Bush and Cheney's dirty secrets

A former top CIA official blows the whistle on bogus intelligence, covert kidnappings and the alleged torture of terror suspects.

Published February 5, 2007 12:38PM (EST)

Tyler Drumheller, 54, had a 25-year career working for the CIA. In 2001, he was promoted to become the intelligence agency's chief of European operations. The controversial kidnappings by CIA agents of suspected al-Qaida terrorists -- including the German-Syrian Mohammed Haydar Zammar and the German-Lebanese Khaled el-Masri -- happened under his watch. Drumheller, who retired in 2005, recently published his memoir, "On the Brink," in the United States. He spoke recently about the CIA's role in international kidnappings and alleged torture (including Europe's cooperation with the U.S. government), Dick Cheney's mandate to go to the "dark side" in the war on terror, and the bogus intelligence that unleashed the nightmare in Iraq.

Arrest warrants have been issued in Europe for a number of your former colleagues. They are suspected of involvement in the illegal kidnappings of suspected terrorists as part of the so-called renditions program. Doesn't this worry you?

No. I'm not worried, but I am not allowed to discuss the issue.

One of the cases is the now-famous kidnapping of Khalid el-Masri, a German-Lebanese who was taken into custody at the end of 2003 in Macedonia and later flown to Afghanistan. How could the CIA allow an innocent person to be arrested?

I'm not allowed by the agency to comment on any of those cases or the so-called secret prisons. I would love to, but I can't. We have a lifelong secrecy agreement, and they are very, very strict about what you can say.

The so-called rendition program saw the kidnapping of suspected Islamist extremists, who were taken to third countries. Were you involved in the program?

I would be lying if I said no. I have very complicated feelings about the whole issue. I do see the purpose of renditions if they are carried out properly. Guys sitting around talking about carrying out attacks as they smoke their pipes in the comfort of a European capital tend to get put off the idea if they learn that a like-minded individual has been plucked out of safety and sent elsewhere to pay for his crimes.

But at the very least, don't you need to be certain that the targets of those renditions aren't innocent people?

It was Vice President Dick Cheney who talked about the "dark side" we have to turn on. When he spoke those words, he was articulating a policy that amounted to "go out and get them." His remarks were evidence of the underlying approach of the administration, which was basically to turn the military and the agency loose and let them pay for the consequences of any unfortunate -- or illegal -- occurrences.

So there was no clear guidance of what is allowed in the so-called war on terrorism?

Every responsible chief in the CIA knows that the more covert the action, the greater the need for a clear policy and a defined target. I once had to brief Condoleezza Rice on a rendition operation, and her chief concern was not whether it was the right thing to do, but what the president would think about it. I would have expected a big meeting, a debate about whether to proceed with the plan, a couple of hours of consideration of the pros and cons. We should have been talking about the value of the target, whether the threat he presented warranted such a potentially controversial intervention.

This was no way to run a covert policy. If the White House wants to take extraordinary measures to win, it can't just let things go through without any discussion about their value and morality.

Perhaps the White House wanted to gloss over its own responsibility?

Let me give you a general thought: From the perspective of the White House, it was smart to blur the lines about what was acceptable and what was not in the war on terrorism. It meant that whenever someone was overzealous in some dark interrogation cell, President Bush and his entourage could blame someone else. The rendition teams are drawn from paramilitary officers who are brave and colorful. They are the men who went into Baghdad before the bombs and into Afghanistan before the army. If they didn't do paramilitary actions for a living, they would probably be robbing banks. Perhaps the Bush administration deliberately created a gray area on renditions.

Investigations by various European officials are trying to ascertain the extent to which European governments cooperated with the CIA after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. How close is the relationship?

On terrorist issues, very close -- we did some very good things with the Europeans. Two weeks after Sept. 11, August Hanning [the head of the German foreign intelligence service, the BND] came with a delegation to discuss how we can make cooperation better. Elements of the Bush administration developed the view that European personal privacy laws were somehow to blame, that the Europeans are too slow. We can be very frustrating to work with. I always said, "Stop preaching to them. The Europeans have been dealing with terrorism for years. We can learn from their successes and failures."

How important is Europe to the CIA?

The only way we will ever be able to protect ourselves properly is if we can get a handle on the threat in Europe, since that is the continent where fanatics can best learn their most crucial lesson: how to disappear in a Western crowd. Europe has become the first line of defense for the United States. It has become a training ground for terrorists, especially since the war in Iraq has heralded an underground railroad for militants to go and fight there. It is being used for young fanatics in Europe to be smuggled into Iraq to fight Americans and, assuming they survive, to return home, where they present a more potent threat than they did before they left. Since the odds against penetrating the top of al-Qaida are phenomenally high, we must pursue the foot soldiers.

