As a ploy for war, “wrongfooting” Saddam was a bust. With each passing week he seemed less of a threat. Cheney’s clock was ticking; American military plans, hoping to avoid the brutal Iraqi summer, called for fighting to begin in March at the latest. Bush was determined and Blair was willing to go forward with war, but since the U.N. gambit had generated no just cause for war, the Americans were compelled to make the case before the U.N. themselves. The date was set for Feb. 5, and Colin Powell was chosen to present the evidence — the fruits of many months of work by the collectors and analysts of George Tenet’s CIA. Everything seemed to rest on the strength of Powell’s argument — the onset of war, the Bush policy to remake the Middle East, the American reputation in the world. This was the moment when the intelligence and the war fell completely into lockstep; no intelligence, no war. If Tenet is to be vindicated as an honest man, this is where he must convince us the intelligence was genuinely believed and honestly presented.
“My colleagues,” Powell said in the speech, “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.” Visible behind Powell as he placed his public reputation on the line was George Tenet, arms folded and filling his seat with bearlike bulk. Tenet had personally guaranteed Powell that every claim he made was on firm ground.
“It was a great presentation,” Tenet writes of Powell’s speech, “but unfortunately the substance didn’t hold up.”
The substance, in fact, was wrong in every particular, as is now well known. Tenet does not linger on that. He argues instead that it didn’t matter: Bush didn’t go to war because the CIA told him Saddam Hussein had WMD — the dead-certain “slam dunk” he used to describe the evidence in a White House meeting in December 2002. And maybe the WMD claims in the agency’s National Intelligence Estimate “were flawed,” he writes, but didn’t Congress have an obligation at the very least to read the whole of the 90-page paper before voting to authorize war? Should their negligence be blamed on him? “The intelligence process was not disingenuous,” he insists, “nor was it influenced by politics.” This is the whole of his defense: We were wrong, but it was an honest error.
This is not the place for an exhaustive reexamination of the agency’s long-exploded claims, but no plea of honest error can survive even a quick look at the facts in three disputes — what Iraq intended to do with aluminum tubes, how the agency knew about Iraq’s mobile biological warfare labs, and why a report that Iraq was trying to buy uranium “yellowcake” in Niger made its way into one official speech after another until it finally appeared — the infamous “16 words” — in Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2003. None of these claims was robust when first encountered by the CIA. All were “processed” by CIA analysts in a manner intended to disguise shaky sources, minimize doubts, exclude alternative explanations, exaggerate their significance, and inflate the confidence level with which they were believed. None passes the “honest error” test.
After the seizure of a shipment of aluminum tubes bound for Iraq in the summer of 2001, a CIA analyst argued that they were intended for use in the building of centrifuges for separation of fissionable material, a claim rejected by experts for the Department of Energy when they learned of it. Analysts for the State Department also found the argument implausible. The CIA’s view was leaked to a New York Times reporter in September 2002 and then cited the same day on a Sunday-morning talk show by Condoleezza Rice as proof sufficient of Saddam’s nuclear plans unless we waited for “the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
The National Intelligence Estimate given to Congress at that time ignored Department of Energy objections and printed the State Department’s footnote of protest 60 pages away from the bald claim that “all intelligence experts agree … that these tubes could be used in a centrifuge enrichment program.” Only an elastic interpretation of the word “could” rescues this statement from being a bald lie. After a year of exhaustive postwar investigation, the Iraq Survey Group concluded that the tubes were intended for use as battlefield rockets, as other experts and the Iraqi government had claimed all along.
In describing the Iraqi threat at the U.N., Colin Powell laid it on thickest in his description of Iraq’s mobile labs for the production of biological weapons, first reported by an Iraqi engineering student who defected to Germany in 1998 and was given the code name Curveball. German intelligence officials routinely passed on his claims to the Defense Intelligence Agency, which then circulated them to other American intelligence organizations in 2000 and 2001. Immediately after Sept. 11 these reports became a major building block in the case for Iraqi WMD, but the Germans refused access to Curveball, and later told the European Division chief, Tyler Drumheller, that Curveball was mentally unstable, that his reports had never been corroborated by anyone else, and that some German intelligence officials thought he was a fabricator.
