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MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: This new book, "At the Center of the Storm," has created its own firestorm about ignored intelligence before the September 11 attack and "slam dunk" intelligence in making the case for the Iraq war.
(Videotape, October 2, 2002)
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Saddam Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons, and he is
moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon.
MR. RUSSERT: The WMDs were never found, a colossal intelligence failure. What happened? With us, the author and former director of central intelligence, George Tenet. Mr. Tenet, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.
MR. GEORGE TENET: Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Let's go right to it, "At the Center of the Storm." I want to bring you back to the fifth anniversary of September 11. Vice President Cheney was on this program, and I asked him, in light of the fact that we hadn't found weapons of mass destruction, would he still have gone into Iraq, and this was his answer. Let's watch.
(Videotape, September 10, 2006)
VICE PRES. DICK CHENEY: That was the intelligence all of us saw. That was the intelligence all of us believed. It was--when, when George Tenet sat in the Oval Office, and the president of the United States, to ask him directly, he said, "George, how good is the case against Saddam and weapons of mass destruction?" And the director of the CIA said, "It's a slam dunk, Mr. President. It's a slam dunk."
MR. RUSSERT: When you watched that interview, what did you think?
MR. TENET: Well, I, I thought quite, quite honestly, Tim, I thought that, you know, "There's a bit of a deflection here." That meeting that morning was about a public case that we might make. I, I said slam dunk. You always owe the president better and more discipline than I did that morning. But the implication left from what the vice president said was we had a meeting in the Oval Office that day and the president decided to go to war, and that's simply not the case. I, I, I am always--and, and it's important to take responsibility for what we got wrong, but it's also important that we not share responsibility for decisions others made. So my, my view of that is let's, let's be honest about what happened in that room that morning. This, this was a meeting to talk about a public case. We believed-- I believed we had better data that we could declassify to make a case that we all believed in, that every intelligence service believed in. I believe this, this meeting occurred 10 months after the president saw his worst workable war plan on Iraq, after the vice president had given his VFW speech, two weeks after
a military mobilization order. And the concern I had, Tim, was, is that this comes rolling out the door, of course, sometime in '04 after things are going badly. So did we believe he had weapons of mass destruction? Yes, we did, and we said so. Were we found to be wrong? Yes. But let's not turn this meeting into the seminal moment that I think the vice president was implying.
MR. RUSSERT: The vice president said in that interview, "We made a choice based on this." The president told Bob Woodward that your talking about slam dunk, "That was very important." Do you believe that?
MR. TENET: Tim, I can only tell you what I believe. We, we had--we, we expressed high confidence in our estimates. We had talked about this. There were numerous public speeches that had been made. I, I, I say in the book, I do not believe that that comment that morning either affected the president's views of the legitimacy or the timing of going to war, and that's my strongly held view.
MR. RUSSERT: This is how Bob Woodward described that scene on December 21st. You came into a meeting with your deputy, John McLaughlin. He had just finished his presentation. The president said, "`Nice try,'" Bush said. `I don't think this is quite--it's not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from.' Bush turned to Tenet, `I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we've got?' From the end of one of the couches in the Oval Office, Tenet rose up, threw his arms in the air. `It's a slam dunk case!' the DCI said. Bush pressed, `George, how confident are you?' Tenet leaned forward and threw his arms up again. `Don't worry, it's a slam dunk.'" You remember that?
MR. TENET: Tim, no, I do not remember jumping up and down. There were five CIA officers in the room with me that day. There was an officer who sat next to me on the couch. I interviewed him. That officer said, "Listen, I know you said it. It was no more than a passing comment. You didn't jump up and down. And when I read all of this, the implication was you said slam dunk, and we're going to war." And he said it's just--the officer said, "That's just not the way it happened." So there was no pantomime here. And as I say in the book, Tim, you always owe the president your best discipline. If I'd said we can do better on this--on making this presentation, that would have been a better thing to say. But the notion that this moment, after months of preparation, after months of testimony, after public statements, after a military mobilization order, this was--this was a seminal moment? Well, we're, we're
all going to disagree. I just don't believe that was the case.
MR. RUSSERT: What if you said, "Mr. President, I can't make the case any better. It's not a slam dunk"?
MR. TENET: Well, Tim, we thought, on the basis of the intelligence that we had, we thought we could declassify more data to make a case that we believed in. It's, it's very, very important for people to understand, Tim, we believed it. All of our partners believed it. I've heard debate about this book subsequently, and it, and it looks like, "You knew this was wrong, and you let the president of the United States or you let the secretary of state go to the United Nations and say it." Absolutely not. You knew in the moment, at the time you lived in, all of the problems that would manifest themselves in postwar Iraq and didn't tell anybody." That's absolutely not true. None of us knew how this was going to unfold because, in fact, when we got on the ground, we did things quite opposite than we believed they were going to occur.
So what I'm trying to do is give you a reflection of the time period. People think a lot of this is go back and think about what happened because you have some historical obligation to do better in the future as a country. But the notion that we knowingly, wittingly said things that we knew to be false or that we had a full understanding of how our government would so badly manage a postwar situation and didn't say so is simply not true.
