In a speech clearly aimed at protecting the CIA from becoming a scapegoat, Tenet said analysts held varying opinions about whether Iraq possessed chemical, biological and nuclear weapons before the war. Those differences were spelled out in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate given to the White House, he said.
"They never said there was an imminent threat," Tenet said of the analysts. "Rather, they painted an objective assessment for our policy makers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests."
"No one told us what to say or how to say it," Tenet said.
In the months before the war, Bush and his top aides repeatedly stressed the urgency of stopping Saddam Hussein (news - web sites). In a Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations (news - web sites), the president called Saddam's regime "a grave and gathering danger." The next day, he told reporters that Saddam was "a threat that we must deal with as quickly as possible."
In an Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Ohio, Bush said "the danger is already significant and it only grows worse with time."
On Thursday, Bush repeated that "America confronted a gathering threat in Iraq. The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was one of the most brutal, corrupt and dangerous regimes in the world. For years the dictator funded terrorists, and gave reward money for suicide bombings."
Speaking in Charleston, S.C., Bush said Saddam is today "sitting in a prison cell, and he will be sitting in a courtroom to answer for his crimes." But, he conceded, "As the chief weapons inspector has said, we have not yet found the weapons we thought were there." Bush added that inspectors have found possible evidence of weapons programs.
"Knowing what I knew then and knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq," he said, in a line that drew long applause from an audience of military personnel and cadets.
The failure to find weapons of mass destruction is turning into a major political issue ahead of the presidential election, calling into question Bush's justification for the war as U.S. casualties mount.
Tenet said U.S. intelligence accurately reported to Bush before the war that Saddam's regime posed a danger. He revealed that two sources with high-level access to Saddam's regime told the CIA in the fall of 2002, shortly before the war, that production of biological and chemical weapons was going on inside Iraq.
Those sources "solidified and reinforced ... my own view of the danger posed by Saddam's regime," Tenet said, taking direct responsibility for what was passed on to Bush.
Yet he acknowledged no such weapons have been found, and that many of the agency's prewar estimates of weapons of mass destruction have not been borne out so far. He insisted the search isn't over.
"We are nowhere near 85 percent finished," he said, in a direct rebuttal to statements made by his former chief adviser on Iraq's weapons, David Kay that sparked the intense debate over prewar intelligence.
Tenet spoke a day before Bush was expected to name a commission to examine intelligence problems.
On specific matters, Tenet acknowledged that U.S. analysts believed that Saddam's regime was trying to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program but have found no evidence of that.
On chemical and biological weapons, Tenet said analysts believed that Saddam had ongoing programs and perhaps stockpiles and have found no evidence of such weapons production.
Tenet outlined the sources of the CIA's prewar estimates with a public detail that intelligence agencies usually shy from. He said they were based on years of U.N. weapons inspections. Once the inspectors left in the late 1990s, the estimates were based mostly on informants some he acknowledged as suspect and on technical intelligence, he said.
On one key point that is befuddling weapons inspectors, Tenet said he did not know at this point whether it was possible Saddam's own officials had lied to the Iraqi leader about what his regime had in the way of weapons.
Republicans in Congress have increasingly been citing poor intelligence and Tenet, who was appointed by President Clinton (news - web sites), in the growing controversy over why no weapons have been found. Democrats have said intelligence agencies deserved only part of the blame and have accused the White House of cherrypicking intelligence that bolstered the case for war, while ignoring dissenting opinions.
Even as Tenet acknowledged some intelligence shortcomings in Iraq, he cited other work that he said represented great successes. He credited U.S. intelligence on Iran and Libya's nuclear programs, for example, with recent decisions by those countries to cooperate with international arms inspectors.
Tenet also said CIA spies provided the tips that led to the arrests of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, purported mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and of Asia's leading terror suspect, Hambali.