But given the public uproar across Europe, will those countries continue fully cooperating with the CIA?

The guys who attacked the World Trade Center didn't fly from Kabul to New York. They came from Hamburg. So the value in befriending the local intelligence services in Europe instead of alienating them is clear: We need to ensure that they are telling us everything they know.

But it was your agency that was coming up with all the wrong information concerning Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. To what degree is the U.S. intelligence community responsible for the disaster?

The agency is not blameless, and no president on my watch has had a spotless record when it comes to the CIA. But never before have I seen the manipulation of intelligence that has played out since Bush took office. As chief of Europe I had a front-row seat from which to observe the unprecedented drive for intelligence justifying the Iraq war.

One of the crucial bits of information the Bush administration used to justify the invasion was the supposed existence of mobile biological weapons laboratories. That came from a German BND source who was given the code name Curveball. An official investigation in the United States concluded that of all of the false statements that were made, this was the most damaging of all.

I think it is, it was, a centerpiece. Curveball was an Iraqi who claimed to be an engineer working on the biological weapons program. When he became an asylum seeker in Germany, the BND questioned him and produced a large number of reports that were passed here through the Defense Intelligence Agency. Curveball was a sort of clever fellow who carried on about his story and kept everybody pretty well convinced for a long time.

There are more than a few critics in Washington who claim that the Germans, because of Curveball, bear a large part of the responsibility for the intelligence mess.

There was no effort by the Germans to influence anybody from the beginning. Very senior officials in the BND expressed their doubts, that there may be problems with this guy. They were very professional. I know that there are people at the CIA who think the Germans could have set stronger caveats. But nobody says: "Here's a great intel report, but we don't believe it." There were also questions inside the CIA's analytical section, but as it went forward, this information was seized without caveats. The administration wanted to make the case for war with Iraq. They needed a tangible thing -- they needed the German stuff. They couldn't go to war based just on the fact that they wanted to change the Middle East. They needed to have something threatening to which they were reacting.

The German government was convinced that "Curveball" would not be used in the now-famous presentation that then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gave in 2003 before the United Nations Security Council.

I had assured my German friends that it wouldn't be in the speech. I really thought that I had put it to bed. I had warned the CIA deputy, John McLaughlin, that this case could be fabricated. The night before the speech, then-CIA director George Tenet called me at home. I said: "Hey, Boss, be careful with that German report. It's supposed to be taken out. There are a lot of problems with that." He said: "Yeah, yeah. Right. Don't worry about that."

But it turned out to be the centerpiece in Powell's presentation -- and nobody had told him about the doubts.

I turned on the TV in my office, and there it was. So the first thing I thought, having worked in the government all my life, was that we probably gave Powell the wrong speech. We checked our files and found out that they had just ignored it.

So the White House just ignored the fact that the whole story might have been untrue?

The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming, and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy. Right before the war, I said to a very senior CIA officer: "You guys must have something else," because you always think it's the CIA. "There is some secret thing I don't know." He said: "No. But when we get to Baghdad, we are going to find warehouses full of stuff. Nobody is going to remember all of this."

In your book, you mention a very high-ranking source who told the CIA before the war that Iraq had no large active WMD program. It has been reported that the source was Saddam Hussein's foreign minister, Naji Sabri.

I'm not allowed to say who that was. In the beginning, the administration was very excited that we had a high-level penetration, and the president was informed. I don't think anybody else had a source in Saddam's cabinet. He told us that Iraq had no biological weapons, just the research. Everything else had been destroyed after the first Gulf War. But after a while we didn't get any questions back. Finally the administration came and said that they were really not interested in what he had to say. They were interested in getting him to defect. In the end we did get permission to get back to the source, and that came from Tenet. I think without checking with the White House, he just said: "OK. Go ahead and see what you can do."

So what happened?

There were a lot of ironies throughout this whole story. We went on a sort of worldwide chase after this fellow, and in the end, he was in one place, and our officer was in another country asking for permission to travel. I called up people who were controlling operations, and they said: "Don't worry about it. It's too late now. The war is on. The next time you see this guy, it will be at a war crimes tribunal."

Should you have pressed harder?

We made mistakes. And it may suit the White House to have people believe in a black-and-white version of reality -- that it could have avoided the Iraq war if the CIA had only given it a true picture of Saddam's armaments. But the truth is that the White House believed what it wanted to believe. I have done very little in my life except go to school and work for the CIA. Intellectually I think I did everything I could. Emotionally you always think you should have [done] something more.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online at http://www.spiegel.de/international or subscribe to the daily Newsletter.

By Georg Mascolo

MORE FROM Georg Mascolo

By Holger Stark

MORE FROM Holger Stark

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cia Iraq Middle East Torture