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CNN exclusive interview with John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

WASHINGTON -- Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin spoke with CNN's Wolf Blitzer Wednesday about the Senate Intelligence Committee's scathing report criticizing the agency, the threat of a possible al Qaeda attack against the United States this summer and the future of the CIA.

Below is the transcript of the interview.

WOLF BLITZER: Director McLaughlin, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to CNN. Let's get right to the key issue at hand. Given the track record of the CIA, as documented by the Senate Intelligence Committee's scathing report last week, why should the American public have confidence in your assessments right now?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, INTERIM CIA DIRECTOR: Wolf, thanks for having me here. The American public has had confidence in the intelligence community. I've talked about the Senate intelligence report. I'm happy to discuss it with you today. We understood that report there were some shortcomings. Director Tenet said so months ago. It was not all right, but it was not all wrong work on Iraq.

The important thing that I would stress about that report, and I tell the American people that they should have confidence in the American intelligence community is this: That report has no context. And the context I would place it in is this. It is merely one small sample of our work on weapons proliferation. If you were to look at our work on weapons proliferation across the board, you would find numerous successes. President Bush just the other day visited Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and viewed the results of one of those successes, the weapons that Libya turned over.

BLITZER: All right. Well, I want to get to all of that, but I want to specifically refer to the report, because some of the failures were very -- were monumental and apparently resulted in the United States going to war. Let's listen to what the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, said in announcing the conclusions of the report.


SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R-KS), CHAIRMAN, SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: But furthermore, the U.S. intelligence community told the president, as well as the Congress and the public, that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and, if left unchecked, would probably have a ... a nuclear weapon during this decade. Well, today we know these assessments were wrong. And, as our inquiry will show, they were also unreasonable and largely unsupported by the available -- the available intelligence.


BLITZER: Now, that doesn't sound like a shortcoming. That sounds like a total failure.

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think one of the things that I would point out is that when people talk about this estimate, which the Senate took an entire year to study, a document that we had prepared in about a month, it looked principally at this estimate but within that estimate there are numerous examples of disagreements within the intelligence community, of dissents taken by various people. And the idea that somehow the United States went to war because of this one document seems to me an oversimplification of the situation.

BLITZER: But on a critical issue of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, which was the major issue going into the war, stockpiles. There is no dissenting. There is no hedging in that NIE, that National Intelligence Estimate report. And the Senate Intelligence Committee report concluded by saying this: "The committee found significant shortcomings in almost every aspect of the intelligence community's human intelligence collection efforts against Iraq's weapons of mass destruction activities. In particular, that the community had no sources collecting against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after 1998. Most, if not all of these problems stem from the broken corporate culture and poor management, and it will not be solved by additional funding and personnel."

That's -- that's scathing.

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think when we talk about stockpiles, one mistake I think we made was to create the image that when we went into Iraq we would find large quantities of these weapons.

I must tell you. There's very little in the Senate report that we have not discovered on our own. When formal hostilities ended, and we did not encounter some of the weapons in the chemical and biological area that we anticipated finding, we began ourselves at that moment a searching look at our own work. And we put in place a number of steps that respond to our own lessons learned here.

I would also remind everyone that when we talked about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we never said that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. We were quite clear on that point. We never said that he was enriching uranium. We were quite clear on that point. In fact, on some of those issues, particularly the nuclear issue, I think we were more cautious and less robust in what we projected than many of the outside experts.

I think we have to think about this problem in context.

Iraq was a very, very unique intelligence problem. We look at some of the typical problems we work on, for example a problem like North Korea, our job is to penetrate that society and to discover something that people don't understand or know.

In the case of Iraq, this is an important point. What we are now being told, and it's a fair point, is that we would have had to disprove something that the entire world believed.

BLITZER: But is it true that you had not one single human intelligence source in Iraq after '98 that was trying to find information about Iraq's WMD?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we had sources in Iraq, and as the director has pointed out and as our director of operations has noted, the problem was that our sources were largely on the periphery of the problem. They were not in the inner sanctum of the WMD apparatus.

Remember, recent (ph) ...

