June 25, 2003 Wednesday
Nicholas Kristof discusses his New York Times columns including recent reports from Africa
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times columnist who just returned from Iraq. His recent columns have started with him joking about how he was trying to help the Bush administration find those weapons of mass destruction. The mystery of the missing WMD, as he puts it, is a subject he's also taking quite seriously. Several of his columns have quoted current and former American intelligence agents who have told him that the Bush administration leaned on intelligence agents to exaggerate information that supported the case for war and downplay or conceal information that did not. Yesterday Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, quote, "I have every reason to believe that the intelligence we were operating off was correct, and that we will, in fact, find weapons or evidence of weapons programs that are conclusive."
We invited Nicholas Kristof to talk with us about his columns, including his recent reports from Africa. He's worked as The Times bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo and has covered North Korea.
Let's start with intelligence about Iraq. What are some of the most important things you were told by intelligence agents?
Mr. NICHOLAS KRISTOF (The New York Times Columnist): There were a lot of cases where intelligence was kind of goosed up to some degree, but I think the most striking case, at least in my mind, had to do with the uranium in Niger, because that was a case where it wasn't just that intelligence was kind of, you know, prettied up or some facts were neglected, but you really had something that had no credibility that made it into a presidential speech, and that had to do with the suggestion that Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear program and was trying to buy radioactive material from the country of Niger to create a nuclear device. And it turned out that this had been around for a long time; that almost a year before the president's State of the Union address in which he used that supposed fact, the CIA had sent an envoy at the behest of the vice president's office to investigate, and had found that it was completely untrue, completely not credible, that the documents that were supposedly evidence of it, you know, had names of people who'd been out of office for more than 10 years, that it was a very obvious fabrication. And this was widely reported, widely known within the intelligence community and still was used by the president to argue the case to the American people in a way that I found deeply disturbing.
GROSS: Now Condoleezza Rice said that the Bush administration didn't find out that this document was forged until after the president cited it in his State of the Union address. And somebody else from the Bush administration said that the vice president's office didn't even know that this document wasn't credible until they read about it in your column.
Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. You know, I always thought that I should do a deal with Vice President Cheney, that, you know, I'll tell him everything I know about what he's doing if he'll tell me everything he knows about what he's doing. And it seems to me, on that basis that, you know, in that case, he would have come out ahead. But he hasn't bought into that yet.
I think it may well be true that the reports about the Niger deal being fake didn't circulate as widely as they should have, and I think that partly that's because the administration was sending out very, very strong feelers from the highest levels that what they wanted was evidence of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs, not evidence that it was not happening.
And secondly, though, I do know from talking to people directly involved in the Niger deal that information did go to the vice president's office and did go to the national security staff in the White House and went to the top of the CIA. So, I mean, I don't know that it got to the president's desk or that it got to the vice president's desk, but there was clearly some major breakdown here, and so it may well be that Condi Rice is narrowly correct in the sense that the information that the Niger deal was phony did not reach her desk until after the president had spoken. But in any case, something went very badly wrong because the information was widely known, including at senior levels in the administration.
GROSS: I think what you're suggesting is the possibility that if high-place people within the Bush administration, including President Bush himself, didn't know about this, perhaps it was because they let it be known that they didn't want to hear any information that might discredit their case against Iraq.
Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. And I think that's what I found dispiriting about this, and that's what, I think, you know, is key as we look ahead, because Iraq is behind us, but there are going to be other issues ahead, whether it's North Korea, Iran or Syria. And I think it's just critical that the intelligence that is garnered about those countries be gathered dispassionately without any political agenda, and I think that the system as it is right now is not doing that. The intelligence community has been kind of subverted to serving a political purpose, as has happened at times periodically in the past under both Democratic and Republican administrations, but I think it's happening again in a way that undermines US foreign policy, undermines our credibility and that, you know, the intelligence agencies were set up to be independent and they've really got to try to restore that.
GROSS: Can you just tell us some of the things that current and former intelligence agents told you about ways in which it was suggested to them or implied to them that they needed to exaggerate the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction?
Mr. KRISTOF: OK. I mean, there's several areas. One is that the nuclear program, which is sort of the most ominous but also the least developed in the Iraqi overall military effort, was advanced and was a genuine threat to the US. They thought that was hugely pumped up.
Secondly, that the biological and chemical programs were exaggerated so that they weren't just, you know, programs kind of in the background but that they involved huge stockpiles and abilities to strike the US.
Third, that Iraq had close connections to al-Qaeda, which seems not to be the case.
