What Tenet Knew: Unanswered Questions

This essay, which considers At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA by George Tenet with Bill Harlow (HarperCollins, 549 pp., $30.00) appears in the July 19th, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.

How we got into Iraq is the great open question of the decade but George Tenet in his memoir of his seven years running the Central Intelligence Agency takes his sweet time working his way around to it. He hesitates because he has much to explain: the claims made by Tenet's CIA with "high confidence" that Iraq was dangerously armed all proved false. But mistakes are one thing, excusable even when serious; inexcusable would be charges of collusion in deceiving Congress and the public to make war possible. Tenet's overriding goal in his carefully written book is to deny "that we somehow cooked the books" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. If he says it once he says it a dozen times. "We told the president what we did on Iraq WMD because we believed it."

But repetition is not enough. Tenet's problem is that the intelligence and the war proceeded in lockstep: no intelligence, no war. Since Tenet delivered the (shockingly exaggerated) intelligence, and the President used it to go to war, how is Tenet to convince the world that he wasn't simply giving the boss what he wanted? Tenet naturally dislikes this question but it is evident that the American public and Congress dislike it just as much. Down that road lie painful truths about the character and motives of the President and the men and women around him. But getting out of Iraq will not be easy, and the necessary first step is to find the civic courage to insist on knowing how we got in. Tenet's memoir is an excellent place to begin; some of what he tells us and much that he leaves out point unmistakably to the genesis of the war in the White House -- the very last thing Tenet wants to address clearly. He sidles up to the question at last on page 301: "One of the great mysteries to me," he writes, "is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable."

Hans Blix, director of the United Nations weapons inspection team, did not believe that war was inevitable until the shooting started. In Blix's view, reported in his memoir Disarming Iraq, the failure of his inspectors to find Saddam Hussein's WMD meant that a US invasion of Iraq could certainly be put off, perhaps avoided altogether. For Blix it was all about the weapons. Tenet's version of events makes it clear that WMD, despite all the ballyhoo, were in fact secondary; something else was driving events.

Tenet's omissions begin on Day Two of the march to war, September 12, 2001, when three British officials came to CIA headquarters "just for the night, to express their condolences and to be with us. We had dinner that night at Langley,....as touching an event as I experienced during my seven years as DCI." This would have been an excellent place to describe the genesis of the war but Tenet declines. We must fill in the missing pieces ourselves.

The guests that night were David Manning, barely a week into his new job as Tony Blair's personal foreign policy adviser; Richard Dearlove, chief of the British secret intelligence service known as MI6, a man Tenet already knew well; and Eliza Manningham-Buller, the deputy chief of MI5, the British counterpart to the FBI. Despite the ban on air traffic, Dearlove and Manningham-Buller had flown into Andrews Air Force Base near Washington that day. But David Manning was already inside the United States. The day before the attack on the World Trade Center, on September 10, he had been in Washington for a dinner with Condoleezza Rice at the home of the British ambassador, Christopher Meyer. Early on September 11 Manning took the shuttle to New York and from his airplane window on the approach to Kennedy Airport he saw smoke rising from one of the World Trade Center towers. By the time he landed the second tower had been struck.

It took a full day for the British embassy to fetch Manning back to Washington by car, and he arrived at Langley that night carrying the burden of what he had seen. It was a largish group that gathered for dinner. Along with the three British guests and Tenet were Jim Pavitt and his deputy at the CIA's Directorate for Operations; Tenet's executive secretary Buzzy Krongard; the chief of the Counter Terrorism Center, Cofer Black; the acting director of the FBI, Thomas Pickard; the chief of the CIA's Near East Division, still not identified; and the chief of the CIA's European Division, Tyler Drumheller.

Tenet names his British guests, but omits all that was said. Tyler Drumheller, barred by the CIA from identifying the visitors in his own recent memoir, On the Brink, reports an exchange between Manning and Tenet, who were probably meeting for the first time. "I hope we can all agree," said Manning, "that we should concentrate on Afghanistan and not be tempted to launch any attacks on Iraq."

"Absolutely," Tenet replied, "we all agree on that. Some might want to link the issues, but none of us wants to go that route."


Manning already understood that people close to President Bush wanted to go after Iraq, and Tenet of course knew it too. Conspicuous among them, in his mind that night, was the neo-conservative agitator and polemicist Richard Perle, an outspoken advocate of removing Saddam Hussein by military force. On the very first page of Tenet's memoir, he tells us that he had run into Perle that very morning -- September 12 - as Perle was leaving the West Wing of the White House. They knew each other in a passing way, as figures of note on the Washington scene. As Tenet reached the door Perle turned to him and said, "Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility."

