February 8, 2004 | Broadcast

Weekend Edition Sunday

This past week President Bush named seven members to a commission to study whether there were American intelligence failures in determining whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. James Woolsey was director of Central Intelligence under President Clinton. He is now a vice president of the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group. He joins us from Germany, where he’s attending the Munich Conference on Security Policy.

Mr. Woolsey, thanks for joining us.

Mr. JAMES WOOLSEY (Former CIA Director): Good to be with you, Brian.

NAYLOR: This past week CIA Director George Tenet defended the CIA’s performance prior to the war. Let’s listen to one of the things he said in explaining intelligence data.

(Soundbite of this week’s hearing)

Mr. GEORGE TENET (CIA Director): The question being asked about Iraq in the starkest terms is: Were we right or were we wrong? In the intelligence business, you are almost never completely wrong or completely right.

NAYLOR: Now, in your experience, one of Mr. Tenet’s predecessors, taking that sort of intelligence information to policy-makers, do they accept that sometimes the information is right and sometimes it’s wrong?

Mr. WOOLSEY: I think so, as they get more and more familiar with it. And one thing that’s very interesting is that sometimes you can do the secret stealing, which is sort of what intelligence is about, very well, but the people that you’ve stolen the secrets from may themselves be wrong. For example, very early in the Clinton administration we had a National Security Council meeting on a particular subject, and there was a communications intercept that was quite relevant, and everybody got very interested in it. And we found out some time later that the people whose communications had been intercepted–one had been lying to the other.

And George Tenet may have had that problem with last-minute intelligence, particularly, that David Kay talked about in this business about the weapons of mass destruction, because Kay focused on the fact that a number of Iraqi generals honestly thought, apparently, that they had units to the right and left of them–that they had chemical weapons, even though they didn’t have any. So we could have conceivably picked up very cleverly what Iraqi generals were saying, but they were themselves wrong because they’d been lied to. So it’s a wilderness of mirrors, and sorting through it very, very rarely–I think George is right. It very rarely gives you either being absolutely wrong or being absolutely right.

NAYLOR: Now there’ve also been a number of reports that some of the information that intelligence agencies used came from questionable sources, not just the generals but from Iraqi exiles, who clearly had an interest in seeing Saddam Hussein toppled. Were there failures to see the warning flags that this information might itself be tainted?

Mr. WOOLSEY: Oh, I think the important thing is to talk to absolutely everybody. And you don’t know where your tips are going to come from. For example, Kay also pointed out in that report that some very good tips that we got about the Iranian cheating and moving forward on the Iranian nuclear program did come from Iranian exiles and defectors. If I had a criticism of CIAs in recent history, including when I was out there, it’s that people are too ready to think that they should only get information in human intelligence from so-called assets, spies, that they control–let’s say a code clerk that you’d pay $10,000 a month to and will steal codes for you from an enemy’s embassy.

Allen Dulles, the longest-serving director of Central Intelligence back in the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, was a very young Foreign Service officer in Switzerland in 1917, and he turned down a meeting with somebody who volunteered to come into the office and talk to him on a Sunday because he had a tennis date, and years later Dulles said, ‘You know, I came to wonder what it was that Lenin had wanted to tell me about just before he was shipped to the Finland Station by the Germans on the train.’ Lenin probably would have lied to Dulles about something, but what people lie about can also be interesting and important.

So I think you need to talk to absolutely everybody. And if the intelligence community was talking to defectors, fine. If they were talking to spies they controlled, fine. If they were talking to whomever they could talk to that might know something, fine.

NAYLOR: But then, I guess, it brings up the question of how that information is used and analyzed.

Mr. WOOLSEY: Right.

NAYLOR: In The Wall Street Journal last week you wrote a piece questioning whether America’s spies were a ‘gaggle of fools,’ as you put it, for believing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or whether the Bush administration was a ‘gang of knaves’ for allying America into a war. Do you feel that the administration misled America into this war?

Mr. WOOLSEY: No, I really don’t. I would first of all note that David Kay says that there wasn’t pressure on the analysts, and Dick Kerr, who is running an analysis of all this for George Tenet, says the same thing. And according to the press the other day, about 150 witnesses before either the House or, I believe, the Senate Intelligence Committee have also said there was no pressure. So the administration may have been wrong, but so far it doesn’t appear as if they were, you know, leaning on anyone to distort anything at all.

NAYLOR: I think the critics would say that, while they may not have been leaning on the analysts to give them particular information, that the administration took what the analysts gave them and did with it what they wanted. They saw what they wanted to see, basically.

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well, they followed, I think, reasonably closely–there were some adjectives off here and there, but generally speaking, I think they followed reasonably closely the intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate of late, I believe, October of 2002. And there were a bit of differences here and there, but generally speaking, I think the administration followed that. I would just say they shouldn’t have relied solely on weapons of mass destruction.

And there’s another point here, which is that there could have been and still could be a good deal of confusion based on the word ‘weapon’ vs. the word ‘agent,’ and here by agent I’m not talking about a spy, I’m talking about biological agents such as anthrax that would be put into a weapon or nerve gas that’d be put into a weapon. When you talk about ‘stockpiles of weapons,’ people naturally think of, say, bombs loaded with chemicals or artillery shells loaded with chemicals. And that’s going to be huge and bulky. But in reality, that agent usually is not added to a shell or a bomb until just before it’s used.

Those stockpiles, in the intelligence reports, the NIE that Tenet talked about, really were rather small. For example, anthrax–they thought there might be as much as 25,000 liters made. Well, that sounds like a lot, but that’s 25 tons; that’s a little over one tractor trailer full. And chemicals, they said 100 to 500 tons. Again, sounds like a lot, but 100 tons is about five tractor trailers full. So I don’t think it’s impossible that there was some destruction at the last minute of anthrax or chemicals, or that some of it got shipped into Syria, as there have been some reports. We just don’t know yet. And those need to get looked at. But people are justifiably skeptical of the idea that there could have been, you know, huge stockpiles of bombs and shells and things destroyed at the last minute or shipped into Syria, and that’s the reason that the word ‘weapon’ is, I think, somewhat confusing.

NAYLOR: Former CIA Director James Woolsey is a vice president of the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group. He joined us on the phone from Munich, Germany.

Mr. Woolsey, thanks very much.

Mr. WOOLSEY: Sure. Good to be with you.

NAYLOR: For more on our interview with James Woolsey, visit our Web site at npr.org.