July 11, 2003 | Broadcast

Q & A with Jim Clancy

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: It was information that got into the street. That clearly should not have been in the street. It is something we can certainly discuss and debate.

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The fact that the facts change from time to time with respect to specifics does not surprise me or shock me at all.

TOM DASCHLE (D-SD) SENATE MINORITY LEADER: It is a recognition that we were provided faulty information.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voice-over): The U.S. president under fire for accusing Saddam Hussein of trying to buy uranium in Africa, as part of Iraq’s drive for nuclear weapons. On this edition of Q&A, what the president said.


VERJEE: Hello, and welcome to Q&A.

U.S. President Bush now says his State of the Union speech was cleared by U.S. intelligence services. The U.S. president faces mounted criticism that during his rally for support for the war on Iraq he said that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium as part of Iraq’s drive for nuclear weapons. Now, the claim was attributed to British intelligence, but the White House has since conceded it was not accurate.

U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice defends that statement saying, “The CIA cleared the State of the Union speech in its entirety. And if the CIA, the Director of Central Intelligence had said, take this out of the speech, it would have been gone. But it wasn’t gone. And that leaves Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair, for that matter, having to deal with it. So how damaging is this, not only politically but to the office of the U.S. president.

We are joined now from San Francisco by Ivan Eland, senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute.

And from Washington, by Eleana Gordon, policy director for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy.

Ms. Gordon, let me start with you, how damaging is it then?

ELEANA GORDON, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACY: I don’t think that history is going to look back on this as important. This is not a critical detail in the case to war. Colin Powell did not even include it when he gave his address to the U.N. The case to war was based on a very extensive list of different arguments that included the humanitarian law argument for going to war. It included the fact that we know, and there was no debate about the fact, that Saddam Hussein did have weapons programs. The debate that we had was we didn’t now how expensive they were.

But we also knew at the time, after 12 years of experience, that our intelligence consistently underestimated the threat. So I think it was natural after 9/11, and it was responsible after 9/11 for the administration to say given our history of underestimating the threat, giving the fact that since 1998 there have been no inspectors in Iraq, if we don’t’ feel confident that we are going to get a straight answer from Iraq soon, then we should be cautious and we should go on and we should take of the problem rather than sit and wait to find out that the threat was actually very great and very imminent.

VERJEE: Mr. Eland, let me ask your opinion on this, is this damaging for President Bush?

IVAN ELAND, INDEPENDENT INSTITUTE: Yes, I think it is because I think there was a lot of evidence the president exaggerated, the whole administration exaggerated, they twisted the facts et cetera. And we look at this particular incident, the vice president’s office asked the CIA looked into this so they sent an envoy, a former diplomat over there to see if it was valid, he came back and told the CIA, no, it’s nonsense. And yet a year later it crops up in a speech. Now, you know in the bureaucracy when the vice president asks something the CIA is going to tell him. So what did Cheney know about this. Of course, he knew about it. And I think it’s a much bigger deal because there were multiple justifications.

But the primary was that not only did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction but they were an imminent threat. That’s why we needed to take military action, the president said, right away. And we couldn’t’ wait on the inspectors. Well, we don’t’ see any weapons and, frankly, this nuclear stuff that was buried in the guy’s backyard seems to indicate that there wasn’t an active nuclear program at all. So I think the core of the administration’s case was weapons of mass destruction. That was the biggest argument they used. And not only the weapons of mass destruction, but they were an imminent threat to the United states. And, of course, even the CIA before the war said that Saddam Hussein was unlikely to use these weapons or give them to terrorists unless we attack them. And, of course, Cheney and Bush both made statements to the contrary to that even before the war.

VERJEE: We just have a sound bite here from the Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld. This is what he had to say about the intelligence.


