Video: The CIA and the White House

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updated 5/3/2006 12:12:45 PM ET 2006-05-03T16:12:45

Did President Bush lead our country to war based on faulty intelligence, or did his administration twist and cherry-pick the information for a war they had already decided to start?

Somebody is responsible for this war.  Is it the president, the politicians in Congress who voted to authorize the war, the military who saluted Bush three years ago when the war was popular who are now calling for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s resignation, or was it cooked intelligence from the administration? 

Two high-ranking CIA operatives who were actively involved in the run-up to the war answered this question and more.

Tyler Drumheller was the CIA’s chief of operations in Europe until he retired last year.  He says that the White House ignored warnings that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. 

Gary Berntsen is a former CIA field officer who served on the ground in Afghanistan.  He says the military let Osama bin Laden get away because they didn’t commit the right amount of forces to get him.  He’s also the author of “Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al Qaeda.”

This is a transcript of their conversation. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL":  The case made by the president of the United States in his State of the Union in 2003, was that Saddam Hussein was purchasing uranium materials in Niger in order to build nuclear weapons to use against us. 

We were warned by Condi Rice and others there would be a mushroom cloud if we waited around for a smoking gun.  The case was made to smart people in this country, and they bought the case.  We faced a nuclear threat.

Then afterwards, the administration outed Valerie Plame Wilson, because they wanted to punish, apparently, Joe Wilson for coming out and outing them and saying there never was a deal with Niger.  Am I right on that? 

TYLER DRUMHELLER, FMR. CIA EUROPEAN OPS. CHIEF:  That’s the way it appears.  You’re certainly right on the fact that the information that was in the State of the Union Address was inaccurate, and that the yellowcake reporting from Niger, the reports that had come in on the issue of yellowcake were well-known to have been discredited as far back as September and October. 

MATTHEWS:  When I asked the CIA director, the former director, George Tenet, this same question, I said, if the vice president raised the question about a possible deal in Africa by Saddam Hussein to buy nuclear materials, uranium yellowcake, as you put it, and the report turned out that there wasn’t such a deal and the report went back to the vice president, how could that have happened because the president subsequently gave a State of the Union Address?

And when I ask that, making that very point that there was a threat from a deal in Africa, you know what the former director said?  He said ask Vice President Cheney.  In other words, it’s like high school, this circle that goes around.  Did we or did we not know at the highest levels of this government there was not a deal to buy uranium in Africa by Saddam Hussein? 

DRUMHELLER:  Oh absolutely.  They knew that that was not the truth. 

MATTHEWS:  But why did the president say so in his State of the Union to make the case for war? 

DRUMHELLER:  They were making the case for war.  There was a drive in the administration from the beginning to settle the issue of Iraq for a variety of reasons, which I think they were very sincere about. 

MATTHEWS:  So WMD was the case they made, but it wasn’t the reason?

DRUMHELLER:  Right, no, because they knew by the fall of 2002, they had evidence from good reporting that both the yellowcake reporting was bad, that the reporting on the “Curveball” case, which was a big thing was bad, and that we had a good source that was telling us that they didn’t have this.  

MATTHEWS:  That’s the aluminum tubes.  OK.  In other words, it’s your belief that they misled the American people.  They gave us a case for WMD, especially nuclear. That wasn’t honest? 

DRUMHELLER:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Gary, your assessment is the same.  Go back again, before the war, the case they made about a nuclear threat from Iraq and later how they dealt with Valerie Wilson. 

GARY BERNTSEN, FMR. CIA OFFICER:  Clearly here, the administration recognized that Iraq was a threat.  We all recognized that Iraq was a threat.  The question was how do we deal with it?  You know, Saddam himself was considered a weapon of mass destruction.  The point was, they used intelligence to make the case for them. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did they do that? 

BERNTSEN:  Paul Pillar has written in “Foreign Affairs” and he wrote in the “Harvard Review” recently, and he was the national intelligence officer for the Middle East.  He stated this all quite clearly, and he was the man that was probably closest to this in the agency that, you know, the administration turned this process on its head.

It’s unfortunate.  I supported the administration’s effort to remove Saddam, because I thought Saddam was that dangerous.  I’m not happy with the way things have been handled since then. 

MATTHEWS:  Let’s talk about the way they were handled.  As we know from the evidence here, the vice president and Scooter Libby, his chief of staff, made a half a dozen trips to Langley, the CIA headquarters, and pushed the case for a nuclear threat from Iraq, right?

DRUMHELLER:  Yes, they were trying to build public support, clearly.

BERNTSEN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  And were they basing that upon on a clear, open-eyed look at the evidence available to them, or were they cherry-picking? 

DRUMHELLER:  I think they were cherry-picking, and then just what Gary was saying before, is that they recognized the long-term strategic threat of Iraq.  I don’t believe they trust the American people to make that connection, so therefore, they were trying to make a case that would sell what they saw to deal with it.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Many people in defending this administration, good thinking people, believe that we were misled by accident, that the administration made the same mistake that the French made, the Germans made, and other intelligence organizations; that there was a nuclear threat from Iraq.  Is that a fair defense or is that covering up what was the intent to mislead? 

