ON APRIL 23, 2006 Tyler Drumheller shared what was billed as a bombshell with 60 Minutes viewers. In a segment called "A Spy Speaks Out," the 26-year veteran of the CIA claimed that the Bush administration ignored intelligence collected from a well-placed source inside Saddam's regime because it conflicted with their desire to go to war with Iraq.
According to Drumheller, the CIA had learned from Saddam's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, that Iraq "had no active weapons of mass destruction program." CBS correspondent Ed Bradley followed up, "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?" Drumheller replied, "Yes." The transcript from the 60 Minutes segment notes that Drumheller "says there was [no] doubt in his mind at all."
Bradley then got to the punch line, "It directly contradicts, though, what the president and his staff were telling us." Drumheller asserted, "The policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming. And they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy, to justify the policy."
Drumheller claimed that senior administration officials were initially very interested to hear what Sabri had to say. But once the White House and "the group that was dealing with preparation for the Iraq war" learned of Sabri's denial they were "no longer interested."
Drumheller remembered: "And we said, 'Well, what about the intel?' And they said, 'Well, this isn't about intel anymore. This is about regime change.'"
There are good reasons to believe that Drumheller's account never really happened.
Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that although Sabri had "provided information that the Iraqi dictator had ambitions for a nuclear program . . . it was not active." Sabri also reported that "no biological weapons were being produced or stockpiled, although research was underway." Lastly, according to the Post:
"When it came to chemical weapons, Sabri told his handler that some existed but they were not under military control, a former intelligence official familiar with the situation said. Another former official added: 'He said he had been told Hussein had them dispersed among some of the loyal tribes.'"
According to the Post's account, therefore, Drumheller's account of Sabri's testimony was wildly off the mark. Saddam may not have had an "active nuclear program" or biological weapons, but he did have nuclear "ambitions" and research on biological weapons was "underway." Importantly, Saddam had sent chemical weapons to "loyal tribes."
The report from the Senate Intelligence Committee released Friday contains additional information which contradicts Drumheller's story. An "Additional Views" addendum to the report, signed by Senators Roberts, Hatch, and Chambliss, states that Drumheller's account on 60 Minutes "seemed to contradict the information available to the Committee." The addendum notes that Drumheller's story was "followed by numerous other media" outlets, including "CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight and Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees, and MSNBC's Hardball." In all of these appearances Drumheller "claimed that [Sabri] said Iraq had no WMD programs."
Because Drumheller's story was so clearly at odds with the intelligence the Committee had reviewed, the Senators became "concerned that something may have been missed in our first Iraq review," so they "began to request additional information from the Intelligence Community and to question current and former CIA officers who were involved in this issue."
The Senators warn that their inquiry has not been completed, but they "have seen the operational documentation pertaining to this case." In emphasis that is their own, they conclude:
We can say that there is not a single document related to this case which indicates that the source said Iraq had no WMD programs. On the contrary, all of the information about this case so far indicates that the information from this source was that Iraq did have WMD programs.
"The only program not described as fully active was the biological weapons program which [Sabri] described as 'amateur,' and not constituting a real weapons program."
Compare the Post's report to the Senators' account and you will notice some differences. For example, the Post account says that Sabri told his handlers that Saddam did not have an active nuclear program, while the Senators say that the CIA's two reports on Sabri's testimony noted Saddam "was aggressively and covertly developing such a weapon."
This is an obvious discrepancy between the two accounts. The Senators do appear to be quoting from the CIA's documents, but given how sloppy and erroneously reasoned other sections of the new report are, it would be best if the public got to see the CIA's reports for itself.
None of this means, of course, that Saddam was actually pursuing anything Sabri said he was. It is not prudent to trust a high-ranking Iraqi official from Saddam's era without the ability to independently verify what he had to say. And no evidence found in the postwar investigations has corroborated any part of Sabri's account.
But at the same time, both the Post's version of Sabri's testimony--as well as the Senators'--differs mightily from the account provided by Drumheller.
THE ENTIRE AFFAIR provides insight into how the game of spinning intelligence is played. The three republican senators explain that they blocked Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee from including the prewar intelligence collected from Sabri in the report. Why? Because the Democrats wanted to include Sabri's denial of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda--but did not want to include Sabri's testimony about Saddam's ongoing WMD programs.
That is, the Democrats on the Committee wanted to cherry-pick which parts of Sabri's testimony were included and which ones were not. Sabri's prewar testimony on Saddam's WMD programs confirmed other accounts produced by the intelligence community, despite Drumheller's claims otherwise. This would make it difficult for Senators Rockefeller and Levin to claim that the Bush administration "misled" the nation into war.
Sabri's prewar testimony on Saddam's lack of ties to al Qaeda, however, would have been useful to Rockefeller and Levin. So they wanted to include that part of his testimony.
No good review of intelligence analysis should unquestioningly accept the testimony of former senior Iraqi officials--either before or after the fact--on either WMD or terrorism links.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.