Shifting blame for Iraq debacle

CHICAGO — CHICAGO - The Senate Intelligence Committee has accused the U.S. intelligence community of gross errors in the information that justified the invasion of Iraq, and how do diehard supporters of the war take the news? They're thrilled.

In their view, this exonerates President Bush of the charge that he stretched the truth in his zeal for war. "A few apologies would seem to be in order," crowed an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that "this unanimous study" found the claims that Mr. Bush misled Americans "are without merit." Mr. Bush said he welcomed the assessment of "where the intelligence-gathering services went short" - deftly shifting the blame away from himself.


But the committee was not exactly unanimous in acquitting Mr. Bush.

In fact, ranking Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and two of his Democratic colleagues, Carl Levin of Michigan and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, attached a statement that was highly unflattering:


"Administration officials undertook a relentless public campaign which repeatedly characterized the Iraq weapons of mass destruction program in more ominous and threatening terms than the intelligence community analysis substantiated. Similarly, public statements of senior officials on Iraqi links to terrorism generally and al-Qaida specifically were often based on a selective release of intelligence information that implied a cooperative, operational relationship that the intelligence community did not believe existed."

They were not the only ones who said Mr. Bush deliberately deceived us. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, in her own statement, charged that "the administration did not fairly represent the intelligence" and "oversold the imminent need for war."

When the president said we needed to remove Saddam Hussein because he might pass unconventional weapons to al-Qaida, noted Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, he "directly contradicted the intelligence information he had been given" - which was that Mr. Hussein was not likely to do so, unless he was attacked.

The senators were unanimous that the intelligence community did a poor job - not that the president did a good one. But one unanimous verdict has gotten little attention from those who continue to support the decision to go to war: The CIA was right when it reported "there was no evidence proving Iraqi complicity or assistance in an al-Qaida attack," and since the war began, "no information has emerged to suggest otherwise."

The war party also omits an important fact: Assessing the performance of the intelligence community is only half of the Intelligence Committee's task. The other half is evaluating how the administration used the intelligence data it got. Republicans insisted on putting that report off until later - almost certainly after the November election. Why do they want to wait? Not because they expect it to be a ringing vindication of President Bush.

Where the committee assessment is least convincing is in its finding that nobody in the administration pressured intelligence analysts to tell them what they wanted to hear. Apparently the senators couldn't locate any intelligence drudges who wanted to risk their careers by saying that publicly, but that doesn't mean there aren't any who believe it.

Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst who wrote a book making the case for an invasion of Iraq, reports in The Atlantic Monthly that in the run-up to war, he got a steady stream of "complaints from friends and colleagues in the intelligence community" who found that "administration officials reacted strongly, negatively and aggressively when presented with information or analysis that contradicted what they believed about Iraq."

The atmosphere didn't encourage independent thinking. When one analyst raised doubts about an Iraqi defector code-named Curve Ball, whose data was used in Colin L. Powell's address to the U.N. Security Council, his boss told him to get real.


"Let's keep in mind that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball did or didn't say, and that the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about," wrote the deputy chief of the CIA's task force on Iraq, in a memo uncovered by the committee.

In the end, the powers that be got what they wanted. But focusing on whether the president was the cause of bad intelligence or its victim misses the central facts about this whole mess: The administration insisted on going to war against a regime that had been safely contained, and then blundered into a nightmare that promises to claim American lives for years to come.

For all that, as The Wall Street Journal might put it, some apologies would seem to be in order.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.