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DDCI Press Conference at CIA Headquarters

Transcript of Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John E. McLaughlin Press Conference at CIA Headquarters

July 9, 2004

(final transcript)

Mr. McLaughlin:
Thank you all for coming. We wanted to take the opportunity to give you some initial reactions to the report released today by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on pre-war intelligence on Iraq. We're seeing the conclusions for the first time today just as I think you are, so our reactions are necessarily very preliminary.


The Committee points out, as the DCI did five months ago at Georgetown, that there were serious flaws in some of our prewar intelligence on Iraq. We recognize those shortcomings and long before today's report have taken a number of steps to address them and to ensure they are not repeated.

So my first message to you is a very simple one: we get it. Although we think the judgments were not unreasonable when they were made nearly two years ago, we understand with all that we have learned since then that we could have done better. Some of our judgments have held up. Some have been called into serious question. One significant error was in allowing the key judgments in our [National Intelligence] Estimate on Iraq, that's the short summary at the front of the Estimate, to be published without sufficient caveats and disclaimers where our knowledge was incomplete. This is particularly unfortunate since the full text of that document, which apparently was not reviewed by all the readers, spells out the uncertainties and dissents much more fully.

The Senate Select Committee has spent nearly a year dissecting an Estimate which we were asked to produce in less than a month. They have learned, often from us, where our performance was flawed.

But I have a very important second message: It is to emphasize that the Senate report is an in-depth look at essentially one document on one issue — an important one to be sure. In other words, it is wrong to exaggerate the flaws or leap to the judgment that our challenges with prewar Iraq weapons intelligence are evidence of sweeping problems across the broad spectrum of issues with which the Intelligence Community must deal.

Iraq was really unique. Through the mid to late 1990s the entire world saw evidence of Saddam's WMD production and his efforts to hide it. We, along with virtually every other intelligence service on the planet, and numerous non-governmental experts, assessed that Saddam's determined efforts to conceal what was going on in Iraq was evidence that his commitment to these terrible weapons was continuing apace. On some important issues, however, our experts were actually more cautious than outside specialists. All the experts agreed we were dealing with a dangerous man who had already used WMD.

The Intelligence Community has taken many steps in recent months to strengthen the process for making National Intelligence Estimates, validating sensitive sources, and challenging long-held assumptions.

Let me end with a couple of points that the American people need to hear and understand in the midst of all of this controversy: the men and women of the American Intelligence Community are not motivated or guided by political or personal agendas. They are highly skilled, highly dedicated professionals committed to protecting and defending the American people. As we speak, many of those officers are risking their lives doing exactly that around the world and doing it with daring, dedication, professionalism and integrity.

Thank you very much, and I'm happy to take your questions.

Q: You talk about Iraq being unique and that we shouldn't make any sweeping conclusions that it's the same in any other part of the world and that you're making the same sorts of mistakes, if you will. And yet one of the conclusions is that you leaped from guessing with the intelligence to certainty: Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has chemical and biological weapons. Why would that be any different now? Was that a mistake to say those things with such certainty?

A: As I indicated in my statement, I think it was an error to say them with that degree of certainty in the summary of this Estimate. If you look at the body of the Estimate, there are many caveats and many qualifiers. This is a kind of art form in this business which frankly we will now change. The art form has always been that when you get to the summary of a National Estimate, you stand back from all of the evidence you put on the record, and all of the qualifiers, and say, "Here's what I really think." And that's what we did in this case. We assessed that they had chemical and biological weapons.

