October 16, 2003

PBS NOW interviews Greg Thielmann

Frontline (which did the ONLY US mainstream news media
report on the John O'Neill story, and did an excellent
job on it) has once again distinguished itself. he PBS
(PrettyBlandStuff)News Hour is usually a disgrace, but
Frontline and Bill Moyers' NOW are exemplary.

Greg Thielmann: "I think that it's fair to say there was -- I can't speak for all of the other agencies -- but there was a fair degree of unhappiness at the way that some of the intelligence product that we had worked so hard on was being distorted by senior policymakers."

In this interview, Greg Thielmann, a former director
of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs
Office at the State Department's Intelligence Bureau,
accuses the White House of "systematic,
across-the-board exaggeration" of intelligence as it
made its case that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent
threat to the U.S. Thielmann, who left his job in
September 2002, also contends that much of the
intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction
was entirely politicized. "Senior officials made
statements which I can only describe as dishonest," he
says. "They were distorting some of the information
that we provided to make it seem more alarmist and
more dangerous." This interview was conducted on
August 12, 2003.

Why are we having this debate now?

I really think it's the combination of two things. One
is that, in spite of all of our efforts, we haven't
found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Secondly, instead of just being an interesting
historical issue of whether or not the intelligence
was right or wrong, Americans are being killed every
week in Iraq. So there is an immediacy in the issue
because of the combination of those two things.

But it's a debate that should have happened long ago,
in your opinion?

In my opinion, when a nation commits itself to war,
there's no public issue that's more serious than that.
The intelligence and everything else should be very
comprehensively and seriously probed, as long as there
is not an imminent security threat that does not
permit that kind of comprehensive discussion.

How long have you been an intelligence analyst?

Well, I'm a career foreign service officer and spent
25 years as a diplomat. During the last decade or so,
I had two different tours in the Intelligence Bureau,
totaling seven years.

So for seven years, you were doing intelligence


You had access to the full panoply of U.S.


In those seven years, did you see any other times when
intelligence was being used so selectively?

The only other thing that seems comparable to me is
discussions of the foreign ballistic missile threat in
the 1990s. There was, in my opinion, an exaggeration
of the speed with which other countries could develop
ballistic missiles and an exaggeration of the
significance of those developments for U.S. security.

But all things considered, it's very hard for me to
think of any example of systematic, across-the-board
exaggeration and misleading statements about an
important war and peace subject. Nothing quite matches
what I've seen in the Iraqi WMD area in the last
couple of years.

When did you begin to see that the use of the
intelligence was diverging from the intelligence

I think the real evidence of that came in August 2002,
when the administration started speaking about Iraq,
in much shriller tones, as something which was not
just a security concern for the United States that
merited close scrutiny and forceful action to support
U.N. Security Council resolutions. It became much more
in the tone of, there is an imminent security threat
that has to be dealt with right away.

So they began beating the drums of war.

Yes. That's when I saw the way administration
officials talking about Iraq was diverging from the
kind of qualified and fairly carefully structured
intelligence that they were being provided.

One of the things that they talked about was attempts
by the Iraqis to purchase uranium from Africa. You had
done some analysis of this and come to different

This was not a major story when I looked back at the
months and year leading up to the war. It was not a
major story because it was, we considered, bad
intelligence. We looked at a lot of bad reports --
reports that were worth exploring because they were
serious allegations, but when given a close look, they
proved not to be credible. This was really in that
category. It was something that made no sense, in
terms of the structure of the country that was
allegedly planning to provide the uranium.


Niger. It made no sense in terms of Saddam's behavior
on these kinds of issues. All things really fit
together in this case to shoot down the story. ...

So this had come across your desk. What exactly came
to you?

Well, as I recall, it was a human intelligence report
that came to the United States. I should make clear
that I was a manager of the action officers of
intelligence analysts, and so most of what I gathered
about this was not firsthand analysis of documents as
an intelligence analyst; it was supervising the people
who would do the close scrutiny of the intelligence

In this case, our specialists who were weapons
intelligence experts, and the African experts, and the
Middle Eastern experts in the Intelligence Bureau were
all of one accord that this was a bad story.

