06 February 2004
By Andrew Buncombe in Washington
The director of the CIA, George Tenet, contradicted yesterday claims made, or implied, by the Bush administration that Iraq had posed an imminent danger to the West before the United States-led invasion last March. Intelligence reports had "never said there was an imminent threat", he said.
Mr Tenet, in his first public defence of the beleaguered intelligence agency, said that analysts had various opinions about the state of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes and that these were clearly spelled out in a report handed to the White House in October 2002.
That report, the National Intelligence Estimate, included 40 caveats and dissents from various analysts. "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," he said.
Mr Tenet said the intelligence agencies had been asked to say if Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
"We concluded that in some of these categories Iraq had weapons, and that in others, where it did not have them, it was trying to develop them, he said. "Let me be clear: analysts differed on several important aspects of these programmes 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 programmes that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests."
In recent days, the US intelligence community has been roundly condemned for it's alleged "failures" as the White House has sought to shift responsibility over its decision to invade Iraq. With no weapons of mass destruction having been discovered, David Kay, the man who until recently led the US search, said last week that he believed no stockpiles existed and that "we were all wrong".
While various anonymous intelligence officials have retaliated by saying the information they provided was as accurate as it could be, Mr Tenet's speech at Georgetown University in Washington DC, was the first time the CIA's leadership has defended its analysts. Mr Tenet has a close relationship with George Bush, but his remarks will be seized on by critics of the administration who claim that intelligence was cherry-picked by officials who used various elements to build a case to support their desire to oust Saddam Hussein. Greg Thielmann, a former intelligence official with the State Department, called such a practice "faith-based intelligence gathering".
The administration claimed recently that it never said Saddam was an imminent threat. The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, last week dismissed the issue of WMD by saying "the media have chosen to use the word 'imminent'" to describe the Iraqi threat - not the Bush administration.
Such claims are easily disproved. A website run by the liberal activist group MoveOn.org said that on 7 May last year the then White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was asked: "Didn't we go to war because we said WMD were a direct and imminent threat to the US?" He replied: "Absolutely." Mr Bush, speaking in October 2002, said: "The Iraqi regime is a threat of unique urgency."
Also in that month, the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said: "Ask yourself this question: was the attack that took place on 11 September an imminent threat the month before or two months before or three months before or six months before? When did the attack on 11 September become an imminent threat? Now, transport yourself forward a year, two years or a week or a month ... So the question is, when is it such an immediate threat that you must do something?"
Mr Tenet's robust defence of the agency came as the Senate Intelligence Committee was set to publish a report criticising the intelligence community's failures over Iraq.
Mr Kay said yesterday that analysts had made honest mistakes and had not been pressured by the administration. But he said that the commission of inquiry promised by Mr Bush must investigate whether there had been an "abuse of the information by the politicians".
A question of evidence
In October 2002, the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said:
"Ask yourself this question: Was the attack that took place on 11 September an imminent threat the month before or two months before or three months before or six months before? When did the attack on 11 September become an imminent threat? Now, transport yourself forward a year, two years or a week or a month... So the question is, when is it such an immediate threat that you must do something?"
In October 2002, President George Bush, said:
"Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
On 7 May 2003, Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman at the time, was asked:
"Didn't we go to war because we said WMD were a direct and imminent threat to the US?" He replied: "Absolutely."
Yesterday, the CIA director George Tenet said:
"Let me be clear: analysts differed on several important aspects of these [WMD] programmes and those debates were spelled out in the [advice to the administration]. They never said there was an imminent threat."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd