By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2004; Page A01
In the only comprehensive assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction released to the public before the war, the CIA exaggerated and distorted the evidence it had given Congress just days earlier, according to the Senate intelligence committee's report released last week.
The White Paper, released Oct. 4, 2002, and based on a classified assessment given to Congress, was the public's only look at the intelligence that policymakers used to decide whether Iraq posed enough of a threat to warrant immediate military action.
Yet the 28-page public document turned estimates into facts, left out or watered down the dissent within the government about key weapons programs, and exaggerated Iraq's ability to strike the United States, the investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found.
The heavily redacted White Paper section of the Senate report amounts to a pointed critique of the CIA's willingness to present an unbiased and objective account of the Iraqi threat to the American public.
It also raises questions about the CIA's selective declassification of material, a critique that was made by last year's joint Sept. 11 congressional inquiry and by the subsequent independent Sept. 11 commission.
In one case cited in the Senate report, a "key judgment" in the public document asserted that Iraq could quickly produce and weaponize "lethal and incapacitating biological weapons agents," including anthrax bacteria, "for delivery by bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers, and covert operations, including potentially against the U.S. Homeland."
The statement, the report said, "conveyed a level of threat to the United States homeland inconsistent with the classified National Intelligence Estimate."
The classified version, the Senate report noted, asserted that Iraq would try such attacks "if Baghdad feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regime were imminent or unavoidable, or possibly for revenge," and that such attacks would be carried out by special Iraqi forces or intelligence operatives.
Three days after the public document was released, President Bush said in a major speech to the nation in Cincinnati: "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints."
The report also notes that the White Paper dropped such qualifiers as "we judge" and "we assess," making best estimates appear as fact.
Thus the classified report's language, "We assess that Baghdad has begun renewed production of mustard, sarin, cyclosarin, and VX . . . " became "Baghdad has begun renewed production . . . "
Also, the words "we have little specific information on Iraq's CW [chemical weapons] stockpile" were removed from the unclassified paper.
"Removing caveats such as 'we judge' and 'we assess' changed many sentences in the unclassified paper to statements of fact rather than assessments," the report noted. In doing so, the White Paper "misrepresented [the intelligence community's] judgments to the public," the Senate panel concluded.
The national intelligence officer who wrote the White Paper told the committee that dropping "we judge" and "we assess" from the public version was done for stylistic reasons. At the time the White Paper was written, he told the panel, he was unsure whether it would be released by the intelligence community or by the U.S. government, in which case using "we" would not make sense.
The committee, however, noted that an unclassified White Paper issued in 1998 "contained other words which expressed the uncertainty behind the IC [intelligence community] judgments without using the word 'we.' " For example, it referred to world experts and said "they believe" or "the evidence strongly suggests" and "Iraq could."
A particularly controversial section of the NIE was the debate over Iraq's attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotors as part of its nuclear program. The classified version for lawmakers noted that the Department of Energy, the government's best experts on nuclear technology, "assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the [nuclear] program."
The unclassified White Paper said only: "Most intelligence specialists assess this to be the intended use, but some believe that these tubes are probably intended for conventional weapons programs."
Eliminating the names of the dissenting agencies or excluding dissent altogether, as the paper did on the issue of whether Iraq was developing unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver lethal agents abroad, "provided readers with an incomplete picture of the nature and extent of the debate within the Intelligence Community regarding these issues," the Senate report said.
The NIE assembled the analyses of several U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Energy Department's intelligence unit, which monitors nuclear matters. It was the most extensive intelligence assessment of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs to be made public in several years.
The CIA began work on a public document after the agency's deputy director at the time, John E. McLaughlin, attended a White House meeting at which National Security Council deputies requested such a paper. Work on the document began in May 2002, months before the classified NIE was requested by the Senate intelligence committee.
Then-CIA Director George J. Tenet resisted producing the NIE for Congress. Had the classified version not been produced, it would have been much more difficult to detect the distortions between what the intelligence community believed in private, and what it gave to the public.
When the public White Paper version was released in October, it sparked strong protests from Democrats on the Senate intelligence panel who had the classified version. They believed the public document slanted the case toward the administration's view of the Iraqi threat. In particular, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the panel's chairman at the time, pushed the CIA to declassify more information.
Four days later, Tenet, in a letter to the committee, released more information. Among the new items: The CIA believed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be unlikely to initiate a chemical or biological attack against the United States unless provoked by U.S. military actions.
"Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred," he might launch a chemical-biological counterattack, Tenet's letter said.
Hussein also might "decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."
The CIA also declassified other elements of analysis that seem to back up the president's assertion that Iraq has active ties to al Qaeda -- a growing feature of the administration's case for considering military action. Among the intelligence assessments linking Iraq to al Qaeda is "credible reporting" that the group's "leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities," according to the letter. The Senate's request and Tenet's letter came when an increasing number of intelligence officials, including former and current intelligence agency employees, were concerned the agency was tailoring its public stance to fit the administration's views.
Yesterday, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," the Senate committee's chairman, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), said that had Congress known before the vote to go to war what his committee has since discovered about the intelligence on Iraq, "I doubt if the votes would have been there."
Roberts characterized some of the redacted parts of the Senate report as "specific details that would make your eyebrows even raise higher."