Frankly, we won't do that again. In the future, our summaries of Estimates will mirror exactly what we're saying in the body of the Estimate. If you look at the body of this Estimate, you will see that the differences within the [Intelligence] Community are absolutely laid out in great detail, the qualifiers are there. And I look at the rest of our work. I think one of the things I would say to you is to demonstrate that whatever errors were made here, or whatever shortcomings there were, is not at all characteristic across the board of our work on weapons intelligence generally. If it was, how could we have essentially dismantled the A.Q. Khan proliferation network which we penetrated and understood very well? How could we have understood with the degree of certainty what weapons Libya had, a degree of certainty that meant that when we went in on secret contacts we were able to confront them with our knowledge of their nuclear program—when it started, when it stopped, when it resumed? How could we have confronted them with our knowledge, very certain, of what kind of missiles they had? How could we have as early as the early '90s understood in some detail what the Iranian nuclear program was like in ways that the IAEA is now only coming to understand it? How could we have with a high degree of confidence projected not more than a year or two ago that the North Koreans had developed a uranium enrichment program that was learned through intelligence — a combination of human and technical sources, with all the proper caveats, but with confidence. And ultimately the North Koreans acknowledged that.

So what I would say to you is that across the board our work on weapons intelligence has been rather good. We acknowledge in the case of prewar intelligence on Iraq there were some shortcomings.

Q: One of the mistakes that they outline in these conclusions is the classic intelligence mistake which is assuming the answer, assuming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and then locking onto all the evidence that confirmed that assumption and discounting evidence that called that into question. That's sort of the oldest analytical mistake in the book.

Is it really the case that there was no one who was questioning either in the form of a formal Red Team or an individual analyst who was saying, "Wait a minute. Why don't we rethink this thing?" Start from the premise, "Does he really have these things?", instead of the way it seems to have happened – just starting from the assumption?

A:That's a really good question. It goes back to something I said in my opening statement, that Iraq was really a unique situation. We challenge our assumptions all the time around here, and I'm happy to tell you about some changes we've made to strengthen that practice. But when I say it was a unique situation, and I refer back to the comments people have made — I think Senator Roberts has called this an "assumption train." If it was an assumption train, we were not the engine. I'm not even sure we were the coal car. I don't know where we were on it, but people all around the world made the assumption that this country had weapons.

I referred to the fact that many outside experts were bolder in that assertion than we were. If you look at some of the literature that was published in the last year, for example Ken Pollack's article in Atlantic Monthly, you'll find a paragraph in which he describes a conference he attended where 20 or so former UN inspectors were present. He put the question to them, "How many of you think Iraq is actually enriching uranium?" All 20 put their hands up and said yes, and some even went further to suggest that they were into calutron work.

Interestingly, none of our analysts went that far. People forget that we said he did not have nuclear weapons. We did not say that he had begun enrichment. We did not say that he had fissile material.

So what I would say to you is that the assumptions about his weapons were long-held. They were held almost universally. And what we have done since then is to – you know, this is a learning institution. At the end of the day we're pretty hard on ourselves, and what we have done in response to our own digging into this in the last six months is a number of things. We now have "devil's advocate" work done on every National Intelligence Estimate we do, which does exactly what you are suggesting.

We are putting together an outside group of experts to do exactly the same thing. We actually took CIA analysts and their managers off-line for a few days for elective learning, and part of elective learning was that we must always question every assumption. One of the assignments they got was, "Go back to your desks, look at every issue we're working on across the world, understand what the assumptions are, and then try and tear them apart."

In the case of Iraq, to go back to your original point, you'll see in this Estimate there are places where dissents within this [Intelligence] Community are laid out.

Q: So arguments over specific features of evidence, aluminum tubes or whatever. Did anybody question the basic assumption?

A: I think there were very few people around the world or in the Intelligence Community that questioned the basic assumption that weapons existed. And one of the mistakes we can make in reading just the Senate report — you can read the report and read all the criticisms of the work, and you can come away with the impression that nothing was going on in this country that related to WMD at all. When in fact, if you look at the work that's been carried out under David Kay first and now Charlie Duelfer and the Iraq Survey Group, it's quite clear that Iraq was in material breach of Resolution 1441 on any number of instances, ranging from the secret work that was underway on things like anthrax simulants all the way up to what we had discovered about their missile work which was, in fact, dramatically beyond what we suggested. With their plans not to declare to the UN their missiles, solid propellant, liquid propellant, well in excess of 1,000 kilometers. A chemical industry that could quickly be converted, using precursors for chemical weapons. Assembly lines for anthrax simulants that could be converted to anthrax in less than a week.

So people who assumed, back to your original point, people who assumed that there was work underway on weapons of mass destruction were not entirely wrong if your baseline here is to say that he had not fully abandoned his programs.

Q: There has been a great deal of discussion about political pressure or not on the Agency, and whether the Agency was telling the Administration what it wanted to hear to make its case for war. I want to approach that from a slightly different angle. The CIA had been looking at Iraq very closely for years, all through the '90s. Throughout that period the question was, "Do we have enough suspicion and concern to maintain the policy of containment, to maintain the sanctions, and it seems nobody seems to be debating the idea that there was more than enough reason to be suspicious of Saddam, to not trust him, to maintain the policy.

But now comes the Bush Administration and now the idea is war — an invasion of Iraq. My question is, from your point of view, do analysts need to be aware of what policymakers are thinking and establish in their own minds perhaps the notion that there should be a higher standard of proof if they are laying out a case to policymakers who are considering not continuing the status quo, but invading a country, to sort of raise the level of proof, if you will, and should our analysts be aware of what's going on above them and around them in the policy sense? Not that they're favoring a particular policy, but just aware of the consequences of their recommendations.

A: It's a good question and I think it proceeds from the understanding that you articulated a moment ago. We try here to draw a firm line between policy and intelligence. What we do on the intelligence side should inform policy, but not make policy. And in general I would agree with your proposition that the degree to which we are aware of policy developments, our intelligence would be sharpened. I would agree with your premise.

Q: Could I ask you first of all, are you standing there and saying yes, that you don't think there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? And secondly, the report says that the Central Intelligence Agency did not have a single officer in Iraq working on weapons of mass destruction. Is that correct? In which case wasn't the Agency overly timid on this?

A: I think there are two questions there. On the issue of, if I understood you correctly, are we saying, "Yes, that there were no weapons in Iraq"?

One of the mistakes I think we made early on here was allowing the impression to take root that people would go into Iraq and discover quickly large visible stockpiles of weapons. It was not until after the war that we started I think talking in terms of what 100 tons of chemical weapons would really look like. And you've all heard by now the analogy that it would fit in a backyard swimming pool. Or anthrax that would kill thousands and thousands of people could be concealed in the glove compartment of a car.

So against that backdrop one has to at least preserve some element of ambiguity in your mind, I think, about whether they exist or not. The truth of the matter is that George Tenet pointed out at Georgetown back in February, we haven't found those kinds of stockpiles yet. And the longer you search for those kinds of things and not find them, the greater the skepticism to overcome.

That said, I would reiterate what I said earlier about the work of the Iraq Survey Group, which has found that this country was not entirely innocent when it came to WMD programs and WMD intentions.

On the second question, I've read through the report. I haven't gone through the conclusions yet. They literally were arriving as I was walked down here. The point about an officer in Iraq, I'm not sure if that's what that point was intended to convey. If it's intended to convey a timidity on the part of our officers in terms of working in dangerous environments, I would just reject that totally out of hand. We put stars on the [Memorial] Wall out here this year. We put stars on the Wall out here this year. This is an Agency that had people on the ground in Afghanistan 17 days after the horror of 9/11. This is an Agency that through its human source work, and through officers risking their lives, has captured the architect of 9/11, Khalid Shaykh Mohammed. This is an Agency that brought to justice Al-Nashiri, the Al-Qaida terrorist who was responsible for the deaths of 17 sailors on the USS Cole. This is an Agency that through its risk and daring has captured Hambali, the most notorious terrorist in the eastern part of the globe who was responsible for the Bali bombing.

So I completely reject and resent any implication by the Committee that our officers are somehow risk averse.

