Reason for war queried

The row over how President Bush went to war in Iraq has re-erupted with a charge by George Tenet, the former director of the CIA, that a coterie of top officials pushed America into the conflict with no real debate as to whether Saddam Hussein actually posed an imminent threat to the US.

Tenet's angry indictment of his colleagues is the first of its kind from a top-ranking member of Bush's once vaunted national security team and was instantly rebutted by the White House.

"The President did wrestle with those very serious questions," Dan Bartlett, a top White House adviser, said yesterday. The former CIA chief, he drily noted, though a "true patriot", was probably unaware of how intensely the president had discussed the case for war with Tony Blair and other allied leaders.

That dismissal is unlikely to be the end of the matter, when Iraq is at the centre of political debate here, and Bush is poised to veto a measure from the Democrat-controlled Congress that ties $124 billion of emergency funding for the wars there and in Afghanistan to a phased troop withdrawal starting later this year.

Tenet is releasing a 549-page book, At the Center of the Storm, due to be published tomorrow, but the juiciest segments appeared in the US press yesterday.

"There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat," he writes, nor "a significant discussion" about whether Saddam might have been kept in check without an invasion.

Tenet paints a picture of a small group, centred on Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, who had made up their minds that Saddam Hussein's regime must be taken down, within weeks of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Its members include Rumsfeld's former deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the top policy planner.

Tenet is also furious at how Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, made him designated scapegoat for the debacle of the "16 words" that appeared in Bush's January 2003 State of the Union, claiming that Saddam had sought to buy uranium in Niger. The row made inevitable his resignation mid-2004.

Nothing enrages Tenet more than the infamous "slam dunk" episode at a White House meeting in December 2002, three months before the invasion. In his 2004 book, Plan of Attack, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward claimed that Tenet had assured Bush that the evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk" - a sure thing, in basketball parlance. Tenet now plainly believes the leak to Woodward was another set-up to pin responsibility on himself and the CIA.

- INDEPENDENT

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