By DAVID JOHNSTON
The New York Times
July 10, 2004
WASHINGTON, July 9 Although the Senate Intelligence Committee found no evidence that the Bush administration had tried to coerce the C.I.A. to produce exaggerated prewar warnings about Iraq's weapons programs, its findings did little to still the furious debate about whether the White House and the Pentagon tried to influence the agency's conclusions.
The White House took comfort in the committee's report on Friday, but it was clear from the arguments still raging across Washington that the administration's dealings with the Central Intelligence Agency will remain a politically volatile issue through the election campaign.
At a news conference on Friday, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the committee, said the report "failed to explain the environment of intense pressure in which intelligence community officials were asked to render judgments on matters relating to Iraq, when policy officials had already forcefully stated their own conclusions in public."
Mr. Rockefeller, recalling that President Bush described Saddam Hussein in March 2002 as "a dangerous man who possesses the world's most dangerous weapons," said such comments put pressure on intelligence agencies to conform with the president's views.
Democrats also noted that the formation of a special intelligence unit at the Pentagon by the Bush administration to review ties between Iraq and terror groups served notice on the C.I.A. that powerful corners of the administration were ready to challenge agency assessments. Frequent visits to the agency by Vice President Dick Cheney, they said, also were a form of pressure, a view the Senate committee rejected.
But Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas and chairman of the panel, said there was no evidence that the agency altered any findings under political pressure. "In the end," he said at a news conference, "what the president and the Congress used to send the country to war was information that was provided by the intelligence community, and that information was flawed."
The issue is not whether the White House or the Pentagon ordered the agency to produce intelligence assessments that conformed with White House policy on Iraq. The report concluded, "The committee was not presented with any evidence that intelligence analysts changed their judgments as result of political pressure, altered or produced intelligence products to conform with administration policy, or that anyone even attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to do so."
The lingering question, not directly addressed by the committee, is whether the White House and Pentagon generated a climate that induced the agency and its director, George J. Tenet, to emphasize the Iraqi threat even though the intelligence data was ambiguous.
That question, in part, revolves around the relationship between the White House and Mr. Tenet, who leaves the agency on Sunday after seven years as director. Some intelligence officials said Mr. Tenet, a holdover from Bill Clinton's presidency, seemed to be eager to establish himself in Mr. Bush's inner circle.
Mr. Tenet has said that he never shaded intelligence to please a president.
As the White House turned its attention toward Iraq in 2002, intelligence officials, including Mr. Tenet, were still on the defensive about the agency's failure to detect possible warning signs of the September 2001 attacks. The Senate report found that the agency was reluctant to underestimate Mr. Hussein or his ties to terrorists.
The pressure at the agency was especially intense on issues related to whether Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda. The report concluded that the agency reported accurately about such ties, based on its limited information.
In one committee interview, the agency's ombudsman, who was not identified by name, described what he called a "hammering" in the form of repeated questions by administration officials on Iraq intelligence related to Mr. Hussein's possible links to Al Qaeda. The intensity of the questioning was "harder than he had previously witnessed in his 32-year career with the agency," the report quoted the official as saying.
The ombudsman, the report said, had interviewed about two dozen employees who had worked on a June 2002 report entitled "Iraq and Al Qaeda: Interpreting a Murky Relationship," a document that was accompanied by a note that said it was prepared using a "purposefully aggressive" approach in assessing possible ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
Some frequent visits to the agency were from the White House, including Mr. Cheney, who visited for briefings between five and eight times between September 2001 and February 2003. Jami Miscik, the deputy director for intelligence was quoted in the report saying, "He was usually in receive mode during the presentation and then asked questions afterwards."
The report concluded that these visits were not perceived by analysts as efforts to pressure them, but other intelligence officials said such high-level visits often forced analysts to simplify complicated subjects and gloss over internal doubts.
Richard Kerr, a former deputy director at the agency who was interviewed by the committee after reviewing intelligence on Iraq, said administration officials asked repetitive questions. The committee report said some analysts said that the repeated queries were a form of pressure, but could not say whether anyone complained about it.
The committee's report was approved unanimously by senators from both political parties, though some Democrats issued additional statements that seemed to contradict key findings in the report.
Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, said on Friday that the administration could be faulted for the C.I.A.'s mistakes on Iraq. "The committee's report does not acknowledge that the intelligence estimate were shaped by the administration," she said. "In my view, this remains an open question that needs more careful scrutiny."
By agreement between Republicans and Democrats on the committee, the issue of how the administration used the C.I.A.'s information has been deferred to a second phase of the inquiry, which is not expected to be completed until after the presidential election in November.