With CIA Push, Movement to War Accelerated
Agency's Estimate of Saddam Hussein's Arsenal Became the White House's Rationale for Invasion

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2004

This is the second of five articles adapted from "Plan of Attack," a book by Bob Woodward that is a behind-the-scenes account of how and why President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq. Simon & Schuster. © 2004.

On Jan. 2, 2002, CIA Director George J. Tenet met with Vice President Cheney -- at Cheney's request -- to brief him on what the agency could do in Iraq.

In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Iraq was much less of a priority than terrorism for Tenet, but not for one of the agency officials who accompanied him to the meeting, the chief of the Iraqi Operations Group, a former covert operations officer who can be identified only by his nickname, Saul.

Within the CIA's Near East Division, which handled some of the hardest, most violent countries, the Iraqi Operations Group was referred to as "The House of Broken Toys." It was largely populated with new, green officers and problem officers, or old boys waiting for retirement. After taking it over in August 2001, Saul had begun a full review of where the CIA stood with Iraq.

At 43, Saul had worked for years in sensitive undercover posts as a case officer and senior operator in CIA stations around the world. Saul was born in a small town in Cuba; his father had been involved in one of the most spectacular CIA failures -- the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in which 1,200 Cuban exiles had been abandoned on the beach by their CIA sponsors. As Saul told associates, "I am here as the result of a failed CIA covert operation."

Now Saul had a blunt message for Cheney about covert operations and Saddam Hussein. He told Cheney that covert action would not remove Hussein. The CIA would not be the solution.

The one thing the dictator's regime was organized for was to stop a coup, he said. Hussein had taken power in a coup. He has put down coups. The son of a bitch knows what a coup is, Saul said. If you are an Iraqi military unit and you have the bullets to launch a coup, you don't have the gas to move your tanks. If you have gas, you don't have bullets. Nobody stays in power long enough to launch a coup.

Only a U.S. military operation and invasion that the CIA could support had a chance of ousting Hussein, Saul told Cheney. The agency had done a lessons-learned study of past Iraq covert operations, he said, and frankly the CIA was tainted.

"We've got a serious credibility problem," he said. The Kurds, the Shiites, former Iraqi military officers and probably most attuned people in Iraq knew the history of the CIA's cutting and running. To reestablish credibility, potential anti-Hussein forces would have to see a determined seriousness on the part of the United States. Preparations for a massive military invasion might send that signal, nothing else.

Saul laid out for Cheney the problems with standing up at the United Nations, talking negotiations and containment, while secretly telling the Saudis and Jordanians the United States was going to remove the regime covertly. They needed a single national policy that everyone supported and explained in the same way.

Another lesson was that the CIA couldn't sustain a covert action program for a lengthy period of time. The regime would find some of the human sources that the agency might recruit and roll them up. So they had to move fast.

Cheney was used to briefers coming to his office with ambitious declarations and promises that their department or agency would deliver. The CIA message, which Saul later delivered to President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was the opposite, sobering, highly unusual in its judgment that it really could not do the job.

Saul was discovering that the CIA reporting sources inside Iraq were pretty thin.

What was thin?

"I can count them on one hand," Saul said, pausing for effect, "and I can still pick my nose."

In effectively casting a vote for military action as the only feasible way of removing Hussein, the CIA contributed to the gathering momentum that carried the United States to war in Iraq. It would make other contributions as well -- by successfully establishing a network of informants inside Iraq whose lives were in jeopardy as long as Hussein was in power; and by providing the evidence for what became the Bush administration's main rationale for the war: that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The cost was set at $200 million a year for two years. The leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees were informed secretly. After some disputes in Congress, the budget was cut to $189 million for the first year.

Saul would be able to run what he called "offensive counterintelligence" operations to prevent Hussein's security apparatus from identifying CIA sources. But most important, the CIA could then work actively with anti-Hussein opposition forces inside Iraq and conduct paramilitary operations inside the country.

In March, Tenet met secretly with two individuals who would be critical to covert action inside Iraq: Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leaders of the two main Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. The two controlled separate areas of a Kurdish region roughly the size of Maine. The areas were effectively autonomous from Hussein's Baghdad regime, but Iraqi military units were stationed just miles from the Kurdish strongholds and Hussein could easily send them to fight and slaughter the Kurds as he had done after the 1991 Persian Gulf War when they had risen up expecting U.S. protection, which was not provided.

Tenet had one message for Barzani and Talabani: The United States was serious, the military and the CIA were coming. It was different this time. The CIA was not going to be alone. The military would attack. Bush meant what he said. It was a new era. Hussein was going down. Of course, Tenet did not know if what he was saying was true, whether war was going to happen. But he had to raise the expectation of the Kurds to win cooperation and engagement. He was about to send some of his paramilitary and case officers into a very dangerous environment.

