WASHINGTON—A Senate committee issued a scathing repudiation Friday of the U.S. intelligence community's prewar assessment that Iraq had outlawed weapons programs, saying the finding was hyped, lacked evidence and driven by "group think."
The Senate Intelligence Committee report cited numerous examples in which the CIA and other agencies put too much stock in weak information, over-relied on defectors and foreign intelligence services, and were hamstrung by a failure to recruit spies in Saddam Hussein's inner circle.
Moreover, intelligence officials suffered from "group think": a shared conviction that Iraq was hiding a nuclear weapons program and stockpiling biological and chemical warheads. As a result, they interpreted ambiguous evidence as proof and rejected data that contradicted that view, the report said.
The report, endorsed by all nine Republicans and eight Democrats on the committee, found that the primary reason President Bush gave for attacking Iraq was untrue.
Bush "made very declarative statements. There's no question about it," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the committee's chairman. "He made a case to go to war. We all did. ... We believed it. But the information was wrong. What he (the president) said was what he got from the intelligence community, and what he got was wrong."
Asked whether he thought going to war was a mistake, Roberts replied: "History is going to judge. I really don't know."
Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia, the panel's senior Democrat, said the Senate wouldn't have voted for war in October 2002 if it had known about what he called among "the most devastating losses and intelligence failures in the history of the nation."
"Tragically, the intelligence failure set forth in this report will affect our national security for generations to come," Rockefeller said at a news conference with Roberts. "Our credibility is diminished. Our standing in the world has never been lower. We have fostered a deep hatred of Americans in the Muslim world, and that will grow. As a direct consequence, our nation is more vulnerable today than ever before."
John McLaughlin, who takes over as CIA director when George Tenet retires Sunday, told a rare news conference at CIA Headquarters, in Langley, Va., that intelligence agencies already have taken steps to address the defects behind the prewar intelligence analysis.
"We could have done better," he said.
Bush said at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania that he hadn't read the report. But he said Saddam was a threat that had to be eliminated.
"Saddam Hussein had the capacity to make weapons. See, he had the ability to make them. He had the intent. We knew he hated America," Bush said. "We knew he tortured his own people, and we knew he had the capability of making weapons. That we do know. They haven't found the stockpiles, but we do know he could make them."
While there was bipartisan accord on the bulk of the report, Democrats disputed a conclusion that intelligence analysts weren't pressured to produce findings that would bolster Bush's case that Saddam had banned weapons that he could provide to terrorists.
Rockefeller pointed out that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top officials had been accusing Iraq of having outlawed weapons and aiding the al-Qaida terrorist network long before the intelligence community delivered its key assessment on Iraq in October 2002.
"I do not think there is any evidence of undue pressure on any analyst," Roberts countered.
The report didn't examine how the administration used intelligence in making its case against Saddam, the impact of a parallel Pentagon intelligence effort or information from defectors provided by a former exile group, the Iraqi National Congress.
INC leader Ahmad Chalabi, who lobbied the United States for years to oust Saddam and maintained close ties to Cheney and pro-war Pentagon officials, is under investigation for allegedly passing U.S. secrets to Iran. He denies the allegation.
Those questions are to be dealt with in a second report, which isn't expected to be released before the November presidential election.
The intelligence committee spent a year dissecting the intelligence that underpinned the U.S. intelligence community's October 2002 assessment—called a National Intelligence Estimate—that Iraq had nuclear, biological and chemical warfare programs in violation of U.N. resolutions.
No such weapons and no evidence to substantiate the finding have been found since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in March 2003.
Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address, Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2003 speech to the U.N. Security Council and other formal administration statements making the case against Saddam were based on the National Intelligence Estimate.
The committee's 511-page report said the blame for the flawed assessment extended from the analysts who interpreted the raw intelligence through their supervisors up to Tenet and his most senior advisers.
"These failures," it said, "resulted at least in part as a result of the fact that the Intelligence Community's chain of command shared with its analysts and collectors the same `group think' presumption that Iraq had active and expanded weapons of mass destruction programs."
Tenet and his senior managers "did not encourage analysts to challenge their assumptions, fully consider alternative arguments, accurately characterize the intelligence reporting, or counsel analysts who lost their objectivity," the report said.
The committee criticized the CIA for not sending any officers to Iraq to collect intelligence on illegal weapons programs or recruit Iraqi spies after U.N. weapons inspectors pulled out in 1998.
The report dismissed contentions by senior CIA officers that such an effort would have required significantly more money and manpower. The Intelligence Committee said it thought the "problem is less a question of resources than a need for dramatic changes in a risk averse corporate culture."
McLaughlin disputed that finding. He noted that the headquarters' main lobby is decorated with stars honoring officers killed on secret missions and the CIA had people in Iraq within 17 days of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"I completely reject and resent any implication by this committee that our officers are risk averse," he said.
Among its findings, the report said:
_The National Intelligence Estimate "overstated both what was known about Iraq's chemical weapons holdings and what intelligence analysts judged about Iraq's chemical weapons."
_There was insufficient intelligence to support a finding that Iraq "was reconstituting its nuclear program."
_A charge that Baghdad had mobile biological-warfare facilities was based largely on the claims of an Iraqi defector whom U.S. intelligence officials didn't personally interview and whose reliability the CIA knew was suspect.
(Knight Ridder correspondent David Goldstein contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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