(Cont'd)State of the Union speech, whom Condoleezza Rice in
Mark Follman
(Cont'd)State of the Union speech, whom Condoleezza Rice in
Wed Jan 21 13:35:22 2004


So around Christmastime, here's this drafter of the State of the Union speech, whom Condoleezza Rice instructs to draft a couple of paragraphs about WMD in Iraq, and the drafter says, "Where do I get that?" and she says, "Well, consult the NIE." So the damage had already been done with the NIE report itself. Condi should've known better with this. The key question is, who allowed it to stand in that report? It's exactly the kind of pressure that folks who are malleable managers do not have the guts to resist. The senior person in charge of the NIE bowed to the pressure that came from the White House, and presumably from the vice president's office, so that the report would support what the vice president had already said. Cheney set the terms on Aug. 26, and who's going to come out with a report that says otherwise?

In the old days, that's exactly what we would've done, and we'd be persona non grata in the vice president's office. Not so anymore.

If George Tenet is to blame for the blunder, why is President Bush backing him now with "absolute confidence," rather than asking for Tenet's immediate resignation?

Well, George Tenet is not to blame. If you look at his statement carefully -- and this is vintage Tenet -- he says, "I confess, she did it." He says, "I confess I didn't catch the error because I didn't read it carefully enough, but I didn't put the error in there."

So he's taking responsibility by saying, "I'm captain of the ship and this happened on my watch?"

But he's not the captain of the ship. Condoleezza Rice is. She's responsible for this text of the president's speech, not George Tenet. And she's explained it: She says, "We got it from the NIE report." People don't realize what that really means. The NIE report, having already been prostituted, means the deceit and the damage run that much deeper.

But who is ultimately responsible for the NIE report?

That is Tenet. But if we're talking about the president's speech, Condoleezza Rice is responsible. But you're right about the NIE report -- that's George Tenet, and the malleable manager he appointed to manage it.

That said, how does the president blaming Tenet square with the widespread accounts of CIA warnings about the Niger report months prior?

Tenet's influence and stature is like that of a successful congressional staffer. He's a lawyer, and he knew how to ingratiate himself with both sides of the aisle -- usually a good thing in politics, but not a good thing when it comes to the responsibilities of a CIA director. Because if he's going to speak truth to power he's going to make lots of enemies.

But he doesn't have the stature of Rumsfeld or Cheney. If you look at Cheney's Aug. 26 speech -- remember, this is around the time when Cheney visited the CIA on multiple occasions -- there's great pressure on the analysts to produce. Will it be an honest estimate, saying there's no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program? Or will they stick stuff in there that they know will make Cheney look right? I hate to say it, but this was the course chosen, and Tenet is that kind of person. Where does that leave Tenet now? Well, he played the team game. He should've threatened to resign if that kind of fraudulent stuff appeared as "intelligence," but he didn't. He hung around as part of the team.

No wonder the president has complete confidence in him. He does what he's told, no matter what his analysts think.

What do you make of Tenet's pointing the finger at Robert Joseph of the NSC during Wednesday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing?

The only thing Tenet confessed to before was being a lousy proofreader. What Tenet's really saying now is, "How many times did I have to tell these guys that the report was bogus?" The fact that Tenet now mentions Joseph's name doesn't surprise me -- somebody has to draft these things, and my information was that it was Joseph who drafted that section of the speech. He was the natural choice; he's a proliferation guy at the NSC and very much a hard-liner.

Is there any precedent for this kind of intelligence breakdown? You were in the CIA during the LBJ administration -- how does the Iraq-Niger debacle compare to the Gulf of Tonkin escalation in Vietnam?

There's always pressure of this kind, and it's always intense with matters of war and peace. Gulf of Tonkin maybe rivals this, though it doesn't strike me at all as being nearly as contrived and concerted and jointly plotted over a long period of time. I was [at the CIA] during Tonkin, and I know the second incident didn't happen: the initial report of a big firefight going on, which was disputed by a Navy pilot, James Stockdale, who was flying overhead at the time and reported pitch blackness. The initial report was a mistake, a lightning storm or something, but there was certainly no attack on U.S. ships.

