C.I.A. Review Is Critical of Prewar Iraq Analysis

By DOUGLAS JEHL

New York Times

September 22, 2004

McLEAN, Va., Sept. 21 - A review by the Central Intelligence Agency has identified serious weaknesses in analytical work on Iraq but continues to hold that the prewar conclusion that Iraq possessed illicit weapons was reasonable based on the information available at the time, an internal document shows.

"We're not kidding ourselves," John E. McLaughlin, the acting director of central intelligence, said Tuesday in an hourlong interview in his office at the agency's headquarters here. "Reasonable doesn't mean we were right."

But the description of the prewar conclusions as reasonable is very different from the judgment reached unanimously in July by the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose report described the conclusions as having been unwarranted and unfounded.

The C.I.A. document, dated August 2004 and obtained by The New York Times, summarizes conclusions reached by a panel called the Iraq W.M.D. Review Group, which completed a 10-month review in May but has not made its findings public. Among the analytical flaws identified in the group's report were what was described as "imprecise language" and "insufficient follow-up" as well as "sourcing problems" in the prewar intelligence on Iraq, including "numerous cases" in which analysts "misrepresented the meaning" of intelligence reports about Iraq's weapons.

The August report, a new C.I.A. publication known as "Tradecraft Review," found the agency's analytic judgments to have been reasonable, but it also described the C.I.A.'s analytical branch as having "never been more junior or more inexperienced" than it is now and said that some of the "systemic problems" uncovered might reflect more general "tradecraft weaknesses" across the branch, known as the Directorate of Intelligence.

The interview with Mr. McLaughlin was arranged by the C.I.A. after The Times obtained the internal document and requested that a senior official be made available to discuss it. The document was based on a presentation made to C.I.A. analysts in May by Jami Miscik, the deputy director for intelligence. Ms. Miscik joined Mr. McLaughlin in his office for the interview.

In particular, the document says, the now-discredited National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, which found that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear program, was not double-checked to be sure that its assertions were properly backed up. Efforts by intelligence agencies to substantiate the estimate proved "unable to support some of the text with sources," the document says.

Mr. McLaughlin has served as the agency's acting director since July 12, during a period in which the agency has come under scrutiny more intense than any it has faced in more than a quarter century. Representative Porter J. Goss is expected to win Senate confirmation this week as director of central intelligence, and as Mr. McLaughlin prepares to give way, he said in the interview that he was not being complacent or in denial about the quality of intelligence on Iraq, the Sept. 11 attacks, and other issues that have kindled sharp criticism and given rise to calls for an intelligence overhaul.

After the interview, Mr. McLaughlin telephoned a reporter to say he wanted to emphasize that the criticisms spelled out in the internal review on Iraq and illicit weapons should demonstrate that the C.I.A. was "not shying away from the problem." The review represented "a lot of work put together by people who clearly get it," he said. He said he took issue with those who have labeled the agency's prewar judgments on Iraq and illicit weapons as unreasonable because they were doing so with the benefit of hindsight.

Mr. McLaughlin described the internal review as part of a concerted effort by the agency that began in July 2003, after the failure to find illicit weapons in Iraq raised questions about the prewar intelligence. The purpose, Mr. McLaughlin said, has been to identify problems and lessons that should be learned by analysts whose duties cover the broad spectrum of the agency's analytical work.

Still, the bottom-line conclusion, which Mr. McLaughlin emphasized in the interview, was the same one that C.I.A. officials have offered for more than a year in response to criticisms of the prewar intelligence on Iraq. "Based on the information we had in hand and in front of us, the judgments were reasonable" at the time, Mr. McLaughlin said of the conclusions spelled out in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.

Ms. Miscik said, "You could see how people could have gotten to that conclusion" that Iraq had such weapons.

Mr. McLaughlin's tenure has included the sharp criticisms spelled out in final reports from the independent Sept. 11 commission as well as from the Senate committee, against a backdrop of calls for intelligence reform that have included one high-level call, from Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, that the C.I.A. be dismantled.

But in the interview, Mr. McLaughlin, who rose through the agency's analytical ranks to become deputy director of central intelligence in 2000, also sought to turn attention to the agency's successes. Among them, he mentioned the apparent disruption in Pakistan and Britain this summer of a Qaeda cell that had produced surveillance reports on buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington.

Still, Mr. McLaughlin said in the interview, the volume and intensity of outside criticism and internal business has made his short time as acting director "the equivalent of two or three years of the typical directorship." He said he had sometimes felt the need to reassure the agency's employees.

"People here are resilient or they wouldn't be in this business," he said. "And they don't come here for public praise. But it's been a rough couple of months for people here, in terms of some of the public criticisms."

In the interview, both officials said the use of the word "reasonable" in describing the C.I.A.'s prewar judgments should not be given undue emphasis. They noted that the overall tone of the August 2004 document, which summarized comments Ms. Miscik made in presentations to analysts in May, was critical, encouraging more "analytical humility" and discouraging "analytical arrogance" within the intelligence directorate, known as the D.I.

"The directorate's track record will never be all right or all wrong," the document says, "but the Iraq W.M.D. review can provide analysts some important lessons on how to improve D.I. analysis across the board regardless of the issues they cover. The purpose is not to point fingers, but to demonstrate through concrete examples that the D.I. can improve."