BEATING AROUND THE BUSH
Under fire for the CIA's handling of intelligence on Iraq, the agency's chief passes the buck back to the White House, writes Julian Borger
Wednesday July 16 2003
Pity poor George Tenet. The director of the central intelligence agency, source of much of the scepticism about the administration's overblown case against Saddam Hussein, is the designated fall guy for the whole fiasco.
He must feel like he has been gang-mugged. After weeks of speculation and finger-pointing, the rest of the administration finally agreed a damage-limitation strategy - and the strategy was "blame Tenet".
It was President Bush, that paragon of accountability, who first pointed the finger at the director of central intelligence (DCI) and complained, in effect: "He made me say it."
It was left to the national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, to put in the stiletto and twist it.
"The CIA cleared the speech in its entirety," she said. "And had we heard from the DCI or the agency that they didn't want that sentence in the speech, it would not have been in the speech."
As ever, Rice was extremely polite about it, insisting she was not blaming the CIA, just pointing out the process of vetting that preceded the president's address. Oh, and by the way, "The CIA director, George Tenet, has been a terrific DCI and he has served everybody very, very well." Note the use of the past tense.
The Republican party's bruisers in Congress were less circumspect. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate select committee on intelligence, revealed that he was "very disturbed by what appears to be extremely sloppy handling of the issue from the outset by the CIA."
Worse still, Roberts added: "What now concerns me most, however, is what appears to be a campaign of press leaks by the CIA in an effort to discredit the president." This may indeed be Tenet's biggest crime: not failing to stop to all the phoney Iraq intelligence, but allowing his people to point out how bogus it really was.
So all in all, last Friday was not a great day for Tenet, who has had a lot of bad days in the past two years. Rice at least did him the courtesy of calling him a few hours in advance to let him know what was coming, long enough for him to prepare his mea culpa.
That document is worth deconstructing. The opening paragraph does exactly what Tenet was asked by the White House. It confirmed that the CIA approved the State of the Union address, and that he, Tenet, was responsible for the process. Most importantly, the 16 words citing a British intelligence report that Saddam was trying to buy uranium in Africa "should never have been included in the text written for the president".
However, Tenet then goes further, much further, explaining "For perspective, a little history is in order". And, he might have added, some settling of accounts.
The next 900 words provide a thinly coded description of how the CIA's arm was twisted into giving the White House what it wanted. Tenet points out that the CIA had strong reservations about intelligence suggesting Iraq was in the market for yellow-cake uranium from Africa in general and from Niger in particular.
When British intelligence told the Americans of its plan to publish a dossier on Saddam last September mentioning such shopping expeditions, the CIA "expressed reservations about its inclusion". But the British insisted it was solid, so it was left in.
The next month, the CIA published a similar "white paper" of its own, but omitted the African uranium connection because the reference was considered unnecessary for the case being made, Tenet argues, and "because we had questions about some of the reporting." When the State of the Union speech was being prepared, the Niger claim Niger reappeared. CIA experts asked for their opinion were uneasy, and so, says Tenet, "some of the language was changed."
The vital paragraph then follows: "From what we know now, agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct i.e. that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa."
This account conjures up a scene in which an official or officials from the White House try to cajole the CIA analysts. "If we can't really say Saddam has been shopping for uranium in Africa, surely we can say the British are claiming that. That's true isn't it?" these officials appear to have said, or words to that effect. And the CIA experts grudgingly responded with "Well, I guess so."
And that is what Tenet is apologising for. The subtext message to editors is: why don't you go after the people who made our lives hell for a year, trying to squeeze intelligence they liked - the damning, "actionable" sort - out of us.
The administration is trying to staunch such inquiries, and stop the rot eating away at its credibility. The outgoing spokesman, Ari Fleischer, made it clear that the White House would have preferred Tenet to have kept his statement to the first, apologetic, paragraph.
"The president is pleased that the director of central intelligence acknowledged what needed to be acknowledged, which was the circumstances surrounding the State of the Union speech," Mr Fleischer said. "The president said that line because it was based on information from the intelligence community and the speech was vetted."
Pressed about the White House's conversations with the CIA aimed at massaging the language about uranium, Rice lost her customary poise. "I'm going to be very clear, all right? The president's speech - that sentence was changed, right? And with the change in that sentence, the speech was cleared," she said, repeating the agreed mantra: "Now, again, if the agency had wanted that sentence out, it would have been gone. And the agency did not say that they wanted that speech out - that sentence out of the speech. They cleared the speech."
So there. But it does not answer the real question, which was: who did all the heavy work leaning on the agency and poor George Tenet, who knew he was lucky to hold on to his job after the September 11 intelligence failures?
Two names come up again and again in conversations with intelligence sources in Washington: Newt Gingrich, the former Republican congressional leader, who seems to have repeatedly visited as an informal ambassador for the Pentagon hardliners; and Dick Cheney, who seems to have spent more time down at Langley, egging on the analysts, than any other senior official. The trail leads back to the Pentagon and the White House itself.
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