Q: Can I just follow up on that? In fact I think what the Committee was saying was there a hundred agents who were willing to go on the ground, but what they were saying is the Agency itself was so hidebound it chose not to do that. Is that in fact true? Was there some concern on the part of the Agency, the bureaucracy, that you didn't want to put people in on the ground, and did that leave you more dependent on dubious sources for intelligence?

A: No, there was no such concern here. But that is not typically how we operate in a society like this. What we typically try and do in a society like this is recruit people who will operate in a country on our behalf. And as Jim Pavitt, the Deputy Director for Operations has noted publicly, and as the Director noted in his speech in February, this was a place where we did not recruit as many people in the inner sanctum as we would have preferred to have recruited. Why is that so? Again, I go back to my point that Iraq is unique. Up until 1998 we had ground truth about what was going on in Iraq from inspectors who were in the country, who received a lot of that information. We could hold it in our hands. We had a sense for what was going on and we had concreteness about Iraq WMD. After 1998 we lost that. So first we got a late start on recruiting agents to work in Iraq; but second, I'm saying we were working against a particularly difficult target here. Saddam through all of those years of inspections had learned how to deceive, and he had learned how to apply very brutal tactics with people who cooperated with outsiders. So we were up against a tougher than average problem here.

Now that said, I've cited for you a number of other successes having to do with weapons proliferation, where we literally had to penetrate a network and we did that. So part of the answer is sometimes we get it done and sometimes we…look, there is not perfection in this business. It is a tough business where you succeed sometimes and sometimes you don't despite all of your best efforts. I would just leave it there.

Q: With all this criticism involving the Agency, how concerned are you, now that you're going into the Acting Director chair, that the products that come out of here are not going to be taken as seriously as in the past, and perhaps people won't pay as great attention to them? And what are you doing to sort of negate that?

A: I'm not at all concerned by that. When I hear people comment on the intelligence business or offer criticism, which we're open to — I think my opening statement indicated that. But I often say that's not the world I live in. The world I live in every day is a world where intelligence remains extraordinarily influential and essential. This is a very high responsibility we have and we recognize it. What I find is that people are eager to hear what we have to say. They question it, as they should. We expect that. That's part of the contentiousness of the issues we deal with. It is extraordinary, and it shows through in the dialogue that we have. But there has been no let-up in demand for intelligence, and no perceptible decline in the confidence in intelligence, and I have dealt with policymakers from the President on down.

Q: You indicated that one of the problems was not caveating your assessments.

A: Correct.

Q: But the report sort of goes further, essentially saying there was insufficient intelligence, underlying intelligence, to reach the conclusions reached regardless of what they were. I just wondered what your thoughts were on that.

A: Part of our job is to connect dots, if you will. In other words if you look at the results of the 9/11 Commission, one of the things they said was people should have been connecting more dots. If you look at the results of this investigation, one of the things people are saying is you connected too many dots. It's a tension in our business. We do not always have — We deal with the uncertain. You all know that. Frequently what we try to do here is a little bit like putting together a crossword [sic] puzzle with one important difference — we haven't seen the picture on the box. So it's quite often the case that we have to take bits and pieces and put them together and do our best to come to a conclusion.

In truth, there was a lot of underlying intelligence here. It varied in quality from issue to issue. I would say we had very strong intelligence on delivery systems, for example. That is things like missile programs, UAVs, things of that nature. Our intelligence was more fragmentary on chemical weapons, to give you an example, and on nuclear issues. So it is varied and we did our best to come to judgments about all of these things.

Q: Particularly on the tubes, the report essentially accuses the CIA of misrepresenting facts in a couple of cases. Almost skewing the debate. Can you respond to that?

A: I completely reject that. I completely reject it. This tube issue, I didn't know whether we were going to get into it here today. It's an awfully "down in the weeds" issue, but I know a lot has been made of it.

That issue is thoroughly discussed to a fault in the National Intelligence Estimate. If you were to have the entire Estimate you would see that at the back end of it there are three full, detailed pages expressing, for example, the Department of Energy's views, and other material that expresses the view of other agencies. You know the dispute. Some people thought they were for centrifuges and some people didn't. And you have to put that whole aluminum tube thing in the context of the broader nuclear issue.

