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Tenet Retraces the Path to War in Iraq


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne. Good morning.

President Bush vetoed Congress' war spending bill yesterday, calling the bill's troop withdrawal dates rigid and artificial.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure, and that would be irresponsible.

INSKEEP: The House votes this morning on whether to override the president's veto, but that effort is expected to fail. So that's an update on the debate over ending the war. Here's an update on the debate over how it began.

Former CIA Director George Tenet's new book is out, called "At the Center of the Storm." It discusses some of his notable successes, such as breaking up a nuclear black market run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. It also discusses some notable failures, like the 9/11 attacks and the flawed pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

Yesterday, George Tenet sat down with NPR's intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly at our studios in New York.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: George Tenet showed up early and a bit grumpy. His first request was for coffee, his second, that the interview run as short as possible. But in the studio, Tenet livened up. Even when talking about uncomfortable memories, such as sitting behind then Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations as he made the case for going to war against Iraq.

Mr. GEORGE TENET (Former Director, CIA): We were talking to the whole world that day. It's very difficult to regain your credibility when you end up being wrong.

KELLY: We asked Tenet to spend some time walking us through the months leading up the Iraq invasion. We started with October 2002. That's when President Bush delivered a speech in Dearborn, Michigan telling Americans about the alleged links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.

Pres. BUSH: This is a man we know has had connections with al-Qaida. This is a man who, in my judgment, would like to use al-Qaida as a forward army.

KELLY: But the CIA judged that there were no operational connections between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. We asked Tenet, didn't the president's remarks go well beyond the available intelligence?

Mr. TENET: I think the president was expressing his concern at the time, and it was his judgment at the time. Policymakers are allowed to make judgments so long as they understand the intelligence that underpins it. But you can go back and parse all these things out today, you could say, is every statement perfect? Did everybody speak with the exactitude that was required? Well, you know, probably not. And were we perfect in everything that we cleared? No. Are they allowed to make judgments? Yes.

KELLY: Around that same time - late 2002, early 2003 - Americans began hearing increasingly ominous warnings about Iraq's nuclear capabilities.

Pres. BUSH: 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.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: We know he's been absolutely devoted to try to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Department of State): We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

KELLY: That's, of course, then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the vice president and the president. But the intelligence, as you were reporting it, did not support what they're saying.

Mr. TENET: So essentially, we believe that Iraq is reconstituting his nuclear weapons program. We say that we don't believe he'll have a nuclear weapon until 2007, 2009.

KELLY: And that he did not have one at that time.

Mr. TENET: But no, he certainly didn't have one at the time. But let's be careful about this as well. And this is where history of Saddam Hussein is something that deeply impacted everybody at the time. We remember the time period in 1991 where we believed that Saddam was eight or nine years away from developing a nuclear capability, and we got on the ground and we found that he was six months away.

Then at the time, because of our historical mindset of where Saddam was led us to conclude - led us, intelligence analysts and professionals to conclude we're worried about what we don't know.

So we ended up, Mary Louise, we were wrong. We have to be honest about the fact that that was the prevalent view at the time.

KELLY: Did you, though, knowing what your intelligence analysts had come up with and you'd signed off on, and then knowing what you're hearing from senior administration officials, did you ever feel it was your responsibility to correct the public record?

Mr. TENET: Well, I worked hard in ensuring that whatever came out of the president's mouth was as accurate as this could possibly be. I say in the book I made a mistake. When the vice president made his VFW speech in August of 2002, he didn't clear the speech. I had the responsibility to go see him and tell him that I didn't see that everything he said comported with the intelligence. You know, we did our best to do this. Was it perfect at my end? Was it perfect at their end? No. I'll take responsibility for what I didn't get done.

KELLY: I asked Tenet to move on to the now famous meeting in the Oval Office, the morning of December 21st, 2002.

And you'd been summoned to layout for the president the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and you used two words that I gather you wish you could take back.

Mr. TENET: Which two words are those, Mary Louise?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TENET: Yeah. Well, you know, the interesting thing as I reflect back on that was that morning, we were gathered to talk about a public case that might be made. And, you know, the presentation we made that morning, it just wasn't very, very good.

KELLY: In fact, according to Tenet's book, the president's reaction to his CIA's briefers was, nice try. Tenet says he knew the CIA could do better, and that strengthening the public presentation about the need for war against Iraq was a slam dunk.

Mr. TENET: Now, the way it was subsequently described, you know, I jumped up. I did this Michael Jordan routine - none of that happened. The individual sitting next to me said, you know, boss, you said it. It was a passing comment. And when I read about it, it looked as though - the way it was portrayed, you said slam dunk, and they said let's go to war. And that's not the way it happened.

KELLY: Just over a month later, February 5th, 2003, Colin Powell delivered his speech at the United Nations.

Mr. COLIN POWELL (Former Secretary of State): My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources - solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.

KELLY: Of course, as it turned out, the intelligence was not solid, but flat out wrong.

Mr. TENET: Well, we believed in what we wrote. We spent a lot of time dealing with it. We had high confidence in a lot of this. All I can tell you is nobody regrets the secretary being out there more than I do.

KELLY: And at the time, you believed everything what he was saying.

Mr. TENET: Well, our people cleared it. Our people - we wrote this. I mean, you know, how can you - you can't walk away from it. Look, the underpinning, the basis and the foundation - we provided it, okay? And so this notion that we're walking away from our - we can never walk away from that responsibility.

So, you know, in thinking about this book a little bit is, okay, where were we wrong? Where were we right? We're wrong at the front end. We were right at the back end. There are lots of other things we did well.

KELLY: In terms of how things would play out after the invasion.

Mr. TENET: Well, we were certainly right about how things would play out after the invasion.

KELLY: Perhaps the line from Tenet's book that has attracted the most attention so far is this one, on page 305. Tenet writes, quote, "There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat." Tenet was hardly a peripheral player in the days leading up to war in Iraq. I asked him did it ever occur to him to speak up and try to initiate that debate?

Mr. TENET: I'm just telling you that, well, look, I'm the director of Central Intelligence, and I'm providing you with intelligence and I'm not a policy maker and I don't cross that line. And my more important point I think is, is there a time where we all sat down and said is this the right thing to do or not?

You know, I didn't see some questions asked. I also say perhaps we should've done a better job of raising questions in this time period. Maybe we had some responsibility to put more data on the table to force some of these questions.

If you're thinking about, from my perspective - the lesson I'm trying to think about is if you're going to take a country to war, how does that process work? How do we think through it? Perhaps I didn't see everything. Perhaps I didn't.

KELLY: Former CIA director George Tenet, speaking there about his career and his new book, "At the Center of the Storm."

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, New York.

INSKEEP: You can read a profile of George Tenet and follow an interactive timeline of his days in the Bush administration at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.