By DOUGLAS JEHL
The New York Times
July 10, 2004
WASHINGTON, July 9 In a scathing, unanimous report, the Senate Intelligence Committee said Friday that the most pivotal assessments used to justify the war against Iraq were unfounded and unreasonable, and reflected major missteps by American intelligence agencies.
The detailed 511-page report, the result of a yearlong review, found in particular that the stark prewar judgment by American intelligence agencies that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons had not been substantiated by the agencies' own reporting at the time.
"Most of the major key judgments" in an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's illicit weapons were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting," the committee report said. "A series of failures, particularly in analytic trade craft, led to the mischaracterization of intelligence."
In 117 separate conclusions, the committee laid the blame squarely on what it portrayed as a sloppy, dysfunctional intelligence structure headed by George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence. The report was the harshest Congressional indictment of American intelligence agencies since the Church Committee report of the mid-1970's on abuses of power by the C.I.A.
Among the central findings, endorsed by all nine Republicans and eight Democrats on the committee, were that a culture of "group think" in intelligence agencies left unchallenged an institutional belief that Iraq had illicit weapons; that significant shortcomings in human intelligence left the United States dependent on others for information about Iraqi illicit weapons programs; and that intelligence agencies too often failed to acknowledge the limited, ambiguous and even contradictory nature of their information about Iraq and illicit arms.
"In the end, what the President and the Congress used to send the country to war was information provided by the intelligence community, and that information was flawed," said Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the panel's Republican chairman.
Even Mr. Roberts, an ardent supporter of the war, said he was not sure that Congress would have authorized the war had it known of the flimsiness on which the prewar intelligence assessments were based.
At a campaign appearance in Pennsylvania, President Bush acknowledged that the report had been "quite critical" and that there had indeed been "some failures" in the intelligence about Iraq's illicit weapons. But he said he still believed that toppling Saddam Hussein justified the conflict.
A spokesman for Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said of the document: "Nothing in this report absolves the White House of its responsibility for mishandling of the country's intelligence. The fact is that when it comes to national security, the buck stops at the White House, not anywhere else."
The Senate report was remarkable both for the severity of its criticism and the fact that it reflected a bipartisan consensus rarely seen in Congress. Democrats and Republicans alike said it underscored the urgency of moving quickly to overhaul the country's intelligence agencies.
Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the panel, said the intelligence failure on Iraq "will affect our national security for years to come."
At the Central Intelligence Agency, John McLaughlin, who takes over Sunday as the country's acting intelligence chief, said of the Senate criticism, "We get it."
But he said he still believed that "the judgments were not unreasonable when they were made nearly two years ago."
"We acknowledge with all that we have learned since then that we could have done better," Mr. McLaughlin said. But he said the agency had seen no need to dismiss anyone as a result of what he portrayed as honest, limited mistakes that did not justify a broader indictment.
On another issue used by Mr. Bush to justify the war, the committee said that intelligence agencies' prewar judgments about the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda had generally been reasonable, but that those judgments had been largely skeptical of the idea that there were significant ties between them.
The Senate report focused exclusively on the role played by intelligence agencies, and Democrats said they wished it had addressed the question of how the Bush administration had used the intelligence as a rationale for war. Under a deal reached earlier in the year between the two parties, that issue was set aside for a later phase of the inquiry, which is not likely to be completed before the November elections.
Mr. Bush and his aides have signaled that they are moving toward naming a permanent successor to Mr. Tenet, who announced his resignation last month, after the C.I.A. had begun to review the Senate report and its critical thrust became broadly known. An announcement could come as early as next week, according to administration officials, who said the candidates now included Richard L. Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, who is widely admired by Democrats as well as Republicans, and is seen as likely to win easy confirmation in the Senate.
With the election only four months away, any intelligence chief named by Mr. Bush could not count on a long tenure, a factor that could make it difficult to enlist a candidate from outside the government. But administration officials said Mr. Bush believed that the problems facing the agency were too serious and the stakes too high to leave an acting director, Mr. McLaughlin, in place for more than a limited time.
Roughly one-fifth of the version of the report made public by the committee on Friday was blacked out, reflecting material deleted at the insistence of the C.I.A. from a classified version on which the panel finished work in May. Mr. Roberts and Rockefeller, who won major concessions in weeks of negotiations over the documents' release, said they would continue to try to persuade the C.I.A. to agree that more of the document could be made public without harm to national security.
On issues related to Iraq and terrorism, the report found that American intelligence agencies had been reasonable in most of their prewar judgments, including the idea that Mr. Hussein was most likely to use his own intelligence service operatives, rather than terrorist organizations, to conduct attacks.
It also described as reasonable the C.I.A.'s assessments that contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda throughout the 1990's "did not add up to an established formal relationship" and that "there was no evidence proving Iraqi complicity or assistance in an Al Qaeda attack."
Those conclusions have not always been reflected in statements by Bush administration officials, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, who in their public remarks before the war and since have attributed more sinister significance to the the links between Iraq and Al Qaeda than the C.I.A. did in its assessments.
On the issue of Iraq and illicit weapons, the huge gap between the intelligence agencies' prewar assertions, most notably in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, and the fact that no such weapons have been found has been apparent for more than a year.
What the Senate report added to the picture was the conclusion that the intelligence assessments about Iraq were not just wrong, but that they were generally unfounded and were based on very little new information gathered after 1998. That was when United Nations inspectors left Iraq, removing the eyes and ears on which the United States had heavily relied.
Among the most glaring errors committed by the agencies, the committee said, was a failure to "accurately or adequately explain the uncertainties" behind their judgments, particularly those spelled out in the National Intelligence estimate of 2002, which stated conclusively that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons program and was reconstituting its nuclear program.
That approach, the committee said, violated what had long been understood in the intelligence community to be the central responsibility of "clearly conveying to policy makers the difference between what intelligence analysts know, what they don't know, what they think, and to make sure that policy makers understand the difference."
More broadly, it said, a "group think" dynamic inside American intelligence agencies generated, from the mid-1990's, "a collective presumption that Iraq had an active and growing weapons program." This internal bias, the report said, prompted analysts, collectors and managers in the C.I.A. and other agencies "to interpret ambiguous evidence as being conclusively indicative of a WMD program as well as ignore or minimize evidence that Iraq did not have active or expanding weapons of mass destructions programs."
Appearing with Mr. Rockefeller at a news conference on Capitol Hill, Mr. Roberts denounced what he called "a flawed system" that does not allow American intelligence officials to do their best work. He described the problems as reflecting "a broken corporate culture and poor management that cannot simply be solved by additional funding and personnel."
Mr. McLaughlin, who has been deputy director of central intelligence since 2000, responded at a hastily arranged news conference at the C.I.A.'s headquarters, where workmen were still removing a tent erected Thursday for a farewell ceremony for Mr. Tenet.
"I don't think we have a broken corporate culture at all," Mr. McLaughlin said. He cited the dismantling of a nuclear weapons proliferation network led by the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, and the capture of Qaeda leaders including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, as examples of the intelligence agencies' recent successes, and he portrayed the failures involving Iraq as reflecting isolated rather than endemic problems.
"Iraq was really a unique situation," he said.
Still, Mr. McLaughlin disclosed for the first time that the agency had adopted significant changes as a result of its mistakes in Iraq, including what he described as new procedures intended to challenge long-held assumptions and a new rule that future National Intelligence Estimates will be subjected to rigorous second-guessing before publication.
In the future, Mr. McLaughlin also said, managers who oversee intelligence-collection efforts will be required to "submit in writing" an assessment of the credibility of all human intelligence sources whose information is used as the basis for National Intelligence Estimates.