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President George W. Bush’s attempt Friday to silence critics who say his administration manipulated prewar intelligence on Iraq is undercut by congressional testimony given in February 2001 by former CIA Director George Tenet, who said that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the United States or other countries in the Middle East.
Details of Tenet’s testimony have not been reported before.
Since a criminal indictment was handed up last month against Vice President Dick Cheney’s former Chief of Staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for his role in allegedly leaking the name of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson to reporters in an attempt to muzzle criticism of the administration’s rationale for war, questions have resurfaced in the halls of Congress about whether the president and his close advisers manipulated intelligence in an effort to dupe lawmakers and the American public into believing Saddam Hussein was a grave threat.
The White House insists that such a suggestion is ludicrous and wholly political. It has launched a full-scale public relations effort to restate its case for war by saying Democrats saw the same intelligence as their Republican counterparts prior to the March 2003 invasion.
But as a bipartisan investigation into prewar intelligence heats up, some key Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), have unearthed unreported evidence that indicates Congress was misled. This evidence includes Tenet’s testimony before Congress, dissenting views from the scientific community and statements made by members of the administration in early 2001.
Tenet told Congress in February 2001 that Iraq was “probably” pursuing chemical and biological weapons programs but that the CIA had no direct evidence that Iraq had actually obtained such weapons. However, such caveats as “may” and “probably” were removed from intelligence reports by key members of the Bush administration immediately after 9/11 when discussing Iraq.
“We do not have any direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since (Operation) Desert Fox to reconstitute its WMD programs,” Tenet said in an agency report to Congress Feb. 7, 2001. “Moreover, the automated video monitoring systems installed by the UN at known and suspect WMD facilities in Iraq are still not operating. Having lost this on-the-ground access, it is more difficult for the UN or the U.S. to accurately assess the current state of Iraq’s WMD programs.”
In fact, more than two dozen pieces of testimony and interviews of top officials in the Bush administration, including those given by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz prior to 9-11, show that the U.S. never believed Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat to anyone other than his own people.
Powell said the U.S. had successfully “contained” Iraq in the years since the first Gulf War. Further, he said that because of economic sanctions, Iraq was unable to obtain WMD.
“We have been able to keep weapons from going into Iraq,” Powell said during a Feb. 11, 2001 interview with “Face the Nation.” “We have been able to keep the sanctions in place to the extent that items that might support weapons of mass destruction development have had some controls.”
“It’s been quite a success for ten years,” he added.
During a meeting with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in February 2001, Powell said the UN, the U.S. and its allies “have succeeded in containing Saddam Hussein and his ambitions.”
Saddam’s “forces are about one-third their original size. They don’t really possess the capability to attack their neighbors the way they did ten years ago,” Powell said.
Powell added that Iraq was “not threatening America.”
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to agree with Powell’s assessment. In a Feb. 12, 2001 interview with the Fox News Channel, Rumsfeld said, “Iraq is probably not a nuclear threat at the present time.”
Ironically, just five days before Rumsfeld’s Fox News interview, Tenet told Congress that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa’ida terrorist network remained the single greatest threat to U.S. interests. Tenet eerily describes in the report a scenario that six months later would become a grim reality.
“Terrorists are also becoming more operationally adept and more technically sophisticated in order to defeat counter-terrorism measures,” the former CIA director said. “For example, as we have increased security around government and military facilities, terrorists are seeking out “softer” targets that provide opportunities for mass casualties.”
“Osama bin Laden and his global network of lieutenants and associates remain the most immediate and serious threat,” he added.
Between 1998 and early 2002, the CIA’s reports on the so-called terror threat offered no details on what types of chemical and biological weapons Iraq had obtained. After 9/11, however, these reports radically changed. In October 2002, the agency issued another report, this time alleging Iraq had vast supply of chemical and biological weapons. Much of that information turned out to be based on forged documents and unreliable Iraqi exiles.
The October 2002 CIA report stated that Iraq had been stockpiling sarin, mustard gas, VX and numerous other chemical weapons. This was in stark contrast to Tenet’s earlier reports which said the agency had no evidence to support such claims. And unlike testimony Tenet gave a year earlier, in which he said the CIA had no direct evidence of Iraq’s WMD programs, Tenet said the intelligence information in the 2002 report was rock solid.
“It comes to us from credible and reliable sources,” Tenet said during a 2003 CIA briefing. “Much of it is corroborated by multiple sources.”
The intelligence sources turned out to be Iraqi exiles supplied by then-head of the Iraqi National Congress Ahmed Chalabi, who was paid $330,000 a month by the Pentagon to provide intelligence on Iraq. The exiles’ credibility and the veracity of their reports came under scrutiny by the CIA but these reports were championed as smoking gun proof by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other members of the Bush administration.
Unanswered questions remain. Democrats are increasingly suggesting that the Administration may have known their intelligence was bad.
Sen. Levin’s office directed RAW STORY to a statement the senator released Friday, claiming that the administration’s assertion that al-Qaeda was providing Iraq with chemical and biological weapons training was based on bogus evidence and a source who knowingly lied about al-Qaeda’s ties to Iraq. The Michigan Democrat also released a newly declassified report from the Defense Intelligence Agency to back up his allegations that the Bush administration misled the public.
“The CIA’s unclassified statement at the time was that the reporting was ‘credible,’ a statement the Administration used repeatedly,” he said. “What the Administration omitted was the second half of the CIA statement: that the source was not in a position to know whether any training had taken place.”
That issue, along with other reports, is now the cornerstone of the bipartisan investigation into prewar intelligence.
Levin’s office said the senator is going to provide the committee investigating prewar intelligence with reports from experts who warned officials in the Bush administration before the Iraq war that intelligence reports showing Iraq was stockpiling chemical and biological weapons were unreliable.
JASON LEOPOLD has written about corporate malfeasance for The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Nation, The San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous other national and international publications. He is the author of the explosive memoir, News Junkie, to be released in the spring of 2006 by Process/Feral House Books. Visit Leopold’s website at www.jasonleopold.com for updates.