And you let the secretary of state know that?

That's right.

Then in January, you hear the president talking about

That's right, and it was a big surprise to me, because
I left government at the end of September 2002. I was
not privy to the classified version of the National
Intelligence Estimate that came out shortly after
that. So I had no indication in the fall that this
story had any life on it at all. It was not part of
the public summary of the National Intelligence
Estimate. It was buried in the classified details of
the estimate. So it was really a shock to me when the
president gave it such visibility in January 2003. ...

But at the same time, you had already seen, starting
in August 2002, that the intelligence was being

I had seen that, but I thought there were limits on
how much one was willing to do in order to twist

So you were a little aghast.

Yes. ...

The administration has said, "This is just 16 words.
OK. We perhaps should not have included this in the
president's speech. This was an oversight. There was a
mistake made, but there is a solid case to be made
that Saddam Hussein was engaged in a nuclear weapons

Yes, they do make that claim.

Why shouldn't we believe them?

The way I look at it, first of all, they chose to
essentially declassify a top-secret sensitive report.
They did on this matter and they did--

On the Niger matter.

-- on the Niger matter and on the aluminum tubes
matter that they contended were being procured by Iraq
for the nuclear weapons program.

In fact, they make a bigger case of the aluminum
tubes. They, in fact, to this day argue that the
aluminum tubes are conclusive proof that they were
amassing a centrifuge program.

They still make that argument. The reason that I raise
these two issues as being very significant is that the
administration apparently thought it was important
enough that they would declassify very sensitive
information and make an argument to the American
people. So it cannot really be trivialized as only 16
words, when you've chosen to highlight these as the
two principal pillars of the nuclear weapons
reconstitution case against Iraq. I mean, these were
the two that the administration chose. By implication,
this is the two most important pieces of evidence we
have that Iraq is pursuing the program. ...

When did you first hear about these tubes?

I believe the tubes came to our attention in the fall
of 2001.

Came to your attention how?

Through intelligence reporting. We had seen reports of
Iraqi attempts to procure aluminum for some time. The
breakthrough in this story really came when we got our
hands on some of the aluminum that was being procured.

What were these tubes for?

We started out being agnostic on this. There was
certainly the assumption on all of our parts that
Saddam was interested in keeping alive his nuclear
weapons program and waiting for opportunities to
pursue that program further. So whether or not these
particular tubes were for the program or not was
something that we didn't start out with a viewpoint

But the more that we got into it and the more we
listened to the people, for example, from the national
laboratories in the U.S. who had experience building
centrifuge rotors that are used to enrich uranium, the
people who knew about aluminum and what kind of
aluminum would be ideal or suitable for this purpose--

Engineers and scientists.

That's right. It was not a difficult assessment for us
to arrive at, ultimately, that the Department of
Energy experts were correct in seeing these tubes as
being not well suited for uranium enrichment
centrifuge rotors, but were, in fact, for something

As we explored the alternative possibilities, we
really came up with a very good fit. It was for the
casings of Iraqi artillery rockets -- the kind that
are used in multiple launcher rocket systems. ...

You're [as] close as the public can get to those
really crucial debates, and I'm trying to understand
how these guys came to the conclusion that these
things were for a nuclear program. I mean, what was
their thinking? What clues can you give us to that?

They were convinced that Saddam was developing nuclear
weapons, that he was reconstituting his program, and
I'm afraid that that's where they started. We started
with agnosticism about the specifics. They were sure
that Saddam was rejuvenating his nuclear program, and
so they were looking for evidence to support what they
already knew was the case, or they thought they knew
was the case.

And this seemed like such a good fit. I mean, he would
need thousands of tubes of aluminum to build this one
kind of centrifuge motor, and he was procuring looking
for thousands of tubes of aluminum, and they were more
or less the right size. So that's really, I think, why
they were excited in making this discovery and
advancing the argument. ...

You said you'd been involved in this process. This is
before you leave that you submit these conclusions,
this analysis to your bosses.