In December 2002, while compiling evidence for Powell’s speech to the U.N., the CIA formally asked the Germans for permission to use Curveball’s information. The German intelligence chief, August Hanning, wrote back on Dec. 20 granting permission, but repeating what had been said to Drumheller two months earlier — Curveball’s claims had never been corroborated. Tenet in his memoir denies that he saw Hanning’s letter or was ever informed about the analysts’ knockdown arguments over Curveball’s claims. In one session, according to Drumheller, a Curveball believer insulted a Curveball doubter, who responded, “You can kiss my ass in Macy’s window.” Drumheller comments, “It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.”
But Tenet insists that word of the ruckus never reached him. Only a week before Powell’s speech to the U.N., the CIA’s chief of station in Berlin cabled headquarters to say yet again that the Germans could not verify Curveball’s claims, and added:
Defer to headquarters but to use information from another liaison service’s source whose information cannot be verified on such an important, key topic should take the most serious consideration.
Tenet has insisted that he never saw that cable either. Nor does he remember a last-minute warning from Drumheller the night before Powell’s speech. Tenet had called Drumheller seeking a phone number. “As long as I’ve got you,” said Drumheller on the phone, “there are some problems with the German reporting.” Drumheller writes that he tried to tell Tenet that Curveball was worthless. Tenet remembers the phone call, but not the warning. What Curveball said was found by the Iraq Survey Group to be wrong in every detail.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
The claim that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger was not only weak but was based, if that is the word, on evidence, if that is the word, that was fabricated in so obvious a manner that the CIA claims not to have seen the documents till very late in the day. First notice of the Iraqi-Niger connection reached the CIA shortly before Sept. 11, probably from Italian intelligence officials passing on a 2-year-old Telex which reported plans of the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican to visit Niger. Two Italian journalists who have investigated the case, Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D’Avanzo, note that the only significant Niger export is uranium ore. So this was an item of interest.
The uranium mines in Niger are under the control of a French company, and the export of uranium ore is closely monitored by French intelligence, which answered a routine CIA query in the summer of 2001 by saying that nothing was amiss. The following spring the CIA was again “knocking on our door,” according to Alain Chouet, the director of the French intelligence branch which monitors WMD matters. Chouet told Bonini and D’Avanzo, as they report in their book “Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror,” that there was now “an undeniable urgency” to American questions, which were no longer vague, but full of detail. Again the French investigated; again the answer to the CIA was that nothing was amiss. But the Americans pressed the matter and now, for the first time, sent Chouet some documents. “All it took was a quick glance,” said Chouet. “They were junk. Crude fakes.”
At about the same time — June 2002 — a sometime Italian intelligence operative named Rocco Martino tried to sell the French a sheaf of documents reporting a secret Iraqi purchase of 500 tons of uranium yellowcake. Chouet had them checked against the material sent him by the Americans. “The documents were identical.” A great deal more might be said about these documents, which had already been passed to the British in late 2001, according to Bonini and D’Avanzo. The Germans, too, were given a crack at them. “The Germans asked our advice,” Chouet said, “and we told them they were trash.”
What is clear is that the documents, which were fabricated with materials stolen from the embassy of Niger in Rome, were given or at least offered to the British, the Americans, the French and the Germans — all by the summer of 2002, when the United States had decided on war to remove Saddam Hussein and was building a case that he threatened the world with WMD. It should be noted here that intelligence services trying to bolster a weak case will sometimes pass a report under the nose of a foreign intelligence service to create an echo effect. Were the yellowcake documents the basis of British claims in an intelligence report released on Sept. 24, 2002, that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa? As “the dodgy dossier,” that report — allegedly “sexed up” by aides to Blair — later became the subject of a major inquiry by Parliament. The British insist that they have other credible information on the yellowcake story but refuse to say what it is.