This made a powerful impression on the director of the CIA:

"I was stunned but said nothing.... At the Secret Service security checkpoint, I looked back at Perle and thought: What the hell is he talking about? Moments later, a second thought came to me: Who has Richard Perle been meeting with in the White House so early in the morning on today of all days? I never learned the answer to that question."

The meeting with Perle and the dinner with Manning and Dearlove took place on Wednesday. On Saturday, Tenet was at Camp David where President Bush was weighing the American response to the attacks of September 11. During the discussion, arguments for removing Saddam were pressed by Paul Wolfowitz, another neoconservative and longtime friend of Perle who was the deputy secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld. "The president listened to Paul's views," Tenet writes, "but, fairly quickly, it seemed to me, dismissed them." The vote against including Iraq "in our immediate response plans" was four to zero against, with Rumsfeld abstaining. Tenet adds, "I recall no mention of WMD."

Four days later, at a meeting in the White House, Bush made a request of Tenet. Through a video hookup Vice President Dick Cheney was in the room as well. "I want to know about links between Saddam and al Qaeda," said the President. "The Vice President knows some things that might be helpful."

What the Vice President thought he knew was that one of the September 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, had met in Prague earlier in the year with an official of Iraqi intelligence. Tenet responded within days to say that evidence from phone calls and credit cards demonstrated that Atta was in the United States at the time of the alleged meeting, living in a Virginia apartment not far from the CIA. A proven link between Saddam and September 11 would have ended the debate about "regime change" right there. None was ever established, then or later, but Cheney and his personal national security adviser, I. Lewis Libby, known by his nickname as Scooter, argued and reargued the case for the link until the eve of war. Often they went to the agency personally, bringing fresh allegations acquired from their own sources, and pressing CIA analysts to "re-look" the evidence.

Under continuing White House pressure the agency treated their claims respectfully. Analysts conceded that "cooperation, safe haven, training, and reciprocal nonaggression" were all discussed by al-Qaeda and Iraqi officials. "But operational direction and control?" Tenet asks. "No."

The Vice President did not take no for an answer. He often cited the link in public and he wanted the CIA to back him up. In June 2002, the deputy director for intelligence, Jami Miscik, complained to Tenet that Scooter Libby and Paul Wolfowitz would not let the subject drop. Tenet reports that he told Miscik to "just say 'we stand by what we previously wrote.'" But six months later, in January 2003, Stephen Hadley at the National Security Council summoned Miscik to the White House for yet another revision of a "link" paper. Infuriated, Miscik went to Tenet's office and told him she would resign before she would change another word. Tenet says he called Hadley. "'Steve,' I said, 'knock this off. The paper is done.... Jami is not coming down there to discuss it anymore.'"

Ron Suskind tells the same story but quotes Tenet differently on the phone to Hadley: "It is fucking over. Do you hear me! And don't you ever fucking treat my people this way again. Ever!" Even that was not the end. In mid-March 2003, less than a week before the U.S. launched its attack, Cheney sent a speech over to the CIA for review making all the old arguments that there was a "link." Tenet tells us that he telephoned Bush to say, "The vice president wants to make a speech about Iraq and al-Qa'ida that goes way beyond what the intelligence shows. We cannot support the speech, and it should not be given."

Why did Cheney press this point so relentlessly? Tenet tells a story that helps to explain the motives behind the struggle over "intelligence" between September 11 and the day American cruise missiles began to land on Baghdad, eighteen months later. Only a few days after September 11, Tenet writes, a CIA analyst attended a White House meeting where he was told that Bush wanted to remove Saddam. The analyst's response, according to Tenet:

"If you want to go after that son of a bitch to settle old scores, be my guest. But don't tell us he is connected to 9/11 or to terrorism because there is no evidence to support that. You will have to have a better reason."

The better reason eventually settled on by President Bush was Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The evidence for WMD turned out to be even weaker than the evidence for "the link," but Cheney, with the full backing of the White House and the National Security Council, hammered without let-up on the horrific consequences of error -- discovering too late that Iraq had nuclear weapons meant that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud. It was vaguely believed at the time, by the public and foreign intelligence services alike, that the CIA must have learned something new; why else in early 2002 had Saddam Hussein suddenly become a threat to the world?

In fact only one thing had changed -- the American frame of mind, something clearly understood by advisers to Britain's Tony Blair, who had decided immediately after September 11 that he was going to back the American response, whatever it was. David Manning's hope, expressed at his dinner with Tenet, that the Americans would settle for the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban was soon dashed. A week later Tony Blair himself was at the White House. Bush took him immediately by the elbow, according to the British ambassador, Christopher Meyer, and moved the prime minister off into a corner of the room.

Don't get distracted, Blair told the President; Taliban first.

"I agree with you, Tony," Bush replied. "We must deal with this first. But when we have dealt with Afghanistan, we must come back to Iraq."

