A scathing report on the CIA--and a big pass for the White House

"We went to war in Iraq," declared Sen. John Rockefeller, the democratic vice chair of the committee, "based on false claims."

Nation & World
Missed Clues, Dropped balls
A scathing report on the CIA--and a big pass for the White House
By Kevin Whitelaw

Ever since the first American troops entered Iraq, the Bush administration has had an increasingly difficult time explaining why, exactly, it took the nation to war. None of the various justifications--weapons of mass destruction, ties to terrorism, creating a burgeoning democracy in the Middle East--seem quite as compelling anymore. Even as reports of American casualties continue to filter in from Iraq almost daily, it now appears that the entire case for war was fundamentally flawed.

Indeed, the assertions about Iraq laid out by the U.S. intelligence community and repeated even more vehemently by top Bush administration officials--that Iraq had reconstituted its weapons of mass destruction programs--were wrong and not even supported by reliable top-secret data, according to a bipartisan report issued late last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee. "We went to war in Iraq," declared Sen. John Rockefeller, the democratic vice chair of the committee, "based on false claims."

The Senate panel's report is only the latest dissection of the intelligence community and its failings in recent years. The report rips apart the CIA's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which formed the basis for the Bush administration's case for war. It concludes that most of the document's central judgments on the existence of weapons of mass destruction were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting." The final judgment on the intelligence community pulls no punches, calling the flawed analysis "the result of a combination of systemic weaknesses, primarily in analytic tradecraft, compounded by a lack of information sharing, poor management, and inadequate intelligence collection." Or, as one committee aide puts it, "This is total failure."

The report came as CIA Director George Tenet was emptying out his desk for retirement. He comes in for some tough criticism, even as the Senate panel concluded that there was no evidence that the CIA's errant assertions were the result of political pressure. But Rockefeller issued a separate dissent, asserting that there indeed were several reports of strong pressure on analysts from policymakers to come to strong conclusions, especially on Iraqi links to terrorism. He mentioned a statement by the CIA's ombudsman that the "hammering" of analysts was more severe than he had ever seen in his 32-year career. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who chairs the committee, disagreed, saying that policymakers were supposed to challenge and question the intelligence community in order to spur better analyses.

Curveball. As bad as it all looks, it could have been even worse for President Bush. Republicans on the committee blocked the panel from looking into how the administration used--or misused--intelligence in making the case for war in this first report. This angered several insiders, who noted that the CIA didn't declare war on Iraq. "It's not as if this group of people in the administration were reluctantly pushed into a decision by this finding," says a senior intelligence official who retired recently. "They were looking for a justification for a decision that they already reached." Instead, the committee will take this on in a second report that will most likely appear after the election.

Either way, the Senate committee's report is a scathing portrait of a dysfunctional CIA caught up in its own web of secrecy. Perhaps most stun-ning is the revelation of how little information the CIA had about Iraq, which had been one of its top priorities since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In fact, the CIA did not have a single human source--or spy--of its own with access to Iraq's weapons programs after 1998. Instead, much of the analysis was based on historical knowledge and extrapolation from fragmentary scraps of questionable information.

Some of the harshest criticism is reserved for the CIA's analysts. The main complaint: They did not challenge the conventional wisdom prevalent inside the intelligence community that Saddam Hussein was vigorously pursuing WMD. The report concluded: "This groupthink dynamic led intelligence community analysts, collectors, and managers to interpret ambiguous evidence as conclusively indicative of a WMD program, as well as ignore or minimize evidence that Iraq did not have active and expanding weapons of mass destruction programs."

Intelligence officials, for their part, defended their analysis, saying that with the available information, it would have been almost impossible to have come to any conclusions other than the ones they issued. "There were very few people around the world in the intelligence community that questioned the basic assumption that weapons of mass destruction existed," said the CIA's acting director, John McLaughlin.

Still, the October NIE was notable inside the community for going beyond previous conclusions when it came to the status of Saddam's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs. In each case, the Senate committee concluded that the intelligence community issued more alarming conclusions than before, based mostly on a single piece of evidence in each case. For example, the NIE concluded that Saddam's biological weapons program was more active and larger than before the Gulf War. But this was mostly based on a report--from a single source of questionable credibility to whom U.S. officials almost never had direct access--that Saddam was using mobile biological trailers.

The story of this defector--an Iraqi design engineer with the code name Curveball--is revealing. Reports from Curveball, who had defected and was in German hands, were the prime reason the CIA had concluded that Iraq had developed mobile biological labs. Intelligence analysts trusted his reports, even though the only American official to meet him before the Iraq war was worried because the day they met, Curveball was severely hung over. Indeed, there were numerous inconsistencies in his reports, compounded by the confusion of translating his Arabic into German before rendering it in English. It was only after the Iraq war, however, that Pentagon officials re-examined Curveball's reports and issued several corrections. The most damning: Curveball was not a scientist or even a biological weapons expert, and he might never have claimed that the project he was working on was used to produce biological agents.

Tubular confusion. A failure to share information was the fatal flaw in the tangled tale of a covert shipment of aluminum tubes in 2001--a finding that formed the basis for judging that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear program. The CIA's conclusion--that the tubes were intended for centri-fuges that could be used to enrich uranium--was largely based on the judgment of a single weapons expert and a set of faulty comparisons to other weapons systems, according to the report. Experts at the Department of Energy had disagreed with the CIA, saying the tubes were more likely for use in conventional rocket systems.

The report reveals that when the CIA decided to test the tubes, it did so unilaterally. "We were trying to prove something that we wanted to prove with the testing," a CIA analyst told the committee. The tests were run without the knowledge of scientists at the Energy Department's national laboratories, who later said the tests were conducted improperly.

Even worse, when the NIE was declassified and released to the public as a White Paper, a disagreement was acknowledged, but there was no specific reference to the strong and lengthy dissent by the nuclear scientists at the Energy Department.

The latter problem was part of a larger pattern, where the unclassified White Paper in October 2002 was stripped of most of the caveats, footnoted dissensions, and carefully couched language of the classified version. This meant that the public version sounded much more confident about its findings than the one being read by senior officials.

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