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Congress Grills FBI Director; FBI Investigating Origin of Forged Iraq Documents

Aired July 16, 2003 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We start with the FBI tonight. It is now looking into those forged documents that seemed to show Iraq was trying to obtain nuclear materials from Africa. The bureau wants to know, was there any attempt to influence U.S. foreign policy? If so, by whom?
Kelli Arena now has the very latest from Washington -- good evening, Kelli.


Well, after some nudging from members of Congress, most notably Senator Jay Rockefeller, the FBI is now conducting what they call a preliminary inquiry into the forged documents. Now, as you said, the primary objective is to find out whether any individual or group tried to influence U.S. policy toward Baghdad by suggesting that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program.

Well, sources say that agents from the counterintelligence unit of the FBI are interviewing officials from both the CIA and the State Department. They are also retracing the paper trail. Now, CNN has confirmed that the forged documents were first given to Italian intelligence in late 2001, but the U.S. did not gain actual possession of them until October of 2002, when a journalist turned them over to the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

Now, sources say that the embassy passed them on to the CIA station chief in Rome and to the State Department. But the documents did not get to CIA headquarters until four months later, in February of 2003. That was after the president's State of the Union address. Now, by the time the documents got to the CIA, sources say that the information in them had been mostly discredited. And, by the way, Paula, CNN did obtain its own copy of the documents today from the Italian publication "La Republica" -- back to you..

ZAHN: Kelli Arena, thanks so much for that update. Very interesting, indeed.

The FBI announcement, of course, comes the same day CIA Director George Tenet was behind closed doors, meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee. At issue: why he wasn't more involved in preventing the Iranian slip-up from getting into the president's speech.

Senator Evan Bayh is on that committee. He joins us from Washington tonight. Thanks for joining us. I know you've had a busy day, sir.

First off, what do you think is the headline to come out of these hearings?

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D), INDIANA: Paula, I think the headline will be, it was a combination of inadequate review process within the CIA, as well as excessive zeal on the part of some in the White House to include these materials in the speech that led to this problem of credibility.

And the real irony here is that there was other information that could have been pointed to with regard to a nuclear program that would have been much more credible.

ZAHN: So, is the circle of blame widening, as far as you're concerned, or is it still pretty much centered on the director of the CIA?

BAYH: Well, we heard half the story today, Paula.

George Tenet admitted: Look, we had problems with the way the speech was reviewed. And he's taken responsibility for that. And he said, we'll make sure it never happens again. What we haven't heard from are the folks in the White House, who, in my opinion, were pushing overzealously for including this information, even though there were reasons to believe that it was not the kind of information that should have been in a State of the Union address.

ZAHN: Did you get the impression today that George Tenet took the fall because he's a good soldier?

BAYH: I have confidence in George Tenet. I think he's doing the best job that he can. But, again, he's not in a position, Paula, to comment on the internal processes in the White House.

And it is my belief, again, that there were some there who were just pushing, pushing, pushing, and kept coming back over and over again, looking for some way to include this in the speech. And that has led to this problem, which is unfortunate because it was so unnecessary.

ZAHN: So, if the skepticism wasn't all directed at him, where else did the fingers point today, specifically?

BAYH: Well, I can't name names, unfortunately. The rules of the committee prohibit that. But let's just say, again, we've heard half the story. I think it's important that we hear from the other folks who were involved in putting the speech together and who had an interest, or at least a very strong desire, in including this statement, even though the White House had been previously informed that these were unreliable materials to base a presidential speech on.

ZAHN: Finally, was there any explanation for how this information was good enough to be entered into the president's State of the Union address, but somehow was considered not worthy of putting in the secretary of state's speech?

BAYH: Well, that's the real irony here.

George Tenet himself told the White House not to include it in the president's speech in Cincinnati three months before the State of the Union. He personally told Colin Powell a week after the State of the Union that this was not reliable. And yet it ends up in the State of the Union address. George Tenet did not review the State of the Union address ahead of time. These were conversations that took place on the part of other people from the CIA and the White House.

And, again, Paula, I think we need to talk to the folks in the White House and find out why they were just pushing so hard, in my opinion, overzealously pushing so hard, to have this information included.

ZAHN: Finally, sir, at the end of the day, do you think someone is going to lose his or her job over this?

BAYH: That's hard to say, Paula. Within the CIA, I hope that the director does not. I, again, have confidence in George. Within the White House, that's up to the president.

I don't believe that the president intentionally deceived anybody. But there are some other folks over there who ought to take responsibility for their actions. Whether it rises to the level of a firing offense or not, we have to hear from them. And then, of course, it's up to the president to decide.

ZAHN: Senator Evan Bayh, thank you very much for spending a little time with us this evening.

BAYH: Good to be with you.