RUMSFELD: I find that corrections are being made fairly continuously , that we review a week’s worth of intel and two months later they come back and say, well, we’ve said this on this date, but we have new information that suggests this or that. So the fact that the facts change from time to time with respect to specifics does not surprise me or shock me at all. It’s to be expected. It’s part of the intelligence rule that we live with is uncertainty and less than perfect knowledge.


VERJEE: Facts change from time to time. That’s what Mr. Rumsfeld said. Mr. Eland, what do you have to say about that?

ELAND: Well, I think this is a pretty big fact. This was based on forged documents. And I want to know who forged the documents. And I also want to know why …


ELAND: I want to make this point. Why the International Atomic Energy Agency could find that this was a forgery very quickly after the president’s speech, that the intelligence community couldn’t put their finger on this for an entire year. That’s a real question.

VERJEE: Sorry, Ms. Gordon, please go ahead.

GORDON: I would like to just correct a few things. First of all, the president did not base his statement on U.S. intelligence. He based it on British intelligence. He said we have learned from the British. Tony Blair …

ELAND: Most of that information came from e-block (ph) sources.

GORDON: Tony Blair – that is not true. Tony Blair testified. I let you speak, now please let me speak. Tony Blair testified two days ago that this was independent intelligence. It was separate intelligence. It was not the American intelligence. Now maybe he is lying right now but that hasn’t been proven yet. So that’s the first thing that I would like to correct.

Second thing, you stated that CIA George Tenet, CIA director, claimed that Saddam Hussein would never funnel weapons to the terrorist. That’s not true. There is a statement he made to Congress and a testimony. And I said (ph) look it up in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) where he clearly said, we know that Saddam Hussein is working to share biological weapons and could funnel them to terrorists. So that was a link. And we know that we’ve arrested people who are linked to al Qaeda in Baghdad in the last few months. So that was also important.

Third, the cast to war rested on another which you admitted. The case to war rested on the fact that Saddam had violated 14 Security Council resolutions for 14 years. There was a legal basis, wherein the U.N.’s own charter it says the country is violating a binding U.N. Security Council resolution and no other country has done it so blatantly as Iraq. The U.N. should enforce it by all means necessary. We had reached a point in the lead up to the war when the credibility of the U.N., as well as the credibility of the United states, which had 200,000 troops amassed at the border was at stake. And Saddam was not complying. So the case was much more complex. And I did want to put those facts straight.

VERJEE: OK, Ms. Gordon, actually, we do have a soundbite from the British prime minister. And this is what he had to say about why they are standing by their intelligence.


TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: The evidence that we had that the Iraqi government had gone back to try to purchase further amounts of uranium from Niger did not come from these so-called documents. They came from separate intelligence. And, again, in so far as our intelligence services are concerned, they stand by that.


VERJEE: So the British government says, oh, Tony Blair says they stand by the intelligence. The Pentagon says they don’t stand by the intelligence. What do we know about intelligence in terms of the credibility, in terms of how it is being gathered and how it is being judged, Mr. Eland?

ELAND: Well, I think what you are seeing here is the two governments are disagreeing. And, frankly, U.S. intelligence officials have said behind the scenes that a lot of that British report was based on U.S. intelligence. The reason we used Britain is because we don’t’ want to seem to be the only person in the game. We didn’t want to be a superpower bully, so we our only ally in the war is Britain. So we fed them a lot of stuff. And they came up with all this stuff.

But, frankly, the president’s own envoy that he sent to look into this is now calling him a liar. And he also said what else is the president lying about. I think that is a pretty damning piece of information. Your own envoy who you sent to look into this alleged uranium buying or memorandum of understanding, which turned out to be forged, he went to the area and he said that there was probably no sale from Africa to Hussein or even seeking that out. So I think it is very problematic. And I think the administration is treading on very soft ground here.

VERJEE: Ms. Gordon. Should this be something that the U.S. administration should be questioning the British government about then?

