WASHINGTON — When CIA Director George Tenet uttered the now-infamous phrase "slam dunk" at a 2002 White House meeting, he says he was referring broadly to the case that could be made against Saddam Hussein — not his alleged weapons of mass destruction.
"We can put a better case together for a public case. That's what I meant," Tenet said, explaining his remark for the first time in an interview to air Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes." Short excerpts were released Thursday.
The phrase "slam dunk" was associated with Tenet after it was leaked by a senior administration official to author and journalist Bob Woodward. According to Woodward's book "Plan of Attack," Bush turned to Tenet during the meeting and asked if the information he had just presented on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was the best Tenet had.
"It's a slam dunk case," Tenet replied, according to Woodward.
Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly used Tenet's "slam dunk" line to show that U.S. spy agencies had intelligence to support the main facet of the administration's argument for invading — that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
In the "60 Minutes" interview, Tenet said the administration misrepresented his comment and used it to shift blame as the debate heated up about the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion. Tenet, who served as CIA chief from 1997 to 2004, called the leak to Woodward "the most despicable thing that ever happened" to him.
A former intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the release of Tenet's memoir next week, said everyone at the White House meeting — and many allies around the world — already believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
The meeting was about what intelligence could be used publicly — an early effort to prepare the material that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell would present to the United Nations.
Breaking almost three years of silence, Tenet said it's unbelievable that the president would base his decision to go to war on his one remark.
"So a whole decision to go to war, when all of these other things have happened in the run-up to war? You make mobilization decisions, you've looked at war plans," Tenet said. "I'll never believe that what happened that day informed the president's view or belief of the legitimacy or the timing of this war. Never!"
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said the president decided to remove the Iraqi leader for a number of reasons — "mainly the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and Saddam's own actions." U.S. spy agencies quickly compiled the high-level estimate on Iraq in 2002, which included false allegations about the regime's efforts to pursue chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Johndroe declined to comment further because administration officials have not read Tenet's book or the interview's transcript.
Tenet said the hardest part has been listening to Cheney and others repeat the phrase. "I became campaign talk. I was a talking point. 'Look at the idiot (who) told us and we decided to go to war.' Well, let's not be so disingenuous," he said.