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Interview With Bruce Auster

Aired June 2, 2003 - 20:19   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Before the war, the White House said there was solid evidence Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as Jamie just said. A new report, however, says there was disagreement inside the Bush administration over the reliability of that evidence.
The story is a fascinating one. It appears in today's issue of "U.S. News and World Report." Deputy national editor Bruce Auster helped write the story, and he joins us now from Washington.

Bruce, thanks for being with us.

As I said, it is a pretty fascinating story that came out today. From your reporting, based on what you learned, do you think the U.S. administration, the Bush administration, overstated or politicized the intelligence that they had?

BRUCE AUSTER, DEPUTY NATIONAL EDITOR, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": I think that there's a case to be made that maybe they deceived themselves, if not deceived the nation.

COOPER: How do you mean?

AUSTER: There were a lot of people within this administration, and I think we know what the camps are. You have the State Department on one side. You have the vice president's office and the Pentagon on the other side. And at the Pentagon, and, I think, some people in the White House, they were really, I think, actively looking to build a case, really, almost an indictment, against Saddam.

And there were people we spoke with, and we spoke to people all throughout this government, who made the point that they were looking, really, for anything, and that that intelligence is, by nature, an ambiguous business. You could take 10 people, put them in a room, and have them look at same piece of information, and they'd come up with 10 different opinions.

Well, I think what happened here is, you had some people who were more willing than others to give credence to things that maybe weren't ironclad.

COOPER: Well, let's talk specifics. In the article, you talk about this meeting, the secret meeting that went on, I think it was the day the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- the "Columbia" disaster...

AUSTER: That's exactly right. COOPER: ... where basically intelligence officials were arguing over what Colin Powell, what evidence Colin Powell should use in presenting toward the U.N. What went on?

AUSTER: Well, it's a really fascinating moment. What happened was, you had about a five- to six-day warmup, in which Powell set up a team of people. He sent them out to CIA, where they'd really be isolated, and they'd be among the people they had to rely on. And then he had them vet all the intelligence.

And in the course of this, they ran five separate rehearsals of Powell's speech that he gave on February 5 to the United Nations.

Now, what's interesting is that the initial script that was sent over came from the White House, and one of the key people who wrote that was the vice president's chief of staff. So that document comes over to the team that Powell sets up. They begin working with it. And they found that it just wasn't something that the secretary of state was willing to go before the world and put his name to...

COOPER: I'm going to, Bruce, Bruce...


COOPER: ... I'm just going to interrupt you right here.


COOPER: Because I'm just going to interrupt you right here. I'm going to show a full-screen graphic from your article. It says, this is one of the quotes about that document. "IT was over the top, ran the gamut from al Qaeda to human rights to weapons of mass destruction. They were unsubstantiated, unsubstantiated assertions, in my view." That was quoting a senior official in your article.

What is fascinating about the stuff that came out in your article is that, as you said, this information that basically came from Cheney's office in the White House, basically Powell looked at the information, and at one point threw up papers and said, This is bull.

AUSTER: He said something quite like that. And, of course, he is an Army -- an old Army soldier, so he...

COOPER: Yes, bull, bull...


COOPER: ... was a shorter version of what he said.

AUSTER: Exactly. And what happened -- they did -- it's not as if they threw out everything that came over from the White House. But clearly, and what's interesting here is, keep in mind the time frame we're dealing with here. This is February. And the buildup for the war had been going on since at least August, September, and all through the winter. And it was at this end of the process that Powell finally sits down and says, Hey, let's see what we've got. And he literally went item by item, and said, OK, I'm going say X. How do we know it? What is our source? And if he didn't like it, he threw it out.

COOPER: So he was comfortable, in the end, with what he presented to the U.N., and he remains comfortable to this day?

AUSTER: That is my understanding.

COOPER: Are there any senior officials that you spoke to in the administration who believe that the administration was trying to deceive the American public?

AUSTER: I think that they were not trying to deceive the American public. I think there were people who believed that this was an awful regime and that, given ambiguous evidence, they were more willing than not to believe that everything proved that Saddam was evil, rather than look item by item and see which was the best stuff and only stick with that.

COOPER: It is an interesting article, came out today, "U.S. News and World Report." Bruce Auster, thanks for being with us.

AUSTER: You're very welcome.

COOPER: As we just said, his story on the administration's discussion before the war in Iraq appears in the current issue of "U.S. News and World Report," on the stands today, Monday.


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