BLITZER: And on this point, let me read again from the Senate Intelligence Committee report. "The intelligence community"-- that would be you -- "relies too heavily on foreign government sources and third party reporting, thereby increasing the potential for manipulation of U.S. policy by foreign interests."

That would seem to be a suggestion that people, Iraqis like Ahmed Chalabi, for example, who had a political interest were feeding false information. That's the accusation. There's this other source called Curveball, which the Senate Intelligence Committee report talks about extensively. And apparently was feeding all sorts of information that was bogus.

What do you do about that? And is it true?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, in the case of the sources, we've acknowledged those. Human sources in Iraq were not as good as they should be. We've also acknowledged that at the time we did turn to a number of foreign governments for source material.

We didn't just routinely accept what they were telling us. In the case of a number of these sources -- Curveball is a good example.

BLITZER: That's a code name?

MCLAUGHLIN: That was the code name. Our analysts took significant steps to try and confirm what Curveball had to say. Bear in mind, now, we didn't have direct, face-to-face access with this source. Sought to get it; did not get it.

But this source was someone who generated over 100 reports that were technically quite sophisticated and which, when viewed in the context of other intelligence we collected, looked pretty good, looked sound.

Subsequent to Iraqi-subsequent to Operation Iraqi Freedom, we have obtained direct access to that source.

BLITZER: To Curveball?

MCLAUGHLIN: To Curveball. And we have figured out that, after a certain period, that his information is not as reliable as indicated in the preliminary (ph) reports. And we have notified the Congress of that. In fact, what you find in the Congress' report there is very much along the lines of what we passed on.

BLITZER: That, to me ...

MCLAUGHLIN: I want to make an important point here, because this goes to one of my strong disagreements with the report. It has been presented completely out of context, as I said.

The idea that comes across when you just listen to the Senate report is that our human intelligence is broken across the board somehow, when in fact we have officers risking their lives every day around the world, collecting human intelligence. And we haven't taken down two-thirds of al Qaeda's leadership of the time of 9/11 by not having human sources.

BLITZER: They speak about a broken corporate culture and poor management. That seems to be a direct slap at George Tenet, the now former director, and you, the acting director, and you were the deputy director.

MCLAUGHLIN: But this is one of the phrases that I do react strongly to and that I reject. To say that we have a broken corporate culture is to misunderstand what we do, and it has no relationship to the world that I've lived in for the last four years as deputy director.

This is a very vibrant culture. This is a culture where people feel free to express dissent, where they talk to each other, where they test ideas, where there's lots of devil's advocacy.

And if we're talking about the intelligence community as a whole, this is not a loosely connected federation of stovepipes. This is a community that works closely together, whose budget is geared to a strategic plan that we have formulated. Our collection agencies share access to all of the collection. I meet with the corporate leaders of the intelligence community once a week when we go over -- we deal with problems consistently.

And every intelligence success I would cite to you, and we haven't talked about those today. This is one of those periods where we talk mainly about the misgivings and the --the shortcomings of the business. Every intelligence success that I would cite to you is the result of strong corporate cooperation within the CIA, among all of its elements, and across the intelligence community.

BLITZER: The-the success stories we all acknowledge. Many of them can never be, at least for a long time, can never be released for fear that that would undermine the so-called sources and methods.

MCLAUGHLIN: I'd like to talk to you about some of that stuff.

BLITZER: Let's talk about those, but let's move on and talk about some of the failures. For example, these mobile labs that Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to, based on false information. The aluminum tubes that were supposedly only to be used to build a nuclear bomb turns out to be false information.

But these were some of the major reasons given by the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense for going to war.

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, we've acknowledged in the case of the mobile production that a number of the sources associated with that, through our own investigation, have not held up. We've notified the Congress of that.

It's interesting, though, one of the other aspects, the context that's missing here is if you were to read the Senate report, you would think it would be -- that we would be mistaken to have even had any suspicion about Iraq having WMD. It reads almost as though this was a report about Switzerland.

In fact, when we have looked at Iraq post-war, we found plenty of instances in which there was cause for concern and suspicion. On the biological weapons question, for example, we still can't explain these trailers that we found in northern Iraq. You may remember. You may have even done the interview at some point. But when David Kay saw them, he climbed all over them and said no doubt these are for biological weapons.

Now we don't know that for sure to this day, but we don't know what they were. They are unexplained. They match the drawings that we got from the source, and they are one of the mysteries.

The other thing about biological weapons is the underlying idea behind mobile production was that he was moving away from large-scale production to some sort of covert production. And in fact, what we found, looking at Iraq after the war, is a series of covert labs run by the Iraqi intelligence service, production of ingredients (ph) for anthrax that were all in violation of U.N. Resolution 1441.

In other words, we find that he was probably structuring himself for, if you will, just in time delivery. This was not as diagrammed in mobile biological production. But it also suggests that in their thinking they were moving away from large-scale production to a different kind of way to evade inspection.

BLITZER: I want you to listen to [what] the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said in releasing the results of this report. A stinging indictment. Listen to this.



There is simply no question that mistakes leading up to the war in Iraq rank among the most devastating losses and intelligence failures in the history of the nation. The fact is that the administration at all levels and to some extent us used bad information to bolster its case for war.

And we in Congress would not have authorized that war. We would not have authorized that war with 75 votes if we knew what we know now.


BLITZER: Here's a tough question. What do you say to the families of the more than 850 Americans that have been killed in Iraq, who have died in Iraq, and the thousands of others who have been injured on the basis of this false intelligence that helped propel the U.S. towards war?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, Wolf, I've been in the U.S. military, and I've been in a combat zone. I know how dangerous it is, and I've lost friends in a combat zone in another war. So any time that happens, any time we lose the brave men and women of the American military, we're all saddened and we all regret it.

I think, though, that it is an oversimplification of the situation to say that this one document that the Senate studied was the pivotal thing that propelled us to war or, for that matter, the pivotal thing that gave justification to those who voted to authorize it.

If it was, if that was the case, and if people read beyond the first four or five pages of this document, where I acknowledge we did not as fulsomely caveat what we had to say. If they'd read beyond the first five pages and if this had been the pivotal thing for war, more would have been made of the fact -- more would have been made of the fact that we did not say he had nuclear weapons.

More would have been made of the fact that there were dissents presented in this war that showed arguments within the intelligence community. More would have been made of the fact that we did not say he was enriching uranium. More would have been made of the fact that the State Department argued in the first page or two of this estimate that they did not agree he was reconstituting nuclear weapons.

More would have been made of the fact, on the aluminum tubes that in this estimate there were three full, detailed pages from the Department of Energy, laying out in a well-argued dissent their view that this was not for uranium enrichment.

Now my point is this. Important point. I think anyone who read this document cover to cover -- and I don't know, frankly, how many senators did. That's a question I don't know the answer to. But anyone who read this document cover to cover would find in it ample material for serious debate.

So if there wasn't a serious debate about these issues, it's not the fault of the people who prepared this estimate.

BLITZER: I want to get to ... Osama bin Laden in a moment, but there's one statement in this report that I want your response on first. The committee found that none of the analysts or other people interviewed by the committee said that they were pressured to change their conclusions related to Iraq's link to terrorism. In general, was there pressure from the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the deputy secretary of defense to the CIA to go ahead and tailor their conclusions based on what the administration, the political leadership, wanted to hear?

MCLAUGHLIN: I want to say two things on that point. First, I want to say that broadly speaking there is several places in this estimate where -- and in the Senate's report, where the integrity of our analysis is questioned. For example, some of our centrifuge experts are held up as people who for one reason or another distorted or didn't share information. I really reject that point. I want to defend the integrity of the people who did the analysis for this estimate. They were doing what they thought was appropriate and they were sharing the information.

BLITZER: Was there undue pressure?

MCLAUGHLIN: Let me go to that question, I know that's the thing you're interested in. On that point, my perspective is this. On all of these matters, a former DCI once said it's amazing to me that more of the contentiousness of the issues that we deal with doesn't show through in the work. We deal with contentious issues.

And policymakers who read our work and who react to it have every right to ask us tough questions and we welcome it. Lots of people ask us tough questions about what we knew and what we didn't know and we answer them forthrightly.

If you look at this report that deals with terrorism, the relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam, you will find that the Senate Intelligence Committee gives us a pretty clean bill of health on that point, which is an important finding here.

