By JONATHAN S. LANDAY AND JAMES KUHNHENN
WASHINGTON – A Senate committee issued a scathing repudiation Friday of the U.S. intelligence community’s prewar assessment that Iraq had weapons programs, saying the finding was hyped, lacked evidence and was driven by «group think.»
The Senate Intelligence Committee report cited numerous examples in which the CIA and other agencies put too much stock in weak information, too much reliance on defectors and foreign intelligence services, and were hamstrung by a failure to recruit spies in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle.
Moreover, intelligence officials suffered from »group think» — a shared conviction that Iraq was hiding a nuclear weapons program and stockpiling biological and chemical warheads. As a result, the agencies interpreted ambiguous evidence as proof and rejected data that contradicted that view, the report said.
The report, endorsed by the nine Republicans and eight Democrats on the committee, found that the primary reason President Bush gave for attacking Iraq was untrue.
`WE BELIEVE IT’
Bush »made very declarative statements. There’s no question about it,» said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the committee’s chairman. «He made a case to go to war. We all did. . . . We believed it. But the information was wrong. What he [the president] said was what he got from the intelligence community, and what he got was wrong.»
Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the panel’s senior Democrat, said the Senate would not have voted for war in October 2002 if it had known about what he said was among «the most devastating losses and intelligence failures in the history of the nation.»
»Tragically, the intelligence failure set forth in this report will affect our national security for generations to come,» Rockefeller said at a news conference with Roberts. «Our credibility is diminished. . . . We have fostered a deep hatred of Americans in the Muslim world, and that will grow. As a direct consequence, our nation is more vulnerable today than ever before.»
John McLaughlin, who takes over as CIA director when George Tenet retires Sunday, told a news conference that intelligence agencies already have taken steps to address the defects behind the prewar intelligence analysis.
»We could have done better,» he said.
Bush said at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania that he hadn’t read the report. But he said Hussein was a threat that had to be eliminated.
»Saddam Hussein had the capacity to make weapons. See, he had the ability to make them. He had the intent. We knew he hated America,» Bush said. «We knew he tortured his own people, and we knew he had the capability of making weapons. That we do know. They haven’t found the stockpiles, but we do know he could make them.»
While there was bipartisan accord on the bulk of the report, Democrats disputed a conclusion that intelligence analysts weren’t pressured to produce findings that would bolster Bush’s case that Hussein possessed weapons that he could provide to terrorists.
Rockefeller pointed out that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top officials had been accusing Iraq of possessing outlawed weapons and aiding the al Qaeda network long before the intelligence community delivered its key assessment on Iraq in October 2002.
»I do not think there is any evidence of undue pressure on any analyst,» Roberts countered.
The report did not examine how the administration used intelligence in making its case against Hussein, the impact of a parallel Pentagon intelligence effort or information from defectors provided by a former exile group, the Iraqi National Congress.
Those questions are to be dealt with in a second report, which is not expected to be released before the November presidential election.
The intelligence committee spent a year dissecting the information that underpinned the U.S. intelligence community’s October 2002 assessment — called a National Intelligence Estimate — that Iraq had nuclear, biological and chemical warfare programs.
No such weapons and no evidence to substantiate the finding have been found since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in March 2003.
Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech to the U.N. Security Council and other formal administration statements making the case against Hussein were based on the National Intelligence Estimate.
The committee’s 511-page report said the blame for the flawed assessment extended from the analysts who interpreted the raw intelligence through their supervisors up to Tenet and his most senior advisors.
Tenet and his senior managers »did not encourage analysts to challenge their assumptions, fully consider alternative arguments, accurately characterize the intelligence reporting or counsel analysts who lost their objectivity,» the report said.
NO ONE IN IRAQ
The committee criticized the CIA for not sending any officers to Iraq to collect intelligence on illegal weapons programs or recruit Iraqi spies after U.N. weapons inspectors pulled out in 1998.
The report dismissed assertions by senior CIA officers that such an effort would have required significantly more money and manpower. The committee’s report said it thought the «problem is less a question of resources than a need for dramatic changes in a risk averse corporate culture.»
McLaughlin disputed that finding. He noted that the CIA had people in Iraq within 17 days of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
»I completely reject and resent any implication by this committee that our officers are risk averse,» he said.
By JONATHAN S. LANDAY AND JAMES KUHNHENN