The State Department intelligence bureau filed an 11-page annex outlining its objections and disagreements with the NIE, particularly on nuclear weapons, saying the evidence did not add up to "a compelling case" that Iraq has "an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons."
Failing to Persuade the 'Jury'
On Dec. 19, 2002, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice asked Tenet and McLaughlin how strong the case was on weapons of mass destruction and what could be said publicly. The agency's October national estimate that had concluded that Saddam Hussein has chemical and biological weapons had been out for more than two months; the congressional resolutions supporting war had passed by nearly 3 to 1; and the U.N. Security Council, where a weapons inspection resolution had passed 15 to 0, was actively engaged in inspections inside Iraq. Still something was missing. Even Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz had commented recently on the inconclusive nature of judgments about Hussein's WMD.
Two days later, Tenet and McLaughlin went to the Oval Office. The meeting was for presenting "The Case" on WMD as it might be presented to a jury with Top Secret security clearances. There was great expectation. In addition to the president, Cheney, Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. attended.
With some fanfare, McLaughlin stepped up to brief with a series of flip charts. This was the rough cut, he indicated, still highly classified and not cleared for public release. The CIA wanted to reserve on what would be revealed to protect sources and detection methods if there was no military conflict.
When McLaughlin concluded, there was a look on the president's face of, What's this? And then a brief moment of silence.
"Nice try," Bush said. "I don't think this is quite -- it's not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from."
Card was also underwhelmed. The presentation was a flop. In terms of marketing, the examples didn't work, the charts didn't work, the photos were not gripping, the intercepts were less than compelling.
Bush turned to Tenet. "I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we've got?"
From the end of one of the couches in the Oval Office, Tenet rose up, threw him arms in the air. "It's a slam-dunk case!" the director of central intelligence said.
Bush pressed. "George, how confident are you?"
Tenet, a basketball fan who attended as many home games of his alma mater Georgetown University as possible, leaned forward and threw his arms up again. "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk!"
It was unusual for Tenet to be so certain. From McLaughlin's presentation, Card was worried that there might be no "there there," but Tenet's double reassurance on the slam dunk was memorable and comforting. Cheney could think of no reason to question Tenet's assertion. He was, after all, the head of the CIA and would know the most. The president later recalled that McLaughlin's presentation "wouldn't have stood the test of time." But, said Bush, Tenet's reassurance -- "That was very important."
"Needs a lot more work," Bush told Card and Rice. "Let's get some people who've actually put together a case for a jury." He wanted some lawyers, prosecutors if need be. They were going to have to go public with something.
The president told Tenet several times, "Make sure no one stretches to make our case."