The Taliban were in retreat by the end of the year; on March 1, Robert Einhorn, an assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, testified in Congress that Bush had come back to Iraq: "A consensus seems to be developing in Washington in favor of 'regime change' in Iraq, if necessary through the use of military force."

As it happened, it took a year to get from point A to point B -- from developing consensus to war. During that year George Tenet's CIA played an indispensable part in raising fears of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but in his memoir Tenet is reluctant to approach the Iraq problem. He writes proudly of the agency's success in removing the Taliban -- which was in fact a marvel of the light touch, especially in retrospect -- and insists he was slow to recognize that Iraq was next:

"My many sleepless nights back then didn't center on Saddam Hussein. Al-Qa'ida occupied my nightmares.... Looking back, I wish I could have devoted equal energy and attention to Iraq.... Iraq deserved more of my time. But the simple fact is that I didn't see that freight train coming as early as I should have."


When did war become inevitable? When did Tenet see the freight train coming? Does he really hope to convince us that it took him longer than the British, who signed on for war at a meeting with Bush at his Texas ranch in April 2002?

What we know about the extraordinarily close British-American relationship in the run-up to war comes mainly from a series of high-level British government papers known collectively as "the Downing Street memos."5 An unknown person gave them to the British newspaper correspondent Michael Smith -- a first batch of six, in September 2004, when Smith was working for the Telegraph; and two more the following May after Smith had moved over to the London Times. These documents reveal British plans in a language of bald directness and candor. There is no fudge; there is no evasion of awkward fact; there is frank admission of where they want to get and how they plan to get there.

The British had no objection to overthrowing Saddam by military means but feared that the American willingness to go it alone would undermine the case, anger the world, and make it impossible for Britain to take part. The solution was to cast Saddam as the villain, and the British saw promise in his serial rejection of UN resolutions. If he could be coaxed to defy one last and final offer to disarm, worded carefully to make UN demands sound fair, then the world might come around to seeing war as reasonable. This was the strategy the British hoped to sell to the Americans in the spring of 2002. In a first step, David Manning in mid-March flew again to Washington where he met twice with the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. He reported in a memo to Blair on March 14:

"These were good exchanges, and particularly frank when we were one-on-one at dinner.... Condi's enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed. But there were some signs, since we last spoke, of greater awareness of the practical difficulties.... From what she said, Bush has yet to find the answers to the big questions: how to persuade international opinion that military action against Iraq is necessary and justified;... what happens on the morning after?"

Blair was in a strong position, in Manning's view. "Bush will want to pick your brains," he told the prime minister in his memo. "He also wants your support." The price of that support, Manning told Rice, would be recognition of British concerns:

"[I]n particular: the UN dimension. The issue of the weapons inspectors must be handled in a way that would persuade European and wider opinion that the US was conscious of the international framework, and the insistence of many countries on the need for a legal base. Renewed refusal by Saddam to accept unfettered inspections would be a powerful argument."

A few days after Manning's dinner with Rice, Christopher Meyer invited Paul Wolfowitz to lunch at the ambassador's residence. He reported the result to Manning on March 18: "I opened by sticking very closely to the script that you used with Condi Rice last week." Yes, Britain supported regime change but the world had to be brought along. Wolfowitz wanted to talk about Saddam's crimes and his connections to al-Qaeda -- "did we, he asked, know anything more about this meeting" of Mohamed Atta with the Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague? Meyer stuck to the script: "I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and the UNSCRs [Security Council Resolutions]...."

The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, expanded on this argument in his options paper for Blair at the end of the month. Making the case, in Straw's view, meant going back to the UN:

"That Iraq is in flagrant breach of international legal obligations imposed on it by UNSC provides us with the core of a strategy.... I believe that a demand for the unfettered readmission of weapons inspectors is essential, in terms of public explanation, and in terms of legal sanction for any subsequent military action."

Straw appended a memo from the Foreign Office political director, Peter Ricketts, who described the immediate challenge as explaining why Iraq, and why now?

"The truth is that... even the best survey of Iraq's WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or CW/BW fronts: the programmes are extremely worrying but have not, as far as we know, been stepped up.... We are still left with a problem of bringing public opinion to accept the imminence of a threat from Iraq. This is something the Prime Minister and President need to have a frank discussion about."

Blair met with Bush in Crawford, Texas, on April 6 and promised to join a military campaign for Saddam's removal, but only, Blair stressed, after "the options for action to eliminate Iraq's WMD through the UN weapons inspectors had been exhausted." Bush did not say yes to this at the time and as spring of 2002 moved into summer the Vice President argued against any return to the UN. Cheney feared that Baghdad would renew its cat-and-mouse game with inspectors, the process would drag on, and the administration's determination to invade and occupy Iraq would gradually erode, leaving a defiant Saddam still in power.