MR. RUSSERT: December 21st, when this meeting occurred, the Congress had already voted to authorize the president to go to war if necessary.
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: This is how you describe it: "National Security Council officials had asked us to start assembling a public case that might be made against Saddam regarding his possession and possible use of WMD. It was our turn to deliver [the briefing] to the president, vice president," chief of staff "Andy Card," Condoleezza "Rice," who was then head of the National Security Council, "and a few others. Some might criticize us for participating in what was essentially a marketing meeting."
And, in fact, that has happened. A former CIA officer said this: "What is the head of the intelligence community in the United States [doing] involved in marketing this war? That's not his role. His role is to give advice to the president, unvarnished advice, and speak the truth."
Why did you participate in a marketing meeting?
MR. TENET: Well, well, well, the critics have said it is--it's a marketing meeting. Intelligence was going to be used in a public case. Now, you have two choices. You can walk away from that and let policymakers determine how to use the intelligence and then face enormous risks, or you can be very, very careful, and you can do your best to ensure--which I believe is the role of the director--is to always ensure that when the president or anybody else uses intelligence, that, that it be done in a manner that is consistent with what we believe the best intelligence shows. You could have let Colin Powell go deliver his speech. You could've let him give the speech that the White House wrote and provided the secretary when he came to my headquarters. We could never let him give that speech. So you have an obligation, to the best of your ability, to always ensure that your intelligence is used in the best way. You
can choose not to do it that way, but there's also risk involved in that. The, the notion that we were marketing a war is absolutely false. That's not our intent. Our intent was to make sure that when people speak about things that have to do with data we produced and analysis we produced, that it be done so accurately and fairly.
MR. RUSSERT: In Bob Woodward's book "State of Denial," he has an exchange between you and your close aide John Brennan. And he says this: "Tenet told deputy executive director at" the "CIA headquarters John Brennan that, in his gut, he didn't think invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Bush and the others were just really naive, thinking they would just be able to go into Iraq and overturn the government.
"This is a mistake,' Tenet finally told Brennan.
"But Tenet never conveyed these misgivings to the president. Bush had never asked him directly for his bottom line counsel, although Tenet felt that Bush had nevertheless opened the door in their conversations to the point where Tenet could have said, `No, this is crazy, this won't work, you shouldn't do this.' But Tenet never said it."
Did you have that conversation with...
MR. TENET: Tim, I had conversations with Mr. Brennan and a lot of people in the run-up. I had deep concern--any time you commit men and women to war, any time you do that, you, you, you should have misgivings. I thought about it long and hard--that was one conversation. I reflected long and hard--I had other conversations. And at, and at the end of the day, where, where I ended up personally, notwithstanding one or two conversations, was--and, and you can't, and you can't deflect at this moment. Did I believe Saddam Hussein should be removed from power? I'd worked on doing it over two administrations. Did I believe--did I believe our case on WMD? Yes, I believed that case. Was this a close policy call? Yes. Did I feel so strongly about this that I went to the president of the United States and said, `Don't do it'? I did not do that, Tim. I understood it. I understood their logic. And in, in the end, notwithstanding all these conversations, I worked at this very, very hard internally. Now, when you're the director, you're, you're always supposed to be dispassionate about these things. The concern of crossing that policy line is is that then you're analysis is seen to be suspect. But I didn't do it, I waited carefully. If I, if I felt strongly enough, Tim, I would have told the president. And I didn't, so whatever misgivings I had, I weighed them carefully and thought through this. But you can't recreate history at this moment.
MR. RUSSERT: But if you thought it was naive and you thought it was a mistake, do you wish now you had come forward?
MR. TENET: Tim, I, I wrestled with this. That was one conversation. I wrestled with this very, very hard back and forth over the, over the course of the time. It's not the ultimate conclusion I came to, notwithstanding conversations with, you know, it's sort of a, a Jesuit tradition where you throw things out, try and think through things, talk about things with people. And, and I tried to bounce ideas through people. I didn't do it, Tim. I, I did not, I did not oppose this, and to, to, to dress me up as a hero at this--I wasn't a hero here, and, and that's the record.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you now believe that the war was a mistake?
MR. TENET: Tim, what I believe is is that obviously the consequences of where we are today, our interests have been jeopardized, the region is much--the region is really at risk, not only Iraq. I, I didn't tell the president at the front end not to do this. History will make that judgment. The story continues to unfold. Nobody can look at what we have on the ground and the difficulties that we have today and, and not understand all of these negative consequences.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me go back to August of 2002. The vice president gave a speech to the Veterans of Foreign War. Let's watch it and come back and talk about it.
(Videotape, August 26, 2002)
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.
Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.
MR. RUSSERT: Was that an accurate representation of the intelligence?