My colleague who was writing this up for the next daily report outlined this in his draft and sent it up the line. He was told, "We're not going to put a piece out for tomorrow morning." He asked, "What could be more important than this?" and the word came back down that the White House had already decided to go to war, and that the agency wasn't going to wear out its welcome there.

So you're saying this has happened before, but not on the same scale in terms of planning.

Look, I'm not at all excusing what happened back then -- these are both really egregious sins. Just consider what happened after Tonkin. Years later, McGeorge Bundy told a wonderful vignette on the "McNeil Lehrer News Hour." He explained that the president came in the next day [after the alleged incident] and said to him, "OK, Mac, we've got the documentation we need, now go over to the Hill and sell that resolution." Bundy protested that the evidence wasn't good at all, and LBJ turned to him and asked, "Look, are you part of the team?" Well, we know his answer. That was August 1964. Eleven years of war in Vietnam followed, with almost 60,000 U.S. soldiers killed, and over a million Vietnamese killed.

McNeil and Lehrer didn't bother to ask Bundy why he did it. I mean, Bundy was no slouch -- he was [a dean at] Harvard, so he wasn't going to be out in the street looking for a job. So you can imagine the severe pressure from policymakers at that level, especially a president who makes very clear he wants to hear "yes, sir." Bundy caved in, and that's what's happened here.

You seem to be saying that intelligence is always politicized to some degree by the White House.

No, I don't agree that intelligence is always politicized. It depends on who's president, and who that president selects as head of the CIA. There have been incredibly honest CIA directors who wouldn't bend to this kind of pressure. I'm thinking of Bill Colby and Stan [Stansfield] Turner -- and I'm also thinking of a fellow named George H. Bush. When the first President Bush was CIA director, he'd been chair of the Republican National Committee, so all of us were afraid he'd be inclined to participate in policy decisions, and perhaps even mess with the intelligence. He solemnly promised not to do that.

Well, I worked directly for him, and you know what? He kept his promise. He recused himself when policy decisions were made, and he was very faithful in representing what we analysts thought, down at the White House. And when he was president he knew, and expected the same from his CIA directors.

What do you see as the greatest dangers of a politicized intelligence system in terms of broader democracy and national security?

Analysts are human beings. They want to make a good living and be promoted just like the rest of us. But if all you have left in the intelligence community are analysts who have really good noses for which way the political wind is blowing and trim their sails accordingly, the country is in grave danger. You have to depend on somebody to tell it like it is. There's an inscription at CIA headquarters: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." When you lose all the people who believe that, you've lost a precious asset. The ability of the president to make a well-informed, objective policy decision is greatly diminished.

Why did the U.S. intelligence community fail to prevent the 9/11 attacks? And why, almost two years later, does the American public still have no clear explanation of what went wrong?

It was an egregious failure, and there's no getting around that. Enough information has come out to indicate there were enough bits and pieces for a junior high school kid to figure out something very bad was about to happen. We know there were high-level meetings where assertions were made that bin Laden would attempt something pretty spectacular. There was a president's daily brief prepared on Aug. 6, 2001, entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.," and we know in the body of that report there were allusions to plane hijackings. I haven't read that report; this much was leaked to the press. But I do know that when a daily brief has that kind of title and mentions those kinds of things, then it's very important indeed. It appears the administration just took them as routine warnings.

I don't subscribe to the more sinister theories; I take the more charitable interpretation: gross incompetence on the part of the president and the CIA director. The president was served up with repeated warnings, so much so that the "cry wolf" syndrome set in. He didn't know what to do with all the information, so he went off to Texas to chop wood instead. Nobody collared him and said, "Hey, this is really serious."

Pearl Harbor was the reason the CIA was set up in 1947, expressly to prevent this kind of thing: one central clearing house for all the bits of information. Its raison d'Ítre was objectivity, and to prevent such an attack. But the CIA director only has the power to carry out this mission in deference to the president. Unless the president makes it clear, like Jimmy Carter did with Stan Turner, that the CIA director is his main man for intelligence, and that anyone who interferes will be sent packing ... that hasn't happened with this president. Right now the director of the CIA has a hell of a lot of responsibility, and very little authority. He doesn't control 80 percent of the intelligence budget, which is in the Pentagon.

In the end, it all goes back to who we elect in November.

