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Tenet Says Intel May Have Overestimated Iraq’s WMDs

By Douglas Jehl

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that U.S. spy agencies may have overestimated Iraq’s illicit weapons capabilities, in part because of a failure to penetrate the inner workings of the Iraqi government.

In a remarkable address at Georgetown University, Tenet presented a steadfast defense of U.S. spy agencies and their integrity. The speech marked the first attempt by Tenet to provide a comprehensive accounting of the gaps between prewar intelligence on Iraq and what was has been found on the ground there, which critics have called a major intelligence failure.

“When the facts on Iraq are all in, we will be neither completely right nor completely wrong,” Tenet told a gathering of students and faculty that had been arranged at the request of the CIA on less than 48 hours notice.

Tenet’s presentation, though careful and calibrated, was more candid and less defensive than any previous government comment on the issue. In offering what he called a “provisional bottom line,” he said U.S. spy agencies “were generally on target” in prewar warnings about Iraq’s missile and unmanned aerial vehicle programs, but “may have overestimated the progress” that Iraq was making toward development of nuclear weapons.

Tenet also made clear that the failure so far to find chemical and biological weapons in Iraq had raised serious questions about the prewar intelligence that the stockpiles existed, though he said he believed that Iraq intended to develop such weapons and had the capability to produce them on short notice.

He insisted that intelligence agencies had acted independently of policy-makers, noting that intelligence analysts had never portrayed Iraq as presenting an imminent threat to the United States before the U.S. invasion last March. “No one told us what to say or how to say it,” he said.

Later Thursday, some Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, seized upon that statement as evidence that the White House had no foundation for President Bush’s prewar claim that “Saddam Hussein’s regime is a grave and gathering danger.”

With U.S. teams still hunting in Iraq for weapons of illicit weapons and information about them, Tenet cautioned repeatedly in his speech that it was too soon to draw firm conclusions.

Tenet made clear that the prewar assessment that Iraq possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons was based to a significant degree on reports relayed by a friendly foreign government from human sources whose information the United States has still been unable to corroborate.

“We did not ourselves penetrate the inner sanctum,” Tenet acknowledged, saying that U.S. agents remained “on the periphery” of Iraq’s illicit weapons activities. “What we did not collect ourselves, we evaluated as carefully as we could,” he added. “Still, the lack of direct access to some of these sources created some risk -- such is the nature of our business.”

Tenet’s speech was the most detailed presentation on the issue by a U.S. official since last October, when David A. Kay, then the chief U.S. weapons inspector, issued an interim report on his findings.