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U.S. Intelligence Failures in Iraq

Aired August 18, 2005 - 23:00:00   ET


COLIN POWELL, FMR. U.S. SECY. OF STATE: What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.

COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN HOST: Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell making a case for war in Iraq. A commission appointed by President Bush now says U.S. intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was dead wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was anything but an intelligence document. It was, as some people characterized it later, sort of a Chinese menu from which you could pick and choose.

MCEDWARDS: Hello and welcome. I'm Colleen McEdwards.

The U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq. We've heard the criticism. We've watched the people in charge try to explain. But there is more. A new CNN PRESENTS documentary called "Dead Wrong: Inside on Intelligence Meltdown," puts together the chain of events that led to war in Iraq, and it does so with incredible access and candor among the key players.

CNN's David Ensor is the correspondent who worked on the documentary and he joins us now from Washington.

David, just set this all up for us, if you would, before we take a look at it. What will our viewers learn here that they didn't know before about the intelligence failure?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think what this program does is it puts it all in one place, Colleen, and you hear from insiders in detail and with some of their feelings about how things proceeded in ways that we simply haven't heard before. So it's more of an inside view and it puts everything all in one place.

I mean, most people know about the aluminum tubes mistake and the mistake over uranium from Niger, if they've followed this thing in detail. This puts it all in one place and perhaps leads people to think more about what kinds of changes there need to be the next time something like this happens. Clearly U.S. intelligence didn't do its best job in the run-up to the Iraq war and there have been changes, there may be more changes in the way they go about collecting intelligence for the president when he makes a big decision like that.

There also are questions that are raised in the documentary about the way that policymakers, from the president on down, handled that intelligence, how they used it in public. So it's a rather painful, I think -- at least for Americans -- look at how this thing went and how so many parts of it did not go well.

MCEDWARDS: And how so many people in so many different countries got it wrong too, correct?

ENSOR: Well, that's right. I mean, in fairness it is important to note that before the Iraq war, it was the view not only of U.S. intelligence, but of French intelligence, British intelligence and Russian intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction programs. After all, they had had them for many years, they had lied and cheated before on the United Nations and Saddam was the only leader who had in living memory used weapons of mass destruction on his own people. So there was plenty of reason to be suspicious.

The problem was, this time he was fooling. And he fooled everybody, including U.S. intelligence, and that's not good enough.

MCEDWARDS: All right, David Ensor, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

Now, David's entire documentary will air August 21. But we want to show you part of it now, and we begin where the U.S. case for war began, with former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations and the world.


ENSOR: A week later, Secretary of State Colin Powell will make the case for war in a speech to the United Nations.

POWELL: We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities.

ENSOR: Powell will put America's credibility and his own on the line.

COL. LARRY WILKERSON, COLIN POWELL'S CHIEF OF STAFF: So he came through the door that morning and he had in his hand a sheaf of papers and he said this is what I've got to present at the United Nations according to the White House and you need to look at it.

ENSOR: Colonel Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's longtime friend and advisor, was his chief of staff.

WILKERSON: It was anything but an intelligence document. It was as some people characterized it later, sort of a Chinese menu from which you could pick and choose.

ENSOR: At the CIA, Powell and his aides questioned, point by point, the menu of charges drafted by the White House.

WILKERSON: There was no way the secretary of state was going to read off a script about serious matters of intelligence that could lead to war when the script was basically un-sourced.

ENSOR: For four days and four nights in the conference room next to Tenet's office, they argued over the intelligence.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, FMR. CIA DEPUTY DIRECTOR: Secretary Powell asked a lot of questions, expressed skepticism about some, was reassured about others. If he was deeply skeptical, it came out. If we were deeply skeptical, it came out.

WILKERSON: And he turned to the DCI, Mr. Tenet, and he said, "Everything here, everything here, you stand behind."

And Mr. Tenet said, "Absolutely, Mr. Secretary." And he said, "Well, you know you're going to be sitting behind me tomorrow. You're going to be sitting right behind me, in camera."

POWELL: What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.

ENSOR: For more than an hour Secretary Powell displays photos, holds up a chemical vial that suggests anthrax, shows slides, all to make dozens of claims about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

POWELL: I am no expert on centrifuge tubes, but just as an old army trooper, I could tell you a couple of things.

CARL FORD, FMR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Every single thing we knew was thrown into that speech. This is all we got and we're making these firm judgments?

