A charge made by Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) on September 8 that President Bush asked Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet “to manipulate” intelligence in October 2002 to justify going to war in Iraq does not withstand close scrutiny, but does raise questions about Levin’s candor.
In October 2002, there was no inconsistency between what Tenet’s CIA told both Bush and Congress were its basic factual findings about Iraq—that it had weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda—and what Bush and members of both parties in Congress told the American people.
Tenet made a subjective judgment about the risk of Saddam Hussein’s using such weapons—perhaps by handing them off to a terrorist group—that differed from the judgment made by both Bush and many Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
Bush and some prominent Democrats such as Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) believed the risk of Saddam’s handing off a WMD to terrorists was too great to tolerate. Tenet believed that in the short-run Saddam was likely to use WMDs only if he was desperate and believed his regime was going down. However, Tenet believed the risk would escalate as time went on and Saddam continued to build the WMD arsenal that Tenet’s CIA insisted he had.
Levin did not contest the CIA’s basic finding that Saddam had flouted UN resolutions and possessed WMDs. Like Bush and Kerry, he believed Saddam needed to be disarmed, by force if necessary, even if this ultimately had to be done by the U.S. unilaterally.
In October 2002, Levin sponsored and voted for an alternative war resolution that failed in the Senate. It differed from the one that passed principally in that it required a vote of the UN Security Council on whether to authorize force against Iraq before the U.S. could move on its own. As Levin envisioned it at the time, if the Security Council failed to act, and Saddam failed to give up his weapons, the U.S. could then unilaterally use force to disarm him.
Nonetheless, when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report on September 8 indicating, based on post-war intelligence, that the CIA had been wrong in 2002 and that Saddam had not, in fact, developed links to al Qaeda and had not approved of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s presence in his country prior to the U.S. invasion, Levin made a remarkable charge.
“Hopefully, no future President will ever ask a George Tenet to manipulate intelligence for support of the administration’s policy,” Levin said at a press conference.
To back his claim that Bush had induced Tenet “to manipulate intelligence,” Levin cited an Oct. 7, 2002, speech that Bush gave in Cincinnati. “We have learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases,” Bush said in that speech. “Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.”
“This goes to the heart of the matter,” Levin said last week. “The administration was making false, deceptive statements convincing the American people there was a link, although the intelligence committee had great doubts there was such a link.”
However, back in 2002, on the very same day President Bush gave the Cincinnati speech, then-Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin sent a letter to then-Senate Intelligence Chairman Bob Graham (D.-Fla.) stating as fact—on behalf of DCI George Tenet—exactly the type of link between al Qaeda and Iraq that Bush cited in his speech. The letter was inserted into the Congressional Record by Sen. John Warner (R.-Va.) two days later, on Oct. 9, 2002.
“Since Operation Enduring Freedom, we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad,” wrote McLaughlin. “We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs. Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda, suggests that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action.”
The same letter from McLaughlin declassified part of the transcript of an exchange that had taken place in the Senate Intelligence Committee between a “senior intelligence witness” and Levin. In this exchange, the “senior intelligence witness” expressed his opinion on the likelihood of Saddam’s using a WMD.
“If [Saddam] didn’t feel threatened, did not feel threatened, is it likely that he would initiate an attack using a weapon of mass destruction?” asked Levin.
“My judgment would be that the probability of him initiating an attack—let me put a time frame on it—in the foreseeable future, given the conditions we understand now, the likelihood I think would be low,” said the senior intelligence witness.
“Now if he did initiate an attack you’ve … indicated he would probably attempt a clandestine attack against us,” said Levin. “But what about his use of weapons of mass destruction? If we initiate an attack and he thought he was in extremis or otherwise, what’s the likelihood in response to our attack that he would use chemical or biological weapons?”
“Pretty high, in my view,” said the senior intelligence witness.
In his letter to Senate Intelligence Chairman Graham, Deputy DCI McLaughlin explained this exchange as follows: “In the above dialogue, the witness’s qualifications—‘in the foreseeable future, given the conditions we understand now’—were intended to underscore that the likelihood of Saddam’s using WMD for blackmail, deterrence or otherwise grows as his arsenal builds.”
When some Democrats claimed there was a discrepancy between this intelligence witness’s representations about Saddam and President Bush’s representations in Cincinnati, the Intelligence Committee Report said, “policy makers” asked Tenet to make a statement about the alleged discrepancy. Tenet crafted the following statement that was inserted into the Congressional Record by Warner at the same time he inserted McLaughlin’s letter:
“There is no inconsistency between our view of Saddam’s growing threat and the view as expressed by the President in his speech. Although we think the chances of Saddam initiating a WMD attack at this moment are low—in part because it would constitute an admission that he possesses WMD—there is no question that the likelihood of Saddam using WMD against the United States or our allies in the region for blackmail, deterrence, or otherwise grows as his arsenal continues to build. His past use of WMD against civilian and military targets shows that he produces those weapons to use not just to deter.”
On July 26 of this year, when former-DCI Tenet again testified before the Intelligence Committee, Levin asked him about this statement. Tenet responded that issuing it had been the “wrong thing to do.”
Shortly after he testified, however, Tenet sent a letter to the Intelligence Committee clarifying that answer. “When I responded to Sen. Levin that I was ‘wrong,’ I meant that I was wrong to inject myself into the public debate,” Tenet wrote. “I am concerned that I left the committee with the impression that I was ‘wrong’ when I said in October 2002 that there is ‘no inconsistency between the CIA’s views in the letter and those of the President.’ I have not changed my views on this matter.”
Indeed, the President’s remarks that Iraq could hand over weapons to terrorists and the judgment of a “senior intelligence witness” that Saddam was only likely to do so in the short run if he was in extremis are not inconsistent. They are merely different subjective judgments based on the same pieces of information provided by the CIA.
In fact, Sen. Kerry, who was personally briefed by Tenet before casting his vote to authorize war, made the same judgment that President Bush did. Kerry, however, used more dramatic language.
“In the wake of September 11, who among us can say, with any certainty, to anybody, that those weapons might not be used against our troops or against allies in the region?” Kerry said on the Senate floor on Oct. 9, 2002, the same day McLaughlin’s letter and Tenet’s statement were inserted into the Record.
“Who can say that this master of miscalculation will not develop a weapon of mass destruction even greater—a nuclear weapon—then reinvade Kuwait, push the Kurds out, attack Israel, any number of scenarios, to try to further his ambitions to be the pan-Arab leader or simply to confront in the region, and once again miscalculate the response, to believe he is stronger because he has those weapons? And while the administration has failed to provide any direct link between Iraq and the events of September 11, can we afford to ignore the possibility that Saddam Hussein might accidentally, as well as purposely, allow those weapons to slide off to one group or other in a region where weapons are the currency of trade? How do we leave that to chance?”
In October 2002, Levin himself did not seem willing to take the risk of leaving Saddam with what the CIA claimed—we now know erroneously—was an arsenal of WMDs. Levin introduced his own resolution advocating war, if necessary, to disarm Saddam. As Levin explained on the Senate floor, his resolution would, “specifically authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces, pursuant to that UN Security Council resolution, if Iraq fails to comply with its terms and the President informs Congress of his determination that the United States had used appropriate diplomatic and other peaceful means to obtain compliance by Iraq with such UN resolution.”
I asked Levin why he had introduced this resolution even after Tenet told him that it would be an extreme step for Saddam to actually use WMDs at that time. “I’d have to go back and look at my speech,” Levin said. “At least in my speech, I think I probably relied on that declassified testimony, but I don’t know.”