BERNTSEN:  You have to remember that when the military was planning the invasion of Iraq, there were multiple plans, and the one plan they came to was called Running Start, and the concern was from the military that they would be attacked potentially with chemical weapons.  There were a lot of people, not just in the agency, but within the intelligence community and the military as well, down pretty deep, that saw this as a problem.  Remember, Saddam had beaten us in the 1990’s.  We thought we had all of that in after 1991, and his son-in-law defects and we find out this large program exists. 

MATTHEWS:  Let’s sharpen that point.  The DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, we all know was way out in front in making the nuclear case, right? 

They weren’t really joined, however, by state or energy or the combined intelligence services, right?  They were out there alone making this case.

Is that because of the civilian ideologues in the Defense Department: Wolfowitz, Feith and the others, who pushed that case? 

BERNTSEN:  It was clear that they had a stronger role in pushing that but the agency doesn’t make policy.  We provide information.  DOD, the secretary of defense, he provides policy. 

MATTHEWS:  What’s your response to the following question?  Was there an attempt by Saddam Hussein to develop, to purchase nuclear materials, uranium yellow cake, from the government of Niger?  Yes or no? 

BERNTSEN:  I don’t believe that was the case. 

DRUMHELLER: No.

MATTHEWS:  Were there aluminum tubes that made the case, this Curveball character?  Was that in fact a hard case for nuclear buildup by Saddam? 

BERNTSEN:  It’s clear now that those were incorrect. 

DRUMHELLER:  That’s right.  They weren’t the case for it.  They were probably rocket tubes or something. 

MATTHEWS:  Keep going.  Let me ask you about the mushroom cloud argument.  Condi Rice and others said if you are waiting for a smoking gun from Saddam Hussein, you’re going to get a mushroom cloud.  In other words, we’re going to be hit here at home.  Did Saddam ever have a deliverable, either a vehicle or a weapon, a war head to use against the United States in our own country? 

BERNTSEN:  No, he didn’t.  But what Saddam wanted to do, he wanted to convince people that he still had some type of capacity, because he saw the Iranians as a greater threat.  He believed that we didn’t invade Baghdad in ‘91 because he thought we thought he had still had chemical weapons up there.  He saw that as a deterrent. 

MATTHEWS:  The smoke screen was helpful to him.  Your view? 

DRUMHELLER:  The smoke screen was helpful to Saddam, why Saddam did the things he did, it’s always hard to judge.  It was for local consumption, it was for the neighbors.

MATTHEWS:  Finally, I’ve looked up the numbers, two thirds of the American believed at the time we were being building up to war in the Fall of 2002, it was really payback for what the Iraqis had done to us on 9/11.  Two thirds of the people believed that the Iraqis were involved in attacking us at The World Trade Center and at the Pentagon.  Was that true? Who was pushing it out of the administration, over and over again?  The president, vice president?  Listen to their speeches over and over again, they kept pounding it, especially the vice president. 

BERNTSEN:  I was in the field at that point, in another part of the world and was not part of that debate. 

DRUMHELLER:  I wasn’t directly part of the debate, but I understand that it came from the office of the vice president, they picked up the report about the meeting between Atta and the Czech and the Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, which wasn’t true. 

MATTHEWS:  So the VP kept pushing it? 

DRUMHELLER:  Yes.  Another important thing that in the war on terror is that the resources that were taken out of Afghanistan, the guys that Gary needed for Iraq, really did hurt. 

MATTHEWS:  Why is George Tenet so supportive of the Bush family and not supportive of the agency he was leading?  Why doesn’t he admit that he was given a report and the report was going back to the vice president after he triggered that inquiry about a deal with Niger to buy nuclear materials?  Why didn’t the vice president tell the president you can’t claim a nuclear threat from Iraq, we just found out from a former ambassador, Joe Wilson, that there is nothing to the case?  Why didn’t the paper trail go to the president?

DRUMHELLER:  I think George Tenet was caught up in the march to war, just like everybody else.

MATTHEWS:  Was he under orders? 

DRUMHELLER:  No, I don’t really think, I don’t think they pressured intelligence.   They never came and said do this and do that.  The direction to go was very clear.

MATTHEWS:  What did he mean when I asked him "why didn’t the vice president get a report back from the trip to Africa by Joe Wilson?"  That would have cleared this whole thing up.  He said to ask him.  What does that mean? 

DRUMHELLER:  I think it means that George didn’t want to answer because he knew what the answer was.

MATTHEWS:  Which was he got a report. 

Why didn’t all of this intelligence work by you pros to try find out the threat about the real threat from Saddam Hussein, before, after, during the war, why didn’t it get to the American people through the president and vice president?  Why was there a wall separating us from the truth? 

BERNTSEN:  I think that the agency was trying to provide the intelligence to policymakers, that’s our role, to policymakers, not to the American public.  What the president does with that information is his business. 

MATTHEWS:  In this case, he didn’t give us the full scoop, right? 

BERNTSEN:  Apparently. 

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