POWELL: One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq's biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents.

ENSOR: He makes a dramatic accusation. Saddam has bio-weapons labs mounted on trucks that would be almost impossible to find.

POWELL: We have firsthand descriptions --

DAVID KAY, FMR. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: In fact, Secretary Powell was not told that one of the sources he was given as a source of this information had indeed been flagged by the Defense Intelligence Agency as a liar, a fabricator.

ENSOR: Powell was also not told that the prime source, an Iraqi defector, codenamed "Curveball," had never been debriefed by the CIA.

LARRY JOHNSON, FMR. STATE DEPT. OFFICIAL: Maybe the name of agent was alarming enough. Maybe it should have been "Screwup" or "A Lying Sack of Manure." Something like that. But, you know, to know that you're giving the president a ticket to go to war based upon one source, at that point you want to drag the source in and talk to him yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Curveball is a case of utter irresponsibility and a good example of how decayed the intelligence process has become.

ENSOR: The day before Powell's speech, a CIA skeptic had warned about the defector's reputation as a liar. In an email reply, his superior acknowledges the problem but adds, "This war is going to happen regardless. The powers that be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he's talking about."

Powell was not told about the email.

POWELL: Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in the post September 11th world.

ENSOR: The speech would turn out to be riddled with misleading allegations but at the time the press plays it as an overwhelming success.

WILKERSON: He had walked into my office musing and he said words to the effect of, I wonder how we'll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one corner of the country to the other and find nothing.

ENSOR: "I will forever be known as the one who made the case," Colin Powell now says. "I have to live with that."

WILKERSON: I look back on it and I still say it's the lowest point in my life. I wish I had not been involved in it.

ENSOR: March 19th, 2003. The aerial bombardment of Iraq begins. It is the first preemptive war on this scale in U.S. history.

MCEDWARDS: We're going to take a short break and when we come back, the war and the U.S. hunt for weapons of mass destruction begins.

Stay with us.



KAY: My view was that the best evidence that I had seen was that Iraq indeed had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out we were all wrong.


MCEDWARDS: Former Weapons Inspector David Kay admitting U.S. intelligence failures on Iraq.

Welcome back.

In 2003, the CIA hired David Kay to take charge of finding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but almost as soon as Kay arrived he realized that what he was looking for just wasn't there.

Let's return now to a portion of the CNN PRESENTS documentary "Dead Wrong: Inside an Intelligence Meltdown," and CNN's David Ensor.


ENSOR: May 1st, 2003. The president declares that major combat in Iraq is over. But Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, the primary reason for going to war, have not yet been found.

George Tenet asks David Kay, who had been the chief U.N. nuclear inspector after the Gulf War, to take charge of the search.

KAY: When I took on this job I had a set of conditions to do it because I was essentially taking on the moral hazard, as I've referred to it, for the CIA. That is, it was a CIA conclusion that there were weapons.

ENSOR: Once Kay is in Iraq, it is almost immediately clear to him that the WMD stockpiles he and his thousand-strong team are searching for are not there. The aluminum tubes are an early signal.

KAY: We got in and found they really were part of a rocket program.

ENSOR: The bio-weapons labs described by Curveball don't exist. In private emails, Kay begins to warn Tenet that the evidence is falling apart.

WILKERSON: George actually did call the secretary and said, "I'm really sorry to have to tell you, we don't believe there were any mobile labs for making biological weapons."

This was third or fourth telephone call, and I think it's fair to say the secretary and Mr. Tenet at that point ceased being close.

You can be sincere and you can be honest and you can believe what you're telling the secretary, but three or four times on substantive issues like that, it's difficult to maintain any warm feelings.

ENSOR: Behind the scenes the ties of loyalty between President Bush and George Tenet begin to fray. And David Kay, after six months on the ground in Iraq, is ready to quit. Tenet tells him, "If you resign now, it will appear that we don't know what we're doing. That the wheels are coming off."

KAY: I was asked to not go public with my resignation until after the president's State of the Union address which -- this is Washington and in general -- I've been around long enough so I know in January you don't try to get bad news out before the president gives his State of the Union address.

It is time to give the fundamental analysis of how we got here.

ENSOR: Eight days after the president's January 2004 State of the Union, David Kay testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

KAY: My view was that the best evidence that I had seen was Iraq indeed had weapons of mass destruction. It turns out we were all wrong, and that is most disturbing.