And fourth, that people within the CIA, the DIA and elsewhere in the intelligence community were really told to only pass on one kind of finding, one kind of conclusion, and that which was most incriminating of Iraq, and that the White House wasn't interested in, you know, a kind of thoughtful weighing of the issues or in its analysis; it was interested in evidence that could get into presidential speeches, for example.
And finally, they said that, you know, one result of this is that the CIA in particular and also the DIA, for that matter, are deeply demoralized. And that's unfortunate, because George Tenet, as director of Central Intelligence, really had done a great job of getting the CIA back on its feet, of managing it, of reassuring people inside the agency. And just, I'd say, in the last six months there's a real feeling, particularly among the intelligence people, that they've been let down, that he hasn't stood up for them, that he let the Pentagon people kind of cut the legs out from under some senior intelligence people.
GROSS: Well, in fact, one of the intelligence agents who spoke to you said that Tenet sided with the Department of Defense crowd and cut the legs out from under his own analysts. What do you know about that, about that suggestion that he was so loyal to the Department of Defense and Donald Rumsfeld that he perhaps allowed information to be exaggerated to help the Bush administration make the case?
Mr. KRISTOF: You know, the way intelligence works is that there's always just mountains of tips and information coming in and a lot of it is bad, but you're never quite sure, you know, what is bad, what is good, what the pattern is. And I think that part of the problem was that people in the CIA didn't feel a lot of self-confidence as it was. They had kind of blown it in the run-up to 9/11 and they hadn't been sufficiently alarmed. And traditionally in the intelligence community the way you protect yourself is you are very alarmist and you see threats everywhere. And this time they didn't really see it, but the Pentagon people were screaming, you know, 'connections with al-Qaeda,' you know, 'nuclear threat,"chemical weapons,"biological weapons,"smallpox,' and this kind of thing.
And the CIA and DIA people didn't believe it and they objected to some degree, but I think that they were also a little bit nervous that they were going to be, you know, sort of proven wrong again, and I think that that was particularly true of George Tenet, and so that when people in the Pentagon's intelligence shop started, you know, plucking out little bits of intelligence here or there to try to prove an al-Qaeda link, for example, that he was very nervous about siding with people who really kind of knew what was going on and signed on to assessments that were really largely, I think, ideologically driven and coming out of the Pentagon and coming out of the White House.
Part of that may also be that he was not really part of the gang in this administration. He was a holdover from the Clinton administration. He's more of a Democrat than a Republican. He's somebody who has a good relationship with President Bush, maybe a better relationship with President Bush than he had with President Clinton, but he's not kind of one of the gang, and he may have felt a little bit insecure about his own position. I think there's a collection of reasons that led to this, to a real breakdown in the intelligence process.
GROSS: How is the CIA supposed to be protected from a politicization of information and intelligence?
Mr. KRISTOF: One of the basics is that the intelligence people, the spooks, are just adamant about they don't do policy. You know, one of the spooks I admire the most is a guy who knows North Korea really well. And because he knows it so well, I remember asking him at one point, you know, 'So, you know, what do you think we should do about North Korea?' And he just looked at me and said, 'I don't go there'; you know, I don't do policy. And, I mean, that's the traditional attitude. That's what the intelligence agencies are supposed to do beginning really at the end of the Clinton administration. The Clinton administration started involving George Tenet in the Middle East process kind of in the policy of bringing peace in a way that, I think, in retrospect was a mistake. And then the Bush administration extended that and George Tenet was really brought much more into the White House kind of policy-making process, and I think that reduces the insulation that is there for the intelligence people.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Kristof, and he's a columnist for The New York Times.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is going to conduct a review of prewar intelligence and how it was handled. What do you think they might be up against since this has been such a politicized process?
Mr. KRISTOF: I'm not holding my breath on the congressional investigations. I just think that given who's leading them that they're unlikely to be really aggressive and, you know, that they'll poke around the ashes a little bit, but I don't think that it's going to be as thorough an investigation as it should. And I wish that there were a much more aggressive congressional investigation of this, and I think it's just, you know, critical for our national security that we do try to make intelligence honest again.
And, I mean, I must say that I think that one problem with the political process right now is that it is so polarized that, you know, there is a sense that there are a lot of Democrats who want to investigate this, not just to rectify the way the intelligence is gathered, but also to use it as a club to beat the Bush administration, and that makes the Republicans, you know, very nervous about going down that road.
GROSS: The cover story of The New York Times Sunday: Weekend Review this week asked the question: Did President Bush lie to did he exaggerate when he made statements like, 'Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraqi regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised'? I mean, he said that in a speech to the nation on March 17th of this year. Do you have any thoughts on where that line is between lying and exaggeration in this story?
