The newly retired head of the State Department’s intelligence arm said Tuesday that the U.S. intelligence community “badly underperformed” for years in assessing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and should accept responsibility for its failure.
The assessment by Carl W. Ford Jr., former assistant secretary of State for intelligence and research, marked the first time a senior official involved in preparing the prewar assessments on Iraq has asserted that serious intelligence errors were made.
Before the war, the intelligence community concluded that Iraq possessed biological and chemical weapons and that Saddam Hussein had restarted a nuclear weapons program. After nearly six months of occupation, no such weapons have been discovered.
The intelligence community “has to bear the major responsibility for WMD information in Iraq and other intelligence failures,” Ford said in two interviews with The Times. The Vietnam veteran worked for years in U.S. military intelligence, the CIA and the Defense Department and retired Oct. 3. “We badly underperformed for a number of years,” he added, “and the information we were giving the policy community was off the mark.”
Ford could not pinpoint what had gone wrong, but the question, he said, must be answered.
The entire intelligence community -- including Ford and the bureau he ran -- should have done a better job of ferreting out the truth about Iraq’s capabilities, he said. The first step in improving the performance of the agencies, he added, is to admit error.
“It’s sort of like the first step in a 12-step program,” he said. “You have to have that moment of clarity to realize that you’ve got a problem. We in the community have not yet accepted that we have a problem. The worst thing, for me, is we could do better.... We can do far better with the people, the leadership and the money we’ve got. It’s the lost opportunities I find troubling.”
Ford’s comments contrast sharply with the defiant statements by other senior administration officials, including President Bush.
At a news conference Tuesday, Bush defended the intelligence on Iraq and noted that much of it preceded his taking office.
“We took action based upon good, solid intelligence,” Bush said. “It was the right thing to do to make America more secure and the world more peaceful.”
CIA Director George J. Tenet has vigorously defended the community’s performance and disputed any suggestion that its prewar conclusions were wrong.
Tenet has apologized for allowing discredited allegations about Hussein seeking uranium from Africa -- supposedly for nuclear weapons -- to be included in Bush’s State of the Union address.
But recently, agency officials said that an exhaustive internal review nearing completion validates their work on Iraq and has yet to turn up any evidence that their prewar conclusions were flawed.
Asked for comment on Ford’s remarks Tuesday, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said: “It is entirely premature to reach conclusions about the accuracy of prewar judgments about the status of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction efforts. The difficulty in locating highly compartmented, secret weapons programs in a country that was extensively bombed and looted should not be underestimated.”
Harlow said that while the agency awaits the conclusions of David Kay, the chief U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq, who is writing a report on his findings, “we continue to believe that the work of the intelligence community on Iraq WMD was solid.”
Contrary to charges by some critics that the Bush administration politicized the intelligence, Ford argued that the intelligence community -- a collection of agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and Ford’s bureau at the State Department -- cannot blame its failure on pressure from the administration.
Analysts “are trained almost from birth” how to deal with political pressure to tailor their conclusions to bolster policymakers’ views, Ford said in two lengthy telephone interviews. “We push back on political pressure ... and the only problem is when there’s a weasel in the intelligence community who does not have the backbone and starts giving the policymakers what they want to hear.”
Ford said he suspected there may have been such “weasels,” analysts who succumbed to the very human temptation to find evidence to support the prevailing political view. If so, Ford said that he does not know who they were.
“I certainly wouldn’t say that key members of the intelligence community leadership that I worked with were weasels,” Ford said.
Nevertheless, “when you have policymakers going astray as they did on Iraq, the principal problem has to be with intelligence. If somebody gives them bad information, nothing but bad can happen after that ... and the intelligence community gave them bad information.”
Though there were dissenters, their views were ignored, Ford said. “The majority view prevailed, and that [view] was wrong.”
The Bureau of Intelligence and Research, known as INR, functions as an independent intelligence analysis agency inside the State Department.
Unlike the CIA or most other agencies, it does not have employees, satellites or sensors collecting raw data. But it does have its own experts on regions and issues who perform separate analyses of information gathered by others.
INR prides itself on being fiercely independent and has repeatedly lived up to that reputation during the debate over Iraq by dissenting from the views of other intelligence agencies.
Some in the intelligence community reacted to Ford’s remarks with a roll of the eyes, saying INR is often resentful of not being a central player and relishes second-guessing other agencies.
Others said Ford is known for his forthright manner and independent streak.
“Carl’s always been that kind of guy, the contrarian,” said one intelligence official who asked not to be identified.
“He sees himself as an honest broker. I see him as reliable. I trust him. But he also worked for INR ... a bureau populated by individuals who have made a career out of giving the benefit of the doubt to the nation in question, which is not usually the United States.”
Ford stressed that his criticism was not meant to trumpet INR or jab any other agency. “Even INR didn’t get it right. We were just slightly more critical of the evidence,” he said.
The National Intelligence Estimate produced last fall asserted that “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons” and “probably will have a nuclear weapon in this decade.”
INR dissented in a footnote, arguing that there was inadequate evidence to support the conclusion that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program around 1998, when United Nations weapons inspectors left Iraq.
Ford’s former subordinate in INR took a sharper stance, arguing that the CIA and the administration should both admit error.
“The intelligence community did not do a good job on a number of critical issues, but the senior political leadership is even more blameworthy,” said Greg Thielmann, who retired last year as head of INR’s Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs Office.
“The intelligence community spun things to make [the Iraqi threat] a little more sensational than I would have ... but then the administration took that spin and put it into hypervelocity,” Thielmann told The Times.
“It’s up to CIA to explain how they blew it so badly, but CIA so far hasn’t admitted they blew it,” Thielmann said.
Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, described Ford’s comments as “extraordinary” and said they represent the sort of cold assessment the community needs if it is to reform.
But Rockefeller stressed that Ford’s mea culpa should not shield policymakers from scrutiny.
He said, for example, it was the White House, not the intelligence community, that tried to connect Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- although such a link has never been proved.
It is increasingly clear that much of the intelligence “was not accurate,” Rockefeller said. “But I think a greater problem is whether it was shaped, whether it got that way because of influence or intimidation.”
The House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting reviews of the prewar intelligence on Iraq and are expected to issue highly critical reports on the CIA’s performance. The agency has complained that the committees are forming conclusions before its members have heard explanations from top CIA officials.