Right. I had the impression at the time that there was
growing support within the community of intelligence
analysts -- including the British, by the way -- that
these aluminum tubes were not likely for the nuclear
weapons program. So, again, there was an element of
surprise for me in assuming when I left government at
the end of September that there was a growing
consensus that these aluminum tubes were for
conventional weapons and not for nuclear weapons.

Then I started reading in the press about the
intelligence community, that most analysts in the
intelligence community believed it was for the nuclear
weapons program. That's exactly the language they used
in the public summary of the National Intelligence

Well, in fact, it slips back into analysis that's
coming out of the State Department, does it not? In
December, isn't there a report out of the State
Department that--

That's another very curious development. There was a
fact sheet on Dec. 19 that came out of the State
Department -- or allegedly so -- and it mentioned a
couple of things. But it mentioned the Niger uranium
matter that I know the Intelligence Bureau of the
State Department would have never cleared. So that
this is a very odd document, the Dec. 19 document.

So the conclusion could only be that this was inserted
by people above the Intelligence Bureau.

It is certainly my assumption that this would not
originate with, or even be cleared by the Intelligence
Bureau, because I knew they had strong views on this.

Yes, but it's not coming from the mailroom, so it's
got to be coming from an undersecretary or at some--

That's right. It either has to be coming from someone
on the policy side of the State Department or from the
NSC, someone on the outside. But it's a mystery to me
to this day where that came from.

So that's meddling with intelligence?

In my mind, it is.

That seems to be the case.

There are two interesting things about it. One is, at
that point, the information was still highly
classified. The mention of uranium from Niger was, as
I understand it, in December, a top-secret matter, and
I just wonder who had the authority, at that time, to
declassify it. Certainly, the president would, when he
did a month later. But who at that time took
responsibility for it?

That was one of the jobs of the Intelligence Bureau,
to make sure that no very sensitive intelligence
information was used by the policy side, either
accidentally or deliberately. That's one of the
reasons that we were clearing language when public
statements were made.

Was there an imminent threat? Was there a grave and
growing danger, in your view?

... I thought that there was never an imminent threat.
This was a long-term security concern, if the
international community did not limit carefully the
Iraqis, that the interests remained in these kind of
programs, and there was a lot of knowledge in the
minds of Iraqi scientists that would allow them to
pursue these kind of programs. That was the nature of
the threat, but that's not the way the threat was
described to the American people. ...

Before you retired from the I&R, from the intelligence
unit at the State Department, what conclusions were
you drawing as you watched this growing divergence
between what was being said by policymakers and what
you knew was the intelligence?

The conclusion that I ultimately came to was that this
was a matter of, as I've called it, faith-based
intelligence. Instead of our leadership forming
conclusions based on a careful reading of the
intelligence we provided them, they already had their
conclusion to start out with, and they were
cherry-picking the information that we provided to use
whatever pieces of it that fit their overall
interpretation. Worse than that, they were dropping
qualifiers and distorting some of the information that
we provided to make it seem more alarmist and more
dangerous than the information that we were giving

Did you express this concern to the people that
supervised you?

I'd really have to say that it came pretty late that I
realized the full magnitude of the distortions being
reached. As I said, I didn't really realize or form
conclusions about what the administration's game plan
was until August, which was very late in my service to
the government.

Throughout our assessment of the Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction subject, we were always quite candid in
talking to our superiors at the State Department, both
in the bureau, but also to the secretary of state,
about our take on the intelligence.

You spoke to Powell about this?

The head of our bureau, Carl Ford, would speak with
Powell or Powell's deputy, Armitage, regularly about
these and other issues.

And you know what was expressed in those encounters?

Our main contribution was a written one, and we know
what memorandum went from Carl Ford to the secretary
of state on these issues, because we were the drafting
office for most of these assessments.

We were I think fairly consistent about several
points. One is that while we were looking very hard
for indications that the Iraqi nuclear weapons program
that had been pretty effectively dismantled in the
course of the 1990s was being rejuvenated, we did not
find any convincing evidence that that was the case.

