CIA Director George Tenet -- in a quickly scheduled speech at Georgetown University -- said that there was never consensus among CIA analysts that Iraq posed a short-term threat to the security of the United States and never faced political pressure to imply it was.
"They never said there was an 'imminent' threat," he told the audience. "Rather, they painted an objective assessment for our policymakers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests."
"No one told us what to say or how to say it," he added.
This lack of consensus about Iraq's weapons program among CIA analysts was clearly outlined in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, Tenet said.
In response to former top weapons inspector David Kay's recent statements that he does not think that large stockpiles of such weapons will be found or existed right before the U.S.-led invasion last March that ousted former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Tenet claimed that the search was not over and might still yield results on some level. He also pointed to what he considers obvious steps by the former regime to hide activity as Iraq was falling to coalition forces.
"As David Kay reminded us, the Iraqis systematically destroyed and looted forensic evidence before, during and after the war," he said. "We have been faced with the organized destruction of documentary and computer evidence in a wide range of offices, laboratories, and companies suspected of WMD work. The pattern of these efforts is one of deliberate rather than random acts. Iraqis who have volunteered information to us are still being intimidated and attacked."
He also admitted that the search was under very difficult circumstances in Iraq and referenced events in the first Gulf Warf, where Iraq weapons were found unexpectedly.
"Remember finding things in Iraq is very tough," he said. "After the first Gulf War, the U.S. Army blew up chemical weapons without knowing it. They were mixed in with conventional weapons in Iraqi ammo dumps."
The failure to properly pose questions and reach accurate conclusions forces the agency to engage in self-examination to determine why the conclusions reached prior to the war were so inaccurate, the director said.
"Did the history of our work, Saddam's deception and denial, his lack of compliance with the international community, and all that we know about this regime cause us to minimize, or ignore, alternative scenarios?" he asked. "Did the fact that we missed how close Saddam came to acquiring a nuclear weapon in the early 1990s cause us to over-estimate his nuclear or other programs in 2002?"
"We are in the process of evaluating just such questions -- and while others will express views on the questions sooner, we ourselves must come to our own bottom lines. I will say that our judgments were not single threaded," he said. "U.N. inspections served as a baseline and we had multiple strands of reporting from signals, imagery, and human intelligence."
One of the biggest persistent criticisms is that the CIA has relied far too much on electronic intelligence rather than using human agents to penetrate other regimes or organizations to gather evidence and information. In response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, the agency refocused its emphasis on such methods, but Tenet -- while agreeing more should be done -- disputed that the agency did not try.
"We did not ourselves penetrate the inner sanctum -- our agents were on the periphery of WMD activities, providing some useful information," he said. "We had access to émigrés and defectors with more direct access to WMD programs and we had a steady stream of reporting with access to the Iraqi leadership come to us from a trusted foreign partner. Other partners provided important information."
Tenet admitted that the CIA failed to infiltrate the Iraqi regime, but dismissed any notion that it failed top properly emphasize proper intelligence gathering methods.
"What we did not collect ourselves, we evaluated as carefully as we could. Still, the lack of direct access to some of these sources created some risk -- such is the nature of our business," he said. "To be sure, we had difficulty penetrating the Iraqi regime with human sources, but a blanket indictment of our human intelligence around the world is simply wrong," he concluded.