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Tenet and the “Creamy White House Stationery”

Tenet begs to differ with two of the incidents reported out of Suskind’s book so far.

First, to rebut the forgery story, he makes this rather convincing point about his own past refutation of the Al Qaeda-Iraq allegations.

It is well established that, at my direction, CIA resisted efforts on the part of some in the Administration to paint a picture of Iraqi-Al Qa’ida connections that went beyond the evidence. The notion that I would suddenly reverse our stance and have created and planted false evidence that was contrary to our own beliefs is ridiculous.

It’s true that Tenet repeatedly pushed back against OVP’s efforts to claim Iraq and Al Qaeda had any ties, right up to the beginning of the war.

Still, I can’t help but think of this passage from Bob Drogin’s Curveball, describing Tenet’s state of mind in the November 2003 to January 2004 time frame, when this letter would have been planted.

Neither [Tenet nor McLaughlin] tried to persuade [David Kay] to stay. Nor did they accept his conclusions. "I don’t care what you or anyone else says," Tenet insisted. "I know they had WMD."

Kay was astonished. My God, he thought, he’s still so invested in this he won’t admit a mistake.

The CIA leaders made only one parting request: don’t talk to the press.

Things were different in November 2003 than they were in March 2003, when Tenet successfully pushed back against the Al Qaeda-Iraq claim. Further, CIA was gearing up efforts to turn Zarqawi into enemy number one. So it’s possible Tenet changed his tune out of desperation at David Kay’s refusal to flub the record for the Administration.

I’m more interested in Tenet’s response to Suskind’s claim that the Iraqi who signed the letter, Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, had told the British that there were no WMD. Here’s the allegation:

The author also claims that the Bush administration had information from a top Iraqi intelligence official “that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – intelligence they received in plenty of time to stop an invasion.”


Suskind writes that the White House had “ignored the Iraq intelligence chief’s accurate disclosure that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – intelligence they received in plenty of time to stop an invasion.

And here’s Tenet’s response:

One supposed “news” item from the book apparently asserts that British intelligence had a high-placed Iraqi source who convincingly told them before the start of the war that Iraq had no WMD and that the British relayed this to the United States. As Mr. Suskind tells it, the White House directed (and CIA allegedly went along with) burying that information so that the war could go ahead as planned. This is a complete fabrication. In fact, the source in question failed to persuade his British interlocutors that he had anything new to offer by way of intelligence, concessions, or negotiations with regard to the Iraq crisis and the British — on their own — elected to break off contact with him.

There were many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD — but our foreign intelligence colleagues and we assessed that these individuals were parroting the Ba’ath party line and trying to delay any coalition attack. The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back up his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner. [my emphasis]

Note what Tenet does not deny: that both the US and the British were talking with Habbush and that he claimed there were no WMD. Tenet’s refutation basically amounts to saying, "Habbush was unconvincing."

But Tenet goes further. He says, quite clearly, that "there were many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD." We know of perhaps one or two of these (more if you include the family members of scientists)–and that from reporting done on the war, not from official reports. That is, the reports of "many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD" are curiously absent from the SSCI report on Iraqi intelligence and the Robb-Silberman report. Yet here we have the former DCI admitting that CIA got that intelligence–publicly and privately.

So set aside, for a moment, whether or not Habbush was credible. I want to know why this is the first we’re getting public confirmation that CIA was getting intelligence from Iraq … and all of it said there were no WMD. In his book, for example, Tenet describes one of the short-comings of the 2002 NIE:

What isn’t emphasized, however, is the poor human access to Saddam’s WMD programs and the limitations of our knowledge.

He describes a single source whose reporting strongly influenced his own belief that Saddam had WMD.

This source reported that production of chemical and biological weapons was taking place, biological weapons were easy to produce and to hide, and prohibited chemicals were also being produced at dual-use facilities. This source stated that a senior Iraqi official in Saddam’s inner circle believed, as a result of the UN inspections, that Iraq knew the inspectors’ weak points and how to take advantage of them.

But he doesn’t describe the "many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD." I guess it’s easy to claim that CIA had "poor human access to Saddam’s WMD programs" when you dismiss "many Iraqi officials" who say Iraq had no WMD.

But now that Tenet has alluded to these "many Iraqi officials" who said Iraq had WMD, I’d like to hear about them–and hear why the Senate didn’t hear about them when they were reviewing Iraqi intelligence in 2003 and 2004.  

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Marcy Wheeler aka Emptywheel is an American journalist whose reporting specializes in security and civil liberties.