ZAHN: Appreciate it.

Is America paying any attention to this at all, not just to the flap over the State of the Union speech, but also to economic news and Iraq?

To help gauge the pulse of the country, I am now joined by Paul Anger, editor for "The Des Moines Register"; the executive editor of "The Miami Herald," Tom Fielder; and Robert Caldwell from "The Oregonian."

Welcome, gentlemen.

Let's start with the West Coast first.

Please describe to us how your readers are reacting in Oregon to the news of the 16-word entry in the State of the Union address and all the fallout we continue to witness tonight?


I think there is sustained interest in the topic, if you use letters to the editor and that sort of reaction. It's harder to tell exactly how people feel about it. Engaged people are writing letters and reacting and following the story, I think, rather closely.

ZAHN: And what are they saying? Are they angry?

CALDWELL: Well, the letters we get, of course, come from people who have some reason to write and tend to be people who are motivated out of unhappiness or anger. So they're very strongly negative toward the president at the moment.

ZAHN: And, Tom, what kind of reader reaction are you getting to this very specific flap over the State of the Union address?

TOM FIELDER, EXEC. EDITOR, "MIAMI HERALD": Well, I think that's right, that what we are hearing from now is going to be the leading edge of what opinion may be in the future, because the people who are responding to this are obviously following it very, very closely.

And what's interesting to us, this is an area, south Florida, of course, it's Governor Jeb Bush's hometown, so to speak. And so there's an affinity, I think, with the Bushes. But what has been surprising is how muted the response has been on behalf of the Republicans, who -- or those who would support the president in this or almost immediately rise to his defense. The response in letters to the editor, as a gauge, for us would be exactly what's happening in Oregon, very, very critical of the president, raising a great number of questions about how forthcoming he may have been in his basis for going into Iraq in the first place.

ZAHN: Paul, are you seeing the same thing? Are you seeing a muted, I guess, sense of support for President Bush right now on this and the administration?

PAUL ANGER, EDITOR, "DES MOINES REGISTER": Well, I think you're getting a couple different things that's happening. One of them is that the people that inclined to believe that going into Iraq was a good idea, I think they still believe that. I think the people that criticized it from the beginning, I think this is just fodder for them. And they, of course, still believe that.

I think the interesting thing that's going to develop is, what about the people in the middle? What about the people that were more ambivalent about it, that said: We need evidence. We need the U.N.'s backing, then we'll support you, Mr. President?

I think we're starting to see now that kind of person emerge now and be more critical of the president. At this point, I think it's muted. I think the president has plenty of time to put this behind him. It's a long way until November 2004. On the other hand, he hasn't put it behind him yet. The administration has not done that. And I think the people in the middle now are starting to question.

ZAHN: All right, gentlemen, I'm going to quickly move on to the economy and hold you to about 20 seconds apiece, so we can get all of you in.

Robert, the White House announcing yesterday a record deficit of some $450 billion. How is that playing in your region?

CALDWELL: Well, I don't think the deficit is the biggest issue when it comes to the economy in Oregon. Oregon is the highest unemployment state in the nation right now. And I think people are concerned generally about the economy. The deficit is just part of that concern.

ZAHN: Tom, what about the folks in Miami and in and around your great city?

FIELDER: Yes, well, that ties in. I think the economy in Miami is doing a little bit better than many other place. But the general misgiving that perhaps the economy isn't being managed as well as many people expect the Republicans to manage it, the deficit is an indicator that perhaps there's a problem on the horizon here.

ZAHN: Paul, you get the final word on the economy tonight.

ANGER: Thanks, I think there's -- Iowans are frugal people, frugal in government, frugal in their personal finances. I do think there's a growing astonishment at the size of the federal deficit. I don't think it's a hot-button issue. I think people will see how the economy plays out. But if the economy doesn't get better, this will become more of a hot-button issue.

ZAHN: And just to quickly a round table here, and you only get to answer with a one-word answer. Of those three issues, whether it's the deficit, whether it's the issue of the State of the Union address, or the issue of the long-term deployment -- or potential long-term deployment -- of U.S. troops in Iraq, Paul, what is the chief concern to your readers?

ANGER; I think it's long-term deployment. I think people are concerned about how we get out.

ZAHN: Tom?

FIELDER: I'd say that exactly. It's this drip, drip, drip that seems to really worry people. How long will we be there? How long will our soldiers be targets?

ZAHN: Finally you, Robert.

CALDWELL: I think the economy, by a nose.

ZAHN: It's very interesting to hear all of your perspectives, just a reminder of how vastly different -- the vastly different ways things are perceived across the country.

Again, thank you, gentlemen, for all of you being with us tonight.

FIELDER: Glad -- yes, thanks for having me.

ANGER: Thank you.

ZAHN: Our pleasure.


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