Tenet had a giant lever: money. He could pay millions, tens of millions of dollars in $100 bills. If Defense Department civilians or officers, or State Department diplomats, paid money to get anyone to act or change policy, it could be illegal bribery. The CIA was the one part of the U.S. government that was authorized to pay off people.

Tenet had told Bush that some money was going to be paid on speculation in order to establish relationships and demonstrate seriousness. And that not all of it might look as if it had been well spent. It was like chum, small pieces of fish scattered on the water to attract the big ones. In intelligence, you often had to chum far and wide. It was one more thing the president and Tenet bonded over. Bush, one of the biggest political fundraisers of all time, and Tenet, the U.S. government covert moneyman, knew the restorative power of cash.

Saul knew solid on-the-ground intelligence and effective lethal operations could not be done from the sidelines. Though the CIA had a massive effort going on all of Iraq's borders, the agency needed to be inside. Saul sent out messages seeking volunteers. At least one entire CIA station from the chief on down volunteered. Saul drafted Tim, a former Navy SEAL fluent in Arabic who was a covert operations officer at a CIA station in the region, to lead one of two paramilitary teams he was sending into northern Iraq.

Saul issued Tim oral instructions: I want Hussein's military penetrated. I want the intel service penetrated. I want the security apparatus penetrated. I want tribal networks inside Iraq who will do things for us -- paramilitary, sabotage, ground intelligence. Work the relationship with the Kurds. See if it is feasible to train and arm them so they can tie down Hussein's forces in the north.

In July, Tim and a team of CIA operatives made the 10-hour overland drive from Turkey into Iraq in a convoy of Land Cruisers, Jeeps and a truck to set up base in Sulaymaniyah in the mountainous Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq. In October, they returned to the same area carrying tens of millions of dollars in $100 bills stored in heavy cardboard boxes. They set up base in a lime-green building that they christened "Pistachio."

Find the weak points in the regime and push, Saul instructed. War was coming.

It was not long before they began to recruit some key sources. One was an officer in Hussein's Special Security Organization (SSO), who produced a CD-ROM with 6,000 SSO personnel files -- names, backgrounds, assignments and many personnel photos.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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."

The president was determined to hand the evidence over to experienced lawyers who could use it to make the best possible case. The document was given to Rice's deputy, Stephen J. Hadley (Yale Law '72) and Cheney's chief aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (Columbia Law '75). They visited the CIA and posed a series of questions that the agency answered in writing.

As far as Libby was concerned, the CIA had made the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and significant terrorist ties. The CIA had been collecting intelligence on Iraqi WMD for decades. There was no doubt where the agency stood: The October NIE had said Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, and Tenet had declared the case a slam dunk. Libby believed that the agency, which had the hard job of sifting and evaluating so much information, at times missed or overlooked potentially important material, intelligence that might not be definitive, but could add to the mosaic.

On Saturday, Jan. 25, Libby gave a lengthy presentation in the Situation Room to Rice, Hadley, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, Wolfowitz, White House communications director Dan Bartlett and speechwriter Michael Gerson. Though she had formally left the White House staff, Karen Hughes was there. White House political director Karl Rove was in and out of the meeting.

Holding a thick sheaf of paper, Libby outlined the latest version of the case against Hussein. He began with a long section on satellite, intercept and human intelligence showing the efforts at concealment and deception. Things were being dug up, moved and buried. No one knew for sure what it was precisely, but the locations and stealth fit the pattern of WMD concealment. He began each section with blunt conclusions -- Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, was producing and concealing them; his ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network were numerous and strong.

Libby said that Mohammed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 attacks, was believed to have met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer and cited intelligence of as many as four meetings. The others knew the CIA had evidence of two meetings perhaps, and that there was no certainty about what Atta had been doing in Prague or whether he had met with the Iraqi official. Libby talked for about an hour.

Armitage was appalled at what he considered overreaching and hyperbole. Libby was drawing only the worst conclusions from fragments and silky threads.

On the other hand, Wolfowitz, who had been convinced years ago of Iraq's complicity in anti-American terrorism, thought Libby presented a strong case. He subscribed to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's notion that lack of evidence did not mean something did not exist.

The most important response came from Karen Hughes. As a communications exercise, she said, it didn't work. The sweeping conclusions at the head of each section were too much. The president, she said, wanted it to be like the old television series "Dragnet": "Just the facts." Let people draw their own conclusions.

So who then should present the public case? Rice and Hadley pondered that. The case would have to be made to the United Nations, so the chief diplomat, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, was the logical choice. Hadley believed there were additional reasons to choose Powell. First, to have maximum credibility, it would be best to go counter to type and everyone knew that Powell was soft on Iraq, that he was the one who didn't want to go. Second, Powell was conscious of his credibility, and his reputation. He would examine the intelligence carefully. Third, when Powell was prepared, he was very persuasive.

"I want you to do it," Bush told the secretary of state. "You have the credibility to do it." Powell was flattered to be asked to do what no one else could.

Mark Malseed contributed to this report.

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