WASHINGTON — What went wrong with intelligence on Iraq will never be known unless the inquiry proposed by President Bush examines secret intelligence efforts led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon hawks, current and former U.S officials said Monday.
The officials said they feared that Bush, gearing up his fight for re-election, would try to limit the inquiry's scope to the CIA and other agencies, and ignore the key role the administration's own internal intelligence efforts played in making the case for war.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, didn't dispute that the CIA failed to accurately assess the state of Iraq's weapons programs. But they said that the intelligence efforts led by Cheney magnified the errors through exaggeration, oversights and mistaken deductions.
Those efforts bypassed normal channels, used Iraqi exiles and defectors of questionable reliability, and produced findings on former dictator Saddam Hussein's links to al-Qaida and his illicit arms programs that were disputed by analysts at the CIA, the State Department and other agencies, the officials said.
"There were more agencies than CIA providing intelligence ... that are worth scrutiny, including the (Pentagon's now-disbanded) Office of Special Plans and the office of the vice president," said a former senior military official who was involved in planning the Iraq invasion.
Some of the disputed findings were presented as facts to Americans as Bush drummed up his case for war.
Those findings included charges of cooperation between Saddam and al-Qaida, Cheney's assertion that Iraq had rebuilt its nuclear weapons program and would "soon" have a nuclear bomb, and Bush's contention in his 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam was seeking nuclear bomb-making material from Africa.
Senior officials on Monday revealed new details of how Cheney's office pressed Secretary of State Colin Powell to use large amounts of disputed intelligence in a February 2003 presentation to the United Nations Security Council laying out the U.S. case for an invasion.
A senior administration official said that during a three-day pre-speech review, Powell rejected more than half of a 45-page assessment on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction compiled by Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, and based on materials assembled by pro-invasion hard-liners in the Pentagon and the White House.
Powell also jettisoned 75 percent of a separate report on al-Qaida, said the official.
Still, he said, Libby continued pressing Powell unsuccessfully right up until a few minutes before the speech to include dubious information purportedly linking Saddam to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Bush said Monday he would name an independent bipartisan commission to review intelligence failures in Iraq. It would also look at what is known about efforts by Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups to obtain nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Two congressional committees, an internal CIA board and a White House advisory panel are already reviewing the Iraq intelligence.
Bush's decision to name an independent commission followed assertions by David Kay, who quit last month as chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, that Saddam had not hidden the banned chemical and biological warfare stockpiles. The president had cited such weapons as his prime justification for the March invasion.
Bush and GOP leaders in Congress had resisted a demand by Democrats for an independent review of the Iraq intelligence, but calls by Kay and key Republicans last week for such an inquiry forced the president to reconsider.
"I want to know all the facts," Bush told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.
He insisted, however, that the war and occupation—in which more than 500 U.S. troops have died—were justified because Saddam had failed to halt all illicit weapons activities in violation of numerous U.N. resolutions.
"Saddam Hussein had the intent and capabilities to cause great harm," Bush asserted.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the membership and duration of the independent commission weren't settled. He skirted the question of whether the panel would examine whether Bush and his top aides exaggerated or misrepresented intelligence on Iraq.
"I'm not going to get into the scope issues at this point," he said.
Top Democratic lawmakers said Bush should allow Congress to appoint the commission and determine the scope and duration of its inquiry.
"One of the major questions that needs to be addressed is whether senior administration officials ... misled the Congress and the public about the nature of the threat from Iraq. Even some of your own statements and those of Vice President Cheney need independent scrutiny. A commission appointed and controlled by the White House will not have the independence or credibility necessary to investigate these issues," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) and four other senior Democrats wrote in a letter to Bush.
The former and current officials said that an objective inquiry would require the panel to look at the roles that Cheney, his office and his neoconservative allies at the Pentagon played in collecting and analyzing intelligence on Iraq.
Reviewing what the CIA did "is half the picture," said Melvin Goodman, a former senior CIA analyst who teaches at the National Defense University. "What you want is an open-ended, blue-ribbon inquiry of the whole picture, which is what (intelligence) the White House got and how the White House used what it got."
Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld have long expressed serious doubts about the CIA's abilities.
Cheney, according to a senior U.S. official, began visiting the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency during his first days in office for briefings on Iraq and other pressing national security issues.
His staff collected intelligence on Iraq from sources such as newspapers, as well as from regular intelligence channels and from internal Pentagon initiatives directed by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.
Those efforts, according to the current and former U.S. officials, combined raw intelligence from the CIA and DIA with information from defectors and Iraqi exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi, now a member of the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council.
The CIA and State Department saw Chalabi, who is close to neoconservatives inside and outside the administration, as an unreliable source of information with a self-interest in pressing the case for Saddam's ouster.
The senior administration official said the assessments on illicit weapons, al-Qaida and human rights in Iraq that Libby pressed on Powell were products of Cheney's office and Feith's efforts.
The bulk of the work on illicit weapons and al-Qaida links was rejected after representatives from Cheney's office failed in a 10-hour meeting to show that the materials were from reliable sources, he said.
He said that materials rejected as dubious or false included:
_Sept. 11 terrorist Mohamed Atta met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, the Czech Republic, five months before the attacks;
_Iraqi efforts to purchase software from an Australian company to use for mapping the East Coast of the United States;
_Satellite pictures that Libby insisted showed Iraq possessed robot aircraft capable of spraying lethal chemicals;
_A chronology of contacts "going back years" between Iraqi officials and al-Qaida. "These pages put the two in contact, but they didn't prove a damn thing," said the senior official, who added that follow-up reports showed that "in meeting after meeting Iraq rebuffed al-Qaida, that Saddam had serious differences reconciling fundamentalist Islam with secular Iraq."
Still, Powell included in his U.N. speech charges that Iraq had provided chemical and biological warfare training to several al-Qaida members and that he had helped an al-Qaida-linked group produce crude poisons.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.