BLITZER: But on the other issues was there undue pressure? Your 30 years in the CIA. When the vice president came over to Langley, when the secretary of state came over there, when the defense secretary came over there, was that appropriate for them to do that?

MCLAUGHLIN: I view that as appropriate in the following sense, any customer, any consumer of our Intelligence is free to come over and talk to us at any time. In fact, it's exactly what this report is calling for in many ways. A robust dialogue among people who have differing views.

BLITZER: So that was appropriate, in your opinion?

MCLAUGHLIN: I think that was appropriate.

BLITZER: Let's talk ...

MCLAUGHLIN: The main thing here, there's an important point.


MCLAUGHLIN: The main thing is people can ask us questions, they can push us, they can ask probing questions, they can read the stuff themselves. At the end of the day we have to say what we think. And I'm convinced in this case what we said was what we thought.


BLITZER: More of my exclusive interview with the acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, that's coming up right after a break.


BLITZER: Now, more of my exclusive interview conducted just a short time ago with the acting CIA Director John McLaughlin.


BLITZER: Do you believe Osama bin Laden is right now personally directing terror attacks this summer against the United States?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, it depends a lot on what you mean by personally directing. Is he sitting behind some large console pulling wires and switches? I wouldn't say that. But to be sure, he remains the leader of al Qaeda, it's his guidance to his followers that certainly inspires them to proceed with the attacks that we have seen in places like Istanbul and Morocco and Spain and so forth. But increasingly we see elements of al Qaeda operating with more regional independence than in the past. But if you're asking me does he have a role, is he the inspirational leader? Yes.

BLITZER: What about you, your future? What are you planning on doing? There's speculation out there the president's about to name a new director of the CIA.

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I've been doing this now for three days, Wolf. What I can tell you is this: Being acting director doesn't mean being part-time director. This is a full-time job. I get up every morning with one mission, and that is to be the director of the CIA in an acting capacity.

That's what the president has asked me to do. I'm happy to do this, as I've told him, as long as he needs me to do it. It's his decision whether I continue in this capacity or whether he nominates someone else. Happy to do this. I've done this for a long time. I love the people of the intelligence community. I'm prepared to lead them.

Should he choose to nominate someone else, I'll be happy to work with that person to get them launched and work with them as long as they need me to work with them to -- to help them.

BLITZER: A lot of speculation out there, the moral at the agency is bad right now. Is that true?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, you know, people don't join this business, as our interview would indicate -- people don't join this business because they expect public praise. People join this business because they want to serve the nation. So, you know, no one likes to be criticized, but there's an ethic in our business.

I've even written notes to our work force in the past, saying expect to be criticized. Stop and think about it. Just stop and think about it for a minute. The very people who ask us to not be risk averse are frequently the ones who criticize mistakes that are made in the course of our duties. If you stop and think about it, to take a risk by definition means there's a high possibility of a mistake. We risk our lives around the world every day, and our analysts here in Washington risk their reputations every day by taking positions on issues on which the evidence is thin and uncertain.

So there's always a possibility of a mistake. That's built into our business. And if you're in this business, you know you're going to take a risk. You're not always going to be right. And you're going to take criticism.

And the only way we can deal with that is to learn from it, as we have been for the last year. We started our own internal look at Iraq one year ago. And then make the appropriate changes and move on. In fact, a colleague said to me today the best way to react to this is to go out and penetrate another proliferation network, or recruit another terrorist to bring down that network.

BLITZER: One final question. Is the CIA being made a scapegoat right now?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I don't want to get into that, because that starts to draw me -- let's face it. This is a political year. Everything is hotter than it normally is. And I think the men and women of the intelligence community know that criticism is part of our life.

I would say that it's important to keep our intelligence services out of politics, because ultimately we are the first line of defense for the nation. As I said in the speech that I mentioned to you earlier, there's no perfection in this business. But people in this business are dedicated to doing the best job they can around the world, risking their lives to save the American people from terrorist attacks and other things.

So I would leave it there.

BLITZER: And we will leave it there. Director McLaughlin, you've got an incredibly difficult job. Good luck to you. Good luck to the men and women who are at the CIA. Thanks so much for joining us.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Wolf.

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