Mr. KRISTOF: In my columns I keep using words like 'deceive' or, you know, 'mislead,' and I keep getting these incredibly reproachful letters, e-mails from people saying, 'You know, use the "lie" word,' but I'm not comfortable doing so for a few reasons. I mean, one has to do with civility. I think that there's already enough incivility out there that, you know, using extra epithets isn't really going to help.
But beyond that, I do think that what happened was a process of systematic exaggeration rather that just completely fabricating things out of thin air, and that beyond that I think that people at the White House and at the Pentagon who I think were the leaders of this that, you know, they believed the bottom line of what they were saying; they believed that Saddam was a threat to us because of his weapons of mass destruction, and I think they absolutely believed that Saddam had WMD all over.
I think that the problem was more that some of these figures, especially the Pentagon, were ideologues who deceived themselves and deluded themselves and also deceived other people than that they kind of deliberately concocted things and, you know, lied to people. So it seems to me the problem is not, you know, one of lying as such as of people being too ideological, not objective enough about the evidence and creating a system where there were no checks on those ideologues.
GROSS: Have there been supporters of the Bush administration who have tried to discredit your columns?
Mr. KRISTOF: On the intelligence issue, actually, not so much. I mean, the thing that I have been really harping on has been the Niger deal, and there, you know, they do accept that the Niger documents were fabricated; they accept that this--even though they say they learned about it from my column, they do accept that, yes, it is correct that at the behest of the vice president's office a former ambassador was sent to Niger to check, that he said that, you know, the documents were false. They haven't disputed any of those facts in the column.
They, you know, says it's untrue that there was a sort of deliberate effort to spin things. But I say they haven't, you know, sort of challenged the accuracy of my columns, although they've challenged the interpretation.
GROSS: Do you think what you've written in your column and what other journalists have written about intelligence agents who say that information was exaggerated, that they were pressured to report only selectively on intelligence--do you think that that is changing the way the CIA is operating now? Do you think it is less probable now that information will be exaggerated or used selectively?
Mr. KRISTOF: I think that's true right now vis-a-vis, you know, Iran and North Korea and so on. But I do worry that there is pressure among some of the political people in the administration to make a scapegoat of George Tenet and toss him overboard, and that would really put the Pentagon in the driver's seat for foreign policy as a whole. Already the Pentagon has been kind of chipping away at the intelligence community and gathering more and more of the ability to, you know, use satellites, to collect intercepts, to interpret things; you know, it's started its own intelligence shop. And I do worry that the result of this will be that you will get ideologues who will be in charge of the intelligence process as a whole, and if that were to happen then, I think, you know, it would be a real step backward.
And so what I've written is--I mean, I think that George Tenet really screwed up by not protecting his people, but I do not think that he should be forced out as a result, because I think that, you know, ultimately that would be bad for the independence of the intelligence community.
GROSS: Can you explain about this intelligence agency within the Pentagon that the Pentagon recently started?
Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. You know, it goes way back in the sense that Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz had a deep, long-standing suspicion of the things the intelligence community were doing. They thought that the intelligence community had kind of become a big bureaucracy, that they just sort of shuffled papers around, came out with very conventional thinking, didn't come up with very good information, and so they started up after 9/11 a small group in the Pentagon that would work with the intelligence agencies and look at raw intelligence and gather it out and pass it on to policy-makers.
I think one unfortunate result was that, you know, the most alarmist intelligence was going on to the president, and, you know, you should be giving the president the best intelligence you have; instead he was getting some of, you know, the worst raw intelligence that came in that was unverified and that, you know, shouldn't have been going even to low-level bureaucrats. It was totally untrustworthy.
GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Coming up, the rise of the Islamic fundamentalists in southern Iraq. We continue our conversation with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who just returned from Iraq. We'll also talk about his recent trip to Africa and his thoughts on the likelihood of a confrontation with North Korea. And Ken Tucker reviews the new CD by Fountains of Wayne.
GROSS: Finally, Nick, I'm wondering if the Jayson Blair story and the resignation of Howell Raines at The New York Times is affecting your day-to-day life at the paper.
Mr. KRISTOF: I'd say that it isn't really affecting, you know, the way I do things. I'd say it's affecting my mail to some degree. I mean, it used to be that when I got e-mails from people, they would just say, you know, 'You're a raving idiot.' Now they say, 'You're a raving idiot who fabricates things just like Jayson Blair.' So it's made the e-mail a little more colorful.
GROSS: Well, Nicholas Kristof, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. KRISTOF: Hey, it was my pleasure.
GROSS: Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new CD by Fountains of Wayne. This is FRESH AIR.