NBC's O'Donnell allowed Cheney to mislead on CIA Iraq intelligence "breakdown" and purported "turning point" in Iraq

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN & JOE BROWN

In an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell failed to challenge Cheney's misleading claims on prewar Iraq intelligence and the purported progress being made toward the establishment of a stable Iraqi state. O'Donnell also allowed Cheney to claim that 2005 was a "turning point" for Iraq without noting that the Bush administration has touted various "turning points" in the war for more than two years.

During a May 7 interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, NBC News White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell failed to challenge Cheney's misleading claims on prewar Iraq intelligence and the purported progress being made toward the establishment of a stable Iraqi state. O'Donnell allowed Cheney to blame the CIA for failing to "produce the quality intelligence" on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities prior to the Iraq war, despite recent reports that the CIA and other intelligence agencies warned the Bush administration that some of its key claims about Iraq's supposed nuclear program were not true. O'Donnell also allowed Cheney to claim that 2005 was a "turning point" for Iraq without noting that the Bush administration has touted various "turning points" in the war for more than two years, suggesting each time that the situation in Iraq was about to improve.

Claim #1: The CIA failed to "produce ... quality intelligence" prior to the Iraq war

During the interview, portions of which aired on various NBC and MSNBC programs -- including the May 7 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press and the May 9 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews -- O'Donnell asked Cheney to comment on the "damage" suffered by the CIA during the tenure of former director Porter J. Goss, who resigned May 5. Cheney replied that Goss had led the agency during a "tough time," in the aftermath of "[t]he report about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ... before the war in Iraq," in which Cheney claimed there was a "breakdown in the system" and the CIA "didn't produce the quality intelligence that was needed."

But there is ample evidence that, contrary to Cheney's claims, the CIA produced accurate intelligence reports on Iraq's nuclear capabilities that the Bush administration ignored -- allegedly because the evidence did not support its case for war. Moreover, other U.S. intelligence agencies also produced accurate assessments of Iraq's nuclear threat (or lack thereof), which the Bush administration also apparently ignored.

In his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, President Bush presented the case -- frequently advanced by members of his administration -- that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. This argument was a key component of the Bush administration's case for war against Iraq. Bush specifically claimed that the British government learned that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa and that "[o]ur intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production":

BUSH: Twelve years ago, Saddam Hussein faced the prospect of being the last casualty in a war he had started and lost. To spare himself, he agreed to disarm of all weapons of mass destruction. For the next 12 years, he systematically violated that agreement. He pursued chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, even while inspectors were in his country.

[...]

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in the 1990s that Saddam Hussein had an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide.

Cheney made similar claims, stating on the March 16 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press that "we believe [Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." On the September 14, 2003, broadcast of Meet the Press, when host Tim Russert asked Cheney if he "misspoke" in suggesting that Hussein possessed a nuclear weapon, Cheney insisted that he intended to say "weapons capability," and not "weapons."

From the September 14, 2003, broadcast of Meet the Press:

[begin video clip, March 16, 2003, Meet the Press]

RUSSERT: And even though the International Atomic Energy Agency said he does not have a nuclear program, we disagree.

CHENEY: I disagree, yes. And you'll find the CIA, for example, and other key parts of our intelligence community, disagree. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. [Mohamed] ElBaradei [International Atomic Energy Agency chief], frankly, is wrong. And I think if you look at the track record of the International Atomic Energy Agency and this kind of issue, especially where Iraq is concerned, they have consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time than they've been in the past.

[end video clip]

RUSSERT: Reconstituted nuclear weapons. You misspoke.

CHENEY: Yeah. I did misspeak. I said repeatedly during the show "weapons capability." We never had any evidence that he had acquired a nuclear weapon.

However, Tyler Drumheller -- a 26-year CIA veteran who served as chief of the agency's European operations during the lead-up to the Iraq war -- said that the CIA told the Bush administration in the fall of 2002 that according to a high-level source within the Iraqi government, Iraq "had no active weapons of mass destruction program" -- an assessment of Iraq's nuclear capabilities that proved to be accurate, based on the subsequent findings of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG). In its final report in September 2004 (also known as the Duelfer Report), the ISG concluded that "Iraq did not possess a nuclear device, nor had it tried to reconstitute a capability to produce nuclear weapons after 1991." In addition, the ISG found no evidence that Iraq sought uranium from abroad after 1991 and concluded that Iraq's interest in high-strength aluminum tubes was "best explained" by its conventional weapons programs.

As Media Matters for America has noted, Drumheller was interviewed by co-host Ed Bradley on the April 23 broadcast of CBS' 60 Minutes. Drumheller revealed that by the fall of 2002, the CIA had co-opted an Iraqi official in the "inner circle of Saddam Hussein." According to Drumheller, Bush, Vice President Cheney, and then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (now secretary of state) were "enthusiastic" and "excited that we had a high-level penetration of the Iraqis." Drumheller said, however, that the Bush administration "stopped being interested in the intelligence" when the CIA reported that the Iraqi official -- whom 60 Minutes identified as then-foreign minister Naji Sabri -- revealed that Iraq "had no active weapons of mass destruction program." Drumheller further stated that "[t]he war in Iraq was coming and they [the Bush administration] were looking for intelligence to fit into that policy, to justify the policy."

Drumheller elaborated on the April 26 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, explaining that the Iraqi official said that Iraq was "at least 18 months to two years away from building a nuclear weapon if they had the fissile material, which they didn't have."

Drumheller's account is largely consistent with separate media accounts of what Sabri told the CIA before the war. In a March 23 article citing "former intelligence officials," The Washington Post reported that Sabri informed the CIA that Saddam "had ambitions for a nuclear program but that it was not active."

Moreover, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) -- the intelligence community's "center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking" -- along with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) and the Department of Energy disputed the administration's claims regarding Iraq's purported nuclear weapons programs.

As Media Matters noted, The Washington Post reported on April 9 that the NIC -- which then reported to CIA director and director of central intelligence George Tenet -- produced a memo in January 2003 "unequivocal[ly]" debunking the claim that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy uranium from Niger. The Post reported that according to "[f]our U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge," the White House received the memo "as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for ... war":

The NIC memo apparently echoed a previous dissenting assessment offered by INR as part of an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was available to the administration. At the time, most U.S. intelligence agencies agreed that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Africa, but as Media Matters previously noted, in the October 2002 NIE, INR deemed such judgments "highly dubious." Moreover, INR disputed the majority view that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program at all, noting in the NIE that there was not "a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons."

Further, as Media Matters also noted, while most U.S. intelligence agencies agreed that the aluminum tubes were evidence of Iraq's renewed nuclear program, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the INR disagreed. Their objections were published in the October 2002 NIE that was readily available to members of the Bush administration. As Media Matters noted, National Journal investigative reporter Murray Waas reported that Bush, Cheney, and Rice were aware of DOE and INR's objections, but "[Bush], Cheney, and other members of the Cabinet" continued to cite the tubes as "clear evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program," never informing the public of the dissent within the intelligence community.

Waas also noted a January 2003 report in which "U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously agreed that it was unlikely that Saddam would try to attack the United States -- except if 'ongoing military operations risked the imminent demise of his regime' or if he intended to 'extract revenge' for such an assault." He also reported that "[o]n at least four earlier occasions, beginning in the spring of 2002 ... the president was informed during his morning intelligence briefing that U.S. intelligence agencies believed it was unlikely that Saddam was an imminent threat to the United States." But Waas explained that "in the months leading up to the war, Bush, Cheney, and Cabinet members repeatedly asserted that Saddam was likely to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or to provide such weapons to Al Qaeda or another terrorist group."