MR. TENET: Well, Tim, the, the--he will have nuclear weapons fairly soon, I don't believe that that would be our position. The national intelligence estimate said five to seven years to develop a nuclear capability unless somebody gave him fissile material. And, as I say in the book--as I say in the book, I had an obligation to step up and say something--the speech was not provided to us for clearance. I should not have allowed my silence to imply acquiescence at that moment. That's my fault.
MR. RUSSERT: But it wasn't just the vice president. You testified before the Senate in March '04, the following. Let's listen.
(Videotape, March 9, 2004)
MR. TENET: You have to have the confidence to know that when I believed that somebody was misconstruing intelligence, I said something about it.
MR. RUSSERT: You didn't always say something about it.
MR. TENET: No, Tim, I did my best. And, and, and I will tell you that I, I, I did not succeed in every moment. I did my level best to, to ensure that the intelligence--I cannot tell you I was perfect, I certainly was not, and I did not absolve myself from that responsibility.
I'll make another point. Once you, once you write the intelligence and, and once you take a stand on issues, you always have to rely on people to stick with it as well. I mean, there's no automatic safety net. I didn't, I didn't correct every statement that everybody ever made. Certainly, when the president gave his statements, we cleared them. We understand we had that obligation. I cannot say that I did it as well as I could have; but, nevertheless, we made an effort to ensure that when words came out of people's mouth it comported with what we believed.
MR. RUSSERT: But when the president on October 7 said, "Saddam has chemical and biologic weapons and is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon..."
MR. TENET: We...
MR. RUSSERT: And then--and then he concluded with this.
MR. TENET: All right.
MR. RUSSERT: He concluded with this.
(Videotape, October 7, 2002)
PRES. BUSH: Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
MR. RUSSERT: You had no problem with that.
MR. TENET: Well, that's a judgment the president is going to make. I mean, the--it's his--or why does the president say--you know, when you look at this carefully, what, what--what's in the back of the mind of policymakers at the time? This is their judgment. They take the intelligence, they make a judgment in the risk, so what's in their head? Their head, of course, and I can't speak for them, I'm just surmising at the moment. 1991, we believed he was seven or eight years away from a nuclear weapon, and he was six years away. So the president may have had a concern that the absence of evidence and what we didn't know may have led them to get someplace a lot sooner. We cleared that speech, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: You did.
MR. TENET: Yes, we did.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, when you hear the president say that, or the vice president's talk about the nuclear weapons fairly soon, you know what it's doing to the consciousness of the American public. Are you an enabler at that time by not objecting?
MR. TENET: Tim, we, we--we're not enablers. We, we, we write an estimate, we declassified our estimate. We told you exactly what we believed about weapons of mass destruction. We believed he had chemical and biological weapons. We believed he, he was reconstituting a nuclear program but he was five to seven years away. That's what we believed. That's what we said.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me take you back to September 8, 2002, and you write about this in the book. The front page of The New York Times.
MR. TENET: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: An article by Judy Miller and Michael Gordon. It says, "US says Hussein intensifies quest for A-bomb parts. More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.
"In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.
"The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had persuaded American intelligence experts that they were meant for Iraq's nuclear program."
The vice president was on this program that same Sunday; Condoleezza Rice was on CNN pointing to that story, pushing that story. And then when the National Intelligence Estimate was released to the press, something that Congress had been given, tucked in there was that the Department of Energy assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: So when you see that front page article and the vice president and secretary of state pushing the story, do you have an obligation to say "Time out..."
MR. TENET: At the time...
MR. RUSSERT: "Time out. There is dissent on this."
MR. TENET: Right. At, at, at the time, what was the date of that statement?
MR. RUSSERT: September.
MR. TENET: OK, the estimate had not yet been produced. CIA believed at the time that these tubes were intended to be used for that nuclear program. When we get to the estimate, DOE believed that, in fact, reconstitution was occurring even though they didn't buy into the tubes. All agencies agreed at the time that the tubes could be reconfigured for use for, for, for their nuclear program. So, at the time, it was a CIA view. We got to the estimate, the dissent was clearly spelled out. DOE had a different point of view. And we laid all that dissent out very, very clearly in the estimate.
MR. RUSSERT: Was there always a spin put on the intelligence which would be most favorable to the administration's position?
MR. TENET: Well, Tim, I can't say there was always a spin. Look, we worked very, very hard. Does every statement absolutely comport with the intelligence? Probably not. But policymakers also, the tension that you run into is we have intelligence, they assess risk, they think what it means. And is every word perfectly fitted to what an estimate says? Probably not.
MR. RUSSERT: In your book, you write this. Your counterpart in great Britain, "Sir Richard Dearlove, "believed that the crowd around the vice president was playing fast and loose with the evidence." Do you agree with him?
MR. TENET: Well, it was his reflection. I, I interviewed him for the book, and he's talking specifically about terrorism. You know, he, he, he--when I interviewed him, he said, "You know, it wasn't about fixing intelligence. My concern was, is when I came over in July, I had a meeting with the vice president's staff, and my concern was the question of how they were thinking about Iraqis--Iraq's relationship with al-Qaeda in, in a way that we just didn't believe was accurate." That's what he was referring to at the time.
