Behind the Pre-War Intel in Iraq

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, Feb. 2, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: President Bush defending the decision to go to war in Iraq. He's planning to call for an investigation of prewar intelligence, even though he is not convinced it was wrong...

Much of the intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs relied on indirect methods like satellite. But there's nothing like a good old-fashioned spy on the ground. But did we have enough spies in enough places?

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin (search) is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator, that's today's big question. Did we have all the right tools to do prewar intel on Iraq?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: Well, probably not, but one of the reasons you want an independent commission is to find out where these failures were, why they were there.

But you need the independent commission to not just look at the failures in the intelligence community and possibly the inadequacy of having spies on the ground, but also to look at the exaggerations of the intelligence that was provided to the administration.

Because there is significant time — many times when what was given to the administration was embellished, exaggerated by the administration, and the only way to find out what was the basis for the exaggerated statements by the administration is to have an independent, outside commission look at it.

And that means independent of the executive branch, by the way. It's not going to be good enough just for the president to be picking people that he wants to pick. The Congress has got to be involved in that selection process, just the way we were in the selection of the 9/11 commission.

GIBSON: Senator, I know you talk about exaggeration. I know you believe the president misused the information he was given. But considering the information he was given, and assuming for a moment that he had no reason to believe it wasn't true, what else would you have him do?

We have to act on accurate intelligence. When you send men and women in harm's way, you must make a decision that is based on accurate intelligence.

And the basis that he used for persuading the American public that there was no alternative but to urgently go to war was that Saddam Hussein (search) had weapons of mass destruction and that he could threaten at any time to use those weapons against us or to give those weapons to terrorists.

That was the basis for going to war. That was the way in which it was presented to the American public. So whatever other reasons there might be is not the point.

GIBSON: Yes, but Senator, it was also — one of the reasons was that the guy had been in open defiance of the U.N. for a great deal of time and that the U.N. simply was not going to act on its own resolutions. And we believed that somebody should act.

I mean, when he is in defiance and he will not prove that he has disarmed, what would you have a president do?

Well, the United Nations did not want to proceed on that basis. But now the president is saying that that was the basis.

But, as a matter of fact, when you look at the statements of the administration prior to the war, over and over and over again the basis that was used is that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction — not programs, not intentions, not hopes — has weapons of mass destruction in his possession and could use them against us at any time and could hand them up to terrorists.

GIBSON: Senator, one of the people who backed the president up in that statement was Bill Clinton, who said, "Look, in '98 we blew up what we blew up. We had no way of knowing if he had any or didn't have any. And under the circumstances President Bush acted in a prudent way."

Right. Bill Clinton said that — often that he thought that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. As a matter of fact, I think most people, including I believed he had weapons of mass destruction. That wasn't the question.

The question is whether or not to initiate an attack against Saddam Hussein because there was an imminent threat that he would use those weapons of mass destruction. And that is beyond what Bill Clinton ever did.

GIBSON: But I mean — what the president said, if I remember all the messages and the speech on October 7 in Cincinnati correctly and all those places where he made major speeches, what he was saying was, "As president, I cannot let a threat out there that exists that could lead to another 9/11. I have to err on the side of acting rather than waiting."

That everything has changed since 9/11. "In the past we could say let's wait, let's wait until all our international ducks are in a row, but this time now I have to act. "

Exactly. The basis that he said that he had to act urgently and immediately was because he repeatedly said, Cheney repeatedly said, Rumsfeld repeatedly said, is that right now Saddam Hussein has in his possession weapons of mass destruction and could use those against us tomorrow. He could give those to terrorists.

That was the basis...

GIBSON: Right, but...

... that he presented to the American public and to the international community. You can't just ignore that.

GIBSON: I understand, and you are right, except if that's the intel that he's getting, do you really want him saying, "Can I really believe this stuff?"

No. But the question is not just was the intel wrong, which it obviously was, but did he go beyond the intel? That's the only question.

And to say that it's off limits to look at the exaggerations of the intel — the intel didn't say that there is a direct connection between al Qaeda and Iraq.

That was not the intel. That's what this administration exaggerated to produce. And so there are many instances where the administration went beyond the intelligence.

The intelligence was clearly flawed. There's no doubt about it. You can't stop there and say, "We're only going to look at the failures of the intelligence community."

GIBSON: But — why do you believe David Kay that the intelligence was wrong, but you don't believe him that analysts were under pressure? He said they weren't.

I'm not saying analysts were under pressure. Did you hear me just say that analysts were under...?

GIBSON: Why — How would you get analysts producing stuff for the president and the vice president at all if they want to exaggerate, unless they were under pressure?

I'm saying that the administration's statements were exaggerations of what was given to them by the analysts and the intelligence community.

I didn't — I didn't use the word pressure. You just used the word pressure.

So I said there's two problems here. No. 1 is that the intelligence produced was flawed, but that you can't stop there and ignore the statements of the administration, which were beyond what was given to them by the intelligence community.

GIBSON: All right. Senator Carl Levin, thank you very much, Senator. We'll — we shall see. Appreciate it.

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