Claim #2: 2005 was "a turning point" in Iraq

O'Donnell subsequently asked Cheney to comment on two of his earlier claims -- which she suggested were "wrong" -- that American troops entering Iraq would be greeted as "liberators" and that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes." As he has before, Cheney defended his optimistic predictions for the U.S. war effort in Iraq, stating that "when the history books are written," 2005 will prove to have been "the turning year, the watershed year for Iraq operations," and asserting that United States forces are "viewed as liberators by the vast majority of the Iraqi people." Citing the January 2005 parliamentary elections, the ratification of the Iraqi constitution, the election of a permanent government, and the training of the Iraqi security forces, Cheney called 2005 "the turning point" and "the time when we turned the corner" and "got on top of the situation in Iraq."

But O'Donnell failed to note that the Bush administration has touted many such "turning points" since the beginning of the Iraqi occupation, suggesting each time that the situation in Iraq was about to improve. For instance, when questioned about the ongoing violence in Iraq during an April 30, 2004, press briefing, then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan claimed that a "peaceful future" for Iraqis was "around the corner:"

QUESTION: Measured against the phrase he used a year ago, "major combat operations are over," how does the president assess the situation --

McCLELLAN: Look, Dick, for those who are still fighting, they're still involved in combat operations. There are still difficulties that remain. The president talked about that. There are those who seek to derail the transition to democracy, because they want to return to the days of mass graves and torture chambers and rape rooms. But that's not going to happen. The Iraqi people realize that a free and peaceful future is around the corner. And we're going to be there to work with them, to help them realize that future.

Additionally, the weblog Think Progress documented numerous other examples in which the Bush administration touted "turning points" in Iraq, including:

  • The June 30, 2004, transfer of sovereignty from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to the interim Iraqi government.
  • The January 30, 2005, election of a transitional assembly in Iraq.
  • The entire year of 2005, as Cheney claimed.
  • The future formation of an Iraqi government under Prime Minister-designate Jawad Maliki, who was nominated April 21.

Further, O'Donnell failed to challenge Cheney's assertion that U.S. personnel in Iraq "clearly are viewed as liberators by the vast majority of the Iraqi people." Although a Media Matters review did not reveal any recent polling directly addressing this claim, two polls from the Spring of 2004 found that a commanding majority of Iraqis viewed the US as "occupiers," as opposed to "liberators." A poll commissioned by the CPA and conducted from May 14-23, 2004, found that 92 percent of Iraqis viewed coalition forces in Iraq as "occupiers," while 2 percent viewed them as "liberators" and 3 percent viewed them as "peacekeepers." A Gallup poll (subscription required) found that 71 percent of Iraqis viewed coalition troops in Iraq "mostly as occupiers," while 19 percent viewed them "mostly as liberators" and eight percent viewed them as "both equally." The same poll also revealed that Iraqi perceptions of coalition forces had worsened with time. When respondents were asked how they had viewed coalition troops at the time of the March 2003 invasion, the results were split, with 43 percent answering "mostly as occupiers" and 43 percent answering "mostly as liberators." Nine percent answered "both equally."

While not directly addressing Iraqi views of coalition forces themselves, a February 2004 poll by Oxford Research International found the Iraqi public split as to whether the coalition invasion had "liberated" or "humiliated" their country. Forty-two percent said that the invasion had "liberated" Iraq, while 41 percent said it had "humiliated" the country; 17 percent answered that it was "difficult to say."

From O'Donnell's May 7 interview with Cheney:

O'DONNELL: Critics of outgoing CIA director Porter Goss say that during his time the agency was politicized, there were some good CIA people who were forced out, and morale suffered. How have you seen that damage the agency?

CHENEY: Well, I -- first of all, I'm a fan of Porter's. I think he's a very able and talented public servant. He didn't have to take the job. He took it on at a very difficult time, and I think he's done a reasonably good job at it, too. It's been a tough time for the agency. They came through the whole period before 9-11 and missed 9-11 and obviously were criticized for that. The report about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the Gulf War -- before the war in Iraq was another instance where there was a breakdown in the system. It didn't produce the quality intelligence that was needed, so Porter took on the assignment at a very difficult time, and now he's leaving. I think he ought to leave with honor that he's owed, and the respect that he's owed, and the thanks for having done a very difficult job. And the president will soon announce a replacement, and we'll move on.