MR. RUSSERT: But do you agree that the vice president's office, the crowd around the vice president, was playing fast and loose with the evidence?
MR. TENET: There was deep, there was deep disagreement between us, and then throughout this process about how far you could take the terrorism case. We took a position. We, we said, very clearly, there are three areas of concern: contact, safe haven and training. We documented that in a paper in January of 2003, January 28 of 2003. We also said that, to the best of our knowledge, this may have been no more than two organizations seeking to take advantage of each other, and we could see no complicity, no operational relationship, no command and control between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Now, therein lied the seeds of a lot of debate back and forth and a lot of tension back and forth. Our analysts held their ground. It is what we believed, and it is the case that we made.
MR. RUSSERT: But October 7, there was a letter written in your name...
MR. TENET: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: ...by John McLaughlin...
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...in response to questions raised by Senator Evan Bayh.
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: And it says, "Regarding Senator Bayh's questions of Iraqi links to al-Qaeda, senators could draw from the following points for unclassified discussions. One, We have solid reporting of senior level contact between Iraq and al-Qaeda going back a decade." Two, "Credible information indicates that Iraq and al-Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal" aggression." Three, "Since Operation Enduring Freedom, we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad." And lastly, "We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making
MR. TENET: Yes. And I wish, I wish in that one letter, Tim, we had also put the penultimate judgment. We didn't in that letter. You go back to the testimony before those committees, Those judgments were voiced. You go back to every other paper that we have written, and we made that case. We believed those points, but we also believed--and everybody in the administration understood--that we never found complicity, authority direction and control, and said that very explicitly.
MR. RUSSERT: But this is three days before the vote. And you send that kind of letter, and you say these are talking points you can have, or--for declassified conversation.
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: You're giving the distinct impression that Iraq and September 11 have a connection.
MR. TENET: Tim, it, it--I understand that, and, and I wish that letter had been completed in the way that it should have been. I also know that in the statement before all those committees, when I was behind closed doors, we made the necessary closure here to understand the distinction. We believed those things. We also never took the case to the point where someone would believe there was an intimate operational relationship between--they were directing each other to undertake activities.
MR. RUSSERT: At that time, there was a poll in Time magazine, is Saddam involved in September 11 attacks? Likely, 71; unlikely, 25. Clearly there was a sense in the country, which was fueled by comments being made by the administration, that there was linkage. Fair?
MR. TENET: Well, the polling data would, would tell us that, wouldn't it? All, all I can tell you is, Tim, we were--look, people said--when people say to us, "Well you just, you just allow them--you allowed them to make the case, you've cooked the books." If we were cooking the books, we would have said, "Yes, that's true. There is authority, direction and control, all your worst fears or concerns." We would have had the secretary of state say that in front of the United Nations. We didn't. So there was a--look, was there, was there a history of Saddam Hussein and terrorism? Were these three areas a source of concern for us? Maybe--you know, it's a, it's a--it may be a subtle distinction, not so subtle in my mind, particularly when we're dealing with allegations of, you know, Mohamed Atta in Prague milling with the Iraqis. Well, by the spring of 2002, FBI and CIA analysts basically concluded, boy, this story is eroding over the course of time.
MR. RUSSERT: But the vice president kept talking about that.
MR. TENET: Well, he may have kept talking about it, Tim. It was not our, it was not our position. He also said that, you know--he also said that the Weekly Standard wrote a piece in November of 2003 that said this is the best source of your intelligence. The Weekly Standard piece said this proves there's an operational relationship. Well, the best standard--the best source is our January 2003 paper.
MR. RUSSERT: At that time, then, why didn't you stand up and go to the president and vice president and say, "Stop saying this. It's not true"?
MR. TENET: Right before the war, Tim, the vice president wanted to give a speech about the Iraq/al-Qaeda relationship that he sent to us for clearance. And I walked in and saw the president of the United States and said, "He can't give this speech. We will not support this speech." That speech was not given. There's no doubt about where we were on this issue. Everybody understood where we were, and everybody understood there was no authority, direction, control and complicity.
MR. RUSSERT: But in terms of correcting the president or the vice president each and every time.
MR. TENET: Tim, Tim, each and every time. So was, you know, did I monitor the press every day to see what everybody was saying? No. I put a paper on the table. We put a paper on the table, "This is what the American intelligence community believes." You know, we all have to act within those confines and stay within what the record tells us and what we testify to.
MR. RUSSERT: And when people deviate from the record, do you...
MR. TENET: Well, you get--you've got to do your best to correct it. And when I was aware of it and learned of it, when somebody was going to give a speech, when the vice president was going to give a speech, I walked in and saw the president and said, "He cannot give that speech."
MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned to "60 Minutes" that it never made any sense of a complicity of Iraq with September 11. But you did testify in March of '03 that the jury was still out as to whether Saddam was involved.