If the intelligence community had said there were no weapons there, would the policymakers have decided for other reasons, regime change, human rights, whatever, to go to war? All you can say is we'll never know, because in fact the system said, apparently, it's a slam dunk, there are weapons there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The great 18th Director of Central Intelligence, the Honorable George J. Tenet.

ENSOR: On June 3rd, 2004, George Tenet announced his resignation. His tenure included major successes: unraveling Pakistani involvement in nuclear proliferation, convincing Libya to give up weapons of mass destruction, hitting the ground running in Afghanistan within days after 9/11.

MCLAUGHLIN: George Tenet drove that process. Clearly, the victories we've had in counterterrorism are ones that George Tenet deserves a great deal of credit for.

ENSOR: But when it came to the most important issue of his career, the war in Iraq, Tenet may be remembered for two words that could haunt him forever, "slam dunk."

KAY: You know, if you trade access and influence for independence and questioning, you're not serving either of the institutions you represent, the CIA or the president, at whose pleasure you serve.

TENET: It has been the greatest privilege of my life to be your director. I thank you all very much.

ENSOR: Six months later, Congress will mandate the first major overhaul of the nation's intelligence system since 1947, when the Central Intelligence Agency was created.


MCEDWARDS: We have to take a short break, but when we return, two former U.N. weapons inspectors will join us.

Stay with CNN.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Iraq has these weapons. I hope we find them, because if we don't find them we've got serious issues.

MCEDWARDS (voice-over): U.N. weapons inspectors before and after the war weigh in on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

HANS BLIX, FMR. U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: We felt that the intelligence did not turn out to be very, very impressive. Shaky I think is the word that I have used.


MCEDWARDS: Welcome back.

Terrence Taylor served as chief U.N. weapons inspector from 1995 to 1997. He is currently the president and the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and he joins us now on the phone actually from the U.S. state of North Carolina for more on this.

Mr. Taylor, David Ensor pointed out earlier in the program that it wasn't just U.S. intelligence, it wasn't just U.S. officials who believed there were weapons of mass destruction. Russian officials believed it, French officials believed it, British officials believed it. Why do you think so many people were able to get it so wrong?

TERRENCE TAYLOR, FMR. U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: Well, first of all, I'm not sure it was so wrong and absolutely wrong, but we can always argue about that. But I always felt at the time that you could have had the heads of intelligence of all those countries you mentioned and put them in the same room, despite whatever their political views were on what should be happening over Iraq, that they would have had a similar, shall I say, intelligence conclusion.

Don't forget also some of the information was coming from inspectors on the ground. For example, most of my experience and knowledge, while some of that was fed by information from intelligence services of various countries, not just the United States, of course, a great deal of it actually came from field experience, as one of the chief inspectors in the field.

MCEDWARDS: And yet we hear in this documentary, we hear very senior people talking about the intelligence being shaky, looking like a Chinese menu. We hear about a source who was a known liar, they say.

TAYLOR: Of course, certainly there was some bad intelligence coming through in individual cases by individual countries. I think unfortunately if there was a source and it was highly secret and highly confidential, I think there is a tendency to assign high credibility and high value to that particular intelligence and less value is given to the experience of the inspectors on the ground, although they were bringing back intelligence.

I have to say, as someone who from 1993 through to '97, who was involved at that time, we certainly found right up until 1997 we were still finding new information on the biological weapons program at that stage, as one of those who believes there was something to be found, but not large warehouses of weapons ready to use. That wasn't my view nor perhaps the view of most of the inspectors.

MCEDWARDS: Some of, again, the officials in this documentary talk about there being -- and this is a quote -- a "sense of decay" in the intelligence process. There have been changes in the United States, as people know, but what would you say to the public who might wonder could this kind of thing happen again.

TAYLOR: I suppose one can't exclude it from happening again. The thing that prevents it from happening again to the degree it did is the use of all sources of information, open source information even, and giving weight to, for example, as I have said before, the inspectors investigations on the ground and what they bring back and certainly even taking account of that in my view, we're finding all the time that Iraqis were attempting to hide the level of their technical capability from the inspectors, so they were all the time trying to put us off from finding out the exact details of the program, whether or not it was there. And so it was a really difficult challenge and so I think most inspectors had a strong suspicion -- I say most of them, not every single one -- most of them had a strong suspicion there was something being hidden, and I think right to the end there was a significant amount of information being hidden at least.

