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Panel heaps blame on CIA for 'group think' over Iraq

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Falling victim to "group think," American intelligence agencies gave top policy-makers and Congress inaccurate or overblown information about Iraq's banned weapons and repeatedly dismissed contrary viewpoints, the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a report released yesterday.

The long-awaited report concluded that the key intelligence judgments used by the Bush administration to justify invading Iraq last year were incorrect or exaggerated. It attributed the failures to reliance on unproven assumptions, inadequate or misleading sources and bad management.

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"Before the war, the U.S. intelligence community told the president as well as the Congress and the public that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and if left unchecked, would probably have a nuclear weapon during this decade," said the committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. "Well, today we know these assessments were wrong."

The senior Democrat, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, said that if Congress had not been misinformed, "we in Congress would not have authorized that war."

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The unanimous committee report, 521 pages, found "no evidence" that intelligence agencies exaggerated the Iraqi threat because of political pressure. But in comments appended to the report, Democrats insisted that pressure from an administration bent on war was inescapable.

Rockefeller and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan wrote that intelligence estimates were produced "in a highly-pressurized climate wherein senior administration officials were making the case for military action against Iraq."

The scathing report, particularly its statement that the intelligence agencies' corporate culture and management are "broken," seemed sure to increase pressure on President Bush to nominate quickly a replacement for CIA Director George J. Tenet, whose retirement takes effect tomorrow. That could set the stage for an election-year confirmation battle.

The committee said the intelligence community had been afflicted with "group think," describing it as "examining few alternatives, selective gathering of information, pressure to conform or withhold criticism, and collective rationalization."

The panel found that the CIA "abused its unique position" as the foremost of the nation's 15 intelligence agencies by withholding information from other agencies and at times ignoring or dismissing conflicting views.

'We get it'

John E. McLaughlin, the deputy CIA director, who becomes acting director next week, said the findings should not be taken as a broad indictment of all the agencies' vast efforts, but acknowledged, "We get it."

"Although we think the judgments were not unreasonable when they were made nearly two years ago, we understand with all that we have learned since then that we could have done better," he said.

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Bush called the report a useful accounting of the agencies' shortcomings, but defended his decision to go to war and his assertions about Hussein.

"We haven't found the stockpiles, but we knew he could make them," Bush said at a campaign stop in Kutztown, Pa. "The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power."

His presumed Democratic challenger in November, Sen. John Kerry, sought to pin responsibility for the failures on Bush, saying, "The fact is that when it comes to national security, the buck stops at the White House, not anywhere else."

Examples of stretching the truth about Iraq's purported arsenal of weapons of mass destruction abound in the report. It describes how a questionable assertion that Iraq was trying to acquire nuclear-weapons fuel found its way into the president's 2003 State of the Union address and how misstatements or exaggerations were used by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council.

On Iraq's biological weapons, the report found intelligence officials based most of their conclusions on a handful of Iraqi defectors with whom they had little direct access and who had been deemed unreliable by lower-level intelligence officers.

One dubious source, code-named Curve Ball, was used to bolster the idea that Hussein had mobile biological weapons facilities, despite warnings from the only U.S. intelligence agent to have contact with him that he was an unreliable alcoholic.

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The agent sent an urgent e-mail to higher-ups expressing his concerns after he read a draft of Powell's speech, saying the one time he was allowed to meet directly with Curve Ball, who was being "handled" by a foreign intelligence agency, Curve Ball showed up almost incapacitated by a hangover.

According to the report, the CIA official who received the agent's e-mail, the deputy chief of the CIA's Iraqi Task Force, told staff investigators he didn't forward the e-mail because he didn't believe it "contained any new information."

Assessing Curve Ball

"Let's keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say," the deputy responded in an e-mail to the agent. "The Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about."

Despite Powell's demand that all the intelligence provided for his speech be solid and multisourced, his address included exaggerations about magnets and aluminum tubes supposedly intended to make nuclear weapons and possibly misinterpreted satellite imagery.

