A Spy Speaks Out
April 23, 2006
(CBS) When no weapons of mass destruction surfaced in Iraq, President Bush insisted that all those WMD claims before the war were the result of faulty intelligence. But a former top CIA official, Tyler Drumheller — a 26-year veteran of the agency — has decided to do something CIA officials at his level almost never do: Speak out.
He tells correspondent Ed Bradley the real failure was not in the intelligence community but in the White House. He says he saw how the Bush administration, time and again, welcomed intelligence that fit the president's determination to go to war and turned a blind eye to intelligence that did not.
"It just sticks in my craw every time I hear them say it's an intelligence failure. It's an intelligence failure. This was a policy failure," Drumheller tells Bradley.
Drumheller was the CIA's top man in Europe, the head of covert operations there, until he retired a year ago. He says he saw firsthand how the White House promoted intelligence it liked and ignored intelligence it didn't:
"The idea of going after Iraq was U.S. policy. It was going to happen one way or the other," says Drumheller.
Drumheller says he doesn't think it mattered very much to the administration what the intelligence community had to say. "I think it mattered it if verified. This basic belief that had taken hold in the U.S. government that now is the time, we had the means, all we needed was the will," he says.
The road to war in Iraq took some strange turns — none stranger than a detour to the West African country of Niger. In late 2001, a month after 9/11, the United States got a report from the Italian intelligence service that Saddam Hussein had bought 500 tons of so-called yellowcake uranium in order to build a nuclear bomb.
But Drumheller says many CIA analysts were skeptical. "Most people came to the opinion that there was something questionable about it," he says.
Asked if that was his reaction, Drumheller says, "That was our reaction from the very beginning. The report didn't hold together."
Drumheller says that was the "general feeling" in the agency at that time.
However, Vice President Dick Cheney thought the story was worth investigating, and asked the CIA not to discount the story without first taking a closer look. So, in February 2002, the agency sent former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate.
"If Saddam Hussein had acquired 500 tons of yellowcake uranium in violation of U.N. sanctions, that would be pretty serious, wouldn't it?" Bradley asked Wilson.
"Absolutely. Certainly. And the fact that there was an allegation out there that he was even attempting to purchase 500 tons of uranium was very serious, because it essentially meant that they were restarting their nuclear programs," Wilson replied.
Wilson spent eight days in Niger looking for signs of a secret deal to send yellowcake to Iraq. He spoke to government officials who would have known about such a transaction. No one did. There had been a meeting between Iraqis and Nigerians in 1999, but Wilson was told uranium had never been discussed. He also found no evidence that Iraq had even been interested in buying uranium.
"I concluded that it could not have happened," Wilson says. At the end of his eight-day stay in Niger, Wilson says he had no lingering doubts.
When he returned, Wilson told the CIA what he had learned. Despite that, some intelligence analysts stood by the Italian report that Saddam Hussein had purchased uranium from Niger. But the director of the CIA and the deputy director didn't buy it. In October, when the president's speechwriters tried to put the Niger uranium story in a speech that President Bush was scheduled to deliver in Cincinnati, they intervened.
In a phone call and two faxes to the White House, they warned "the Africa story is overblown" and "the evidence is weak." The speechwriters took the uranium reference out of the speech.
Meanwhile, the CIA had made a major intelligence breakthrough on Iraq's nuclear program. Naji Sabri, Iraq's foreign minister, had made a deal to reveal Iraq's military secrets to the CIA. Drumheller was in charge of the operation.
"This was a very high inner circle of Saddam Hussein. Someone who would know what he was talking about," Drumheller says.
"You knew you could trust this guy?" Bradley asked.
"We continued to validate him the whole way through," Drumheller replied.
According to Drumheller, CIA Director George Tenet delivered the news about the Iraqi foreign minister at a high-level meeting at the White House, including the president, the vice president and Secretary of State Rice.
At that meeting, Drumheller says, "They were enthusiastic because they said, they were excited that we had a high-level penetration of Iraqis."
What did this high-level source tell him?
"He told us that they had no active weapons of mass destruction program," says Drumheller.
"So in the fall of 2002, before going to war, we had it on good authority from a source within Saddam's inner circle that he didn't have an active program for weapons of mass destruction?" Bradley asked.
"Yes," Drumheller replied. He says there was doubt in his mind at all.
"It directly contradicts, though, what the president and his staff were telling us," Bradley remarked.
"The policy was set," Drumheller says. "The war in Iraq was coming. And they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy, to justify the policy."
Drumheller expected the White House to ask for more information from the Iraqi foreign minister.
But he says he was taken aback by what happened. "The group that was dealing with preparation for the Iraq war came back and said they're no longer interested," Drumheller recalls. "And we said, 'Well, what about the intel?' And they said, 'Well, this isn't about intel anymore. This is about regime change.'"
"And if I understand you correctly, when the White House learned that you had this source from the inner circle of Saddam Hussein, they were thrilled with that," Bradley asked.
"The first we heard, they were. Yes," Drumheller replied.
Once they learned what it was the source had to say — that Saddam Hussein did not have the capability to wage nuclear war or have an active WMD program, Drumheller says, "They stopped being interested in the intelligence."
The White House declined to respond to Drumheller's account of Naji Sabri's role, but Secretary of State Rice has said that Sabri, the Iraqi foreign minister turned U.S. spy, was just one source, and therefore his information wasn't reliable.