MCEDWARDS: Terrence Taylor, we'll leave it there. Terrence Taylor, chief U.N. weapons inspector from 1995 to 1997, thank you so much, appreciate it.

Well, Scott Ritter now was the United Nations top weapons inspector in Iraq until 1998, when he resigned, claiming President Clinton then was too easy on Saddam Hussein. Later, though, he changed his story, saying that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Ritter has a new book coming out called "Iraq Confidential." He joins us now from Albany, New York.

Mr. Ritter, we live in a time where Iran is at issue, there are intelligence questions about its nuclear program. North Korea is an issue, six-party talks going on to try to convince it to ban any nuclear program. Can people really believe and trust in the intelligence that they get?

SCOTT RITTER, FMR. U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: The question really should be can people believe and trust in the policies that are being formulated and implemented to ensure that these policies don't end up corrupting the intelligence process. What comes first?

In the case of Iraq, we had a policy of regime change where consecutive presidential administrations had said, look, we're going to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and they turn to the CIA and said make this happen. And one of the ways the CIA made this happen was to put forward a notion that Iraq had not complied with its obligation to disarm. They reinforced --

MCEDWARDS: So it's politics twisting intelligence you're saying?

RITTER: Absolutely. Look, as an intelligence officer, I did this for a number of years. My job was never to tell my boss what he or she wanted to hear. It was to tell them what the facts were. And unfortunately, something happened down the road with the CIA and the defense intelligence agency and the entire U.S. intelligence community, where people said, look, the president wants to hear that Iraq is not compliant. We're going to give him the bits and pieces of data out there that sustain this.

MCEDWARDS: But, come on, they are professionals. I mean, intelligence by its very definition is supposed to be something that is immune from spin, that is immunity from manipulation.

RITTER: Really? Then you tell me what happened with Iraq. Come on, tell me what happened with Iraq.

Let's not get coy here. We didn't have an intelligence failure. The CIA was directed by the president of the United States in 1992 to remove Saddam Hussein from power. This was President George Herbert Walker Bush. In 1994, President Bill Clinton sustained this directive, and this was continued by President George W. Bush. The CIA's job was regime change, not disarming Iraq.

MCEDWARDS: But, you know, I'm playing devil's advocate with you, because I mean the point made over and over in this documentary, and everybody knows politics is involved here, but it's really focused on the failure in the intelligence and, I mean, how do people know that despite the changes that have been made, that's not going to happen again, in any political environment?

RITTER: What I would tell you is because of the changes that have been made, it probably will happen again. The director of the CIA's position has been watered down to a point where it is a meaningless post. We now have John Negroponte, a political appointee, not an intelligence professional, running the intelligence community.

He reports directly to the president. He works for the president. And I believe it doesn't matter what the CIA intelligence analysts say. We see with Iran today. The CIA has come out and said they probably don't have an active nuclear weapons program, but you tell that to the president. The president believes if he states that there is a nuclear weapons program in Iran, it's worth confronting. The same kind of malarkey we got regarding Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs.

MCEDWARDS: Is Saddam Hussein partly to blame here, though, in that, as we heard from our previous guests. A lot of information was being held back. It was clearly in Saddam Hussein's interest to make the world believe that he had these weapons.

RITTER: Since 1992, March 19, 1992, the Iraqi government has stated that they had no weapons of mass destruction left in Iraq. They were starting the process of cooperating with inspectors.

The problem wasn't the Iraqis or the inspectors. The problem was the CIA, which was directed by the president to remove Saddam from power, and the CIA, using the inspection process to gather intelligence that targeted Saddam. There was never a trustful relationship between the Iraqis and the inspectors. The Iraqis never trusted the inspectors.

I was in charge of inspections that were very confrontational, from 1996 to 1998. At that time, we believed the Iraqis were impeding our work because they might be hiding something. We now know that the Iraqis didn't have any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq since the summer of 1991, so the question is, what were they impeding. They were impeding our inspection because they feared the CIA's efforts to remove their president from power.

MCEDWARDS: Scott Ritter, we've got to leave it there. Thanks very much, appreciate it.

RITTER: Thank you.

MCEDWARDS: Be sure to watch the entire documentary "Dead Wrong: Inside an Intelligence Meltdown," with CNN's David Ensor. It will begin airing on Sunday August 21.

And that is it for this edition of INSIGHT. I'm Colleen McEdwards. The news continues, right here on CNN.



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