msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/7/2004 6:07:19 PM ET 2004-02-07T23:07:19

President Bush told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday that CIA Director George Tenet’s job is not in jeopardy despite election-year questions about the accuracy of prewar intelligence on Iraq.

“I strongly believe the CIA is ably led by George Tenet,” Bush said in an exclusive Oval Office interview to be broadcast Sunday.

Asked whether Tenet’s job was in jeopardy, Bush answered: “No, not at all, not at all,” according to an excerpt of the interview provided by the network.

Bush pledged to cooperate with the commission he set up last week to examine intelligence on Iraq and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

“I will be glad to visit with them,” the president said. “I will be glad to share with them knowledge. I will be glad to make recommendations, if they ask for some.”

The “Meet the Press” interview, Bush’s first appearance on the news show, comes as his approval rating has dipped to 47 percent in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in early February; that compares with 56 percent just a month ago.

Intelligence panel includes Sen. McCain
The panel, which will be led by a Democratic former senator and a former federal appeals judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan, also includes Republican maverick Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“It is obvious to one and all that there have been intelligence failures,” McCain told NBC News in Munich, Germany, where he was attending conferences connected to a meeting of NATO defense ministers. “Why those occurred and under what circumstances, nobody knows. And that's why we need a thorough and complete investigation.”

Video: Questions come up

The selection of McCain and Lloyd Cutler, a prominent Democrat who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations, appeared to be aimed at blunting any such attacks in the coming presidential campaign. But the commission will not issue its report until March 2005, four months after the election, a timetable that angered Democrats who said a Bush-appointed panel would be fatally politicized.

“There is going to be ample time for the American people to assess whether or not I made ... good calls — whether I used good judgment, whether or not I made the right decision in removing Saddam Hussein from power,” Bush told “Meet the Press” on Saturday. “I look forward to that debate.”

Bush appointed only seven of the nine members of the commission, saying the two others would be appointed later. Administration officials had told NBC News that the panel would include David Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, but Kay, who denied the reports Thursday, was not among the members named Friday.

2002 report at issue
The panel will be responsible for assessing the accuracy of an intelligence report in October 2002 that concluded that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, an assessment that helped form the basis for Bush’s campaign to persuade the United Nations to support military intervention.

Months of inspections by U.S.- and U.N.-led investigators after the war found no such weapons, and Kay, who was named chief inspector because he was a widely known believer that the weapons existed, told a Senate committee last week that he was wrong, as was the October 2002 assessment.

In addition to the Iraq failures, the panel will assess the quality of intelligence on reported nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, Bush said. It will also review what was known about weapons programs in Libya and Afghanistan “before recent changes in those countries,” a reference to Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s agreement to scrap his systems and the U.S. ouster of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

“We are determined to figure out why” the assessment was incorrect, Bush said, and intent on ensuring that future intelligence was “as accurate as possible for every challenge.”

“We must stay ahead of constantly changing intelligence challenges,” he said. “The stakes for our country cannot be higher.”

Bipartisan leaders
Bush named a Democrat, former Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, and a Republican, Laurence Silberman, a retired member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to head the commission.

Creation of the panel formalizes a turnabout in policy for the White House, which insisted for months that there was no need to look into why the intelligence community concluded that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had illegal biological and chemical weapons.

Bush has consistently defended the intelligence community in general and the CIA’s Tenet in particular against accusations that they bungled their mission in Iraq.

In his first public defense of prewar intelligence, Tenet said Thursday in a speech at Georgetown University that U.S. analysts never claimed before the war that Iraq posed an “imminent threat,” the shorthand phrase that has been used to characterize the CIA’s assessment, and denied that intelligence analysts came under political pressure to inflate their conclusion.

Senate report clears Bush
Tenet spoke shortly before the Senate Intelligence Committee was to begin a closed-door review of a draft report critical of prewar intelligence. NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell reported that the draft document clears the president and lays the blame squarely on Tenet and the CIA.

In the months before the war, Bush and his top aides repeatedly stressed the urgency of stopping Saddam. In a speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, Bush called Saddam’s regime “a grave and gathering danger.” The next day, he told reporters that Saddam was “a threat that we must deal with as quickly as possible.”

Tenet said U.S. intelligence accurately reported that Saddam’s regime posed a danger. Although no weapons of mass destruction have been uncovered in Iraq, he said, the search is not over.

Tenet agreed with Kay’s comments that the United States did not have enough human spies in Iraq and acknowledged that the CIA had not penetrated Saddam’s inner circle. But he said that it was strong elsewhere and that “a blanket indictment of our human intelligence around the world is dead wrong.”

He credited CIA spies with the arrests of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the purported mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and Asia’s leading terror suspect, known as Hambali.

But Kay accused Tenet of trying to divert attention from what he called the CIA’s intelligence failures and said on CNBC that Tenet’s address was “in some sense, morale boosting for the men and women of the CIA.”

“If you believe George Tenet today,” Kay said, then “Colin Powell wasn’t speaking from an intelligence brief [when he argued for military action]. He was speaking from a political brief.

“Something’s wrong, and we need an independent investigation into it,” he said.

MSNBC.com's Alex Johnson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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