Does VIPS have any kind of ideological or partisan agenda?

Look, we're not afraid of speaking up on these issues, and we feel our credentials speak for themselves. I have letters from George H. Bush, and awards given to me upon retirement. In other words, I graduated summa cum laude. This is true of my other senior-level colleagues as well.

We don't have a partisan agenda -- that's basic to who we are as intelligence professionals. To be against the war is not to be partisan, it's to be sensible. People in this town are intellectually unable to believe that there can be a group working inside Washington without a partisan agenda. When we say we're dedicated to the pursuit of truth and career protection for people pursuing truth, people's eyes glaze over, and they shrug and say, "Yeah, right." It's a hard thing to believe.

What's the press missing in all this? Is there other evidence of a contrived pre-war campaign to mobilize public opinion? After all, it seemed there was reason to believe that Saddam, with the way he thwarted U.N. inspectors, etc., did actually have WMD programs...

He did have WMD programs. What wasn't talked about was how they were [mostly] destroyed. We have that from his son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who defected in 1995. He was head of the Iraqi WMD programs. He told U.N. inspectors what Saddam had and where, and after the inspectors found and destroyed most of that, Kamel claimed that he himself ordered the rest destroyed. Of course you don't take that at face value, but this came from someone who'd been a pretty credible source in the past, and he was a defector.

A few weeks ago [Mahdi] Obeidi [head scientist of Iraq's uranium enrichment program in the '80s and early '90s] dug up a rose plant in a garden and revealed a few centrifuge components and some blueprints. Obeidi explained that his orders in 1991 were to squirrel this stuff away for the day when the order was given to reconstitute the program. He said that order never came.

How do you feel about the post-9/11 reorganization of U.S. intelligence agencies into the one behemoth Department of Homeland Security? What does it mean for the agencies in terms of doing a credible, nonpartisan job?

I agree with President Bush on this. He was courageous and right when he said creating a Department of Homeland Security would be a huge mistake -- that's what he said for several months anyway. He said it would detract from our fight against terrorism and bog down the system for years.

What changed his mind? Pressure grew, of course, for the president to show that he was doing something [after 9/11] on a big organizational level. There were revelations about failures within the INS, and lack of communication between the FBI and CIA.

Colleen Rowley, the courageous FBI agent in Minneapolis who wrote the letter to the FBI director about the overlooked hijacking intelligence, testified before Congress in May of last year. The same day, when the publicity would have been all about her, the president went on television and said, in effect, that he'd changed his mind about the Department of Homeland Security. Now, do I think he decided this just to take the press away from Rowley? Of course not. But it does account for the timing, I think. The legislation wasn't ready yet; it took Congress several more weeks. Everything is choreographed in this administration.

This [new department] couldn't be worse. I used to run our intelligence exchange with the Germans, and I can tell you that sharing with foreign intel services is a delicate prospect; you have to give them some sort of guarantee that the exchange will be protected. Now, do you think they'll be eager to hand over sensitive information and risk a source if it's going to a department with 170,000 people in it, where they have little idea of who's going to be responsible for handling it? So what could be more noxious to the system? The bulk of our terrorism information comes from these services.

Of course, there is justification for fixing the INS and other problems in terms of sharing information, but to create a mammoth department -- the biggest ever, aside from the Pentagon -- even from a management point of view, makes no sense at all. It will actually endanger the intelligence process and the fight against terrorism.

Do you think the American public is ultimately willing to overlook the major intelligence failures of the Bush administration, including the Iraq-Niger report?

The important thing will be what happens on the ground in Iraq. Nobody I know expects the administration to be able to extricate itself quickly from what's happening. With each week that produces a handful of U.S. casualties, more questions will be asked. If I were a father of a son who died over there, I'd be banging on the White House door, wanting to know why he was sent over to disarm Iraq of WMD that don't appear to exist.

I think there's a basic decency to the American people, and they really do care when kids go off to get killed. And they care about being lied to. Even the press is finally waking up -- apparently they don't like to be lied to either. There is some prospect, I think, that as things wash out here, the invasion of Iraq will be seen as an unprecedented blunder, and those responsible for selling it to Congress will be held accountable. It may not happen until November of next year, but it seems more likely now than it did just a short

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