I have to remind you again, with all — there are 40 or 50 pages in this report dedicated to aluminum tubes and whether they were for centrifuges or not, but I must always remind people that the National Intelligence Estimate, the Intelligence Community, said he did not have nuclear weapons yet, said he would not have them for another five to seven years. Said that he wasn't yet enriching uranium. Said he didn't have fissile material. These tubes were detected as part of the things that could have contributed eventually to an enrichment program. In fact, there's a success story buried in this that very few people know about. That is working with our partners overseas we kept, if my memory serves, close to 100,000 of these tubes from ever getting into Iraq. I believe the tubes that were found in Iraq were not of the high tolerances as the ones going in, and all of the agencies who looked at these tubes thought they could be adapted. Even the Department of Energy, which had a very strong view on these particular things, agreed with the overall assessment in the Estimate that he was reconstituting his nuclear program.

Q: Looking back, were your analysts pressured, as the Democrats on the Committee say? And looking forward, are you concerned at all that with the calls for reform, the Intelligence Community in any way will be distracted from its day to day work? And as Acting Director, how do you handle that?

A: On the issue of pressure, I think the Committee says that they could not detect any particular pressure on the WMD issue. I think our analysts would say they were not pressured to come to these conclusions. These were conclusions that we arrived at, at the time we did two years ago and, as I said in my statement, we thought they were reasonable. They were our conclusions.

On the question of intelligence reform, if you want to see my views, my personal views, you can look at a speech I gave to the Business Executives for National Security a couple of weeks ago. It's on our web site.

To people who are contemplating reform of the Community, I would say three things in particular. First I would say, remember there's no perfection in this business. In other words, some sort of reordering of the boxes here will not bring you perfection in the intelligence business. There is no profit and loss or bottom line in this vital industry. How do you measure, how do you balance a hundred successes against one failure?

Second I would tell them if they are contemplating reform: This will be hard. Remember, our country is at war. Our country is at war not only in Iraq, but men and women of this Agency are on the front line of the war on terrorism all around the world. We can't risk any kind of disruption at this point that would in any way minimize the effectiveness of this Agency and the rest of the Intelligence Community against people who at this moment are plotting attacks in the United States.

Third I would say if people are contemplating reform of the Community, be careful not to destroy the advances we've made. There's this impression out there that somehow the Community has stood still over the last seven years. In fact we have transformed ourselves dramatically in ways that are not well understood.

In my speech at BENS you'll see how I would do it. If you want me to walk through that I will, but I'll stop there.

Q: You said that one of the things you regretted is you didn't put more caveats in the summary of the NIE. Another way I presume intelligence is summarized is when Director Tenet would meet with the President and sort of give a bottom-line oral presentation. Can you see now in hindsight that maybe there was also, was there any error in that context of maybe short-cutting, going too quickly to the bottom line, and not including the same caveats in those oral presentations that maybe should have been included in the summary to the NIE?

A: First, I have to take off limits any discussions with the President. That's just a relationship we don't discuss for obvious reasons. It's a privileged relationship and our advice must remain confidential. But I would say from my personal experience, I don't think the oral briefings were very different, to the extent that they even occurred, than the written briefings. And ultimately what this Agency stands for, and what the Intelligence Community stands for, is what we put down in black and white. Even as I'm talking here today, obviously I'm not referring to notes. I'm giving you my best recollection of the facts. It's always possible to be misstate them. At the end of the day we have to refer back directly to what we put in black and white. In this case the Senate has thoroughly dissected what we put in black and white. I don't think there was a big difference, in my view.

Q: You said in your speech two weeks ago, and continue to say again today that the shortcomings that emerged from the Iraq WMD experience were discrete, that they were well understood, and the Agency is well on its way toward addressing them. Yet we heard from Senator Roberts this morning that what we have is a broken corporate culture and a failure of leadership.