MR. TENET: No--well, no, Tim, by, by January, by January of '03, we understood this relationship. We understood that that there was no--there was no relationship between--we, we understood that fairly quickly, Tim. I mean, I didn't--I mean, I never saw any evidence that told us that there was complicity here. We understood--you know, we brought the Mohamed Atta story forward. We ran that down very,very hard. No complicity with 9/11 ever.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, in March of '02 you said, "There is no doubt that there have been contacts and linkages of al-Qaeda organization. As to where we are in September 11, the jury is out."
MR. TENET: March of '02.
MR. RUSSERT: Yeah. As we--as, as to where we are on September 11, the jury's out.
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: "As I said carefully in my statement, it would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility of state sponsorship..."
MR. TENET: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: "...whether Iranian or Iraqi, and we'll see where the evidence takes us."
MR. TENET: Yes. That's right, in March of '02, of course, you're running down--at that moment, you have a professional responsibility to run down is there the possibility of complicity here? You'd be derelict of your responsibility. I mentioned Iran, and I mentioned Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: When did you conclude that Iraq was not complicit in September 11?
MR. TENET: Tim, when we published--we started publishing in the fall of, of '02, and then by January 28, 2003, our definitive paper is published and we're done. We're done with that issue.
MR. RUSSERT: And so any comments suggesting otherwise after that time by the president or vice president were done after you had told them something else?
MR. TENET: Tim, any statements that say that there's operational command and control or a
relationship to 9/11 after that point does not comport with the intelligence, does not comport with our final judgments in any way, shape or form.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me take you back to, now, the famous State of the Union address of January of '03, the famous 16 words.
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: Here's what the president said:
(Videotape, January 28, 2003)
PRES. BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
MR. RUSSERT: You said six months after that, that those words should not have been included in the president's speech.
MR. TENET: Correct.
MR. RUSSERT: Why did it take six months?
MR. TENET: Well, well, Tim, first of all, it's interesting. Let's, let's do the history here. Identical words were intended to be put in the Cincinnati speech, and we took them out. I took them out directly in a conversation with Mr. Hadley and follow-up memos that we sent to the White House as to why you can't use this data. We document that in the book. That speech was provided to me just before it was given. Unfortunately, I didn't read it. We passed it out for comment. Nobody came back to me to say "Let's take it out." So what happens, of course, is, is by the, by the--by June or July, major, you know, press, press starts to write about the fact that these were included.
MR. RUSSERT: But one of your advisers says he warned you to take them out.
MR. TENET: Well, that's not true. That's really--that's absolutely not true. But we took it out--we took it out in the Cincinnati speech. We left it in in this speech. I believe we had a responsibility in clearing the speech to, to accept the responsibility of the fact that we didn't get our job done and allowed the president of the United States to say that. I believed there was going to be shared responsibility. We took it out of Cincinnati. We were very forceful about that. As the book notes, it was taken out of a previous speech that was to be given in September. So our record on this, I testified--you know, when we testified to the Congress in October of 2002, we were asked about this question. We said, "We don't believe it. Saddam already has 550 metric tons of yellowcake under seal. If he wants, yellowcake he has it. We disputed the British belief."
MR. RUSSERT: But if your president's giving a State of the Union address, and even if you hadn't vetted it, but then it appears in his speech...
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...why wouldn't the next day or the day after...
MR. TENET: Well...
MR. RUSSERT: ...you say, "Please, that's not accurate, you can't say that." Why did you wait six months?
MR. TENET: Well, well, Tim, you know, no one came into me to say it. I didn't watch the speech that night. I didn't go back and read the speech carefully. My fault in not doing that, our fault for not taking it out of the speech. But our position on this was very, very clear from September and October going forward about what we thought about it. This was not--nitro and yellowcake had nothing to do with our judgment that Saddam is reconstituting nuclear weapons. Nothing to do with it.
MR. RUSSERT: In the National Intelligence Estimate that you put out, it does say, "A foreign government service reported as of early 2001, Niger planned to" spend several tons--"send several tons of `pure uranium,'" possible "probably yellowcake to Iraq. We do not know the status of this arrangement."
MR. TENET: Tim, it's not in our key judgments and findings. We declassified that portion of it so everybody can understand what we said. I believe we declassified the dissent that the State Department took. We tried to put that whole piece in context. But as to the nuclear judgment, that issue had nothing to do with our nuclear judgment.
MR. RUSSERT: But if you had it in this estimate, is that where the president got the idea to put it in his speech?
MR. TENET: Well, Tim, I don't know where they got the idea to--I don't know how they got the idea to put it in the speech. All I can tell you...
MR. RUSSERT: Where, where else would it come from?
MR. TENET: Well, of course, but all I can tell you is--just--this is a very important point.
MR. RUSSERT: Yes.
MR. TENET: We outlined very carefully the critical elements of reconstitution of a nuclear weapon. This was not one of the them. We took it out of the Cincinnati speech, followed up with two memos and said, "We do not believe this. We've told the Congress that we do not believe that this is--this--we disagree with the British on this." We concluded this in the estimate because we wanted to be complete about what the records show. But our position in our--we testified to nobody about this. The secretary of state, when he went to the United Nations, he did not include this in his speech because we didn't believe it. So, yes, it may have been in the estimate, but I think the record is clear about what the nuclear reconstitution judgment was based on, and this had nothing to do with it.
