WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Senate intelligence committee will issue a damning critique today of the failure by U.S. spy agencies to provide an accurate picture of Iraq's banned weapons programs before President Bush took the nation to war to topple Saddam Hussein.
The 450-page report -- the result of a yearlong probe, 240 interviews and the examination of about 30,000 documents -- offers the first comprehensive look at how the vast U.S. intelligence apparatus gathered and assessed information on Hussein's suspected efforts to produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
According to members of both parties, it will not be a flattering account, substantiating what a Senate source characterized yesterday as a lack of human sources in Iraq, "group think," the failure to challenge old assumptions, and a fractured intelligence community that includes the CIA and 14 other agencies.
"The report is full of omissions, errors, inconsistencies, failures on the part of the CIA," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat on the committee, who told reporters on Capitol Hill that the panel's findings will be "intensely and extensively critical."
The report is likely to give new momentum to congressional moves to reform and reorganize U.S. intelligence agencies.
"It is a stunning indictment of the status quo that should sound the alarm for major structural reform," panel member Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, said through an aide.
But it won't delve into the politically charged question of whether President Bush and top aides exaggerated the intelligence data to build congressional and public support for invading Iraq. That will come in the second phase of the committee's probe, which might not be completed until after the November election.
In the months leading to the invasion in March last year, the U.S. intelligence community expressed near-certainty that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and had revived its effort to develop nuclear weapons.
In the 15 months since U.S.-led forces gained control of Iraq after the fall of Hussein, no stockpiles of banned weapons have been uncovered, and American investigators have acknowledged that Iraq's nuclear program was rudimentary.
The prewar intelligence failures have damaged U.S. credibility worldwide and caused many to question the president's policy of pre-emptive action against presumed threats.
'Incorrect set of facts'
Lacking reliable sources in Iraq, U.S. spy agencies used others who in some cases were inadequately checked out and provided bad information, according to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican on the panel.
Conclusions were consequently based on "an incorrect set of facts," he said. And when the assumptions were challenged within the intelligence community, "for the most part, the conclusions failed to take into consideration the difference of opinion," Chambliss said.
But Chambliss, in a telephone interview, said the report will vindicate Bush's decision to go to war by showing that the intelligence conclusions, if not the information supporting them, bolstered his judgment.
"There was no reason for the White House to go behind the information and check and see what the basis for the information was," he said.
The report is the first of two coming out this month that will put the intelligence community under a harsh spotlight. On July 26, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks will issue its findings, including a section on the spy agencies' failure to learn enough about al-Qaida's plans to enable preventive action.
The Senate report comes days before the CIA's director, George J. Tenet, is to leave office. Bush said this week that he had not decided whether to appoint a replacement right away or keep John McLaughlin, Tenet's deputy, as acting director, perhaps until after the election.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment yesterday on the report, about 20 percent of which the agency has kept classified despite protests from some members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
But Tenet, in an emotional farewell ceremony yesterday, appeared to be alluding to the report's stinging conclusions as he praised CIA employees and added, "My only wish is that those whose job it is to help us do better show the same balance and care."
The use of faulty information from Iraqi exiles who wanted to see Hussein overthrown has been widely reported. But intelligence agencies also received inaccurate data from sources "with no ax to grind," said Chambliss. He described the agencies' failure to support their conclusions with solid information as "very troublesome."
Senate sources said the report touches briefly on the work of a separate intelligence analysis office set up in the Pentagon by the undersecretary for policy, Douglas Feith.
The report explores at length an episode in which faked documents were passed to Western intelligence agencies purporting to show that Iraq was negotiating to buy enriched uranium from the African nation of Niger.
The CIA discouraged the White House from mentioning the report in a Bush speech in October 2002. But speechwriters incorporated it into the president's State of the Union address the following January, citing British intelligence as the source of the information.
Levin and other Democrats have said repeatedly that the Bush administration exaggerated or distorted the threat posed by Hussein. Yesterday, Levin made public a declassified CIA report casting new doubt on whether Mohammed Atta, a leading figure in the Sept. 11 attacks, met with an Iraqi official in Prague in April 2001.
The report said the agency was "increasingly skeptical that such a meeting occurred," according to Levin.
Calls for reform
One proposal for reshaping the intelligence community that is gaining support on Capitol Hill would create the post of director of national intelligence, with authority over all U.S. intelligence agencies.
But a former CIA general counsel, Jeffrey H. Smith, warned yesterday that demands for reform and harsh attacks on the intelligence agencies might not solve the problems and could prove counterproductive.
"Too many organizational changes too quickly risk making the problem worse," said Smith, now an adviser to the Democratic presidential campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Sweeping changes, in addition to the congressional criticism, could have a "devastating effect on morale" and lead intelligence analysts to shy away from straightforward conclusions.