Question of Pressure Splits Panel
Friday’s Senate report on prewar intelligence drew a new battle line in the presidential campaign by failing to settle a politically volatile question: Did the White House pressure the CIA to concoct reasons to invade Iraq?
The question split the Senate Intelligence Committee’s otherwise bipartisan unanimity on the intelligence failures in Iraq, with Democrats saying they had a “major disagreement” with Republicans over the issue.
Republicans noted in the report’s conclusion that no intelligence analysts had said they were pressured. But Democrats objected, saying there was ample evidence that top Bush administration officials had intimidated analysts to twist their judgments about whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
In the end, the committee decided to put off consideration of the Bush administration’s use of intelligence, all but guaranteeing the issue a prominent role in the campaign.
“The committee’s report fails to fully explain the environment of intense pressure in which the intelligence community officials were asked to render judgments on matters relating to Iraq when the most senior officials in the Bush administration had already forcefully and repeatedly stated their conclusions publicly,” said Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.), the committee’s ranking minority member.
Standing nearby, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the committee’s chairman, shot back: “I do not think there is any evidence of undue pressure on any analyst.”
Many of the intelligence analysts who came before the committee did report feeling pressure -- especially from the Defense Department -- on links between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
Analysts said they were repeatedly told to go back and review old intelligence reports and documents to determine whether they had overlooked connections between the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
However, the committee’s conclusion noted that no analysts reported changing a decision on Iraq, on its links to Al Qaeda or its threat capabilities because of political pressure.
Many analysts said the pressure served only to make sure they weren’t missing anything.
“I think there was intense pressure in the prewar period, and I felt the pressure ... to ensure we got this one right,” the deputy director of the CIA’s terrorism analysis office told the committee. “We couldn’t afford not to get it right.”
Democrats on the committee, while acknowledging that they had unanimously approved the report, said they disagreed with the conclusion that there had been no political pressure.
Of particular concern was an intelligence meeting in August 2002 attended by representatives from the office of Doug Feith, the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for policy and a fervent proponent of the war. The Pentagon officials criticized the CIA’s failure to turn up a link between Bin Laden and Hussein and presented evidence that they said had been ignored.
Several analysts told the committee it was unusual to have the Pentagon representatives attend their meeting, which was an initial gathering to begin a broader look at the links between Iraq and terrorism. Nonetheless, none of the analysts said they had changed their conclusions as a result of the Feith staff’s presence.
Democrats, however, said the meeting was a clear indication that the administration had created a climate of pressure that affected analysts.
The meeting “is clear evidence of the administration politicizing an analytical process that should be protected from the meddlesome reach of policy officials,” read a dissent to the report by Rockefeller and other Democrats.
The campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic nominee for president, said the Bush administration had been trying to shift blame for failures connected to the Iraq war to the intelligence community, and that it “fails to take responsibility for its own failings.”
“Nothing in this report absolves the White House of its responsibility for mishandling of the country’s intelligence,” Mark Kitchens, a campaign spokesman, said in a written statement. “The fact is that when it comes to national security, the buck stops at the White House, not anywhere else.”
On the campaign trail Friday, neither Kerry nor his running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, discussed the Senate committee report or the issue of alleged pressure on intelligence analysts.
While lawmakers and other officials grappled with the report and its implications, President Bush escaped the fray, spending the day on a bus tour of the Pennsylvania countryside and addressing the issue in a controlled, friendly environment.
“There have been some failures,” Bush said in a response to a question from the crowd in a university gym in Kutztown, Pa., a small farm town in heavily Republican Berks County. “We thought there was going to be stockpiles of weapons. I thought so. The Congress thought so. The U.N. thought so.”
The Senate committee’s next task is to investigate the administration’s use of intelligence in the run-up to the war, but there was no timetable for a second report.
Some political analysts said it was likely that Republicans would bottle up any further conclusions until after the November elections.
“The last thing you want is an official document saying that the White House contorted the evidence to persuade the people to go to war in Iraq,” said Bruce Cain, the director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Government Studies. “I think the Republicans would fight to the death to keep it out.”
But even if the Senate committee does not draw conclusions about the president’s role and his degree of accountability, analysts said, the American public may.
Predictably, Democrats and Republicans differed over what that judgment would be.
“I don’t think the buck stops at [CIA Director] George Tenet’s desk,” Democratic strategist Howard Wolfson said. “There is only one person who can lead us into war.... The buck always stops with the president. And if [the White House] points fingers at the CIA, it will only look like they are passing the buck.”
But Karlyn Bowman, an election analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the American public is not much interested in revisiting the lead-up to the Iraq war. “It’s hard to rewind the clock, and I think the public doesn’t have much time for that,” she said.
Also left unsettled was the question of whether Bush would quickly name a replacement for Tenet, who announced in June that he would resign. His last day on the job is Sunday.
Originally, White House aides had said Bush was likely to wait until after the November election to nominate a director because he did not want to draw more attention than necessary to the intelligence failures.
The Senate report, however, could prompt Bush to fill the post soon in order to put the issue to rest before November.
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Highlights of report by Senate panel
Some findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on prewar intelligence about Iraq:
* Most 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 policymakers the uncertainties behind their judgments. The October 2002 estimate “portrayed what intelligence analysts thought and assessed as what they knew and failed to explain the large gaps in the information on which the assessments were based.”
* Intelligence agencies suffered from a collective presumption that Iraq had an active and growing program to develop weapons of mass destruction. This bias led analysts and their managers to interpret ambiguous evidence as conclusive and ignore evidence that pointed to a lack of such a weapons program.
* Intelligence officials relied too heavily on information from the United Nations. After U.N. weapons inspectors left in 1998, there was no CIA officer or intelligence agent inside Iraq to investigate.
* The United States depended too heavily on defectors and foreign governments’ intelligence. U.S. agencies lacked direct access to many of these sources and could not determine their credibility.
* The CIA “abused its unique position in the intelligence community” by failing to share information with other agencies or to fully consider conflicting information from analysts outside the CIA.
* The October 2002 assessment that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program” was not supported by evidence provided to the Senate committee.
* The intelligence estimate’s statement that “Iraq also has been vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake” overstated what was known.
* The CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency did not examine forged documents about Iraq’s alleged efforts to buy uranium carefully enough to recognize they were faked. The CIA continued to approve administration speeches saying Iraq might be seeking uranium in Africa, including President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address.
* The committee concluded that Iraq tried to procure high-strength aluminum tubes for its conventional rocket program, not for a nuclear weapons program, as the CIA asserted.
* The National Intelligence Estimate overstated what was known with statements such as “Baghdad has biological weapons,” Baghdad has mobile biological weapons labs and “chances are even that smallpox is part of Iraq’s offensive biological weapons program.”
* Much of the information provided or cleared by the CIA for inclusion in Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s February 2003 speech to the United Nations justifying war with Iraq “was overstated, misleading or incorrect.”
* The committee “found no evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or press analysts to change their judgments.”
* The CIA reasonably assessed that there probably were several contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda throughout the 1990s, but they did not add up to a formal relationship.
* The CIA’s assessment that there was no evidence of Iraqi complicity or assistance in an Al Qaeda attack “was reasonable and objective.”
Source: Associated Press
Times staff writer Peter Wallsten in Kutztown contributed to this report.