Pentagon created the Office of Special Plans "in order to find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true -- that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States." The office, hand-picked by the Administration, specifically "cherry-picked intelligence that supported its pre-existing position and ignoring all the rest" while officials deliberately "bypassed the government's customary procedures for vetting intelligence."

President Bush is slowly backing away from his previous insistence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. "Defending his decision to invade Iraq, President Bush in an address Wednesday dropped any explicit reference to the claim of weapons of mass destruction on which he built his case for war." Instead, he shifted, merely claiming, "Baghdad had possessed 'the intent and capability to inflict great harm.'" The Atlanta Constitution-Journal points out, "For months, Bush regularly mentioned banned weapons in speeches that first called for, then later justified, the war in Iraq, where 528 Americans have died and another 2,600 have been wounded since the U.S. invasion last March." But yesterday, "Bush made no direct mention of Iraqi weapons."