The Italian intelligence service concedes that its man — Rocco Martino, the sometime operative — was the one who circulated the yellowcake documents, but insists that he did it simply for the money. Bonini and D’Avanzo don’t believe it, and point out that Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, wanted a central role in Bush’s coalition to fight the war on terror. A report in Rome’s La Repubblica on Oct. 25, 2005, says that Berlusconi pressured his new intelligence chief, Nicolo Pollari, to provide the Americans with intelligence that would inflate Italy’s role.
Who dreamed up the yellowcake stratagem? So far Americans — public and Congress alike — don’t seem to care, choosing to lump the Niger documents with all the other phony, exaggerated reports under the category of “intelligence failures.” The yellowcake story didn’t stand up for long, but it didn’t need to stand up for long. An echo effect put it into play after Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union speech, included it in the list of scary signs that Saddam was preparing trouble for the world: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Tenet makes much of the fact that he twice blocked use of the yellowcake claim by Bush — once in September 2002 and again a few weeks later — but his argument was a narrow one: the president should not be a “fact witness” on the yellowcake story because the facts were too iffy. But not too iffy, in Tenet’s view, to include the yellowcake story in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002 that persuaded Congress to vote for war. Nor did Tenet protest when the State Department accused Iraq in December of leaving the yellowcake story out of its WMD declaration, when Bush repeated the charge in a report to Congress, when Condoleezza Rice cited it as an example of Iraqi duplicity in an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times in January 2003, when Powell cited it a few days later in a speech in Switzerland, and when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld cited it at the end of January.
The yellowcake story would have appeared in Powell’s U.N. speech as well if Powell had not drawn the line and tossed it out. That left the secretary of state with a lot of atmospheric intelligence rigmarole and two factual claims — the aluminum tubes proved that Saddam was going for nuclear weapons and the mobile biological weapons labs proved that he was a threat to the region and possibly the world. Powell’s speech was all smoke and mirrors, but it was enough. Bush turned his back on the U.N. and prepared to go to war.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Hans Blix, meanwhile, had been undergoing a kind of slow awakening. Blix never answered reporters’ questions about his “gut feelings” on WMD, but he had them, and in the beginning they were roughly what everybody else believed — despite Saddam Hussein’s cease-fire pledge to give up WMD at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Blix believed that he retained some and was trying to build more. But gradually the failure to find anything eroded Blix’s confidence that his gut was correct. When the inspections resumed in November 2002, American experts suggested to Blix that the inspectors begin with Iraqi government ministries, seize computers, and look for names and addresses on the hard drives. Blix thought this a lame idea; the inspectors had tried it before, but the Iraqis were too sophisticated to leave incriminating clues in such an obvious place. “I drew the conclusion,” Blix writes in “Disarming Iraq,” “that the US did not itself know where things were.”
Between late November and mid-March 2003, Blix reports, the U.N. inspectors made 700 separate visits to 500 sites. About three dozen of those sites had been suggested by intelligence services, many by Tenet’s CIA, which insisted that these were “the best” in the agency’s database. Blix was shocked. “If this was the best, what was the rest?” he asked himself. “Could there be 100 percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero-percent knowledge about their location?”
By this time Blix was firmly opposed to the evident American preference for disarmament by war. “It was, in my view, too early to give up now,” he writes. Tony Blair in late February tried to convince Blix that Saddam had WMD even if Blix couldn’t find them — the French, German, and Egyptian intelligence services were all sure of it, Blair said. Blix told Blair that to him they seemed not so sure, and adds as an aside, “My faith in intelligence had been shaken.” On March 5, Blix on the phone with Rice asked her point-blank if the United States knew where Iraq’s WMD were hidden. “No,” she said, “but interviews after liberation would reveal it.”
Two days later, Mohammed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in a report to the Security Council, decisively undermined the two principal American arguments that Saddam was illicitly pursuing nuclear weapons: the aluminum tubes which the CIA insisted were for use in a centrifuge to manufacture fissionable material were actually for conventional rockets, ElBaradei said, and the documents used to “prove” that Saddam was trying to buy uranium yellowcake in Niger were, in ElBaradei’s diplomatic words, “not authentic.” Only people paying close attention to the details understood at once that he meant the documents were fakes, fabrications, forgeries. ElBaradei’s experts had reached this conclusion in one day.
