Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction
Salon exclusive: Two former CIA officers say the president
squelched top-secret intelligence, and a briefing by George
Tenet, months before invading Iraq.
By Sidney Blumenthal
--- - On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet
briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret
intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of
mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA
officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from
the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam's inner
circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every
detail. Tenet never brought it up again.
Nor was the intelligence included in the National
Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, which stated
categorically that Iraq possessed WMD. No one in Congress
was aware of the secret intelligence that Saddam had no WMD
as the House of Representatives and the Senate voted, a week
after the submission of the NIE, on the Authorization for
Use of Military Force in Iraq. The information, moreover,
was not circulated within the CIA among those agents
involved in operations to prove whether Saddam had WMD.
On April 23, 2006, CBS's "60 Minutes" interviewed Tyler
Drumheller, the former CIA chief of clandestine operations
for Europe, who disclosed that the agency had received
documentary intelligence from Naji Sabri, Saddam's foreign
minister, that Saddam did not have WMD. "We continued to
validate him the whole way through," said Drumheller. "The
policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming, and they were
looking for intelligence to fit into the policy, to justify
Now two former senior CIA officers have confirmed
Drumheller's account to me and provided the background to
the story of how the information that might have stopped the
invasion of Iraq was twisted in order to justify it. They
described what Tenet said to Bush about the lack of WMD, and
how Bush responded, and noted that Tenet never shared
Sabri's intelligence with then Secretary of State Colin
Powell. According to the former officers, the intelligence
was also never shared with the senior military planning the
invasion, which required U.S. soldiers to receive medical
shots against the ill effects of WMD and to wear protective
uniforms in the desert.
Instead, said the former officials, the information was
distorted in a report written to fit the preconception that
Saddam did have WMD programs. That false and restructured
report was passed to Richard Dearlove, chief of the British
Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who briefed Prime
Minister Tony Blair on it as validation of the cause for
Secretary of State Powell, in preparation for his
presentation of evidence of Saddam's WMD to the United
Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, spent days at CIA
headquarters in Langley, Va., and had Tenet sit directly
behind him as a sign of credibility. But Tenet, according to
the sources, never told Powell about existing intelligence
that there were no WMD, and Powell's speech was later
revealed to be a series of falsehoods.
Both the French intelligence service and the CIA paid Sabri
hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least $200,000 in the
case of the CIA) to give them documents on Saddam's WMD
programs. "The information detailed that Saddam may have
wished to have a program, that his engineers had told him
they could build a nuclear weapon within two years if they
had fissile material, which they didn't, and that they had
no chemical or biological weapons," one of the former CIA
officers told me.
On the eve of Sabri's appearance at the United Nations in
September 2002 to present Saddam's case, the officer in
charge of this operation met in New York with a "cutout" who
had debriefed Sabri for the CIA. Then the officer flew to
Washington, where he met with CIA deputy director John
McLaughlin, who was "excited" about the report. Nonetheless,
McLaughlin expressed his reservations. He said that Sabri's
information was at odds with "our best source." That source
was code-named "Curveball," later exposed as a fabricator,
con man and former Iraqi taxi driver posing as a chemical
The next day, Sept. 18, Tenet briefed Bush on Sabri. "Tenet
told me he briefed the president personally," said one of
the former CIA officers. According to Tenet, Bush's response
was to call the information "the same old thing." Bush
insisted it was simply what Saddam wanted him to think. "The
president had no interest in the intelligence," said the CIA
officer. The other officer said, "Bush didn't give a fuck
about the intelligence. He had his mind made up."
But the CIA officers working on the Sabri case kept
collecting information. "We checked on everything he told
us." French intelligence eavesdropped on his telephone
conversations and shared them with the CIA. These taps
"validated" Sabri's claims, according to one of the CIA
officers. The officers brought this material to the
attention of the newly formed Iraqi Operations Group within
the CIA. But those in charge of the IOG were on a mission to
prove that Saddam did have WMD and would not give credit to
anything that came from the French. "They kept saying the
French were trying to undermine the war," said one of the
The officers continued to insist on the significance of
Sabri's information, but one of Tenet's deputies told them,
"You haven't figured this out yet. This isn't about
intelligence. It's about regime change."
The CIA officers on the case awaited the report they had
submitted on Sabri to be circulated back to them, but they
never received it. They learned later that a new report had
been written. "It was written by someone in the agency, but
unclear who or where, it was so tightly controlled. They
knew what would please the White House. They knew what the
king wanted," one of the officers told me.
That report contained a false preamble stating that Saddam
was "aggressively and covertly developing" nuclear weapons
and that he already possessed chemical and biological
weapons. "Totally out of whack," said one of the CIA
officers. "The first [para]graph of an intelligence report
is the most important and most read and colors the rest of
the report." He pointed out that the case officer who wrote
the initial report had not written the preamble and the new
memo. "That's not what the original memo said."
The report with the misleading introduction was given to
Dearlove of MI6, who briefed the prime minister. "They were
given a scaled-down version of the report," said one of the
CIA officers. "It was a summary given for liaison, with the
sourcing taken out. They showed the British the statement
Saddam was pursuing an aggressive program, and rewrote the
report to attempt to support that statement. It was
insidious. Blair bought it." "Blair was duped," said the
other CIA officer. "He was shown the altered report."