Two questions. Does he have a point? And can you be more explicit about the changes you've made, particularly in the handling of human intelligence?

A: I don't think we have a broken corporate culture at all. This is a Community that works very well together. This is a Community that comes together physically and virtually practically every day of the week. This is a Community where every success I have cited, from the capture of terrorists to the takedown of the A.Q. Khan network, to the work we've done on Iran, North Korea and any number of other things, involves work from all aspects of the Community, people pulling together.

So I don't think we have a broken corporate culture at all.

In terms of the changes that we've made, I did say in the BENS speech that these were problems which we understood and acted upon. Let me walk you through four or five things we have done.

When we do a National Intelligence Estimate today we are now requiring the collection managers from all of the intelligence collection agencies to submit in writing a statement that validates the sources in that effort. They have to assure everyone there's not a person in that source list who is dissembling or who is fabricating. They have to assure that the sources are strong or note otherwise.

Second, this is a matter of procedure. Every Estimate is now subjected to a "devil's advocate." In other words, we essentially tear it apart before we publish it.

Third, as I mentioned I think earlier, we're bringing in a group of senior advisors from the outside world to perform a similar function, essentially to challenge our assumptions on all of the issues we've worked on.

We've taken all of our CIA analysts and managers off-site and walked them through the lessons that we've learned on the Estimates, including some of the ones I mentioned here today. And we've encouraged them to question their assumptions and so forth.

Finally, you mentioned human intelligence. Something we've done in terms of human intelligence, these are highly sensitive reports. We're broadening our access to them in the Intelligence Community, and we're improving the way we present and share such data across the Intelligence Community. These are some of our most sensitive reports that frequently involve life and death matters in terms of the security required to obtain them. But we have taken steps to broaden access and improve the way we present and share them.

Those are some of the things that we have done.

Q: Can you just do a wrap-up? I know you haven't read the conclusions, but do you essentially agree with the conclusion that most of the major key judgments in the NIE were overstated, not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting because of a series of failures?

A: There are things I agree with — a quick read. There are things I agree with in the National Intelligence Estimate, in their assessment of the Estimate, things I disagree with. I think I said in my opening statement I thought we could use more qualifiers in the front end of that particular document. I agree with what the Senate said about our work on terrorism. For example, they made the point that we had done very well in our assessment of the relationship between Saddam and al Qaida and other terrorists. I agree generally with what they had to say about our performance on delivery systems which as I indicated was very strong. And I'll leave it there. I need to look more carefully at it. And I will do that in the coming hours and days.

Q: Sir, could I ask you whether anybody has lost their job?

A: I'm going to take that question because you're asking a question about accountability. This is a very tricky issue in the Intelligence Community. There's accountability in our process every day here because of the way we promote people, because of the way we assess them, because of the way we move them from job to job.

It's one thing to hold people accountable when they have done something ill-principled, when they've done something that lacks integrity, when they've done something that for whatever reason is reprehensible on those grounds. It's another thing in the intelligence business to hold people accountable for a mistake, for an error in judgment. Stop and think about it for a minute.

We are told every day that we must not be risk averse, and we are not. Our officers put their lives on the line around the world. We are not a risk-averse Agency. Think about that for a minute. What does it mean to take a risk? Taking a risk involves the possibility of a mistake, by definition. Even the probability of a mistake when the risk is very, very high.

I can think of nothing that would be more effective in generating aversion to risk than to hold an individual personally accountable for a mistake that might have been made by hundreds of people around the world in other intelligence agencies, in the private sector, the media, in the academic world, and the United Nations. So we hold our people accountable within the service here. But it's very important when we talk about accountability that we realize that there is a relationship in the Intelligence Community with the fact that we take risks every day, sometimes life-threatening ones.

Q: Thank you very much.


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Posted: Apr 12, 2007 07:59 AM
Last Updated: Jun 17, 2008 03:30 PM