In that meeting of the Security Council both ElBaradei and Blix reported their continuing plans for further inspections, and both said that outstanding issues might be resolved within a few months. This was not what the United States wanted to hear. In mid-February, President Bush had derided efforts to give Iraq “another, ‘nother, ‘nother last chance.” Blix had pleaded in a phone call about the same time to Secretary of State Colin Powell for a free hand at least until April 15. “He said it was too late.”
But three weeks later Blix soberly argued in his report to the Security Council for more time. “It would not take years, nor weeks, but months,” he said. France, Russia, China, and other council members favored the idea and proposed a new resolution which the Americans agreed to discuss but loaded with difficulties. “Nevertheless, I thought, here on March 7 there was something new,” Blix wrote in his memoir, “a theoretical possibility to avoid war. Saddam could make a speech; Iraq could hand over prohibited items.”
The resolution went nowhere, but Blix did not give up hope even when President Bush flew to the Azores on March 16 to talk war with his allies, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar López. “Most observers felt the war was now a certainty,” Blix wrote, “and, indeed, it came. Although I thought the probability was very high, I was also, even at this very late date, aware that unexpected things can happen.”
Three years later, in a speech to the Arms Control Association, Blix reflected on that moment in his office at the U.N. — the afternoon of March 16 — when the State Department’s John Wolf called to say that the time had come to pull the inspectors out of Iraq. “My belief is that if we had been allowed to continue with inspections for a couple of months more, we would then have been able to go to all of the sites which were given by intelligence,” he said. “And since there were not any weapons of massive destruction, we would have reported there were not any.” An invasion might have taken place anyway, Blix concedes; the Americans and British had sent several hundred thousand troops to Kuwait and could not leave them sitting in the desert indefinitely. “But it would have been certainly more difficult,” Blix said. Even so, in Blix’s view, something important had been achieved. “The UN and the world had succeeded in disarming Iraq without knowing it.” Blix guessed that Saddam hid his compliance so Iran wouldn’t think him weak, but it was the Americans who were deceived.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
That in outline is how we got into Iraq. When Tony Blair’s U.N. gambit failed to provide an excuse for war, Colin Powell made the American case, putting in the scary stuff — the “product” of Tenet’s CIA — which Hans Blix’s inspectors had failed to find. No one paying serious attention was convinced. The French, German and Canadian intelligence services were appalled by the weakness of Powell’s case — what could the Americans be thinking? Periodically over the following year Powell would tell his assistant, Larry Wilkerson, that George Tenet had telephoned to say that the agency was formally withdrawing another pillar from his U.N. speech. “He took it like a soldier,” said Wilkerson, “but it was a blow.”
Tenet in his memoirs says almost nothing about U.N. inspections. The names of Hans Blix and Mohammed ElBaradei do not appear in his book. Tenet nowhere betrays genuine surprise that the CIA got everything wrong; maybe, he concedes, “reports and analysis … were flawed, but the intelligence process was not disingenuous.” What shocked Tenet was the brutal manner in which the White House blamed him for the infamous “16 words,” and even for the war itself, which never would have happened, the president’s men implied, if Tenet had not assured them that the case for Saddam’s WMD was a “slam dunk.” When Tenet read the phrase in the Washington Post he seethed for a day and then called Andrew Card at the White House to say that leaking the “slam dunk” phrase to reporter Bob Woodward was “about the most despicable thing I have ever seen in my life.” Card said nothing.
Thus George Tenet broods about his hurt feelings. In the flood of his many parting thoughts he never returns to his original question about the moment when war became inevitable, which was in any case rhetorical. More to the point would have been answerable questions, the kind any fair historian would put to him: When did Tenet first hear the president talk about “regime change”? When did he realize that Iraq was next on the president’s agenda? When did he understand that WMD were to be the heart of the argument for war? And when did he know that without Curveball and without the aluminum tubes, Colin Powell would have been left standing in front of the U.N. with nothing?