[...]

O'DONNELL: I'd like to ask you about two of the comments that you have made that have gotten a lot of attention with respect to Iraq. Much has been made about what you said about being greeted as liberators, and about a year ago when you said the insurgency was in its last throes. More recently, you defended that as, "basically accurate." With all due respect, sir, isn't that wrong?

CHENEY: Which?

O'DONNELL: Both of those.

CHENEY: Both of those. No, I think with respect to the question of -- were we greeted as liberators, I think we clearly are viewed as liberators by the vast majority of the Iraqi people. No question we've had problems with a group of terrorist insurgents, but that's a very small minority. And I really believe that when the history books are written that what we'll find is that 2005 was the turning year, the watershed year for Iraq operations. Why? Well, primarily because that's the year which the Iraqis first had an election in January, when they elected an interim government. That's the year in which they wrote a constitution, the most up-to-date, modern constitution in the Arab world. That's the year when they ratified that constitution and, finally, had national elections. They had three national elections last year. In the last national election, they turned out by the millions to participate in that process.

And I think when we look back from the perspective of history, we'll see that that was the turning point, that was the period of time when the Iraqis stepped up and began to take responsibility for their own fate, for their own affairs, developed a political system and put it in place, as well as participated in a major way in the training of their own security forces -- now got some 250,000 of them in the field. And that will have been the time when we turned the corner, when -- in effect, got on top of the situation in Iraq and will ultimately succeed in completing our mission.

I don't think you can judge it just day by day, or what's happened this week, or what happened last week. I do think you need to have some historic perspective on this, and I think if you take a historical perspective on what we've done in Iraq, that, in fact, that will have been the watershed year, if you will.

From the May 8 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to Hardball. Vice President Cheney says big changes are under way in the intelligence community. NBC White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell sat down with the vice president, and he offered his views on the CIA, Iraq, and his relationship with President Bush.

[begin video clip]

O'DONNELL: Critics of outgoing CIA director Porter Goss say that during his time, the agency was politicized, there were some good CIA people who were forced out, and morale suffered. How have you seen that damage the agency?

CHENEY: Well, I -- first of all, am a fan of Porter's. I think he's a very able and talented public servant. He didn't have to take the job. He took it on at a very difficult time, and I think he has done a reasonably good job at it too. It's been a tough time for the agency. You know, they came through the whole period before 9-11 and missed 9-11, and obviously were criticized for that. The report about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the Gulf War, before the war in Iraq, was another instance where, you know, there was a breakdown in the system. It didn't produce the quality intelligence that was needed. So Porter took on the assignment at a very difficult time, and now he's leaving. And I think he ought to leave with honor that he's owed and the respect that he's owed and the thanks for having done a very difficult job.

[...]

O'DONNELL: I'd like to ask you about two of the comments that you have made that have gotten a lot of attention with respect to Iraq. Much has been made about what you said about being greeted as liberators, and about a year ago when you said the insurgency was in its last throes. And more recently you defended that as, quote, "basically accurate." With all due respect, sir, isn't that wrong?

CHENEY: No. I think with respect to the question of the -- were we greeted as liberators, I think we clearly are viewed as liberators by the vast majority of the Iraqi people. No question we've had problems with a group of terrorists, insurgents, but that's a very small minority. And I really believe that when the history books are written that what we'll find is that 2005 was the turning year, the watershed year for Iraq operations. Why? Well, primarily because that's the year in which the Iraqis first had an election in January, when they elected an interim government. That's the year in which they wrote a constitution, the most up-to-date modern constitution for the Arab world. And that's the year when they ratified that constitution and, finally, had national elections. They had three national elections last year. In the last national election, they turned out by the millions to participate in that process.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
MSNBC, NBC
Person
Kelly O'Donnell
Show/Publication
Meet the Press, Hardball
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Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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