A Final Verdict on Prewar Intelligence Is Still Elusive

By TODD S. PURDUM

New York Times

April 1, 2005

WASHINGTON, March 31 - It found no evidence that intelligence had been politically twisted to suit preconceptions about Iraq's unconventional weapons programs, and made no formal judgments about how top policy makers had used that intelligence to justify war. Yet in its own way, the presidential commission on intelligence left little doubt that President Bush and his top aides had gotten what they wanted, not what they needed, when they were told that Saddam Hussein had a threatening arsenal of illicit weapons.

"It is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom," the commission said. But that understated indictment is about the extent of the commission's effort to explain the responsibilities of the nation's highest officials for one of the worst intelligence failures of modern times.

So the latest and presumably the last official review of such questions leaves unresolved what may be the biggest question of all: Who was accountable, and will they ever be held to account for letting what amounted to mere assumptions "harden into presumptions," as Judge Laurence H. Silberman, chairman of the commission, put it.

A full accounting awaits the work of historians. But already some people have been judged, albeit it indirect ways, while others have been rewarded, even promoted. Some who foresaw potential disaster were punished or pushed aside, while the president and vice president were given new terms.

President Bush's election-year order creating the commission (and a schedule that assured it would report well after the election) did not authorize it to investigate how policy makers had used the intelligence they received. In the end, the commission reserved by far its sharpest criticism for the agencies that provided the intelligence, blaming them over and over again in its 601-page unclassified report for "poor tradecraft and poor management."

By comparison, the commission made a tantalizing but oblique reference to the president. It came in a passage criticizing the vaunted President's Daily Brief, the super-secret intelligence document that Mr. Bush and his predecessors have received each morning, complaining that its "attention-grabbing headlines and drumbeat of repetition" left misleading impressions, and no room for shadings. "In ways both subtle and not so subtle, the daily reports seemed to be 'selling' intelligence," the commission found, "in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested."

The clearest casualties of the Iraq intelligence failures - and the most direct targets of the commission - were the top leaders of the C.I.A., beginning with George J. Tenet, who resigned as director of central intelligence last summer in the face of rising criticism. President Bush later awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

After he left, Mr. Tenet's top leadership team was effectively replaced by his designated successor, Porter J. Goss. Among those to go were Mr. Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin; James L. Pavitt and Stephen R. Kappes, top officials in the agency's clandestine service; and Jami Miscik, the deputy director for intelligence.

The old C.I.A. leadership is portrayed by the commission as either troublingly unaware or disturbingly dismissive of deep concerns within the agency that the principal source of prewar intelligence about Mr. Hussein's chemical and biological weapons programs was reported to have problems with drinking, reliability and truthfulness. At the same time, warnings unnamed analysts within the agency who questioned this information before the war were disregarded. Others who sought after the invasion to correct the informant's lies were branded as troublemakers and pushed out of their jobs, the commission found.

President Bush himself has never publicly blamed anyone in his administration, and some officials intimately involved in the review and public discussion of prewar intelligence including Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state, and Stephen J. Hadley, now national security adviser, have since been promoted. Others, like Paul D. Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary and now president of the World Bank, have been publicly praised and rewarded.

Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican majority leader, called the report "a forceful reminder of the need to transform America's intelligence community to improve intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination, including its communication to policy makers."

Former Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who was one of the few leaders in either party before the war to vigorously and publicly question the administration's assertions about Iraq's capacities, was considerably more critical.

"Thus far, this administration has been characterized by a stunning amount of indifference to what has occurred," he said, adding: "This administration has held nobody accountable for anything, unless you count Tenet's resignation. Of course, he then turned around and received the nation's highest civilian award. They have been less than fully cooperative with the nonexecutive agencies which have attempted to find out what happened. It's inexplicable to me, at a pure level of management, why the administration has not held people accountable."

That is arguably so. But there may be another measure. With the exception of Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, there has now been considerable turnover in many of the administration officials most involved with prewar intelligence. At the Pentagon, Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary for policy who was deeply involved in intelligence matters, is leaving to return to private life soon.

While acknowledging the intelligence agencies' past success maintaining the status quo, the commission's co-chairman, former Senator Charles Robb, Democrat of Virginia, said the shifts in leadership that had already occurred, including Mr. Bush's nomination of John D. Negroponte to be the first director of national intelligence, meant it would be "a whole lot easier to instigate change."

Mr. Robb said that the commission had kept an open hot line for complaints, and "ran to ground" every report or rumor that came its way about potential political interference with intelligence-gathering and analysis, including reports that some C.I.A. analysts felt pressured by Mr. Cheney's repeated personal visits to the agency. But he said it had found "absolutely no instance" of anyone reporting pressure to change a position.

For his part, Judge Silberman noted that the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies had vigorously disputed any suggestion of a link between Mr. Hussein and Al Qaeda, but had not resisted the consensus opinion that Iraq had unconventional weapons. "They pushed that position," he said of the intelligence agencies, but were "absolutely uniform and uniformly wrong."