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Iraq report focuses blame on CIA

By John Diamond
USA TODAY/July 11, 2004

Two days before Christmas 2002, with war in Iraq less than three months away, an intelligence analyst at the Department of Energy e-mailed a colleague to complain that the CIA was squelching dissent from those who doubted that Iraq was trying to import uranium and other nuclear weapons components.

Despite questions being raised by other U.S. intelligence agencies, the CIA insisted that Iraq was trying to import uranium ore from Niger and had tried to buy aluminum tubes to use in making a nuclear weapon. The analyst griped in his note to a State Department counterpart that there were plenty of "strong points" in raw intelligence reports to show Iraq's failure to abide by United Nations sanctions.

"However, when individuals attempt to convert those 'strong statements' into the 'knock out' punch, the Administration will ultimately look foolish i.e. the tubes and Niger!" the Energy analyst said.

The message is one of many recounted in the Senate Intelligence Committee's 440-page report on intelligence lapses leading up to the war in Iraq. It foretold the political trouble that would confront the Bush administration when, more than a year after the war began, the weapons of mass destruction that it said Iraq possessed have not been found. The e-mail also neatly summed up the key finding of the committee: that the CIA repeatedly took interesting but ambiguous intelligence reports and punched them up into unqualified warnings about Iraq's alleged arsenal.

The Bush administration clearly hopes that the Senate committee's yearlong investigation will make the CIA, not the White House, look responsible for the mess. The administration, meanwhile, is trying to position itself as an advocate of reform at the CIA. President Bush is considering candidates to succeed CIA Director George Tenet, who retired Sunday.

Over the objections of Democrats, the Republican-controlled committee decided to put off until after the November election an inquiry into whether Bush administration officials went beyond the available intelligence reports in their claims about Iraq's weaponry. But there is no debate that the report paints a damning portrait of bungling intelligence agencies relying on dubious sources and faulty logic to arrive at dire warnings that have yet to be confirmed.

The key word in the report is "overstated." The CIA overstated the case that Iraq possessed not just the ability to make chemical and biological weapons, but also the ingredients and the weapons themselves, the report says. The agency overstated the quality of its intelligence about supposed mobile biological-weapons-production labs. And its judgment that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program "was not supported by the intelligence."

Accounts of shortcomings, lapses and misjudgments abound in the report:

The CIA took four months to determine that documents crucial to the uranium charge "could be fraudulent." But it never circulated that Feb. 11, 2003, warning among administration officials who had been using that intelligence in making the case for war. U.N. officials needed only weeks to conclude in March 2003, days before the U.S.-led invasion, that the uranium documents were crude forgeries.

Tenet did not review an advance copy of Bush's State of the Union address in January 2003, which repeated the charge about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa. No one in the CIA office responsible for fact-checking intelligence-related portions of the speech remembers seeing a copy.

Although Tenet was responsible for reporting from all of the 15 military and civilian intelligence agencies, he told committee investigators that he was unaware of dissenting opinions about Iraq at those different agencies until just before completion of an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi weapons programs.

After 1998, the CIA's Directorate of Operations, the clandestine service responsible for recruiting spies in foreign countries, had no human sources inside Iraq with access to information on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The report pointedly clears the Bush administration of the oft-repeated charge that it pressured the CIA into reaching a worst-case assessment of Iraqi weapons to help sell the war. None of the more than 200 intelligence analysts interviewed for the report said they were pressured to change their judgments.

In minority views published along with the report, Democrats on the committee said that Richard Kerr, a former high-ranking CIA official asked by the agency to examine the Iraq intelligence lapses, told investigators that repeated White House requests for information linking Iraq to the al-Qaeda terrorist network created "significant pressure on the Intelligence community." The CIA's ombudsman, who was not identified in the report, "said he felt the 'hammering' by the Bush administration on Iraq intelligence was harder than he had previously witnessed in his 32-year career," Sens. Jay Rockefeller, Carl Levin, and Dick Durbin, all Democrats, wrote in their minority views.

The full Senate committee identified a different sort of pressure. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the CIA received harsh criticism for failing to "connect the dots" in scattered intelligence reports and unravel the terror plot. That criticism helped contribute to what the committee called a "group think dynamic" in which even tentative reports about suspicious activity in Iraq were accepted as fact.

An intelligence officer preparing the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate echoed the post-9/11 criticism of the CIA. The officer, who was not named in the report, told committee investigators that the uranium charge was included in the document, despite doubts about the intelligence, so that "Nobody can say we didn't connect the dots."

The CIA's failure before the Sept. 11 attacks stemmed from missing an impending threat, while the lapses prior to the invasion of Iraq stemmed from exaggerating a threat. But investigations have found similar problems in both cases. The Sept. 11 attacks went undetected in part because U.S. intelligence agencies did not talk to one another. In the case of Iraq, the Senate committee reported numerous instances where key information held by one branch of U.S. intelligence was not shared with others.

Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, now the acting head of the CIA, told reporters Friday that the agency had already made changes to prevent future threats from being overstated. But he said Iraq was a special case, not a sign of chronic dysfunction at the agency. "I don't think we have a broken corporate culture at all," McLaughlin said. No one at the White House or on Capitol Hill was echoing that view.

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