The Shrinking Saddam
CIA chief George Tenet testified last week in Congress that the risk of a terrorist attack against the United States is now as high as it was in the weeks before 911, and he fingered a resurgent al Qaeda as the evil-doing group to watch. Ten days earlier, Tenet sent a letter to the Senate intelligence committee noting that CIA analysts had concluded Iraq poses no immediate danger to the United States -- unless Washington were to strike Iraq. Baghdad for now, Tenet reported, appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or [chemical or biological weapons] against the United States.
And the day before Tenet warned Congress about a back-in-the-saddle al Qaeda, Bush administration officials told reporters that North Korea had acknowledged it was secretly developing nuclear weapons, in violation of a 1994 deal with the United States. As it turns out, U.S. intelligence analysts first caught wind of this two years ago and by this past summer concluded Pyongyang was trying to enrich uranium for a bomb.
So lets get this straight. The CIA says that al Qaeda is a threat today, that North Korea dictator Kim Jong Il has an active nuclear-weapons program under way, and that Saddam Hussein is likely to lash out at the United States only if Washington hits him first. And what does President Bush do? He talks up Saddam as public enemy number one. On the campaign trail for Republican congressional candidates, Bush has been devoting more rhetoric to Iraq than to al Qaeda and whats-his-name (that would be Osama bin Laden). He has not been expressing outrage -- or even concern -- over the bomb-making actions of North Korea, a charter member of his axis of evil.
One can almost feel sorry for the CIA. Doesnt Bush read its reports? The agency finds itself ignored by White House policymakers when its information is inconvenient. To make matters worse, it is pushed by the Bush administration to produce reports that bolster the White Houses stance. The Los Angeles Times in mid-October published a must-read story that began, Senior Bush administration officials are pressuring CIA analysts to tailor their assessments of the Iraqi threat to help build a case against Saddam Hussein, intelligence and congressional sources said. These sources told the Times Greg Miller and Bob Drogin that analysts are increasingly resentful of what they perceive as efforts to contaminate the intelligence process. One unnamed intelligence official noted, Analysts feel more politicized and more pushed than many of them can ever remember.
If this story is true -- and theres no reason to suspect Miller and Drogin of concocting a fantasy -- Team Bush has ducked a scandal. Consider the ramifications of the Times story. While Congress was debating whether to hand the president the power to initiate war against Iraq as he sees fit, the Bush administration was leaning on the CIA to manufacture a biased intelligence to ease the way toward war. Yet no members of Congress have raised a public fuss about this, and the mainstream media largely -- perhaps entirely -- did not follow up on this important scoop.
One area where Bush officials have muscled the CIA, according to the newspaper, is the question of Iraqs links to al Qaeda. In recent weeks, top Bush people -- including Bush himself -- have been pushing alleged ties between Saddam and al Qaeda as a reason for confronting Iraq. At a GOP rally in Michigan, Bush declared that Saddam is a man who we know has had connections with al Qaeda, and he accused Saddam of hoping to deploy al Qaeda as his own forward army against the West.
On this front, Tenet and the CIA have attempted dutifully to back up the president. In his October 7 letter to the Senate intelligence committee, Tenet said, We have solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade. Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression . . . [W]e have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members . . . We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire [weapons of mass-destruction] capabilities. None of this, though, supports Bushs contention that Saddam has been -- or is -- actually in league with al Qaeda and endeavoring to turn it into his own private militia. Without more information, it is impossible for a reader of Tenets letter to reach any useful conclusions about the current relationship -- if one exists -- between Saddam and the mass murderers of 911. After all, why did the agency not say what these contacts were? It looks as if the CIA was striving to help the boss, but could only go so far.
Certainly, the agency and Tenet would rather be in the presidents corner than not. That only would help Tenet retain his position and expand his budget. (And do you think CIA officials enjoy being called wimps by the Rumsfeld gang?) Given the CIAs pre-911 screwups -- it failed to register the significance of intelligence reports indicating terrorists were considering using airliners as suicide-attack weapons, and it inexplicably failed to notify the FBI in March 2000 that a suspected al Qaeda operative (who would end up on the airplane that crashed into the Pentagon) had entered the United States -- Tenet needs as much support from the White House as he can muster. That may be one reason Tenet in September refused to permit the House and Senate intelligence committees to release information about intelligence briefings Bush received before 911. Here Tenet was stonewalling for Bush.
A report produced by the committees revealed that a July 2001 briefing for senior government officials predicted bin Laden will launch a significant terrorist attack . . . in the coming weeks and that it will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests.
Imagine the headlines if the committees had reported that Bush had been told this. Committee sources do say Bush was one of the senior officials who received that dramatic briefing. Which means he should have to address several uncomfortable questions. What did he do in response? Did he take this threat seriously, as he prepared for a monthlong vacation at his Texas ranch? But, thanks to Tenet, Bush has not had to explain himself.
Tell the truth, bend the truth, cover up the truth -- in recent weeks, each has been a mission conducted by the CIA, with Bush benefiting from only two of the three.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.