Video: Ex-CIA insider fires back

Dateline NBC
updated 10/17/2004 9:05:42 PM ET 2004-10-18T01:05:42

He was America's top spy in charge of covert operations at the CIA. Now, in a rare and revealing interview, he's speaking out about 9/11, the war in Iraq, the hunt for Osama bin Ladenand what some have described as the tense relationship between the CIA and the White House. Who's really to blame for America's intelligence failures? With the CIA under fire, this former spymaster is firing back.

James Pavitt: "We failed to stop the attacks of the 11th. And nobody carries that burden greater than those of us who were in the intelligence business."

Three years after 9/11, as he revisits Ground Zero, James Pavitt lives with regret about his inability to stop the attacks. He says the CIA believed something big was imminent, but didn't know exactly when or where.

Pavitt: "And that's the terrible tragedy. We knew they were coming."

For the past five years, until he retired in August, Pavitt ran the CIA's Directorate of Operations, which oversees secret missions around the world. This 31-year CIA veteran wants the public to know that he and others have been struggling to rebuild a spy force that in the years leading up to 9/11 was severely under funded and understaffed.

Pavitt: "In 1995, the Central Intelligence Agency's Directorate of Operations trained a total of about 25 people."             

Chris Hansen: "That sounds like a very low number."               

Pavitt: "It's a disgraceful number. The country deserved better than that."

Once upon a time, he says, things were better.

Pavitt: "It was indeed a city of spies."

During a recent visit to the International Spy Museum in Washington, he recalled his early years as a covert officer in 1970s Berlin.

Pavitt: "It was a place where we could, if we did our work well, have great success."

That success, he says, helped win the Cold War. And he did his part, serving around Europe and in Asia, and later as an intelligence aide for the first President Bush. But by the time he moved to CIA headquarters in the 1990s, Pavitt says, funding for clandestine operations had plummeted.

Hansen: "How did it come to that?  How did the CIA. get to such a point?"                                  

Pavitt: "I think it's a reflection of the belief that the cold war was won. We did not need people doing the kind of things that CIA's Directorate of Operations, the clandestine service, did.

Pavitt says when he took over as spymaster in 1999, terrorism, like the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, had already become a major threat, and he did get more money, but nowhere near enough.        

Pavitt: "Two or three weeks before that first aircraft slammed in to the first tower in New York, there was a debate at CIA about the rebuilding of the clandestine service. And I passionately argued to stay the course, to invest the money. In one instance, I threatened to resign, if we did not get the resources."

But money wasn't the only problem, according to the 9/11 Commission:

John F. Lehman (9/11 Commission Member, July 22, 2004): "There is a deep fundamental dysfunction in the way we go about our intelligence gathering and analysis."

A key question: Why hadn't the CIA done more to infiltrate Al Qaida?   

Hansen: "If a 20-year-old oddball kid named John Walker Lindh from Marin County, California can join up with al Qaida and ultimately get a face-to-face meeting with Osama bin Laden—"

Pavitt: "Right."

Hansen: "Why couldn't you guys have an agent do that?"

Pavitt: "It's a fair question. Johnny Walker Lindh was a very, very low-level foot soldier." 

Hansen: "But if you'd had an officer infiltrate even at John Walker Lindh's level. Maybe you could have gotten some intelligence?"                               

Pavitt: "Well, we but we did, Chris.  We did.  We did have people like that."

But he says the CIA recruits on the ground in Afghanistan never were able to provide specific information that would have prevented 9/11. 

And while noting the difficulty in pursuing the thousands of terror leads coming into the CIA from around the world, Pavitt acknowledges mistakes. His spies were on the trail of two of the hijackers well over a year before 9/11.They'd been watching the men in Malaysia, but failed to follow them when they left. So no U.S. officials were on the lookout for the terrorists when they entered the United States.       

Pavitt: "There was a cable that was lost that would have allowed, perhaps, that surveillance to continue."

Hansen: "That could have been a critical surveillance though."

Pavitt: "Well, it could have been a critical surveillance. But, I still do not believe that would have given us the data, the information, the capability to do something which would have thwarted the attack."

In the case of Iraq, Pavitt says the CIA provided the best intelligence available on what weapons Saddam actually had, but it turned out to be almost all wrong.

Hansen: "How could you have gotten it so wrong?"   

Pavitt: "Saddam was an extraordinarily adept deceiver. And I did not have the kind of human agents in the inner circle that would have told us exactly what was going on."

The lack of inside information, Pavitt says, made the intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction less than certain. Though in the months before the war, President Bush apparently was told those weapons existed.

Hansen: "In Bob Woodward's book, he quotes your former boss, George Tenet, as telling President Bush of the case against Iraq. It is a quote, ‘slam dunk.’"                                       

Pavitt: "Chris, I wasn't at the meeting, so I do not know-- what-- what transpired.  I don't know what was said."

Hansen: "Would you have ever used those words to characterize the case against Iraq for going to war?"        

Pavitt: "I would not have used those words for the case against Iraq on weapons of mass destruction. I in fact sat in a number of meetings and I said, you know, "There may be a number of reasons for going to war, but I do not see the intelligence that we have on weapons of mass destruction being one which carries the day."

Hansen: "A White House spokesman told Dateline that all President Bush's official pre-war statements on Iraq were vetted by the intelligence community and the U.S. government and its allies all believed they would find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. For his part, former CIA Director George Tenet had no comment."

James Pavitt says that his teams did get it right when they went in ahead of U.S. troops in Iraq, providing intelligence that helped save American and Iraqi lives. He also says the CIA accurately predicted the bloody insurgency now taking place in Iraq.

Hansen: "There seems to be a bit of the blame game going on. People in the Bush administration are saying, well, go see the CIA, they gave us bad intelligence."

Pavitt: "Well, there has been some commentary that talks about the CIA attempting to undermine the sitting president. And my comment on that is that's absolute nonsense."

As Pavitt ponders his future, and indulges his passions like art, he says the CIA has come a long way since 9/11. But still has too few spies. He believes another major terrorist attack is highly likely, though he predicts Osama bin Laden's days are numbered.     

Hansen: "How close are we now?"

Pavitt: "I can tell you that at the end of the day, we will get him. But we got a lot more work ahead of us."

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