MR. RUSSERT: A couple of areas I want to clear up. The--when the CIA had an assessment that said it was low in their calculation that Saddam would initiate an attack and that if we started or commenced the war...
MR. TENET: Low confidence.
MR. RUSSERT: Low confidence.
MR. TENET: Low--they didn't--we didn't know.
MR. RUSSERT: But it start--if you started a war, it could be higher.
MR. TENET: But, but we didn't know.
MR. RUSSERT: But we didn't know.
MR. TENET: We had no idea.
MR. RUSSERT: But, nonetheless, that was seized upon as a difference between the president's view as to what the threat potential was. And Condi Rice called you and said, "Would you please call a reporter at The New York Times and say there really is no difference--no inconsistency from what the president's saying and what Democrats are saying."
MR. TENET: Right. Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: You say you now regret that, because you were involving yourself...
MR. TENET: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: ...in a political decision.
MR. TENET: I shouldn't have made that call, Tim, I understand that.
MR. RUSSERT: But isn't that another example that people point to of George Tenet...
MR. TENET: Well, it is, it is, it is, Tim, and all you can do after the fact is look at people and say, "I wish I hadn't done that. It was a mistake to do that." I can't take it--you know, I can't do it any other way but to be honest with you about the fact I made a mistake.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator, Senator Levin says it's your duty not to act as a shill for the administration.
MR. TENET: He's exactly right, and I never believed I was a shill for the administration, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: But where, where do you stop enabling the administration and, and start saying, "I don't agree with you in what you're doing?"
MR. TENET: Well, Tim, Tim, I will tell you that I had many conversations, particularly on Iraq and al-Qaeda, particularly on the terrorism question, where we drew the line as sharply as we knew how. We were very, very clear about our judgments. We worked very, very hard to make sure that people comported and stayed within the bounds of what the intelligence showed. At the end of the day, Tim, they also make their own risk calculations. And is every statement that everybody every uttered perfect?
MR. RUSSERT: Colin Powell went before, as you know, the United Nations, a pivotal time, and he was someone who was seen as not particularly interested in the war in Iraq...
MR. TENET: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: ...or as supportive as others.
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: He was kind of pivotal in that regard on the world stage. He came to you and sat with you and your closest advisers...
MR. TENET: For over three nights.
MR. RUSSERT: ...three nights. He went before the United Nations and said this:
(Videotape, February 5, 2003)
SEC'Y OF STATE COLIN POWELL: Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agents. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."
MR. RUSSERT: He now says that that presentation was inaccurate and that it's a blot on his career.
MR. TENET: And we let the secretary down, and we undermined the credibility of the United States because we, we worked very hard for three nights. We believed we put together a presentation that we thought was good and solid. And we know that once we got on the ground, and we know that once we started learning things, that that presentation didn't stand up. So, you know, I sat behind, I sat behind the secretary of state. We sat there for three and a half days trying to make sure that he said what we believed. We worked very, very hard. We started with a draft that wasn't our own. We spent two and a half days trying to figure out where, where half the stuff came from. You know, the notion that we would walk the secretary of state out on the world stage and knowingly let him say there--things that were wrong--you know, someone I was close to, someone I had an enormous amount of respect for, it was a dark moment for all of us, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Is it a blot on your career?
MR. TENET: Well, well, well, Tim, yes, of course. We, we, we, we collectively cleared a speech that the secretary gave. Nobody regrets this more than I do.
MR. RUSSERT: Before we take a break, I want to clear up one situation in the front of your book about Richard Perle.
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: You open the book with these words: "Wednesday, September 12, 2001, dawned as the first full day of a world gone mad. As I walked beneath the awning that leads to the West Wing, [I] saw Richard Perle exiting the building just as I was about to enter. As the doors closed behind him, we made eye contact and nodded. I had just reached the door myself when Perle turned to me and said, `Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.' I looked back at Perle and thought: Who has [he] been meeting with in the White House so early in the morning on today of all days?"
Perle yesterday sent MEET THE PRESS this statement: "George Tenet tells his readers that on
September 12, 'today of all days' I told him that Iraq was responsible for the attack of" September 11. "This false claim is an obvious attempt to escape the responsibility for the intelligence failures of the agency he headed. But more important, it shows that even five years later he fails to understand that the decision to remove Saddam was based on the danger posed by Iraq, especially Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction--the certainty of which was repeated in every intelligence report and briefing I received from the CIA and other intelligence agencies. I was out of the country on" September 11, "unable to return until September 15. When I did run into Mr. Tenet at the White House a week later, we had already concluded that al-Qaeda was responsible for" September 11. "I never made the remark Tenet attributes to me, or anything like it."
MR. TENET: We, we, we had not concluded that al-Qaeda was responsible for September 11. That conversation may have, may have occurred days later. It is the conversation that I--that, that occurred, and I stand by what happened that day.