The information provided by Sabri was considered so
sensitive that it was never shown to those who assembled the
NIE on Iraqi WMD. Later revealed to be utterly wrong, the
NIE read: "We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of
mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN
resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and
biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess
of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have
a nuclear weapon during this decade."
In the congressional debate over the Authorization for the
Use of Military Force, even those voting against it gave
credence to the notion that Saddam possessed WMD. Even a
leading opponent such as Sen. Bob Graham, then the
Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee,
who had instigated the production of the NIE, declared in
his floor speech on Oct. 12, 2002, "Saddam Hussein's regime
has chemical and biological weapons and is trying to get
nuclear capacity." Not a single senator contested otherwise.
None of them had an inkling of the Sabri intelligence.
The CIA officers assigned to Sabri still argued within the
agency that his information must be taken seriously, but
instead the administration preferred to rely on Curveball.
Drumheller learned from the German intelligence service that
held Curveball that it considered him and his claims about
WMD to be highly unreliable. But the CIA's Weapons
Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Center (WINPAC)
insisted that Curveball was credible because what he said
was supposedly congruent with available public information.
For two months, Drumheller fought against the use of
Curveball, raising the red flag that he was likely a fraud,
as he turned out to be. "Oh, my! I hope that's not true,"
said Deputy Director McLaughlin, according to Drumheller's
book "On the Brink," published in 2006. When Curveball's
information was put into Bush's Jan. 28, 2003, State of the
Union address, McLaughlin and Tenet allowed it to pass into
the speech. "From three Iraqi defectors," Bush declared, "we
know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile
biological weapons labs ... Saddam Hussein has not disclosed
these facilities. He's given no evidence that he has
destroyed them." In fact, there was only one Iraqi source --
Curveball -- and there were no labs.
When the mobile weapons labs were inserted into the draft of
Powell's United Nations speech, Drumheller strongly objected
again and believed that the error had been removed. He was
shocked watching Powell's speech. "We have firsthand
descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and
on rails," Powell announced. Without the reference to the
mobile weapons labs, there was no image of a threat.
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff, and Powell
himself later lamented that they had not been warned about
Curveball. And McLaughlin told the Washington Post in 2006,
"If someone had made these doubts clear to me, I would not
have permitted the reporting to be used in Secretary
Powell's speech." But, in fact, Drumheller's caution was
As war appeared imminent, the CIA officers on the Sabri case
tried to arrange his defection in order to demonstrate that
he stood by his information. But he would not leave without
bringing out his entire family. "He dithered," said one
former CIA officer. And the war came before his escape could
Tellingly, Sabri's picture was never put on the deck of
playing cards of former Saddam officials to be hunted down,
a tacit acknowledgment of his covert relationship with the
CIA. Today, Sabri lives in Qatar.
In 2005, the Silberman-Robb commission investigating
intelligence in the Iraq war failed to interview the case
officer directly involved with Sabri; instead its report
blamed the entire WMD fiasco on "groupthink" at the CIA.
"They didn't want to trace this back to the White House,"
said the officer.
On Feb. 5, 2004, Tenet delivered a speech at Georgetown
University that alluded to Sabri and defended his position
on the existence of WMD, which, even then, he contended
would still be found. "Several sensitive reports crossed my
desk from two sources characterized by our foreign partners
as established and reliable," he said. "The first from a
source who had direct access to Saddam and his inner circle"
-- Naji Sabri -- "said Iraq was not in the possession of a
nuclear weapon. However, Iraq was aggressively and covertly
developing such a weapon."
Then Tenet claimed with assurance, "The same source said
that Iraq was stockpiling chemical weapons." He explained
that this intelligence had been central to his belief in the
reason for war. "As this information and other sensitive
information came across my desk, it solidified and
reinforced the judgments that we had reached in my own view
of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and I conveyed this
view to our nation's leaders." (Tenet doesn't mention Sabri
in his recently published memoir, "At the Center of the
But where were the WMD? "Now, I'm sure you're all asking,
'Why haven't we found the weapons?' I've told you the search
must continue and it will be difficult."
On Sept. 8, 2006, three Republican senators on the Senate
Select Committee on Intelligence -- Orrin Hatch, Saxby
Chambliss and Pat Roberts -- signed a letter attempting to
counter Drumheller's revelation about Sabri on "60 Minutes":
"All of the information about this case so far indicates
that the information from this source was that Iraq did have
WMD programs." The Republicans also quoted Tenet, who had
testified before the committee in July 2006 that Drumheller
had "mischaracterized" the intelligence. Still, Drumheller
stuck to his guns, telling Reuters, "We have differing
interpretations, and I think mine's right."
One of the former senior CIA officers told me that despite
the certitude of the three Republican senators, the Senate
committee never had the original memo on Sabri. "The
committee never got that report," he said. "The material was
hidden or lost, and because it was a restricted case, a lot
of it was done in hard copy. The whole thing was fogged up,
While one Iraqi source told the CIA that there were no WMD,
information that was true but distorted to prove the
opposite, another Iraqi source was a fabricator whose lies
were eagerly embraced. "The real tragedy is that they had a
good source that they misused," said one of the former CIA
officers. "The fact is there was nothing there, no threat.
But Bush wanted to hear what he wanted to hear."
-- By Sidney Blumenthal
Copyright ©2007 Salon Media Group, Inc.
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