By Rupert Cornwell in Washington
08 July 2004
The CIA was braced yesterday for a fiercely critical Congressional report expected to place primary blame on the agency for the pre-war intelligence debacle over Iraq's still-unfound weapons of mass destruction.
The preliminary report, by the Senate Committee on Intelligence, is to be published today or tomorrow. Its central charge is that the CIA grossly exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, ignoring the paucity of its own findings on Iraqi's WMD capabilities.
Indeed, knowledge that a public savaging was on the way may have been the final straw persuading George Tenet to resign last month after a seven-year stint as CIA director marked by as string of major intelligence failures, most notably the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks and to find Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapon programmes.
The Senate report is said to fault the CIA in three main areas: its disregard for claims by relatives of Iraqi scientists that Saddam had abandoned his WMD ambitions, a reliance on bogus information from defectors, and its insistence that aluminium tubes bound for Iraq and seized in 2001, were proof that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear programme.
The New York Times said relatives of the scientists repeatedly told the CIA that the WMD programmes had been scrapped, but the agency failed to report this to President George Bush as he travelled the country warning of the deadly threat posed by Baghdad.
How and where the CIA made contact with the relatives is unclear. But from 2000 on they are said to have told the agency the programmes had been dropped. The CIA did not believe them, a spokesman telling the paper "no useful information" had been collected.
Defectors also duped the CIA, which continued to believe one Iraqi claiming knowledge of Saddam's biological weapons, even after it had been warned by the Defence Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon that he was almost certainly peddling false information.
Other defectors were provided by Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress who is in disgrace with the Bush administration because the INC had fed false information that exaggerated the WMD threat. Finally, the CIA is portrayed as the main promoter of aluminium tubes as evidence. It said such pipes were intended for centrifuges to enrich uranium for use in Iraqi nuclear weapons.
In fact, experts at both the US atomic laboratories and in the State Department's own intelligence bureau were highly doubtful that the tubes were of sufficient quality for centrifuges. But the CIA prevailed.
Overruling his in-house specialists, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, went to the United Nations in February 2003 to make his now-infamous presentation about Saddam's presumed weapons, basing his nuclear programme case on the aluminium tubes.
The Senate report may, however, have one unexpected consequence: an early nomination by President Bush of a director to replace Mr Tenet. It had been assumed that the White House would delay its choice until after the election, to avoid confirmation hearings at which the WMD fiasco would be revisited at the height of the presidential election campaign.
But those fears seem to have receded, not least because the report largely exonerates the present White House of the charge that it hyped the Iraq threat, pinning the blame instead on an agency headed by a man who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997.
Another argument gaining ground is that it would be dangerous to leave the CIA with a weakened leadership when US intelligence specialists are openly fearful of further terrorist attacks. John McLaughlin, the deputy director who takes over as a caretaker when Mr Tenet formally steps down at the weekend, is also seen as part of a discredited old guard. James Pavitt, the deputy director in charge of clandestine operations, is also retiring.
Mr Tenet's reputation also suffered a grievous blow with his pre-war assurance to President Bush, reported in Plan of Attack, the 2004 book by the journalist Bob Woodward, that the CIA had "slam-dunk" proof Saddam still possessed WMD.
The agency, and by extension Mr Tenet, are accused of doing a poor job of gathering evidence about Iraq's alleged illicit weapons, and of wrongly evaluating what little they did have.
The leading candidate for the job is probably Porter Goss, the Florida congressman who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, and served in the CIA's operations directorate from 1962 to 1971. Others include President Ronald Reagan's former navy secretary, John Lehman, and Richard Armitage, now Deputy Secretary of State.