Panel faults spy agencies for claims of Iraqi weapons
WASHINGTON -- A presidential commission blamed the intelligence community yesterday for prewar assertions that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and concluded that no one in the Bush administration had pressured analysts to reach any conclusions about Iraq's weapons programs.
The bipartisan commission found that American claims that Iraq had nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs turned out to be ''dead wrong," resulting in a blow to the credibility of the United States that ''will take years to undo." And due to continuing problems, American spies still know ''disturbingly little" about the weapons capabilities of potential adversaries like Iran and North Korea, the panel said.
But the 618-page commission report, the last in a series of major investigations into prewar intelligence, put all the blame for Iraq errors on intelligence community incompetence, not political manipulation, and suggested a series of structural overhauls that are largely in line with steps already taken.
''After a thorough review, the commission found no indication that the intelligence community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," the commission wrote to Bush. ''What the intelligence professionals told you about Saddam Hussein's programs was what they believed. They were simply wrong."
The commission concluded that analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency were ''wedded" to suspicions that Iraq had reconstituted weapons programs after kicking out UN weapons inspectors in 1998, and that what little information intelligence collectors provided them to work with was either ''worthless or misleading."
It also concluded that the presidential daily briefings provided by former CIA director George J. Tenet ''to the president and senior policy makers discussing Iraq over many months proved to be disastrously one-sided," in part because the reports simplified conflicting information down to ''headlines."
''We conclude that the intelligence community was dead wrong in almost all of its prewar judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," the commission wrote. ''This was a major intelligence failure. Its principal causes were the intelligence community's inability to collect good information about Iraq's WMD programs, serious errors in analyzing what information it could gather, and a failure to make clear just how much of its analysis was based on assumptions, rather than good evidence."
The commission, made up of politicians, judges, and academics, was appointed by Bush and cochaired by Laurence H. Silberman, a Republican federal appeals court judge, and Charles S. Robb, a Democratic former senator. Its report confirms many of the findings of a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation last July.
Despite recent changes in the intelligence structure, problems with US spy agencies are far from solved, the commission said. It recommended greater centralization of authority, warned against ''turf battles" between CIA and FBI counterterrorism specialists, and suggested creating a special intelligence center dedicated to track weapons of mass destruction.
''The flaws we found in the intelligence community's Iraq performance are still all too common," the commission wrote. ''Across the board, the intelligence community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most dangerous actors. In some cases, it knows less now than it did five or 10 years ago."
Of the commission's 74 recommendations, 51 applied to ensuring that the new director of national intelligence has sufficient power to control the 15-agency intelligence community, the White House said. The report singled out the ''headstrong" Pentagon and CIA as likely to ''try to run around -- or over" the new position, which Congress created in December on the recommendation of the Sept. 11 Commission.
Bush has nominated former ambassador John D. Negroponte to be the first director of national intelligence. Yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush welcomed the report and told his homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, to oversee the quick implementation of its recommendations.
Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader, yesterday called the report ''a serious review of the deficiencies of US intelligence agencies." But Reid, Democrat of Nevada, also criticized it for failing to examine an ''equally important" aspect of national security -- how administration officials handled the available intelligence -- and called for a separate Senate investigation.
Last summer, after the Senate Intelligence Committee completed its own probe, chairman Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, pledged to conduct a second investigation into how White House policy makers interacted with intelligence analysts. The second inquiry was to have been conducted after the presidential election in November.
Reid said: ''I believe it is essential that we hold both the intelligence agencies and senior policy makers accountable for their actions. Last year, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee committed to investigate whether Bush administration officials misused intelligence. The failure of the report issued today to examine this important issue only serves to increase the need for the chairman to keep that commitment."
But Roberts issued a statement yesterday indicating that he now saw no reason to look further into how the Bush administration handled intelligence about Iraq.
''I don't think there should be any doubt that we have now heard it all regarding prewar intelligence," Roberts said. ''I think that it would be a monumental waste of time to replow this ground any further. We should now turn our full attention to the future and ensuring that the new director of national intelligence has all of the authority he will need to do his job and address the problems highlighted by the commission and the congressional intelligence committees over the years."
Many critics have accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence to drum up support for a war that neoconservative policy makers desired as a way of remaking the Middle East.
Vice President Dick Cheney visited CIA headquarters in the summer of 2002 to review the agency's Iraqi threat analysis, while the Pentagon set up an Office of Special Plans that highlighted scraps of intelligence favoring the conclusion that Iraq was a threat while ignoring information that cast doubt on its weapons capability.
Bush administration officials also publicly cited suspicions about Iraqi aluminum tubes being used as nuclear centrifuges, mobile labs as weapons facilities, unmanned drones prepared to spread biological weapons, and alleged attempts to purchase uranium in Niger.
None of these allegations were true, and it emerged after the invasion that the intelligence about them was far more ambiguous and conflicting than the administration presented it to be.
The commission concluded that intelligence analysts ''worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom" that Iraq posed a grave threat. But it said no analysts told them they changed any of their findings about Iraqi weapons capabilities because of pressure from the administration.
''We closely examined the possibility that intelligence analysts were pressured by policy makers to change their judgments about Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs," it said. ''The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments."