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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 February, 2004, 23:45 GMT
US spymaster goes on the defensive
By Adam Brookes and Kevin Anderson
BBC correspondents in Washington

George Tenet cuts a formidable figure: America's spymaster, the man who coordinates the activities of 14 intelligence agencies, the only senior Clinton appointee still in office.

arms inspectors
The US has failed to find large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction
When he spoke at Georgetown University on Thursday, he was speaking in defence of his own reputation, and that of his intelligence agencies.

As the days go by, and no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons are discovered in Iraq, the justifications for the Iraq war are being strained to breaking point by a chorus of questioners in Congress, the media and among the public.

The focus of those questions is widening. Not only do they demand to know if politicians exaggerated the intelligence estimates to strengthen the case for war; they also demand to know whether the intelligence agencies got it right.

The administration has begun to step away from its position of certainty over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

And the former weapons inspector David Kay has told Congress that he doesn't believe that Iraq had large stockpiles of WMD and questioned pre-war intelligence.

As the debate swirls around him, George Tenet stood up and drew his battle lines.

Defining the debate, defending his troops

George Tenet is indeed vulnerable.

He can already be considered the spymaster with nine political lives after the CIA failed to foresee India and Pakistan's testing of nuclear weapons and failed to prevent the 11 September attacks.

Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet
In the intelligence business you are almost never completely wrong or completely right
George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence
Draft versions of a Senate Intelligence Committee report criticising the quality of pre-war intelligence are already circulating in Washington.

And George W Bush has given into mounting political pressure for an independent, bipartisan inquiry into pre-war intelligence.

But Mr Tenet is a survivor. And he was not going to wait to be called to testify in front of the independent inquiry.

Before the inquiry starts, before we even know its makeup or its remit, Mr Tenet took the initiative to make his case in the court of public opinion.

He wanted the public to know that he stands by his analysts and his spies and that they had acted appropriately given the information they had.

"In the intelligence business," he said, "you are almost never completely wrong or completely right. That applies in full to the questions of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction."

"When the facts of Iraq are all in, we will neither be completely right or completely wrong."

But he wanted to make it clear, that with respect to Iraq, the intelligence analysts did the right thing.

"Based on an assessment of the data we collected over the past 10 years, it would have been difficult for analysts to come to any conclusions different than the ones we reached in October 2002," he said.

As the pressure mounted, this was his attempt to define the terms of debate.

The political dangers

There is nothing to indicate that the White House is looking for a fall guy.

But it makes sense that if the politicians have to finally have to admit that there are no stockpiles of WMD, they have to come up with a plausible explanation.

Faulty intelligence would be one such explanation. And it seems that Mr Tenet wants to deny them that path.

George Tenet is probably safe for now.

If, in the middle of a re-election campaign, President Bush fires his Director of Central Intelligence, he will create kind of political ruction he doesn't want or need.

Mr Tenet's most politically vulnerable moment is yet to come.

President George Bush
President Bush: 'Knowing what I know today ... America did the right thing in Iraq'
The worst case scenario for him and his administration is that the inquiries start to "bleed" beyond their remits and question whether or not the Bush administration exerted undue influence on analysts, a source with ties to the intelligence community told the BBC.

Despite the denials of the administration, David Kay, and Mr Tenet, this is a question that has not been resolved yet, and it does not look like it will go away.

Key figures in the Bush administration including Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defence Doug Feith and Vice President Dick Cheney are all vulnerable.

Some of the most vocal neo-conservatives in the administration have been keeping very low profiles recently. "It's part of a self-preservation strategy," said our source.

Questions about pre-emption

But it may also be that, as this debate plays out, one of the cornerstones of the Bush foreign policy, pre-emption, will be undermined.

Pre-emption requires a very high degree of dependence on intelligence information.

That's because a pre-emptive policy reacts to things that might happen in the future, rather than to things that have happened.

George Tenet came out and said today that intelligence is a very imprecise business. We are never completely wrong, and we are never completely right.

Critics of pre-emption will use his words further to question the wisdom of basing strategic decisions solely on the product of such an inexact science.

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