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Iraq/U.S.: New Book Contradicts CIA Director's Intelligence

  • Andrew Tully

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq has focused attention on the work of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The agency's director, George Tenet, says President George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq last year was based on the best information available at the time. But a new book on the lead-up to the Iraq war portrays Tenet as a man who found this evidence convincing, even as Bush himself expressed skepticism.

Washington, 20 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Two months ago, CIA director George Tenet gave a public response to the growing concern about the quality of U.S. intelligence preceding the Iraq war.

His remarks came amid questions about whether the Bush administration had pressured the U.S. intelligence community to help make the case for war, by presenting evidence that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat.

But Tenet said CIA analysts never portrayed Hussein as an imminent threat to the region, the world, or the United States. And he directly countered claims that Bush policymakers influenced how the CIA interpreted its own intelligence:

"If I were the president, I'd say, 'Go back to your office and call me when you're ready to give me a professional presentation."
"The question being asked about Iraq, in the starkest terms, is, 'Were we right or were we wrong?' In the intelligence business, you are almost never completely wrong or completely right. That applies, in full, to the question of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction," Tenet said.

But that is not how Tenet is characterized in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward of "The Washington Post" newspaper.

Woodward's reporting contributed to the resignation of President Richard Nixon three decades ago following the Watergate scandal. In his latest book, "Plan of Attack," he writes that during a crucial meeting with Bush, Tenet twice reassured a wary president that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Woodward writes that in December, 2002 -- three months before the war began -- Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin, gave Bush what the president hoped would be a convincing case against Hussein -- convincing enough to prevail in a court of law.

According to the book, McLaughlin gave a detailed presentation with charts and photographs. But when he was done, Bush said it was not convincing. The U.S. president is quoted as saying, "I've been told all this intelligence about [Hussein] having WMD, and this is the best we've got?"

Woodward writes that Tenet described the case as foolproof, literally calling it a "slam-dunk." When Bush again expressed skepticism, Tenet reiterated his conviction that the evidence against Hussein was sound.

During three-and-a-half hours of interviews with Woodward for the book, Bush recalled that Tenet's reassurance about the quality of the intelligence was "very important" in influencing his decision to go to war.

How to explain the two apparent faces of Tenet -- one brashly confident of the case for war; one wary and defensive about the CIA's intelligence?

Retired U.S. Army General Edward Atkeson tells RFE/RL that he finds the passage from Woodward's book very troubling on several levels. Atkeson served as an intelligence officer in Europe during the Cold War and several times was temporarily transferred to the CIA.

Was the head of the CIA truly surprised by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? If so, says Atkeson, his initial confidence is unsettling.

Also, Atkeson says, Woodward's account presents Tenet in a way that is almost cavalier, and not consistent with the typical intelligence-community methods:

"I wouldn't have expected him to just pristinely lay the thing on the president's desk and say, 'That's it, and if you have any questions, give me a call.' Nor would I expect him to give a kind of a 'slam-dunk' kind of a demonstration," Atkeson said.

In fact, Atkeson says he is bothered by Tenet's demeanor as it is described by Woodward. He says analysts may speak in sports slang when discussing work-related matters among themselves in unguarded moments.

But no one, not even the CIA director himself, would dare to speak so casually to a president, especially a president who has a reputation for demanding proper behavior from everyone.

"That's out of character for anybody in the business, so far as a presentation of some gravitas [is concerned]. That's unprofessional. If I were the president, I'd say, 'Go back to your office and call me when you're ready to give me a professional presentation," Atkeson said.

Atkeson also says he finds Woodward's account troubling because of its sourcing. Although the writer claims to have spoken to 75 officials close to the case, nearly all of them are unnamed. Only material from the Bush interviews is fully attributed to the president.

Atkeson says he questions how skeptical Bush really was about the intelligence regarding Hussein's suspected weapons arsenal. He also wonders if Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, may have urged the president to portray himself as reluctant to go to war.

"[Bush] may have Rove sitting right behind him saying, 'Tell [Woodward] this, tell him that.' That would fit in with the popular view of the way [Bush's] staff works -- you know, where they're always trying to minimize damage and put the best light that they can on things," Atkeson said.

Tenet says his agency is currently evaluating whether it served the country well in the way it gathered and presented intelligence to the president. He said the evaluation will be thorough, and the American people must be patient in awaiting the verdict.

But with Woodward's book putting the CIA on the defensive, it appears a reckoning may come sooner than anybody may have thought.