The British made a final effort to convince Bush to obtain a UN resolution in July, beginning with a trip to Washington by MI6's director, Richard Dearlove, to check the temperature of American thinking. On Saturday, July 20, Dearlove and other British intelligence officials visited the CIA in Langley, where George Tenet took Dearlove aside for a private talk that lasted an hour and a half. On July 23, back in London, Dearlove reported on his frank discussions in Washington.


But first let us consider Tenet's account of this episode in his memoir. It is deceptive in the extreme. "In May of 2002," he writes, Dearlove came to Washington and met with Rice, Hadley, Scooter Libby, and Congressman Porter Goss, then chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Three years later the documents leaked to the British press quoted Dearlove describing his findings in Washington at a cabinet meeting. Tenet writes, "Sir Richard later told me that he had been misquoted."

May of 2002? Tenet is off by two months. I suspect that Dearlove really did come in May as well, and that Tenet cites the earlier visit to muddy the waters about his meeting with Dearlove on July 20 -- neither denying it took place nor lying about what was said. After May 2005 -- a full year after Tenet had left the CIA -- Dearlove "told me that he had been misquoted." Tenet knows what he told Dearlove; does he think his views were misrepresented by Dearlove's report to the cabinet, as recorded in the minutes? Tenet does not say. He adds that Dearlove "believed that the crowd around the vice president was playing fast and loose with the evidence." In short, Tenet is trying to put a country mile of daylight between Dearlove's unvarnished report to the British cabinet and Tenet's ninety-minute, private conversation with Dearlove at the CIA only three days earlier.

We may assume that the whole of Dearlove's remarks as reported in the cabinet meeting minutes were colored by what Tenet told him:

"C [the traditional designation for the chief of MI6] reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."

Tenet has done his utmost -- short of lying -- to hide his role as Dearlove's informant, but every point the MI6 director made was something Tenet was uniquely positioned to tell him.

The danger from Blair's point of view was a bull-headed American drive to war which the British would find it politically impossible to join. He told the cabinet that "it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors." The cabinet agreed that a strategy to "wrongfoot" Saddam through the UN was crucial. Jack Straw "would send the prime minister the background on the UN inspectors and discreetly work up the ultimatum to Saddam." Early in August Straw made a secret visit to argue Blair's case for the UN gambit with Secretary of State Colin Powell in the latter's house; Powell then pressed the point about the UN hard with Bush at a private White House dinner and Bush at last agreed. Tenet attended a final meeting on the issue at Camp David on Saturday morning, September 7:

"Colin Powell was firmly on the side of going the extra mile with the UN, while the vice president argued just as forcefully that doing so would only get us mired in a bureaucratic tangle with nothing to show for it other than the time lost off a ticking clock. The president let Powell and Cheney pretty much duke it out."


But the decision had already been made. Blair was also present at Camp David that day. He had been urging a UN resolution for months and had not crossed the ocean to be told no. According to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack, Bush told Blair that the United States would bring the question of Saddam's WMD to the UN one more time before going to war, but war would probably still follow in the end. Thus the stage was set for a UN melodrama starring a defiant Saddam before armies crossed borders, but nothing worked as the British had imagined. Saddam accepted unconditionally the Security Council's demand on November 8 for intrusive new inspections. While the report he submitted on Iraq's destruction of its WMD was rejected as obfuscating, the UN was able to resume inspections at the end of November. Hans Blix's inspectors scoured the country inspecting hundreds of sites but found nothing, and Blix infuriated the White House by refusing to declare Iraq in material breach of Resolution 1441 demanding that he disarm.

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 UN gambit had generated no just cause for war, the Americans were compelled to make the case before the UN themselves. The date was set for February 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 ninety-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 "sixteen 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 sixty 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 UN, 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 codename 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 September 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 UN, the CIA formally asked the Germans for permission to use Curveball's information. The German intelligence chief, August Hanning, wrote back on December 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 UN, the CIA's chief of station in Berlin cabled headquarters to say yet again that the Germans could not verify Curveball's claims, and adding:

"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 September 11, probably from Italian intelligence officials passing on a two-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 five hundred 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 US 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 September 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 October 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 UN 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 UN 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 UN inspectors made seven hundred separate visits to five hundred 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 JosAf(c) MarAfAa Aznar LAfA3pez. "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 UN -- 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 UN 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 UN speech. "He took it like a soldier," said Wilkerson, "but it was a blow."

Tenet in his memoirs says almost nothing about UN 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 "sixteen 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 UN with nothing?

[The footnotes that accompany this piece can be found in the July 19th issue of the New York Review of Books.]

Thomas Powers is the author most recently of Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to al-Qaeda. He would like to thank the American Academy in Berlin, where this essay, in the latest New York Review of Books, was written.

This article appears in the July 19th issue of the New York Review of Books.

Copyright 2007 Thomas Powers

© 2023 TomDispatch.com