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CIA chief hits back at Bush over Iraq claims

From Tim Reid in Washington

THE CIA never claimed that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to America in the run-up to the Iraq war, George Tenet, its Director, said yesterday.

The agency has been widely blamed for feeding President Bush wrong intelligence about Iraq’s weapons programmes. But Mr Tenet’s fierce defence of the role played by US Intelligence immediately threw the spotlight back on the White House.

Before the invasion Mr Bush and senior members of his war Cabinet frequently cited the CIA’s October 2002 report on Iraq’s weapons capability to make the case for war. The President used it to claim the threat posed by Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction was “urgent”. Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, called it “mortal”. Donald Rumsfeld described it as “immediate”. Ari Fleischer, Mr Bush ’s former spokesman, when asked before the war if the threat was “imminent”, replied: “Absolutely.”

Mr Tenet and the CIA are expected to be blamed in a forthcoming Senate report for a spectacular failure in pre-war intelligence gathering, which will effectively absolve the White House for the subsequent failure to find any illegal weapons in Iraq. It will be similar in tone to the assessment delivered to Congress last week by David Kay, who led the hunt for Saddam’s weapons until he resigned last month. He said that stockpiles of illegal weapons almost certainly did not exist at the time of the invasion, but blamed bad intelligence, not the White House, for claiming otherwise.

Yesterday Mr Tenet hit back hard. “Let me be clear,” he said. “Analysts differed on several important aspects of these programmes, and those debates were spelled out in the (October 2002) estimate. They never said there was an imminent threat.”

His analysts actually “painted an objective assessment for our policy makers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programmes that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests”.

As Mr Tenet spoke, Mr Bush was offering his clearest acknowledgement to date that Saddam possessed no illegal wepaons. “We have not yet found the stockpiles of weapons that we thought were there,” the President said in South Carolina. But he continued to defend the war. “We had a choice: either take the word of a madman or take action to defend the American people. Faced with that choice I will defend America every time.”

Mr Tenet highlighted intelligence successes by US agents and Britain’s MI6 in other parts of the world to rebut allegations that the countries’ intelligence agencies were ineffective. He cited Libya’s recent decision to come clean about its nuclear weapons programme. He said it was only when British and US agents confronted Libya with its detailed knowledge of Tripoli’s illicit programmes that the country decided confess its nuclear intentions.

Mr Tenet conceded that much was wrong with prewar intelligence gathering. But he insisted that “a blanket indictment of our human intelligence around the world is dead wrong”. He noted that the search for weapons continues, and “despite some public statements, we are nowhere near 85 per cent finished”.

Mr Tenet also argued that it was impossible before the war to draw any other conclusion than that Saddam had illegal weapons. He cited the former dictator’s history of deception, satellite photographs showing a pattern of concealment, Iraq’s advanced nuclear programme discovered after the Gulf War in 1991, and a “stream of information” from UN inspectors and sources inside Iraq.

“Did these strands of information weave into a perfect picture? No, far from it. But taken together this information provided a solid basis on which to estimate whether Iraq did or did not have weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.” He added: “It is important to underline the word estimate.”

A stream of reports from “a sensitive source with access to senior Iraqi officials”, who claimed Iraq was producing chemical and biological weapons, had crossed his desk. “Now did this information make any difference to my thinking? You bet it did. Could I have ignored or dismissed such reports? Absolutely not.”

Mr Tenet said that much of what had been discovered in Iraq since the war vindicated his prewar estimates. Inspectors had found an aggressive missile programme and advanced designs for liquid missile fuel, as well as hidden designs for unmanned aerial vehicles which could be used to deliver biological weapons.

He quoted an interim report delivered last year by Mr Kay, who said his team had uncovered “significant information, including research and development of biological weapons”.

On chemical weapons, Mr Tenet conceded that before the war the CIA said “with high confidence” that Iraq had them. While he believed that Saddam had the “intent and capability” to make them quickly, he admitted: “We have not found any weapons yet.”

He also conceded that US Intelligence “may have overestimated” the progress Saddam was making in developing a nuclear bomb. “Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon,” Mr Tenet said. But “