SCOTT SIMON, host:
More debate about the decision of the United States to go into Iraq this weekend four years after the invasion. "At the Center of the Storm" is a new book by former CIA Director George Tenet that will be published on Monday. But the New York Times obtained a copy in advance and on Friday the newspaper reported that Mr. Tenet says his remark that evidence showing Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was, a quote, "slam dunk" had been taken out of context.
John McLaughlin was deputy CIA director under Mr. Tenet, and he was at that White House meeting. Mr. McLaughlin joins us from Washington. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.
Mr. JOHN McLAUGHLIN (Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency): Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: And, well, is that how you heard it?
Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Well, you know, to hear it described, you would think this was a meeting in which George Tenet said slam dunk and then everyone stood up and said, great, let's go to war. It wasn't that way at all.
This was a meeting that was intended to review some intelligence that might be declassified to help explain why analysts at that time thought - now, we know wrongly - that Saddam had WMD. And when George said those two words, I think he was saying them to convey the idea that there's more intelligence that can be declassified that we put on the table here.
I actually personally do not remember him saying those words. There were three or four of us there from the agency. One person remembers him saying them. And that person I think would dispute the idea that he said it in the way it's been described. It's been described that he jumped up from the sofa, threw his arms in the air, kind of, like a referee and yelled slam-dunk. It was an offhand, casual comment that, frankly, none of us thought about after we left that meeting.
SIMON: So to try and understand the absolutely context in which Mr. Tenet reportedly made that remark, slam dunk, obviously, some people are now representing it as saying that in fact, he - the director of the CIA - doubted the veracity of the evidence. But the way you explained it, it doesn't seem to be quite that way?
Mr. McLAUGHLIN: No. I don't know why they would say that. That isn't what he was saying at all. It has been portrayed as a pivotal moment in the path to war.
The context of the Times, though, is that this meeting took place about two weeks after the first military deployment orders had been issued to send troops to the Middle East. It took place after the war resolution had been voted in Congress. It took place after the president's U.N. speech. It took place at a moment when things were very well advanced, a lot of things were moving. And this was a presentation that the administration was seeking to put together to explain why people thought there was WMD in Iraq.
SIMON: But when you say why people thought there were weapons of mass destruction, at that point, it did include the CIA?
Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Of course. Analysts believe there were weapons of mass destruction there.
SIMON: Mr. McLaughlin, reportedly, Mr. Tenet's book also says that there wasn't - wasn't any real debate, as you would understand the term at the White House level, over whether or not to go to war in Iraq. Is that how you remember it?
Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Well I think George will have to speak for himself on that. What he's saying I think is that he was not present in meetings where the fundamental question of whether we should do this was debated in a kind of close-the-door, roll-up-your-sleeves, let's-sweat-this-out type of way.
Yes, to be sure, there were meetings about how we should do it. There were meetings about the kind of things one would have to think about if you did this. You know, how would the currency be affected, will there be outflows of refugees, that kind of thing. But the fundamental question of whether the merits of doing this and the potential downsides of doing this, I think he's saying in his presence that was not something that was thoroughly debated.
SIMON: What about the relationship between the White House and the intelligence community? What was it like at that time?
Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Well, bear in mind, George Tenet was director of Central Intelligence for seven years. We were both nominated and confirmed in the Clinton administration and we continued into the Bush administration. So at the early part of the Bush administration I think, fairly, they were taking a look to see if this team and this leadership of the intelligence community was the right one. They evidently concluded it was.
When 9/11 occurred, the CIA was the first to put a workable plan on the table that ultimately was the heart of what became Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. And in the first year or two after Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan was regarded as quite a success, and I think the relationship between the White House and the intelligence community was very strong at that point.
But tensions began to grow as differences opened up between the administration and the intelligence community on a number of issues, chiefly on the question of whether there was a relationship between Iraq, Saddam and somehow, 9/11, which we stoutly(ph), firmly dismissed as a possibility. And there were many people in the administration who saw it differently.
SIMON: Did you see any lasting harm that's come to the CIA other this whole episode?
MR. McLAUGHLIN: I wouldn't say lasting harm, but certainly the inadequate work on WMD dealt a blow to credibility. I often say, though, that the CIA had to do about five things on Iraq, and it did one of them very badly and did the other four, pretty well. The thing that it didn't do well was WMD, as we all now know. It also had to help portray the battlefield for troops who were going in. They did that pretty well.
It had to estimate what would be the consequences of such an invasion. There were papers that made clear that in the event of a prolonged occupation without restoration of services, there would be some serious problems in this country that would amount to a revolt against the occupation.
It had also to gauge the relationship between Saddam and al-Qaida and whether there was a connection at 9/11. It had to understand what was going on, on the ground once the war began. On all of those scores, I think the CIA and the intelligence community did pretty well. But clearly, it did not do well on WMD.
You know, when you're in the intelligence business and you make a mistake, the only thing you can do is stare it in the face, understand what happened and take corrective action. One of the things I would say to you and to the American public is the CIA did this better than any other institution in our government.
And after all, there had been about four commissions now that have looked deeply at the intelligence community's performance with the full cooperation of the intelligence community. Intelligence community itself, George Tenet and I personally hired two people, David Kay and Charles Duelfer, to go out and find the truth about WMD, and we supported their efforts and published what they found and turned it all over to the WMD commission - Silberman and Rob - which then used it as the basis for their report and as the basis for recommendations that amount to corrective action that ultimately over time will improve the tradecraft and performance in the intelligence business.
I don't know that there had been comparable looks at performance and corrective action by the Congress, the media(ph), the policy world. The intelligence world is one of the few worlds where, because you're dealing with the future and you're dealing with risky situations, which by definition will mathematically, certainly produce error from time to time, you have to have a tradition of figuring out what went wrong and how you check corrective action. And that's been done.
SIMON: Mr. McLaughlin, thanks so much for your time.
MR. McLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Scott. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
SIMON: John McLaughlin was deputy CIA director under George Tenet, speaking with us from Washington.
This is NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)