"Much of the information provided or cleared by the Central Intelligence Agency for inclusion in Secretary Powell's speech was overstated, misleading or incorrect," the report said, referring to Powell's assertions on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

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Top intelligence officials also altered the classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which detailed possible Iraqi weapons programs, when a nonclassified version of it was released to the public.

The nonclassified version took out qualifying phrases such as "We believe," or "We assess," stating information as fact.

The panel criticized Tenet for not reading the 2003 State of the Union speech, which contained 16 words describing purported Iraqi attempts to acquire the nuclear-weapons fuel in Africa.

The CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency kept issuing reports, noting information that Iraq was trying to procure enriched uranium - a nuclear-weapons fuel - even after the information was discounted.

The report is likely to spur efforts to reform and restructure the intelligence community. One failing that needs to be corrected is the apparent absence of a team that can question the assumptions held by top intelligence officials, said committee member Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

"Structural, organizational and jurisdictional reforms must be made and will be made," Mikulski said. "But, the goal ultimately is to create an environment and a culture where truth to power is spoken from the bottom to the top."

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Some findings

Major judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq's alleged nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs were "either overstated or were not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting."

Intelligence officials didn't explain to policy-makers the uncertainties behind their judgments.

Intelligence agencies suffered from a collective presumption that Iraq had an active and growing program to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The committee "found no evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or press analysts to change their judgments."

Report excerpts

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From the Senate report on pre-Iraq war intelligence:

Conclusion 1.

Most of the major key judgments in the Intelligence Community's October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction, either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting. ...

The major judgments in the NIE, particularly that Iraq "is reconstituting its nuclear program," "has chemical and biological weapons," was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) "probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents," and that "all key aspects - research & development (R&D;), production, and weaponization - of Iraq's offensive biological weapons (BW) program are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War," either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting provided to the Committee. ...

Conclusion 6.

The Committee found significant shortcomings in almost every aspect of the Intelligence Community's human intelligence collection efforts against Iraq's weapons of mass destruction activities, in particular that the Community had no sources collecting against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after 1998. Most, if not all, of these problems stem from a broken corporate culture and poor management, and will not be solved by additional funding and personnel.

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Because the United States lacked an official presence inside Iraq, the Intelligence Community depended too heavily on defectors and foreign government services to obtain HUMINT information. ...Conclusion 8.

Intelligence Community analysts lack a consistent post-September 11 approach to analyzing and reporting on terrorist threats.

Though analysts have been wrong on major issues in the past, no previous intelligence failure has been so costly as the September 11 attacks. ... [Since then] threat analysts are encouraged to "push the envelope" and look at various possible threat scenarios that can be drawn from limited and often fragmentary information. As a result, analysts can no longer dismiss a threat as incredible because they cannot corroborate it.

Conclusion 10.

The Intelligence Community relies too heavily on foreign government services and third party reporting, thereby increasing the potential for manipulation of U.S. policy by foreign interests. ...

Conclusion 19.

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Even after obtaining forged documents [purportedly showing Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger] and being alerted by a State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) analyst about problems with them, analysts at both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) did not examine them carefully enough to see the obvious problems with the documents. Both agencies continued to publish assessments that Iraq may have been seeking uranium from Africa. In addition, CIA continued to approve the use of similar language in Administration publications and speeches, including the State of the Union. ...

Conclusion 84.

The committee found no evidence that the Vice President's visits to the Central Intelligence Agency were attempts to pressure analysts. ...

Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Additional Views:

In the case of Iraq, flawed intelligence was fuel for activating the policy of pre-emption. The men and women of our armed forces were put, and remain, in harm's way - perhaps needlessly. Relationships with our treasured allies are frayed. These are grave and severe consequences. That is why I believe it is not sufficient to merely analyze what went wrong. That analysis must be a starting point for reform.


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