GORDON: I think you could make a valid criticism of the U.S. administration and say why were you relying on British intelligence. Did you check the British intelligence or did you just take it at face value? I could buy that. but you know what? That was true when the president made his speech. And nobody at that time stood up and said have you checked the British intelligence? Are you using it?

Secondly, let’s remember the British are not making the case based on those forged documents. And the CIA cleared the speech precisely. And there are statements recently in the press about this. The CIA cleared the speech because it was based on the British government’s allegations. So all this debate about the forged documents is frankly irrelevant because as far as we know that’s not – and as far as what the British are telling us that’s not the basis for their intelligence.

ELAND: Well, of course, we have an envoy who went there and said that it wasn’t true.

GORDON: That’s right. And that’s why Powell did not include in that in his speech to the U.N.

VERJEE: The fact of the matter is they did, indeed, go to war based on intelligence, regardless – maybe not specifically this intelligence. As Colin Powell was saying that they went to war not based on the Niger connection. But the fact of the matter is this was a mistake that was taken place within the U.S. administration. What does that say about how much flack the president should take and how much he should be accountable for, Ms. Gordon?

GORDON: You raise the point that this was about intelligence. And I would like to step back and say again, what is intelligence? Intelligence is not about diehard facts that are very easy to substantiate at every case. This is not a legal case. Intelligence is a matter of interpretation. And, again, we have to remember the context in which this happened. Intelligence consistent until then had always been wrong. In 1991, the intelligence community told us that Saddam Hussein was decades away from a nuclear weapon. And we discovered after the Gulf War that he was much, much further along then we thought. And he had a highly enriched uranium program that we weren’t aware of. Similarly, in 1994, the U.N. inspectors were ready to declare Saddam clear of all weapons of mass destruction.

A few months later the inspectors came out and said you completely missed the biological weapons. It was a massive weapons program. The intelligence was wrong about Saddam invading Kuwait. The intelligence was wrong about Saddam invaded Iran. Basically, the intelligence consistently underestimated the threat. It is perfectly reasonable – and, in fact, it was responsible for the administration to say, given the fact that in the past we’ve always underestimated our intelligence. Now we should focus on the most alarming cases, the worst-case scenario. And independent organizations below that Saddam was a threat. The International Institute for Strategic …

VERJEE: We do have an e-mail from Roa (ph) in Germany. He says, “It is unbelievable that George Bush could be misled. If this is so, American intelligence services should be dragged to the war crimes tribunal. What’s your response?

ELAND: Well, I think even if we take Ms. Gordon’s approach here that the president is not lying or not dissembling at all, I think we have monumental incompetence that this was allowed to be put in a State of the Union speech. But I’m afraid I think the circumstantial evidence points to bigger problems with this, distortions, exaggerations. And I think, frankly, they didn’t have much current intelligence after 1998 when the inspectors left. And so, they just kind of ran with it. And they felt that the programs were existing because they had already existed. And, frankly, we can’t always take the most alarming situation. We have to try to be accurate. And, frankly, we didn’t have much new intelligence after ’98. And so, I think they were skating on very thin ice.

VERJEE: We only have about 20 seconds left. Ms. Gordon, I want to ask you this question, how do you respond to the critics then who say this administration had an agenda and regardless of what kind of intelligence or information they received they were going to go fulfill that agenda. You’ve got about 10 seconds.

GORDON: I think intelligence – the record was that our intelligence all along on all the weapons of mass destruction around the world is non satisfactory. And we are living in a world where the threats that that poses are tremendous. So we can’t sit around and wait until we have the perfect, exact intelligence. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank in Britain said in September Iraq may be months away from a nuclear bomb if it had fissile material. This was the consensus in the community . Bush did not invent that. The international community had agreed that they thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, even those who opposed war believed that.

VERJEE: All right. Eleana Gordon from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy. And Ivan Eland, senior fellow with the Independent Institute. Thank you both so much for being with us.

ELAND: Thank you.

GORDON: Thank you.