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With CIA Push, Movement to War Accelerated

So rare, so mind-blowing were the informants that Tim recruited that the CIA gave them the crypt or secret designation DB/ROCKSTARS. (DB was the designator for Iraq.) Tim bought about 100 hand-held satellite telephones at $700 each and handed out phones to 87 ROCKSTAR agents from Umm Qasr in the south to Mosul in the north. The ROCKSTARS could then call in real-time intelligence to a phone bank that Tim's case officers manned.

For Tenet, the new factor was the absence of doubt at the top. Bush displayed no hesitation or uncertainty. It might be prudent to overrule an earlier decision, step back and debate the merits, but Bush was not that way. Tenet was finding that you paid the greatest price by doubting. There were often a hundred reasons not to act. Some people got overwhelmed by problems and did 50 permutations about why it was insoluble, ending up nowhere. But if you were not afraid of what you had to do, then you would work your way through the problems.

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When he took problems to Bush, the president asked, Well, what's a solution? How do you fix it? How do you take the next step? How do you get around this? It was a new ethos for the intelligence business. Suddenly there seemed to be no penalty for taking risks and making mistakes.

Unequivocal Judgments Needed

The CIA had never declared categorically that it believed Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The formal December 2000 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Hussein "retained a small stockpile" of chemical warfare agents -- not actual warheads -- perhaps up to 100 metric tons, and "might" have precursors for 200 metric tons more. This conclusion was drawn largely from accounting discrepancies between what Iraq had previously told U.N. weapons inspectors it possessed, and what records showed had been destroyed.

The classified NIE on biological weapons concluded that Iraq "continued" to work on development and was poised to have them.

Significantly, in public testimony before the Senate intelligence committee on Feb. 6, 2002, on worldwide threats, Tenet had not mentioned Iraq until page 10 of his 18-page statement, devoting only three paragraphs to Iraq.

Senate Democrats pressed the administration to provide a new comprehensive intelligence report or estimate on Iraq, and Tenet agreed reluctantly to do a rushed NIE on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability in the fall of 2002. The National Intelligence Council, a group of representatives from the key agencies, began sifting, sorting and assessing the raw intelligence. The council included the CIA; the National Security Agency, which does communications intercepts; the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency; the State Department's intelligence bureau; the Energy Department's intelligence arm; and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which performs satellite and other overhead reconnaissance.

The group had a massive amount of material, much of it old and not very reliable. Iraq was still one of the hardest intelligence targets. Hussein had improved his methods of deception and hiding his weapons programs -- whatever they might be -- underground. CIA human intelligence inside Iraq was still weak, and paramilitary teams such as those headed by Tim in northern Iraq had found nothing.

A National Intelligence Estimate is just that: an estimate. During the Cold War it became the document of choice because it was designed to give the president and his national security team an overall assessment of the capability and intentions of real threats, such as the Soviet Union and China. The format is designed for busy policymakers. So a long NIE of 50 or 100 pages has a kind of executive summary at the front called "Key Judgments" in which the intelligence analysts would try to give a bottom-line answer. Would Castro be overthrown? Would Syria attack Israel? Would the Communists win in Nicaragua? Over the decades there had been much criticism of NIEs by policymakers -- and presidents -- because the authors hedge and the "on-this-hand, on-the-other-hand" reports are littered with maddening qualifications. No matter what happened, someone could find a sentence or phrase in the NIE that had covered such a possibility.

Stuart A. Cohen, an intelligence professional for 30 years, was acting chairman of the National Intelligence Council when the Iraq assessment of WMD was being prepared. He confided to a colleague that he wanted to avoid equivocation, if possible. If the Key Judgments used words such as "maybe" or "probably" or "likely," the NIE would be "pablum," he said. Ironclad evidence in the intelligence business is scarce and analysts need to be able to make judgments beyond the ironclad, Cohen felt. The evidence was substantial but nonetheless circumstantial; no one had proof of a vial of biological agents or weapons, or a smoking vat of chemical warfare agents. Yet coupled with the incontrovertible proof that Saddam Hussein had had WMD in the past -- U.N. weapons inspectors in the 1990s had found them, tested them and destroyed them -- the conclusion seemed obvious.

The alternative view was that Hussein no longer had such weapons. No one wanted to say that because so much intelligence would have to be discounted. The real and best answer was that he probably had WMD, but that there was no proof and the case was circumstantial. Given the leeway to make a "judgment," which in the dictionary definition is merely an "opinion," the council was heading toward a strong declaration. No pablum.

Analysts at the CIA had long discussed the issue of avoiding equivocation. At times, many, including John McLaughlin, felt that they had to dare to be wrong to be clearer in their judgments. That summer McLaughlin had told the National Security Council principals that the CIA thought it had a pretty good case that Hussein had WMD, but that others would demand more direct proof. The CIA did not have an anthrax sample, and didn't have a chemical weapons sample in hand.

Intelligence analysts and officials worked on the estimate for three weeks. On Oct. 1, 2002, Tenet chaired the National Foreign Intelligence Board, the heads of all the intelligence agencies that released and certified the NIEs. No one disputed the central conclusions. Tenet felt he had a group of smart people at the table and that they knew how to craft the estimate properly.

The Top Secret 92-page document that was released said under the Key Judgments, without qualification, "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons." From that attention-getting assertion, the NIE takes a slow march back down the hill, with muted but clear equivocations. One hint of uncertainty was the second paragraph in the Key Judgments. "We judge that we are seeing only a portion of Iraq's WMD efforts." It is the kind of statement that might be included in any intelligence report -- only a portion of anything is ever seen. In the end, the hedging and backing off telegraphed immense doubt.

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