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CIA's Tenet: 'We call it as we see it'


WASHINGTON - CIA Director George J. Tenet offered a rare and forceful defense yesterday of the nation's prewar intelligence, saying his agents never said that Iraq posed an "imminent" threat but acknowledging weaknesses in U.S. efforts to penetrate high levels of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Under criticism that flawed intelligence information led to the invasion of Iraq, Tenet asserted that his agents accurately portrayed Hussein as a rising danger who sought nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

"We will always call it as we see it," Tenet said in a speech at Georgetown University, his first public defense of the agency's intelligence on Iraq. "When the facts are all in, we will be neither completely right nor completely wrong."

Tenet noted that U.S. intelligence concluded before the war that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons when in fact the evidence found in Iraq so far shows only the intent to produce them. But Tenet stressed that the search for weapons goes on.

Among the intelligence failures, an internal agency review found that one source who provided weapons information was on a list identifying him as having given unreliable or fabricated information in the past. The list had escaped the attention of analysts who used his information on Iraqi weapons.

"We have acknowledged this mistake," Tenet said.

The agency lacked adequate human intelligence in Iraq, Tenet conceded. And while the CIA failed to penetrate Hussein's inner circles, agents on the "periphery" of weapons activities provided information, he said.

Tenet said two sources who were deemed reliable by "our foreign partners," and who had direct access to Hussein's inner circle, reported that while Iraq did not have a nuclear weapon, it was "aggressively and covertly developing such a weapon."

Tenet said that the agency accurately predicted Hussein's work on long-range missiles. But he conceded that the CIA "may have overestimated" Iraq's nuclear capability.

On chemical and biological weapons, Tenet said his earlier estimate was that Hussein possessed both. Now, he says, all that's known for sure is that Iraq intended to produce them.

"Clearly, research and development was under way" on biological weapons, he said. "But we do not know if production took place and, just as clearly, we have not yet found biological weapons."

Tenet said Hussein had the ability to "quickly convert" civilian industry to chemical weapons production. "However, we have not yet found the weapons we expected," he said.

Tenet did not detail why the agency miscalculated on most of the Iraqi weapons programs. He noted that the search goes on for illicit arms, though David Kay, who led the U.S. hunt for weapons of mass destruction, has concluded that Iraq did not possess such weapons at the start of the war.

The CIA director said Richard Kerr, a former deputy director, is leading a team of retired senior analysts in a review of the intelligence estimate.

Among the questions that need to be asked, Tenet said, are: "Did the fact that we missed how close Saddam came to acquiring a nuclear weapon in the early 1990s cause us to overestimate his nuclear or other programs in 2002?"

Agency workers "fear no fact or finding, whether it bears us out or not," Tenet said, a seeming reference to critics who allege that top Bush administration officials, eager to oust Hussein, pressed CIA analysts to paint a more perilous portrait of Iraq's threat to the United States than was true.

President Bush and other top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said repeatedly before the war that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which they cast as the most urgent reason for invading Iraq.

Asked about Tenet's speech, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said: "The president has great confidence in the work of our men and women who serve in the intelligence community, and that includes Director Tenet."

Speaking in Charleston, S.C., Bush noted that while banned weapons have not been found, investigators have found evidence of possible Iraqi arms programs. The war was justified, he said.

"Knowing what I knew then and knowing what I know today," Bush said, "America did the right thing in Iraq."

Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, said: "I'm not surprised that the director stood up to defend his agency. And as I said before, I think the rank and file of the CIA does a good job. Given the circumstances, I would say again, this has been a world community assumption in regard to stockpiles of weapons."

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, seized on the Tenet speech to again attack the Bush administration's decision to go to war.

"Any failure of the intelligence on Iraq is dwarfed by the Bush administration's shameful manipulation of the intelligence to justify the war," Kennedy said. "Congress would never have voted to authorize the war if we had known all the facts."

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution, said the main failure lies not with the CIA but with the Bush administration, which O'Hanlon said took a "smattering" of information and turned it into an imminent nuclear threat.

"They made it sound like [Hussein] was close to nukes," O'Hanlon said.

Some retired CIA officials said Tenet's speech seemed designed to suggest that his prewar estimates of Hussein's weapons programs were not as clear cut as others in the administration have said.

"I think he did the best he could in a public venue to defend himself and his agency," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA chief of counterterrorism, "particularly given that politicians would like to put him in the dock and lay [the failure to find banned weapons] on the intelligence community."

Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said most of the CIA's prewar estimate "was completely wrong." Before the invasion, the CIA said there were weapons, Cirincione said, whereas Tenet now says there was "intent" to produce weapons.

Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence official who retired in 2002 after a 25-year career, said: "My main complaint with the administration was not with the intelligence officers but with Tenet and how he packaged the information, and the president and the Cabinet members who further skewed the intelligence information."

Thielmann's office and analysts at the Energy Department questioned the theory adopted by the White House, and repeated by Powell to the United Nations last February, that aluminum tubes bought by Iraq were to be used to produce nuclear weapons.

In his speech, Tenet said "experts still argue over" whether the tubes were to be used for uranium enrichment or for conventional weapons. But Thielmann said "there's growing consensus that the tubes were not for nukes but for long-range missiles."

Tenet acknowledged that analysts within the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies differed over key aspects of Hussein's weapons programs. He pointed to the prewar National Intelligence Estimate, a publication in which the intelligence community seeks to sum up what is known, unknown and in dispute.

"They never said there was an imminent threat," Tenet said. "Rather they painted an objective assessment for our policymakers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests."

Some retired analysts criticized Tenet for failing to address a Pentagon-based intelligence cell - the Office of Special Plans - set up in the Pentagon under Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.

Patrick Lang, a former official with the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Tenet should have moved to challenge the Pentagon's intelligence effort. "He should have said, 'I'm the [director of central intelligence]. Don't second-guess me.'"

The issue of the Pentagon office - and what influence it might have had - came up only in passing, and only after Tenet was questioned by a Georgetown student after his speech.

"I'm the director of central intelligence," Tenet replied. "The president of the United States sees me six days a week, every day. There are always people around town - you know, 'There's gambling in this casino.' Everybody has different views of what the intelligence means or doesn't mean."

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