CIA director made 'slam dunk case' for war

US: George Tenet resigned yesterday amid false information on the reasons for war and the absence of weapons of mass destruction…

US: George Tenet resigned yesterday amid false information on the reasons for war and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, writes Conor O'Clery in New York

On February 5th 2003, as Colin Powell gave his compelling presentation on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to the UN Security Council, a large bulky man sat behind him, his arms folded, his face expressionless.

George Tenet had come to New York at the insistence of the US Secretary of State to act as physical testimony to the veracity of the information Mr Powell was giving the world. As director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mr Tenet had provided Powell with the information on which the Secretary of State was about to stake his reputation and justify war. As Mr Powell was to learn later, to his fury, the CIA director was wrong on almost every count. After the toppling of Saddam, American arms inspectors flooded Iraq and found that most of the information was false. The mobile laboratories supposedly designed to make biological weapons were units for making weather balloons.

The aluminium tubes that Mr Powell said could be adapted for centrifuge use in the manufacture of nuclear weapons were casings for conventional rockets. The stockpiles of 100-500 tonnes of chemical weapons agent have yet to be found and probably don't exist. When Mr Tenet was earlier asked by President Bush in the Oval Office if there was enough intelligence to prove the existence of weapons of mass destruction, he replied it was a "slam dunk case", according to Bob Woodward in "Plan of Attack", his book on the run-up to war. Mr Tenet has not denied he made this remark, which came back to haunt him. His confidence in front of the President was evidently no more than bluster, and was not based on the reliability of any intelligence that he could produce. When the Bush administration began planning to attack Iraq, the CIA had few of its own agents in the country. The CIA director of covert operations, code-named 'Saul' to protect his identity, reportedly said, "I can count them on one hand, and I can still pick my nose." The intelligence community turned instead to a person only too happy to supply Washington's hawks with justification for war.


Iraqi defector Ahmed Chalabi produced sources who told the administration what it wanted to hear. At least two were members of his exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, who claimed to be defectors. One defector to Germany known as 'Curveball' apparently provided the key information about the biological laboratories, but was never interviewed by American intelligence officials. The main US case for going to war began to unravel shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. On January 28th this year the head of the Iraqi Survey Group, David Kay, finally told Congress "We were almost all wrong."

In February, a year after his UN presentation, Mr Powell made a point of telling the Washington Post that if Mr Tenet had said before the war what Dr Kay had said since, he did not know if he would still have recommended invasion. "The absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus," he said. "It changes the answer you get."

It was a public repudiation of Mr Tenet. The president and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice were furious with Mr Powell's remark. Mr Tenet still refused in public to accept that they were wrong and a few days later he replied, in a speech in Washington, that the jury was still out on WMD, while admitting that one of his sources had "fabricated" intelligence. The episode served to bring the divisions within the administration over intelligence into the open.

There were calls from Democrats for Mr Tenet to resign but it was clear that the CIA director continued to have the President's support. He had kept Mr Tenet on on the advice of his father, who said the head of the CIA should not change with the administration. Mr Tenet had successfully directed covert operations in Afghanistan and was presiding over a massive restructuring of the intelligence services. He had argued so passionately for action against al-Qaeda before 9/11 that counter-intelligence chief Richard Clarke said "his hair was on fire".

When Mr Bush needed intelligence on WMD, Mr Tenet had provided it. Nevertheless the pressure on the CIA director kept mounting. In May, the bipartisan panel investigating the September 11th attacks released statements harshly criticising the CIA for failing to fully appreciate the threat posed by al-Qaeda in America, rather than aborad, before the terrorist hijackings. The final 9/11 report and the report of a Congressional inquiry into the massive failure of pre-war intelligence are due out in the summer. Then last month the main source for Mr Tenet's discredited intelligence was himself discredited. Ahmed Chalabi, the favourite of the Pentagon and so well in with the Bush administration that he sat behind Laura Bush during the President's state of the union address this year, was accused by US officials of giving sensitive intelligence to Iran.

Officials accused him of disclosing to the Baghdad station chief of Iranian intelligence the fact that US intelligence had broken the Iranians' secret code. US surveillance had allegedly overheard the station chief report back to Tehran - still using the code - that a drunken American had told this to Mr Chalabi who had passed it on. An FBI investigation has begun that could have enormous consequences for the administration. Federal investigators have started giving polygraph tests to civilian Pentagon employees in an effort to establish who might have leaked Mr Chalabi the information. The Iraqi exile has been linked with Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle - who said it was absurd to think that Iran's top intelligence official would have used a compromised channel to tell Tehran that the US was reading its communications. The downfall of Mr Chalabi prompted Mr Powell to renew his pressure on the CIA to explain why he was given misleading intelligence for his presentation in the security council. Two weeks ago he said the sourcing was "inaccurate and wrong and in some cases deliberately misleading." Now he is asking the CIA "what can you tell me about this?" according to a senior State Department official quoted in the New York Times on Wednesday. The CIA had begun internal reviews to find out why it got the WMD information so wrong and the information was reportedly being passed round Mr Bush's top advisers.

It is against this background that Mr Tenet resigned yesterday, stating personal reasons.