MR. RUSSERT: He said those words to you.
MR. TENET: Yes, he did. And so for him to say that we had concluded that al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11, well, I'd like to know who made that conclusion.
MR. RUSSERT: When you say "yesterday" and "today of all days"?
MR. TENET: Well, Tim, I, I obviously--this is a jumbled, very difficult period of time. I may be off by a few days. What he said seems to be corroborated by what he said to another journalist. Mr. Novak has said he was called on September 17, and Mr. Perle said something like, "Well, aren't enough--there aren't enough targets in Afghanistan; let's go to Iraq.' And it's--it also is corroborative of the fact that he sent a letter to the president on September the 20 that mirrors those feelings. So I may have been off on the day, but I'm not off on what he said and what he believed.
MR. RUSSERT: We're going to take a quick break. We are talking to George Tenet. He headed up the CIA during and leading up to September 11, and during the lead-up to the Iraq war. His new book, "At the Center of the Storm." We'll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: More with the former director of central intelligence George Tenet and his new book after this station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.
I want to go back, leading up to September 11.
MR. TENET: All right.
MR. RUSSERT: In March, you went in to see Stephen Hadley, who was then Condoleezza Rice's deputy of the National Security Council, and said, "I want to expand my authorities."
MR. TENET: Well, we were asked to send them those authorities.
MR. RUSSERT: And you brought them in?
MR. TENET: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: The next day, you got a call saying, "Can you take these back because we want--or roll back the clock, we don't want to have to be set to this timetable."
MR. TENET: Tim, in fairness, I also said, "You've got to get your policies in order. You've got to consider covert action thoughtfully in a policy context." They weren't quite ready to get those policy deliberations done. we're not ready to receive those authorities yet.
MR. RUSSERT: So you took them back?
MR. TENET: Yes, sir.
MR. RUSSERT: You regret taking them back?
MR. TENET: No. It's, you know, authorities is--the policy process determines when covert action is going to be used. They did send them back, and, and they deliberated.
MR. RUSSERT: Then in June, a briefer of the CIA named Rich B gave a conclusion saying, based on all the reporting we've seen, that "bin Laden is going to launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S." Israeli "interest in the coming weeks." July 10 you got another briefing so alarming that you picked up the phone, said to Condoleezza Rice, "I want to come see you now," jumped in the car with some of your key advisers, went to see her. Rich B, he gave her a briefing package. Opening line, "There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months!" And then you--and later July, Rich B sitting at the CIA, said, "They're coming here." When he told you that, what did you think?
MR. TENET: It was a moment I'll never forget. We, we were sitting there trying to rack our brains, trying to figure out what we were up against at that moment. And you know, Rich, Rich said that, it hung over the room. We had no texture. We took it seriously, you know, but we had no texture at that moment. Of course, this is a, this is a human being who's been following this for many years, and he's giving us an instinctual call.
MR. RUSSERT: This is late July. The evidence coming in the intelligence: big event, spectacular, King, King Abdullah of Jordan calling, saying, "We have to go to Afghanistan. We have to do something." A presidential daily brief was prepared for the president on August 6 entitled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike in the U.S."
Late August, you went to Crawford, Texas, first time ever, met with the president, rode with him in his pickup truck. Did you say to him at that time, "Mr. President, Rich B told me at the CIA they are coming. You got to do something now"?
MR. TENET: Tim, by, by August, remember, this threat reporting starts way back in the spring--May, June, July, August. I held nothing back from the president. He understood our concerns about threats. He understood what we were doing around the world at the time. The interesting thing is is by the end of July, everything goes silent on us.
MR. RUSSERT: But did you say to him, "I brought in recommendations in March that they sent back. I need those now."
MR. TENET: At that, at that time, the policymakers were deliberating on those things, Tim. I believe that you've got to let them come to their conclusions. You know, I, I have every confidence that everybody in our government understood what I believed to be a very, very serious time period. At the end of the day, the authorities we were seeking were to get on the ground and work covertly with, with Ahmed Shah Massoud and the northern alliance. We wanted to get more proactive on the ground. The hijackers were already here.
So what, what did you learn from all this? You know, you warn, you provide strategic warning. You work around the world. We stopped many, many attacks in that summer overseas, saved thousands of lives. You go back and look at this, people always will focus either on the intelligence community, on the law enforcement. Everybody looks at individual vignettes, this mistake, that--here's the truth: An entire government, over two administrations, we, we all have to say everybody could've done more. And this was a period of time that there's a, there's a strategic and important point. We had no system of
domestic protection in place in this country. We didn't think about the United States as a target. People focus on watch listing. Yes, we didn't watch list people in a timely way. Even when we watch listed them, they weren't put on a no-fly list.
You know, in, in, in, in the millennium period, we told the president of the United States five to 50 attacks against the United States. None occurred. We caught a guy trying to cross the border from Canada. And the message was, "You know, they're starting to think about us here." So lots of things could've been done better. We think we provided strategic warning. We think we were acting aggressively overseas. But you have to have offense and defense playing together, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think the president should've come off vacation back to Washington and pulled all the principals together and said, "This intelligence is alarming. We got to do something"?
