How Tenet 'betrayed' the CIA on Iraq
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Journalist Ron Suskind's revelation that Saddam Hussein's
intelligence chief was a pre-war intelligence source reporting to the British
that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) adds yet another dimension
to the systematic effort by then Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director
George Tenet to quash any evidence - no matter how credible - that conflicted
with the George W Bush administration's propaganda line that Saddam was
actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
According to Suskind's new book, The Way of the World, Iraqi director of
intelligence Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti had been passing on sensitive
intelligence to Britain's MI6 intelligence
service for more than a year before the US invasion.
In early 2003, Suskind writes, Habbush told MI6 official Michael Shipster in
Jordan that Saddam had ended his nuclear program in 1991 and his biological
weapons program in 1996. Habbush explained to the British official that Saddam
tried to maintain the impression that he did have such weapons in order to
Suskind writes that the head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, flew to Washington to
present details of the Habbush report to Tenet, who then briefed then-national
security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Soon after that, the CIA informed the
British that the Bush administration was not interested in keeping the Habbush
channel open, according to Suskind's account.
Tenet has called the story of the Habbush prewar intelligence a "complete
fabrication", claiming Habbush had "failed to persuade" the British that he had
"anything new to offer by way of intelligence". His statement actually
reinforces Suskind's account, however, by indicating that he had simply chosen
not to believe Habbush. "There were many Iraqi officials who said both publicly
and privately that Iraq had no WMD," said the statement, "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."
Contradicting Tenet's claim that the British did not take the Habbush report
seriously, MI6 director Dearlove told Suskind he had asked Prime Minister Tony
Blair why he had not acted on the intelligence from Habbush.
Another high-level US source in the last months of the Saddam regime was
Saddam's foreign minister Naji Sabri. Tyler Drumheller, the CIA's chief of
clandestine operations for Europe from 2001 until 2005, recounts in his book On
the Brink that Sadri was passing on information to an official of a
European government in early autumn 2002 indicating that hints of a WMD program
were essentially a "Potemkin village" used to impress foreign enemies.
Sidney Blumenthal wrote in September 2007 that two former CIA officers who had
worked on the Sabri case identified the foreign intermediary as being France
and said he had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the CIA and
French intelligence to provide documents on Saddam's WMDs.
Drumheller told 60 Minutes that Sabri "told us that they had no active
weapons of mass destruction program".
On September 17, 2002, the CIA officer who had debriefed Sabri in New York,
briefed CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, according to Blumenthal's account.
McLaughlin responded that Sabri's information was at odds with "our best
source". That was a reference to "Curveball", the Iraqi who claimed knowledge
of an Iraqi mobile bio-weapons lab program but was later found to be a
The next day, Tenet briefed Bush on Sabri's intelligence, but Bush rejected it
out of hand as "what Saddam wanted him to think".
French intelligence agents later tapped Sabri's telephone conversations and
determined that he was telling the truth. But it was too late. One of Tenet's
deputies told the CIA officers, "This isn't about intelligence. It's about
Yet another highly credible US source on the WMD issue in September 2002 was
Saad Tawfik, an electrical engineer who had been identified by the CIA as a
"key figure in Saddam Hussein's clandestine nuclear weapons program". The story
of the CIA's handling of his testimony is told in James Risen's State of War.
In early September 2002, Tawfik's sister, who lived in Cleveland, Ohio, flew to
Baghdad with a mission from the CIA to obtain details about Saddam's nuclear
weapons from her brother. But when she returned in mid-September, the CIA
didn't like the report from her conversations with the source.
Tawfik told his sister that Saddam's nuclear program had been abandoned in
1991. When she told him the CIA wanted her to ask such questions as "how
advanced is the centrifuge" and "where are the weapons factories", Tawfik was
incredulous that the CIA didn't understand that there was no such program.
Tawfik's was only one of 30 cases of former Iraqi WMD experts who reported
through relatives that Saddam had long since abandoned his dreams of WMD,
according to Risen.
Both the Sabri evidence and the evidence from Tawfik and other former Iraqi
experts was available to the CIA during the work on the October 2002 National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE). But the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence kept all
of that evidence out of the NIE process.
No report based on any of that evidence was ever circulated to State, Defense
or the White House, according to Risen and Blumenthal.
The disappearance of all that credible evidence reflected a deliberate decision
by Tenet. The White House Iraq Group had just rolled out its new campaign to
create a political climate supporting war in early September, and Tenet knew
what was expected of him.
As an analyst who worked on the NIE told Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times,
"The going-in assumption was that we were going to war, so this NIE was to be
written with that in mind." That means Tenet's account of the CIA's role in the
WMD issue in his 2007 memoirs completely ignored the credible evidence from
Habbush, Sabri and the former Iraqi specialists that there was no active
program, as well as his own role in suppressing it.
Tenet even brazenly claimed that a "very sensitive, highly placed source in
Iraq" about whom "little has been publicly said" had "reported that production
of chemical and biological weapons was taking place". The reporting from the
source, continuing through the NIE and beyond, "gave those of us at the most
senior level further confidence that our information about Saddam's WMD
programs was correct."
Tenet was clearly referring to the reporting coming from the Sabri debriefings,
but his description of them was a prevarication. As Blumenthal reported, they
had written a report on Sabri's intelligence spelling out his view that there
was no active WMD program, but they later discovered that it had been rewritten
and given an entirely new preamble asserting that Saddam already possessed
chemical and biological weapons and was "aggressively and covertly developing"
Tenet - who was a political operator rather than an intelligence professional -
had betrayed the CIA's mission of providing objective analysis, instead
choosing to serve the interests of the Bush administration in preparing the way
for war. It is not difficult to imagine how he would have meekly carried out
whatever was asked of him by the White House - even forging a document and
leaking it to the media, to buttress the administration's case for war.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist. The paperback
edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and
the Road to War in Vietnam was published in 2006.