But weren't you in a dogfight with the other
intelligence analysts who were coming to opposite

We were on that point. That's right.

So did you understand the thinking of those people who
were not policymakers, but intelligence analysts,
presumably, serious, rigorous analysts? Or maybe not?

Presumably so, and I would only have to say that
there's a natural suspicion -- which is good among
intelligence analysts -- of not believing what a
potential enemy is saying about their capabilities and
looking skeptically at disclaimers that there's
nothing really happening.

The Congress of the United States, in particular, has
shown no patience after the fact, when the U.S. has
been surprised, the intelligence community missed
something. So the default setting of the U.S.
intelligence community is to over-warn, rather than

In fact, you guys in the State Department that do
analysis in the State Department are often branded as
being soft.

I have heard that accusation. In the weapons
intelligence area, I was very proud of our reporting
and prediction record during the time that I served
with the bureau. I would match it up against any other
intelligence agency. And if we're too soft, I would
only say that we were usually right when others were
wrong. ...

You were aware that the Pentagon, right after 9/11,
had put together a special office to look at links
between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

I have to say, honestly, that I was only aware of that
after I retired from government. That office was
largely invisible to us in the intelligence community,
because they didn't play in the normal bureaucratic
process of making intelligence assessments and
reporting on those assessments.

What did you understand that office to be about?

I am still trying to figure out what that office was
about. But as I said, because they had no visibility
and no role in anything that we could see in the
intelligence community, one had to assume -- because
they had access to all of this information -- that
they were doing cherry-picking of their own to build a
case for what their superiors wanted to say.

The office wasn't big enough for them to really have
the expertise in-house, and the mere creation of the
office was odd, since the secretary of defense had the
entire Defense Intelligence Agency at its disposal. So
it's a little mysterious what exactly they were doing,
if not activity that the intelligence professionals or
DIA or CIA or elsewhere were not willing to do.

Is the kind of operation like this usual, the Shulsky
office? [Editor's Note: Abram Shulsky is the director
of the Office of Special Plans.]

I think it's very unusual, if I understand correctly
the amount of influence they had. The whole idea of
structuring an intelligence community that consists of
entities within different agencies and having a
structure that reports to the director of Central
Intelligence is to make sure that you have a chance
not only to hear the views of different entities, but
also to, if possible, get a consensus among those
entities; and when a consensus [is] impossible, to
register in a visible way why some agencies don't
agree with the majority viewpoint.

When you have an office like OSP apparently was, it
doesn't play in this system. So the intelligence
community has no way to really incorporate ideas or
thinking or even register dissenting viewpoints. What
seems to have happened is that the conclusions or the
work that they did somehow entered from the side into
the policy community--

At a very high level.

--at a very high level, in a way that was invisible to
those of us in the intelligence community producing
intelligence. ...

I get the feeling that, in your view, this runs deep,
and this is very much counter to what you would
consider a fair and just method of collecting and
analyzing intelligence.

What it does is, if one assumes that the OSP product
then enters at a very high level, it deprives the
recipients of the information from an understanding of
what other experts on this subject believe. If a human
intelligence report -- a defector report, for example
-- has been discredited by the CIA and the DIA,
there's usually a good reason for that. I mean, you
know we've noticed these agencies sometimes keep human
intelligence sources that we think are not very

So, if anything, there's a bias toward getting those
reports out, and if the information is sensational or
potentially significant, making sure that people have
a shot at it, even if it comes with a warning that we
cannot vouch for the credibility of this report, but
thought that the decision maker should see it anyway.
So there's a lot of that going on anyway inside the
official intelligence community process.

But the idea that for reports that the CIA, DIA, I&R
think are not credible, that it's important to get
those reports to senior decision makers -- I mean,
that's a pretty weak case. What kind of expertise do
they have here that justifies that kind of sponsorship
of intelligence that everyone else thinks is bad?

Well, they say that the intelligence coming out of the
CIA, and the I&R, and the DIA is so overqualified as
to be useless.

