CIA Iraq ‘Failures’ Condemned

Times Staff Writers

The United States went to war with Iraq on the basis of flawed intelligence assessments that “either overstated or were not supported by” the underlying evidence on Baghdad’s weapons programs, according to a scathing report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday.

The report documented sweeping and systemic failures at the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies that led to erroneous conclusions that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its efforts to build a nuclear bomb.

CIA analysts suffered a case of groupthink that rendered them incapable of considering that Iraq might have dismantled its weapons programs, the report said. Ambiguous intelligence intercepts and satellite photos were treated as compelling evidence of illicit activity.


Unable to recruit its own spies in Iraq, the CIA came to depend on dubious accounts from defectors and questionable information from foreign intelligence services. And information that didn’t fit the agency’s preconceived notions about Iraq was simply discarded.

The report amounted to such an indictment of prewar intelligence that lawmakers from both parties questioned whether the invasion would have occurred if information on Iraq’s weapons programs had been accurate. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and an ally of the Bush administration, acknowledged that Congress might not have authorized the use of force had it been given correct information.

“I think the world is a safer place without Saddam Hussein,” Roberts said. But at a minimum, without intelligence indicating Iraq had stockpiles of banned weapons, he said, “I think the war would have been different.”

Rather than a full-scale invasion, Roberts said, “it would have been on a comparison to, say, Bosnia and Kosovo,” where the United States opted to conduct only an air campaign and didn’t engage in ground battles or occupation.

As in Kosovo, Roberts said, the case for war would have hinged on humanitarian concerns for people brutalized by a repressive regime, not a threat to the United States.

Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the vice chairman of the committee, was categorical in comments on the costs of invading a country based on flawed intelligence.


“There is simply no question that mistakes leading up to the war in Iraq rank among the most devastating losses and intelligence failures in the history of the nation,” Rockefeller said. “The intelligence failure set forth in this report will affect our national security for generations to come. Our credibility is diminished. Our standing in the world has never been lower. We have fostered a deep hatred of Americans in the Muslim world, and that will grow.”

With accurate intelligence, Rockefeller said, “we in Congress would not have authorized that war.”

Rockefeller said the report was incomplete because it did not address whether the Bush administration misused intelligence in making the case for war. That and several other subjects are to be probed in a follow-up investigation.

The “Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq” spanned 511 pages, reporting the results of a year of investigation by about a dozen committee staffers who interviewed more than 200 witnesses and examined thousands of intelligence records.

The report documented breakdowns in almost every category of intelligence collection and analysis. It was approved unanimously by the panel of nine Republicans and eight Democrats, although there were divisions on the panel over some of the war issues.

“A series of failures, particularly in analytic trade craft, led to the mischaracterization of the intelligence,” the report said in one of its primary conclusions.

Much of the report was focused on the so-called National Intelligence Estimate that the intelligence community produced in October 2002, a comprehensive assessment of Iraq’s weapons programs that was produced just days before Congress voted to authorize using force.

The NIE asserted that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, was reconstituting its nuclear program and developing unmanned aircraft to disperse weapons of mass destruction. None of the claims was backed up by evidence, the Senate report concluded.

Senate investigators said they scoured some 45,000 pages of documents, including raw intelligence reports, and did not find a single “unambiguous” piece of intelligence pointing to continued illicit weapons production. Yet rather than revisit their conclusions, agency analysts chalked the dearth of data up to the sophistication of Iraq’s denial and deception programs.

“Analysts and collectors assumed that sources who denied the existence or continuation of WMD programs and stocks were either lying or not knowledgeable about Iraq’s programs,” the report said, “while those sources who reported ongoing WMD activities were seen as having provided valuable information.”

Even when U.N. weapons inspectors reentered Iraq in November 2002 and spent months scouring the country but finding no evidence of banned weapons stocks, CIA analysts refused to alter their assumptions, which were largely carried over from the early 1990s and the period before and after the Persian Gulf War.

The problem of mistaken intelligence worsened over time, as agency assessments built on earlier analytical work “without carrying forward the uncertainties of the underlying judgments,” a flawed methodology known as “layering.”

The panel also found “significant shortcomings in almost every aspect of the intelligence community’s human intelligence collection efforts,” the report noted. The CIA “did not have a single [human] source collecting against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq after 1998” when U.N. inspectors left the country.

This was not for lack of resources, or a shortage of case officers willing to undertake risky assignments in Iraq, the report said, but because of a hidebound agency culture that was averse to taking risks. When Senate investigators asked CIA officials why they made no effort to put a case officer in the country to investigate Iraq’s weapons programs, a CIA official replied, “Because it’s very hard to sustain.... It takes a rare officer who can go in ... and survive scrutiny for a long time.”

