Video: Faulty pre-war intelligence

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updated 4/25/2006 9:00:15 PM ET 2006-04-26T01:00:15

The Bush administration has acknowledged that the intelligence was wrong about the war in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s WMD program.  A retired top CIA official has come forward and is pointing the finger at the White House. 

Tyler Drumheller headed up the CIA’s convert operations in Europe until he retired last year.  Before the war, Drumheller says that Saddam Hussein did not have a weapons of mass destruction program, and he tried to tell the White House.  He claims that information was ignored. 

Drumheller sat down with "Hardball" guest host David Gregory to discuss.  This is a transcript of their conversation.

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT AND “HARDBALL” GUEST HOST:  Let me start by asking you exactly what you had to do with pre-war intelligence.

TYLER DRUMHELLER, FORMER CIA OFFICER:  In the lead-up to the war, our stations in Europe were collecting intelligence on Iraq, trying to recruit sources that would go back inside of Iraq and report on the inside.  We had a loss of a lot of Iraqi assets in the late ‘90s when we shifted from Iraq to Iran and terrorism.

GREGORY:  You wanted a bigger picture, a more complete picture, of whatever weapons program he may have had.

DRUMHELLER:  Right.  And since it’s very difficult to recruit inside Iraq, Europe was a good place to do that.

GREGORY:  You actually scored a pretty good coup, here.  You got right inside his inner circle.

DRUMHELLER:  Right.  Through the help of a friendly service which I can’t name, we had a very senior guy, who was right in Saddam’s inner circle and had direct access.

GREGORY:  Who’s been identified, you may not be able to say this, as Naji Sabri, Iraq’s foreign minister.

DRUMHELLER:  Yeah, I can’t say it, but a very senior guy, who was right in Saddam’s inner circle and had direct access.

GREGORY:  Right.  What timeframe are we talking about?

DRUMHELLER:  This would have been in August and September of 2002.

GREGORY:  So you got a pipeline of information.  What did he tell you?

DRUMHELLER:  He gave us a report in the middle of September of 2002 that came to us through an intermediary, but we were able to verify it, that Saddam had wanted nuclear weapons but was at least 18 months to two years away from nuclear weapons if they were able to get the fissile material to produce them.  So they didn’t even have the fissile material at that point, so they were at least 18 months to two years away.

GREGORY:  So, bottom line, summer of 2002, Saddam does not have a nuclear weapon.  Does he have an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction?

DRUMHELLER:  No.  And the biological weapons that were described to us as basically a chemistry set-type of capability, that was all destroyed after the first Gulf War.

GREGORY:  But there was nothing that could threaten U.S. troops, nothing that could threaten our allies, nothing that could threaten the United States?

DRUMHELLER:  There was no immediate threat to U.S troops.  There were chemical weapons that he described as gas, but they were distributed through the political leaders around the country.  The army and military didn’t have access to them.  Those were not found after the war, so we don’t know what happened.

GREGORY:  This is important.  It sets off alarm bells for you, because a high-level source is giving you information you didn’t have before.

DRUMHELLER:  That’s right, and up to that point, the only seemingly hard intelligence that they had on it came from a source called Curveball, which we had serious doubts about the validity of the reporting that we had raised already with them, and from the uranium yellowcake reporting that everybody knows about that came out of Rome.  And both of those were highly suspect, so here for the first time we had information that really confirmed, in a lot of ways, what the inspectors were saying.

GREGORY:  Which is that Saddam had no WMD program.

DRUMHELLER:  Yes, and if he wanted to build it if he could get it.

GREGORY:  Right.

DRUMHELLER:  But it was nowhere within years of completion, either nuclear or biological.

GREGORY:  Summer of 2002, this is the run-up to the war, to the invasion of Iraq.  You tried to communicate that information to the White House.  How?  And what was their response?

DRUMHELLER:  Well, it was written up as an intelligence report, and then the director, George Tenet, took it to the White House.  It was sort of mid to late September.  His special assistant came back and told me they were well-received.  They were very excited to have a source inside, because we hadn’t had a good source like this inside.

GREGORY:  Right.

DRUMHELLER:  We were to stand by for further requirements, questions were to be asked of the source.  And then we waited about three weeks, and we got word that there was not interest in the intel anymore, that what they wanted was now was for him to defect as a propaganda ploy. 

The case officer who was handling the case was one of our top Middle Eastern officers, who happened to be working in Europe at the time, asked one of the senior Iraqi operations people "Aren’t they interested in this?"  And then the guy said, "You don’t understand.  This isn’t about intelligence.  It’s about regime change."

GREGORY:  Somebody actually said that?

DRUMHELLER:  Yes. 

GREGORY:  Well, what do you think was going on?  Why would they ignore this kind of information?

DRUMHELLER:  Well, it's not easy to say.  But I believe the administration had preconceptions built on things that they really and truly believed, that they had heard from immigrating reporting, that they had built up over the years.  And a lot of people believed this about the weapons of mass destruction, but also about the need to deal with the strategic problem with Iraq. 

But, in fact, the planning was already well underway, and this report, where it was easy to ignore the inspectors, they were saying the inspectors didn’t know what they were doing or they had no idea. This report was much more tangible, much harder to deal with.

GREGORY:  But your point is, they were looking for the answers that they wanted to support the case for war.

DRUMHELLER:  Yes.

GREGORY:  Number one, the White House has said, first of all, related to this, that this was a single source, the foreign minister who they were dealing with. 

Number two, the intelligence community had made a judgment about Saddam possessing weapons of mass destruction and certainly interested in pursuing more.  Does this information that you have discount that?

DRUMHELLER:  Yes, it does.  What they’re talking about first is the single source, that the single source is a very senior guy like this.  That's something that’s very important.  And also it’s a source we were in the process of validating and then had come through with his, vetted by another service. 

But they also took single sources on.  "Curveball” was a single source, and that was the basis for the entire lead-up to it, even with the uranium yellowcake.  In those cases, they didn’t even know the names of the agents or of the sources.

Now, on the NIE, which is what they’re talking about, the National Intelligence Estimate for the community, the NIE is one document done on one day by a group of analysts that represents the best judgment of all the intelligence community on that day.  Intelligence is a fluid thing.  It changes day to day.  When new intelligence comes in, even if it came in shortly after the National Intelligence Estimate was issued, it changes the whole picture.

GREGORY:  I should point out a here a couple of things.  While the White House has not specifically commented on your charges, they do point to a commission study indicating that there’s no evidence that analysts were pressured or that intelligence was manipulated in any way, that the president had certainly said that the intelligence for the war was wrong.  Your point is that there was information that was available prior to going to war.

Did you bring this up with George Tenet, then director of the CIA, and did others say, hey, wait a minute, you’ve got to tell the White House to back off here?

DRUMHELLER:  I had talked to him about it.  I had talked John McLaughlin about it and others.  But in the end, they brought it up.  The White House made their judgment, and we were actually, at that point, moving on toward the war.  And this went on through, and what we were also looking at was this debate going on about the “Curveball” case, about the validity of that. 

GREGORY:  Bottom line, you don’t think George Tenet pushed hard enough against the White House to say you don’t have the facts to back up the case for war?

DRUMHELLER:  On this issue, no.

GREGORY:  All right.

DRUMHELLER:  He did on the uranium yellowcake.  He did the right thing on that.

GREGORY:  All right.  Certainly the debate will continue.  Thank you very much for your views.

DRUMHELLER:  Thank you. 

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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