We would spend a lot of time, in our function at the
Intelligence Bureau of the State Department, to make
sure that the kind of qualifiers used in our
assessments and analysis did not make the intelligence
incomprehensible or useless.

There is a challenge, obviously, because you never
have perfect knowledge. There's a challenge in
explaining what you don't know, as well as what you do
know, and doing it in a way that does not get overly
complex for people who have a limited amount of time
and are not maybe subject experts on these issues. So
that was part of our job.

Nonetheless, I don't really have sympathy for that
charge that the intelligence is too qualified for it
to be useful to senior decision makers. It's part of
the job of senior decision makers to be able to take
qualified intelligence, to make sense out of it, and
form conclusions. Sometimes that's a tough job, but
that's the job they have.

There's another criticism that gets thrown out there,
and that is that during the Clinton years, the
intelligence community was under-funded, it withered,
and that basically we had no good fix on what was
happening and that we needed to toughen up our

You've heard the criticism.

I have heard the criticism. It's a very large subject
-- what one should do to improve the intelligence
community. I guess it's a little bit hard, when one
thinks of, if one accepts the press figure -- and I
note with regret that the amount of money the U.S.
spends on intelligence, even the total amount, is
still classified. But if one accepts the press figure
of $30 billion, this sounds like a lot of money. ...

But I am not of the opinion that there are quick fixes
to throw a few more billion dollars at the
intelligence community, and then they will start
delivering very good and reliable evidence. Obviously,
more money can be usefully used. Technical sources of
intelligence are extremely expensive. Satellite
systems and other things cost a lot of money, so I
would not say that additional money could not be
usefully used. But I think it's not principally the
lack of money that explains why intelligence was not
better and why it was misused.

You're saying that this was a clear case, in this last
year, of politicization of intelligence.

As reluctant as I am to try to understand the motives
of people using the intelligence, my bottom line on
this subject is that while the intelligence community
did not do a good job, in my view, in being very
careful to be precise for both decision makers and for
the American public, the primary blame is in the way
that senior officials of the administration made
statements -- which I can only describe as dishonest
statements -- about the nature of what the
intelligence was saying.

And that criticism would be applied to the president,
but also to the secretary of state?

I would, very reluctantly, have to include the
secretary of state in that judgment. I've always said
that the secretary of state is much more careful at
not exaggerating than his Cabinet colleagues, as well
as the vice president and the president.

But yet he took the tubes argument before the United
Nations, when he had been expressly told by his own
intelligence people that it didn't hold.

That's right. And if one looks now, if one goes back
to that very long presentation, point by point, one
finds that this was not a very honest explanation. I
mean, you had terrorist activity described that was
taking place in Iraq without the mention that it was
taking place in an area under the control of the
Kurds, rather than an area under control of Saddam.

You had this very tenuous link made between Saddam and
Osama bin Laden in the remarks of Secretary Powell,
when his own terrorist officials and virtually
everyone else in the U.S. intelligence community said
there is no significant connection between Al Qaeda
and Saddam Hussein.

You had statements about missiles that Saddam
allegedly had when, in fact, the intelligence
community said that we cannot account for the
destruction of all of the 819 Scud missiles that Iraq
had acquired over the years. That was transmogrified
into statements that Iraq has a small number of Scud
missiles, with no qualification. Secretary Powell said
that with no qualification, just as George Tenet,
director of Central Intelligence, said it with no
qualification. There is a big difference between
saying, "We cannot prove that every last one of these
missiles has been destroyed," and saying, "We know
Saddam has these missiles."

What conclusion do you come to? Is he lying?

I don't like to use the word "lying" because, again,
it implies that I know what was in his mind on these
issues. All I can say is that I have to conclude he
was making the president's case. He works for the
president. The president had gone way out on a limb in
making a lot of what I regard as unjustified
characterizations of the intelligence, and Secretary
Powell was being a loyal secretary of state, a "good
soldier," as it were, building the administration's
case before the international community. ...

You say that [Ahmad] Chalabi was definitely a source
of intelligence.

