WASHINGTON — The multibillion-dollar U.S. intelligence community was "dead wrong" in its prewar assessment of Iraq's weapons programs and can't accurately gauge the future threat from countries such as Iran and North Korea, a presidential commission concluded in a caustic account Thursday.
The commission called the exaggerated estimates of Iraq's nuclear-, chemical- and biological-weapons programs "one of the most public—and most damaging—intelligence failures in recent American history."
Even today, intelligence agencies have failed to adapt, and the United States knows "disturbingly little" about the nuclear-weapons programs of potential adversaries such as Iran and North Korea, it said.
The 600-page report recommends intelligence reforms going well beyond those Congress adopted last year.
President Bush reluctantly appointed the panel in February 2004 after the failure to find the chemical and biological weapons or the nuclear-weapons program that the president and his aides said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hiding. It was co-chaired by former U.S. Sen. Charles Robb, a Democrat, and U.S. Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman, a Republican.
Bush praised the panel's "sharp critique" Thursday and said he'd directed White House adviser Fran Townsend to come up with ways to carry out its suggestions.
"The central conclusion is one that I share: America's intelligence community needs fundamental change," the president said. "We will correct what needs to be fixed."
But the panel's work leaves several major questions unanswered.
While it offered a blunt, often scathing, assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, it didn't pass judgment on the administration policy-makers who used the faulty intelligence—sometimes after ignoring warnings from subordinates—to build their case for war.
Nor is it certain that intelligence agencies will implement the changes the commission recommended to deal with future threats, the commissioners conceded. "Many insiders admitted to us that (the intelligence community) has an almost perfect record of resisting external recommendations" for change, the report said.
The commission's report recommended giving more power to the recently created director of national intelligence, consolidating the FBI's intelligence activities and using more publicly available materials.
In the run-up to war, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials sometimes overlooked warnings about the reliability of the intelligence and divisions among intelligence agencies, overstated what the intelligence said and used information from sources that some officials suspected—and in several cases knew—weren't trustworthy.
"We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs. ... We have low confidence in our ability to assess when Saddam would use WMD," the nation's intelligence agencies concluded in a National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002.
In another caveat that was delivered to the president and his top advisers in the same document, State Department intelligence officials disagreed with the conclusion that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons in Africa.
Bush nevertheless repeated that assertion in his State of the Union speech a few months later. The White House later retracted the allegation.
Cheney was even more definitive in his accusations against Saddam.
"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," the vice president said in August 2002.
Silberman said the commission had no authority to consider how policy-makers used intelligence that was sent to them during the buildup to war. When pressed, he suggested that the president was misled by a steady stream of information that exaggerated the threat.
"We looked at the flow, or the stream of intelligence that came to the White House. ... If anything, it was even more alarmist," he said.
The issue may never be aired fully. The Senate Intelligence Committee appears to have dropped a second stage of its own investigation that was to have focused on the administration's use of intelligence.
House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, "the intelligence never supported his (Bush's) claim that Saddam was an imminent threat to the United States. ... The investigation will not be complete unless we know how the Bush administration may have used or misused intelligence to pursue its own agenda."
The Robb-Silberman panel, formally known as the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, focused the blame on the CIA and other American intelligence agencies.
The U.S. intelligence community, it said, had little worthwhile information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, exaggerated what it did know, often disregarded contrary evidence, and neglected to tell policy-makers about the weakness of its case.
The commission said it found no evidence that intelligence analysts were subjected to political pressure to skew their conclusions. "That said, it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom," the report said.
The report quotes an Energy Department intelligence analyst as saying that despite the department's qualms over allegations that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear-weapons program, the department "didn't want to come out before the war and say (Iraq) wasn't reconstituting."
As far as is known, no individual in the intelligence community or the Bush administration has been fired or otherwise held accountable for the flawed data that were used to justify the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former CIA director George Tenet in December.
Tenet, in a statement Thursday, acknowledged that on the Iraq weapons question, the "intelligence community did not live up to the high standards it demands of itself."
But he said the intelligence community already had undergone "enormous change" as a result of the Iraq fiasco and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The CIA has instituted new procedures to incorporate dissenting views into analysis, allow analysts to know more about sources of raw intelligence and ensure that "recall notices" are widely disseminated for information from sources who turn out to be flawed, agency officials said.
Commission members said they hoped their recommendations would avoid the fate of previous intelligence studies that were ignored. Silberman and Robb said this report was different because it came at a time when the intelligence community was already in the midst of change.
To read the complete unclassified report online, go to www.wmd.gov/report/wmd(underline)report.pdf.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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