The Senate Report

Editorial

The New York Times

July 10, 2004

In a season when candor and leadership are in short supply, the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the prewar assessment of Iraqi weapons is a welcome demonstration of both. It is also disturbing, and not just because of what it says about the atrocious state of American intelligence. The report is a condemnation of how this administration has squandered the public trust it may sorely need for a real threat to national security.

The report was heavily censored by the administration and is too narrowly focused on the bungling of just the Central Intelligence Agency. But what comes through is thoroughly damning. Put simply, the Bush administration's intelligence analysts cooked the books to give Congress and the public the impression that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and was developing nuclear arms, that he was plotting to give such weapons to terrorists, and that he was an imminent threat.

These assertions formed the basis of Mr. Bush's justifications for war. But the report said that they were wrong and were not a true picture of the intelligence, and that the intelligence itself was not worth much. The freshest information from human sources was more than four years old. The committee said the analysts who had produced that false apocalyptic vision had fallen into a "collective groupthink" in which evidence was hammered into a preconceived pattern. Their bosses did not intervene.

The report reaffirmed a finding by another panel investigating intelligence failures before the 9/11 attacks in saying that there was no "established formal relationship" between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. It also said there was no evidence that Iraq had been complicit in any attack by Osama bin Laden, or that Saddam Hussein had ever tried to use Al Qaeda for an attack. Although the report said the C.I.A.'s conclusions had been "widely disseminated" in the government, Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have repeatedly talked of an Iraq-Qaeda link.

Sadly, the investigation stopped without assessing how President Bush had used the incompetent intelligence reports to justify war. It left open the question of whether the analysts thought they were doing what Mr. Bush wanted. While the panel said it had found no analyst who reported being pressured to change a finding, its vice chairman, Senator John Rockefeller IV, said there had been an "environment of intense pressure." But the issue was glossed over so the report could be adopted unanimously.

The panel's investigation into how President Bush handled the intelligence has been postponed until after the election. But the bottom line already seems pretty clear. No one had to pressure analysts to change their findings because the findings were determined before the work started.

By late 2002, you'd have had to have been vacationing on Mars not to know what answer Mr. Bush wanted. The planning for war had begun. The C.I.A. was under enormous pressure over getting it wrong before 9/11. And the hawkish defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to set up his own intelligence agency to get the goods on Iraq that the wishy-washy C.I.A. couldn't seem to deliver.

Both political parties see all this as an election issue, and the international community will see the committee report as another reason to decry Mr. Bush's go-it-alone foreign policy. But the report also speaks to a critical long-term security threat. We cannot afford to have the public become too cynical about the government's assessment of danger.

There may well come a time when Mr. Bush, or another president, will have to ask the nation and its allies to back a pre-emptive military strike against terrorists, or a country that poses a real threat. And he's probably going to have to rely on intelligence that is hardly the "slam dunk" that George Tenet reportedly called these shoddy reports on Iraq. The public will have to believe that the president is acting against a real threat, not one manufactured to justify a political agenda.

This administration has not made it easier for people to have that confidence. Its continuing insistence on linking Iraq and Al Qaeda is not aimed at helping the public understand the situation in the Middle East, but at providing political cover for an increasingly unpopular invasion.

Then there are the news conferences that administration officials hold periodically to warn us that we're about to be attacked. Everyone is aware of the danger out there, but there is no reason to go on television and repeat vague warnings that seem to be intended to frighten everyone, but are more likely to lull people into complacency by their familiarity and repetition. When Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland defense, holds a news conference to warn the nation of dire peril and it winds up as fodder for comedy shows, there's something very wrong somewhere./>

The Senate Intelligence Committee's report ought to be the first move back from the brink of destructive public cynicism. The next must come from the president, who could help restore confidence in the government's risk assessment by simply being frank about the errors his administration made and the lessons it learned. That would do more to prepare the country for the next crisis than a full season of scary press conferences by Mr. Ridge.