MR. TENET: I think, Tim, that in, in the August time period, I didn't, we didn't, we weren't giving the president more. I think principal--I think, you know, Condi Rice was running the NSC, Dick Clarke was taking actions. We--you can go back and think about this. The hindsight may be perfect. But that's what happened.
MR. RUSSERT: The CIA inspector general has written a report and analysis of what happened leading up to this. Do you think that should be made public?
MR. TENET: Well, Tim, we've been evaluated by 9/11 Commission, by a joint inquiry staff. This is the same CIA inspector general who told me in, in August of 2001 that my counterterrorism center was working extremely well, we were driving the community, our relationship with the FBI was good. General Hayden has this in front of them. As long as, as long as people get the opportunity to also declassify their responses because there're many pieces of this report that many of us felt were terribly flawed.
MR. RUSSERT: Put it all out?
MR. TENET: General Hayden will have to make this decision. Two of my successors did not believe it should be. Let them wrestle--let, let them deal with all of that.
But, Tim, at the end of the day, our record here is, we--we've let everybody know. We'd--we've hidden nothing from anybody, and there was a terrible event here. I hope people will balance what we did before and after. I hope people will look at what we did in Afghanistan. I hope people will understand two thirds of the al-Qaeda leadership no longer operates because of us. I hope they'll understand thousands of people have been saved because of the work of the men and women of CIA and our intelligence community and put some balance in this.
MR. RUSSERT: The president awarded Tommy Franks, the commander in Iraq; Paul Bremer, who led the postwar effort; and you the Medal of Freedom. John McLaughlin, your top deputy, told Ron Suskind in his book, "I know he," Tenet, "wishes he could give that damn medal back."
MR. TENET: It's absolutely untrue. I've talked to John. We never had such a conversation.
MR. RUSSERT: And you won't give it back?
MR. TENET: No, sir. I, I--that medal was--it was about terrorism, it was about what we did in Afghanistan, it was about the work of great men and women, and I, I received that medal on our--on their behalf, and no, I will not give that medal back.
MR. RUSSERT: In your book, a chapter entitled "They Want to Change History," you write this: "One mushroom cloud would change history. My deepest fear is that this is exactly what they intend." Do you believe that there are terrorist organizations that now have the capability of detonating a nuclear device in the United States?
MR. TENET: Tim, what I believe is, is that al-Qaeda is, is seeking this capability. You know, when we write about this, I take you back, he was looking--he, Bin Laden was looking for uranium in the Sudan in 1993. He had a meeting with a nongovernmental organization of former Pakistani nuclear scientists, 2001, where crude weapons designs were shared. The leader of this NGO looked at him and said, "You know, the hard part about doing this is getting the fissile material." And Bin Laden looked back at him and said, "What if I already have the fissile material?"
MR. RUSSERT: You think he does?
MR. TENET: We don't know. All I'm--I don't know, Tim. I'm trying to alert people to the fact that this is an, an organization that wants to hurt us commensurate with our standing as a superpower.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe a nuclear device will be detonated in the U.S. in your lifetime?
MR. TENET: Tim, I don't know the answer to that question. All I know is, is that we should be moving heaven and earth--the best scientists, policies, where's the loose fissile material, where are the scientists?
MR. RUSSERT: A.Q. Khan in Pakistan, the Pakistanis won't let us talk to him.
MR. TENET: Well, well, but, Tim, there's a, there's a great success there, because we, over eight years we ended up taking down that network.
MR. RUSSERT: But we don't know where he sent the materials.
MR. TENET: Well, we--we're working very, very hard at it. There are lots of places that we--
remember, remember, al-Qaeda approached A.Q. Khan twice, allegedly they were rebuffed. We're now living in a world where networks of people pose threats to nation states. Men like A.Q. Khan, men like-- and other nongovernmental--how many A.Q. Khans are out there that we don't know about? You know, in the, in the Cold War, we were looking at big targets and big countries. Now we're looking at networks of people who seek to do us harm, and this issue, I think, is the most important issue we face.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you surprised we haven't been hit by more suicide bombers?
MR. TENET: Well, Tim, the interesting thing is why haven't they? I don't know, except they think about the United States as a target from the perspective of doing big, spectacular things. And that's how they think about us as a target. And, and, you know, we, we had a, we had a saying at CIA, it's all over offices out there. It said today is September the 12. We always got up every day believing today is September the 12, and we have to keep thinking that way.
MR. RUSSERT: George Tenet, we thank you for coming us, and share--with us and sharing your views. The book, "At the Center of the Storm." Thank you very much.
MR. TENET: Thanks very much, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: And we'll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: That's all for today. We'll be back next week, another installment of our 2008 Meet the Candidates series, a live, in-depth interview, Republican candidate for president Senator John McCain. That's next Sunday right here. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.