Salon exclusive: Two former CIA officers say the president squelched top-secret intelligence, and a briefing by George Tenet, months before invading Iraq.
On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam’s inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail. Tenet never brought it up again.
Nor was the intelligence included in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, which stated categorically that Iraq possessed WMD. No one in Congress was aware of the secret intelligence that Saddam had no WMD as the House of Representatives and the Senate voted, a week after the submission of the NIE, on the Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq. The information, moreover, was not circulated within the CIA among those agents involved in operations to prove whether Saddam had WMD.
On April 23, 2006, CBS’s “60 Minutes” interviewed Tyler Drumheller, the former CIA chief of clandestine operations for Europe, who disclosed that the agency had received documentary intelligence from Naji Sabri, Saddam’s foreign minister, that Saddam did not have WMD. “We continued to validate him the whole way through,” said Drumheller. “The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming, and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy, to justify the policy.”
Now two former senior CIA officers have confirmed Drumheller’s account to me and provided the background to the story of how the information that might have stopped the invasion of Iraq was twisted in order to justify it. They described what Tenet said to Bush about the lack of WMD, and how Bush responded, and noted that Tenet never shared Sabri’s intelligence with then Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to the former officers, the intelligence was also never shared with the senior military planning the invasion, which required U.S. soldiers to receive medical shots against the ill effects of WMD and to wear protective uniforms in the desert.
Instead, said the former officials, the information was distorted in a report written to fit the preconception that Saddam did have WMD programs. That false and restructured report was passed to Richard Dearlove, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who briefed Prime Minister Tony Blair on it as validation of the cause for war.
Secretary of State Powell, in preparation for his presentation of evidence of Saddam’s WMD to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, spent days at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and had Tenet sit directly behind him as a sign of credibility. But Tenet, according to the sources, never told Powell about existing intelligence that there were no WMD, and Powell’s speech was later revealed to be a series of falsehoods.
Both the French intelligence service and the CIA paid Sabri hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least $200,000 in the case of the CIA) to give them documents on Saddam’s WMD programs. “The information detailed that Saddam may have wished to have a program, that his engineers had told him they could build a nuclear weapon within two years if they had fissile material, which they didn’t, and that they had no chemical or biological weapons,” one of the former CIA officers told me.
As war appeared imminent, the CIA officers on the Sabri case tried to arrange his defection in order to demonstrate that he stood by his information. But he would not leave without bringing out his entire family. “He dithered,” said one former CIA officer. And the war came before his escape could be handled.
Tellingly, Sabri’s picture was never put on the deck of playing cards of former Saddam officials to be hunted down, a tacit acknowledgment of his covert relationship with the CIA. Today, Sabri lives in Qatar.
In 2005, the Silberman-Robb commission investigating intelligence in the Iraq war failed to interview the case officer directly involved with Sabri; instead its report blamed the entire WMD fiasco on “groupthink” at the CIA. “They didn’t want to trace this back to the White House,” said the officer.
On Feb. 5, 2004, Tenet delivered a speech at Georgetown University that alluded to Sabri and defended his position on the existence of WMD, which, even then, he contended would still be found….
“The real tragedy is that they had a good source that they misused,” said one of the former CIA officers. “The fact is there was nothing there, no threat. But Bush wanted to hear what he wanted to hear.”
– By Sidney Blumenthal
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