Shortly after the release of the report Friday, CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin defended the agency’s record in a rare news conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

“My first message to you is a simple one: We get it,” a grim-faced McLaughlin said. “Although we think the judgments were not unreasonable when they were made nearly two years ago, we understand with all we have learned since then that we could have done better.”

But McLaughlin insisted that the agency already was taking steps to correct the problems cited by the committee, and cautioned that it would be wrong to conclude that “sweeping reforms” are needed.

Of the discredited NIE, McLaughlin said the Senate committee spent a year “dissecting a document we were asked to produce in less than a month.” He added that the fallout would cause the agency to refrain from offering firm conclusions in key reports and instead present summaries tempered by doubts and caveats.

Every NIE now is subjected to a “devil’s advocate” analysis before it is published, McLaughlin said, and the agency is assembling an outside panel of experts to challenge assessments.

Asked whether anyone has been fired as a result of the failures, McLaughlin said that it would be wrong to punish individuals for mistakes made “by hundreds of people around the world” and by many national intelligence agencies.

McLaughlin is to become acting chief of the CIA on Sunday, when the longtime director, George J. Tenet, is scheduled to resign. The White House is seeking a permanent replacement for Tenet, who was not singled out for specific criticism in the Senate report but has shouldered much of the blame for the CIA getting the Iraq intelligence wrong.

Although there were no major revelations in the Senate report, it was rich with fresh detail on an array of prewar claims that had long been the subject of controversy. The report dismissed allegations that Iraq had mobile biological weapons laboratories, a claim that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made in a high-profile presentation to the United Nations before the war but which had unraveled under subsequent scrutiny.

The report also poked holes in prewar claims that Iraq was procuring aluminum tubes to be used as centrifuges to enrich uranium. Powell and other Bush administration officials cited the tubes as a key piece of evidence that Iraq was rushing forward with a nuclear weapons program.

The CIA had rejected Iraqi claims and other U.S. analysts’ conclusions that the tubes were for conventional artillery rockets, saying the aluminum used in the tubes was too expensive -- and the design specifications too exacting -- for such a purpose.

But the Senate committee found the composition and dimensions of the tubes “were consistent with rocket manufactures in several countries, and, in fact, match exactly the tubes Iraq had imported years earlier for use in its rocket program which it had declared to the U.N.”

Indeed, Senate staffers interviewed Defense Department weapons designers who said that the CIA’s conclusions were “not correct at all” and that the aluminum used in the tubes was “the material of choice for low-cost rocket systems.” The U.S. designers said they had been previously asked by the agency to inspect the tubes and thought the CIA analyst who approached them “had an agenda.”

McLaughlin, the deputy CIA director, disagreed sharply with the suggestion that the agency shunted aside dissenting views on the aluminum tubes.

“I completely reject that,” he said. The tubes issue “is thoroughly discussed to a fault in the National Intelligence Estimate.”

The one area in which the CIA got high marks was on Iraq’s ties to terrorism. The agency found a history of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda but no evidence of collaboration, a conclusion the committee endorsed.

According to the report and committee staffers, Tenet and the CIA’s ombudsman -- who investigates complaints from analysts -- both said they had been approached before the Iraq war by analysts complaining of feeling pressured to be more assertive in linking Iraq to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

According to a committee aide, the ombudsman said that analysts had been forced to redo work on Iraq-Al Qaeda ties repeatedly and that the “repetitive tasking became something akin to badgering.”

But the report concluded that there was no evidence that intelligence analysts altered their assessments as a result of pressure.



Key findings

* False conclusions about the existence of illicit weapons programs in Iraq were drawn from intelligence reports that were presented without qualifiers as blunt assessments of fact.

* The U.S. relied too heavily on uncorroborated reports from other governments and defectors.

* Warnings about a key informant saying Iraq had a mobile biological weapons program were ignored. The source, called “Curveball,” turned out to be a fraud.

* “Groupthink” rendered CIA analysts incapable of considering that Iraq might not have an illicit weapons program and led them to treat ambiguous intelligence and photos as compelling evidence.


Senate Select Committee on Intelligence


Pat Roberts, Kansas (chairman)

Orrin G. Hatch, Utah

Mike DeWine, Ohio

Christopher S. Bond, Missouri

Trent Lott, Mississippi

Olympia J. Snowe, Maine

Chuck Hagel, Nebraska

Saxby Chambliss, Georgia

John W. Warner, Virginia


John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV, West Virginia (vice chairman)

Carl Levin, Michigan

Dianne Feinstein, California

Ron Wyden, Oregon

Richard Durbin, Illinois

Evan Bayh, Indiana

John Edwards, North Carolina

Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland


Source: U.S. Senate