Oh, yes, there's no doubt about that. The INC was
providing information to the U.S. government on Iraq.

Like how much, and what kind?

I think it's obvious to everyone that the INC had a
case to make to the U.S. government that U.S.
intervention and support for their efforts in
overthrowing Saddam was warranted. It's certainly
obvious that the more dangerous Saddam's regime
appeared to the United States, the greater the chances
would be of getting U.S. support for the INC, and
ultimately U.S. intervention into Iraq to overthrow
the regime.

So there was a motive. But was there--

There was very definitely a motive. My memory of, and
understanding is that there were definitely reasons to
doubt a number of the defectors or human sources that
Chalabi's organization provided. We tried to look as
carefully as we could at reports from human
intelligence sources to see what those experts had
previously said, whether or not their previous
information was shown to be reliable or not, whether
or not they had motives for providing the information,
or whether they had access to the information so that
their views could be considered valid. ...

I think it's that fairly rigorous standard that seems
not to have been applied to some of the information
coming out of Chalabi and the INC that OSP and the
Pentagon ran with.

Well, Chalabi will say that he just alerted the U.S.
government of three defectors and that that's the
extent of it, and the United States rejected one of
those defectors as not credible, and there were only
two defectors that they paid any attention to. ...

If one is talking about human intelligence sources --
which would include not only defectors, but reports
from people that remained in Iraq -- I find it very
hard to believe that there were only three.

You were in a position, were you not, to know the
volume of information coming out of the INC?

... Indirectly, I'm one of the people who could form
an impression about that, and three seems like an
awfully low number.

In other words, Chalabi was feeding much more
information into the intelligence community.

I believe so, yes.

And this was being eagerly taken up, in some quarters,
by those who wanted to see this war proceed?

There seemed to be an unseemly eagerness to believe
any information which would portray the Iraqi threat
as being extremely grave and imminent. ...

But you were aware that both the State Department and
the CIA did not like Chalabi, by and large?

I'm aware of that. I mean, the press has reported on
that, and that seems consistent with what I would
hear, that there were--

But you were listening to what charges they might

Absolutely. I mean, we were willing to listen to
anything. We tried to set our biases aside on a first
look at information, because no matter how
disreputable a source of information, if that person
had access, it's worth looking at what they're saying.

There are people who are going to say that Greg
Thielmann is simply a disgruntled employee. What do
you think your views represent in the intelligence
community, or are you just a disgruntled employee?

I might accept a disgruntled employee description. I
would only say that--

But a lone wolf? Or does your opinion hold water
across the community?

Many of the opinions that I've expressed in
interpreting the intelligence information were the
opinions of the bureau in which I served and were not
my views or my views alone. They were opinions formed
by people who served under me, by people who served
above me, and have been officially registered in
documents that the public can now have access to. ...

It's really a question of degree. I mean, all of us
understand that we were serving as intelligence
analysts, and the policymakers were in a different
role of having to make decisions based on the
intelligence and on other things, and come up with the
execution of policy. So we can't presume to be in
their position.

But I think in the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction
matter, there's a question of degree. I think that
it's fair to say there was -- I can't speak for all of
the other agencies -- but there was a fair degree of
unhappiness at the way that some of the intelligence
product that we had worked so hard on was being
distorted by senior policymakers.

I would just add to that, that that's clearly the case
in other countries as well, that we're seeing
basically the same information. I mean, an Australian
intelligence analyst resigned in protest over some of
the same issues that we're talking about today. We all
know about the case of David Kelly, who ultimately
committed suicide. He was one of Britain's leading
experts on biological and chemical warfare production,
and he was obviously unhappy with the way that his
government had been using intelligence information.

So there was considerable unhappiness in the
intelligence community of a number of states in the
way that the war parties in those countries were using
the information. I'm not a lone voice in that respect.
I'm only unusual in that I was serving in the
government at a time when the information was coming
across my desk, and I then retired and am now not
serving in government. That's what really makes me
unusual, rather than the specific views that I have.

Posted by richard at October 16, 2003 08:59 PM