"They certainly took information that came from single sources on uranium, on the yellowcake story and on several other stories with no corroboration at all and so you can't say you only listen to one source, because on many issues they only listened to one source," says Drumheller.
"So you're saying that if there was a single source and that information from that source backed up the case they were trying to build, then that single source was ok, but if it didn't, then the single source was not ok, because he couldn't be corroborated," Bradley asked.
"Unfortunately, that's what it looks like," Drumheller replied.
"One panel after another found that agencies were giving conflicting information to the president," Bradley remarked.
Drumheller admits they were. "And that's the problem. No. There was no one voice in coming out of the intelligence community and that allowed those people to pick and choose those bits of information that fit what they wanted to know."
A few weeks after Sabri told the CIA that Iraq had no active nuclear program, the Niger uranium story seemed to get a new life: Documents that supposedly could prove that Saddam had purchased uranium from Africa suddenly surfaced in Rome. The documents came from Rocco Martino, a former spy for Italian military intelligence.
For years, Martino operated in a shady intelligence underworld, buying government secrets and then selling them to the highest bidder. Martino told CBS News that a colonel in Italian military intelligence arranged for him to buy classified documents from a woman who worked in the embassy of Niger. One set of documents showed Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger.
What did he think when he first looked at the documents?
"I thought I had my hands on some important papers. And this same woman was telling me that they were very important," says Martino.
In October 2002, Martino tried to sell the documents to Elisabeta Burba, a reporter for an Italian news magazine. She had purchased information from him in the past.
"When you saw the documents, what did you think?" Bradley asked Burba.
"I was puzzled because actually, if those documents were authentic, they would have been the 'smoking gun' that everybody was looking for in that moment," she replied.
But Burba quickly suspected the documents had been forged. "The more I looked at them and then the more I found strange things or inconsistencies," she says.
Burba says the documents looked like were bad forgeries. She gave copies of the papers to the U.S. Embassy in Rome. It was the first time the U.S. government had gotten its hands on the documents at the heart of the Niger story.
Drumheller says the CIA station chief in Rome, who worked for him, told him he didn't believe it. "He said, 'It's not true. It's not; this isn't real,'" Drumheller recalls.
When the documents arrived in Washington, State Department analysts quickly concluded they were suspect. One analyst wrote in an e-mail: "you'll note that it bears a funky Emb. of Niger stamp (to make it look official, I guess)."
The Washington Post recently reported that in early January 2003, the National Intelligence Council, which oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies, did a final assessment of the uranium rumor and submitted a report to the White House. Their conclusion: The story was baseless. That might have been the end of the Niger uranium story.
But it wasn't. Just weeks later, the president laid out his reasons for going to war in the State of the Union Address — and there it was again.
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," the president said.
"I didn't even remember all the details of it because it was such a low-level, unimportant thing. But once it was in that State of the Union address, it became huge," says Drumheller.
"So, let me see if I have it correctly. The United States gets a report that Saddam is trying to buy uranium from Africa. But you and many others in our intelligence community quickly knock it down. And then the uranium story is removed from the speech that the President is to give in Cincinnati. Because the head of the CIA, George Tenet, doesn't believe in it?" Bradley asked.
"Right," Drumheller appeared.
It then appeared in the State of the Union address as a British report. Drumheller, who oversaw intelligence operations for the CIA in Europe doubts the British had something the U.S. didn't. "No. I don't think they did," he says.
The British maintain they have intelligence to support the story —but to this day, they have never shared it.
The White House declined 60 Minutes' request for an interview for this story, but Dan Bartlett, Counselor to the President, wrote us:
"The President's convictions about Saddam Hussein's possession of WMD were based on the collective judgment of the intelligence community at that time. Bipartisan investigations … found no evidence of political pressure to influence the pre-war intelligence assessments of Iraq's weapons programs." And he added: "Saddam Hussein never abandoned his plan to acquire WMD, and he posed a serious threat to the American people and to the region."
On March 7, 2003, the head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency announced that the Niger uranium documents were forgeries. The Bush administration went to war in Iraq 12 days later, without acknowledging that one of its main arguments for going to war was false.
Four months later, Wilson, who had gone to Niger and found nothing to substantiate the uranium rumor, went public and wrote a piece for The New York Times claiming that the Bush Administration had "twisted" the intelligence on Iraq:
"This was really an attempt to get the government to acknowledge that the 16 words should never have been in the State of the Union Address. It was as simple as that. If you are going to mislead the American people and you're caught at it, you ought to fess up to it," says Wilson.
One day after Wilson's piece appeared, the White House acknowledged the president should not have used the uranium claim. But according to newly released court records, the vice president's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, leaked classified intelligence to reporters a day later in an effort to bolster the uranium story. What Scooter Libby didn't tell reporters is that the White House had been warned before the State of the Union speech not to use the Niger uranium claim.
"At the same time they were admitting the words should not have been in the State of the Union address, they were, we now know, sending Libby out to selectively leak only those pieces that continued to support this allegation that was baseless. In other words, they were furthering the disinformation campaign," says Wilson.
"The American people want to believe the president. I have relatives who I've tried to talk to about this who say, 'Well, no, you can't tell me the president had this information and just ignored it,'" says Drumheller. "But I think over time, people will look back on this and see this is going to be one of the great, I think, policy mistakes of all time."