CIA braces itself for criticism over 9/11 and Saddam's weapons

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The Independent US

America's intelligence community - stripped of its two most powerful officials involved in the fight against terrorism - is bracing itself for a barrage of criticism over its failure to prevent the September 2001 attacks and its claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

America's intelligence community - stripped of its two most powerful officials involved in the fight against terrorism - is bracing itself for a barrage of criticism over its failure to prevent the September 2001 attacks and its claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

At least two high-level reports are expected to direct scathing criticism at the Central Intelligence Agency, whose director, George Tenet, resigned last week.

The CIA is mired in controversy about its role in gathering flawed information about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and its failure to detect and prevent al-Qa'ida's plan to attack New York and Washington. James Pavitt, who heads the agency's covert operations, also said he was leaving.

As observers in Washington continue to assess the extent to which Mr Tenet left by choice, staff at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, are awaiting two reports due to be released in weeks. Both are expected to castigate the agency and its senior leadership.

A draft of one report - the Senate Intelligence Committee's highly critical investigation into the flawed estimates on Iraq's WMD - was passed to the CIA three weeks ago. Congressional sources have said the report identifies titles and positions of a number of people it believes were at fault. Mr Tenet reportedly told President Bush it was a "slam dunk" certainty that Saddam possessed WMD.

Later this summer the independent commission investigating the attacks of 11 September 2001 is due to release its findings. These are also expected to criticise the agency for not following up on evidence suggesting that al-Qa'ida was planning to attack US targets with aircraft.

Critics of Mr Tenet say his departure was long overdue, given the series of intelligence failures he had presided over. These ranged from the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Africa to 9/11 and through to Iraq.

Pat Eddington, a former CIA analyst in the agency's Directorate of Intelligence, said: "I don't think there is any question that we saw more and more serious intelligence failures on George Tenet's watch than with any other DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] in US history, with the exception of Richard Helms during Vietnam and the Tet offensive. There was a litany of things that went wrong."

Others believe that Mr Tenet was forced out by Mr Bush, and that he will become the administration's scapegoat when the critical reports are issued.

The administration has already sought to place much of the blame for the flawed intelligence at the CIA's door and dismissed claims that it cherry-picked information to support its previously held plan to invade Iraq.

The extent to which Mr Bush will be able to avoid the fallout from these reports remains unclear, particularly in regard to Iraq where the President, as commander-in-chief, made the ultimate decision to go to war. Mr Bush has already asked that Mr Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, serve as temporary head of the agency. This is intended to avoid a potentially damaging process to nominate and confirm a new head during the election campaign, one which would risk the WMD controversy being replayed.

There is also concern that Mr Tenet's departure will not tackle the CIA's systemic problems, where bureaucracy and an unwillingness to share information with other agencies have contributed to some of the worst errors.

"People probably underestimate the impact that George Tenet has had on counter-terrorism since 9/11," Richard Kerr, a former CIA deputy director, told The New York Times. "He held a lot of things together and acted as the senior guy in government."

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