October 25, 2003 | Broadcast

Saturday Today

Now to the finger-pointing going on in Washington, DC, right now over whether there really was enough solid evidence to go to war against Iraq. Here’s NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.


The blame game in Washington as the Senate Intelligence Committee prepares a devastating indictment of the pre-war intelligence. Committee officials say their investigators plan to accuse CIA Director George Tenant and his agency of relying on circumstantial evidence. The committee Democrats say that’s just to avoid blaming the president.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia, Senate Intelligence Committee): There’s a very, very clear effort being made to blame everything on the intelligence community and steer by all means away from anything that has anything to do with anybody in the administration at higher-up levels.

MITCHELL: The committee staff questioned more than 100 witnesses, but the CIA says that did not include any of their top Iraq analysts. If the CIA got it wrong, agency defenders say it was because of White House pressure, especially a visit from the vice president.

Mr. VINCENT CANNISTRARO (Former Counterterrorism Chief): Analysts are generally a feisty lot. They don’t often just roll over and play dead, but they’re also political animals, and they’re also career-minded, and they’re not going to say, ‘Well, Mr. Vice President, you’re full of it.’

MITCHELL: But agency critics say that does not excuse faulty intelligence.

Ms. DANIELLE PLETKA (Foreign Policy Expert): The idea that somehow you would corrupt your work or that you would provide faulty information on the basis of a visit from the president or vice president is ridiculous.

MITCHELL: The Senate intelligence chairman says he will hold open hearings, but that the witnesses interviewed so far have had ample opportunities to defend their pre-war conclusions. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.

HOLT: Senator Jack Reed is a Democrat from Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Arms Services Committee. James Woolsey is the former director of the CIA.

And good morning to both of you, gentlemen. Thanks for coming on this morning.

Mr. JAMES WOOLSEY (Former CIA Director): Morning, Lester.

HOLT: Sen…

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): Good morning.

HOLT: Senator Reed, if I can begin with you. If, in fact, the CIA was playing fast and loose with the evidence, does that absolve the White House of charges of embellished evidence and embellish the case for war?

Sen. REED: Whatever the deficiencies of the CIA, that’s only half the equation. The other half is the judgment that the White House used in selecting and following through with the information provided by the CIA and also the role of Vice President Cheney in trying to shape some of that information apparently. And so there are real serious questions about the White House’s role and indeed whether they were asking the right questions at the right time to prod and provoke the agency to come up with the best analysis. Or were they simply looking for an answer that they already were convinced could be found and simply accepted the CIA information?

HOLT: Mr. Woolsey, do you really believe the CIA would bend–first of all, did it get White House pressure, and would it bend to White House pressure in terms of the intelligence estimate?

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well, they shouldn’t. They should call it the way they see it. But I think that the charge that was mentioned earlier that they relied on circumstantial information is particularly odd, since the only thing that’s not circumstantial information or evidence would be, let’s say, satellite imagery of things that occur outside. And in the cases like this where you’re talking about things that occur in buildings or underground with weapons of mass destruction programs or spies, everything’s going to be circumstantial. I find the–the charge that they relied on circumstantial evidence particularly odd.

HOLT: Well–well, Senator Reed, is it too early to draw these conclusions? David Kay and his team are still in the country. They still don’t know if the weapons were there, if they were there, where they went. So, again, is it too early?

Sen. REED: Well, I think it’s too early to draw a general conclusion, but there’s some issues that seem to be very clear. The–the White House particularly made a great case about the existence of a robust nuclear development program. That didn’t seem to be the case last October, and it certainly has not been established yet by the Kay investigation and probably won’t be. That’s one item. In fact, the State Department disputed that conclusion, I think, in the intelligence estimate. So there are some issues that are clear that were, I think, overly emphasized, overly hyped. That I think is obvious. The other conclusions about, you know, why there were no chemical or biological weapons yet to be completely illuminated by the Kay investigation. So there are some remaining questions. But I think it’s clear, at least in my mind, there was enough information last October to suggest that the information that, particularly with respect to nuclear programs, was questionable then and also the information about connections to terrorists. So I think there’s enough to really question whether we had the sufficient predicate and intelligence to conduct the operation that we did.

HOLT: Well, let me go back to Mr. Woolsey. Many say the CIA underestimated the Iraqi threat before the first Gulf War. Might this have been a case of the CIA was bending over backwards being abundantly cautious, overly cautious, in its estimate of the situation before this war?

Mr. WOOLSEY: I rather doubt it. And I think it’s important to realize that there were really three underlying reasons to go to war. There were Saddam’s human rights violations. After all, he’s killed about two million people. And we went to war with Milosevic twice. He’s killed about 200,000. So Saddam’s 10 times worse than Milosevic, roughly.

HOLT: But you know that wasn’t…

HOLT: …that wasn’t the major part…

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well…

HOLT: …of the…

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well…

HOLT: …administration’s…

Mr. WOOLSEY: …wait…

HOLT: …case.

Mr. WOOLSEY: …a minute, wait a minute. What happened was that they needed Tony Blair, and so he persuaded them to go to the Security Council for an 18th time. And the State Department decided in those presentations, the administration went along with it, that about 90 percent of what they talked about, since that’s what the State Department and–and the UN were interested in, would be the weapons of mass destruction. But all along I think there were really three rationales. One was ties to terrorist groups. You can argue about whether there’s any tie to 9/11 or not. But I think it’s–it’s irrefutable that Saddam had all sort of ties to different terrorist groups, that he had weapons of mass destruction programs, stockpiles is another question, and that he was the–probably the world’s worst human rights violator. All three of those–all three of those arguments were out there all the time. It’s just that because we went to the Security Council, the State Department chose to emphasize the WMD issue.

HOLT: And Senator Reed, before we close out this conversation, what does all this say about the credibility of the CIA and other important issues? North Korea’s nuclear program, Iran’s nuclear program, are you concerned about the intelligence that you’re seeing regarding those programs?

Sen. REED: Well, I’m concerned if there are significant deficiencies in the CIA’s approach to Iraq, that those systematic deficiencies might color their information about North Korea, about Iran and a host of other issues. And also I’m concerned about the White House’s involvement in terms of potentially shaping information from the intelligence agencies, and also in terms of what they choose to emphasize and not. Again, I think there was sufficient evidence to suggest that there was serious questions about the nuclear program, a–additional serious questions about the capacity of Iraq to deliver any of these weapons. So I think there was a–a real strong case to be made and suspicions that–that were raised that the White House should have addressed. So it’s a question of their judgment ultimately, and we have to resolve those questions because we face other…

HOLT: All right.

Sen. REED: …crises today and in the future.

HOLT: All right.

Sen. REED: And we need sound judgment and good intelligence.

HOLT: Senator Jack Reed and James Woolsey. Gentleman, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. WOOLSEY: Good to be with you.

Sen. REED: Thank you.