He tells correspondent Ed Bradley the real failure was not in the intelligence community but in the White House. He says he saw how the Bush administration, time and again, welcomed intelligence that fit the president's determination to go to war and turned a blind eye to intelligence that did not.
"It just sticks in my craw every time I hear them say it's an intelligence failure. It's an intelligence failure. This was a policy failure," Drumheller tells Bradley.
Drumheller was the CIA's top man in Europe, the head of covert operations there, until he retired a year ago. He says he saw firsthand how the White House promoted intelligence it liked and ignored intelligence it didn't:
"The idea of going after Iraq was U.S. policy. It was going to happen one way or the other," says Drumheller.
Drumheller says he doesn't think it mattered very much to the administration what the intelligence community had to say. "I think it mattered it if verified. This basic belief that had taken hold in the U.S. government that now is the time, we had the means, all we needed was the will," he says.
The road to war in Iraq took some strange turns — none stranger than a detour to the West African country of Niger. In late 2001, a month after 9/11, the United States got a report from the Italian intelligence service that Saddam Hussein had bought 500 tons of so-called yellowcake uranium in order to build a nuclear bomb.
But Drumheller says many CIA analysts were skeptical. "Most people came to the opinion that there was something questionable about it," he says.
Asked if that was his reaction, Drumheller says, "That was our reaction from the very beginning. The report didn't hold together."
Drumheller says that was the "general feeling" in the agency at that time.
However, Vice President Dick Cheney thought the story was worth investigating, and asked the CIA not to discount the story without first taking a closer look. So, in February 2002, the agency sent former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate.
"If Saddam Hussein had acquired 500 tons of yellowcake uranium in violation of U.N. sanctions, that would be pretty serious, wouldn't it?" Bradley asked Wilson.
"Absolutely. Certainly. And the fact that there was an allegation out there that he was even attempting to purchase 500 tons of uranium was very serious, because it essentially meant that they were restarting their nuclear programs," Wilson replied.
Wilson spent eight days in Niger looking for signs of a secret deal to send yellowcake to Iraq. He spoke to government officials who would have known about such a transaction. No one did. There had been a meeting between Iraqis and Nigerians in 1999, but Wilson was told uranium had never been discussed. He also found no evidence that Iraq had even been interested in buying uranium.
"I concluded that it could not have happened," Wilson says. At the end of his eight-day stay in Niger, Wilson says he had no lingering doubts.
When he returned, Wilson told the CIA what he had learned. Despite that, some intelligence analysts stood by the Italian report that Saddam Hussein had purchased uranium from Niger. But the director of the CIA and the deputy director didn't buy it. In October, when the president's speechwriters tried to put the Niger uranium story in a speech that President Bush was scheduled to deliver in Cincinnati, they intervened.
In a phone call and two faxes to the White House, they warned "the Africa story is overblown" and "the evidence is weak." The speechwriters took the uranium reference out of the speech.