In a long-delayed report, the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday rebuked President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for making prewar claims -- particularly that Iraq had close ties to Al Qaeda -- that were not supported by available intelligence.
The report, which was opposed by most Republicans on the panel, says the president and other members of his administration repeatedly exaggerated evidence of an Al Qaeda connection to take advantage of the charged climate after Sept. 11. It is the most pointed reproach to date of the Bush administration's use of intelligence to build the case for the Iraq war. But the document stops short of calling for any follow-up investigation or sanction.
"In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when, in reality, it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the intelligence panel. "Sadly, the Bush administration led the nation into war under false pretenses."
In a second report, the committee provides new details on clandestine, post-Sept. 11 meetings between Defense Department officials and Iranian dissidents seeking support for a plan to overthrow the Islamic regime. The report faults national security advisor Stephen Hadley and others for their roles in an effort that was hidden from the CIA.
The report on the Bush administration's case for war, 170 pages long, reads like a catalog of erroneous claims. The document represents the most detailed assessment to date of whether those assertions were backed by classified intelligence reports available to senior officials at the time.
The report largely exonerates Bush administration officials for some of their prewar assertions, including claims that Baghdad had stockpiles of illegal chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing a nuclear bomb. Even though those claims were subsequently proved wildly inaccurate, the report notes, they were largely consistent with U.S. intelligence at the time.
But the report says the Bush administration veered away from its own intelligence community's conclusions in two key areas: Iraq's relationship with Al Qaeda and the difficulty of pacifying Iraq after a U.S. invasion.
Statements in dozens of prewar speeches and interviews created the impression that Baghdad and Al Qaeda had forged a partnership. But the report concludes that such assertions "were not substantiated by the intelligence" being shown to senior officials at the time.
Claims that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, for example, were dubious from the beginning and subsequently discounted. The idea that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had provided chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda hinged on intelligence from a source who soon was discredited.
Bush officials strayed even further from the evidence in suggesting that Hussein was prepared to provide weapons of mass destruction to Al Qaeda terrorist groups -- a linchpin in the case for war.
In October 2002, for example, Bush warned in a key speech in Cincinnati that "secretly, and without fingerprints, [Hussein] could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own." The threat was repeated frequently in the run-up to war but was "contradicted by available intelligence information," the committee says.
On post-war prospects, the report contrasts the rosy scenarios conjured by Cheney and others with more sober intelligence warnings that were being presented to senior officials.
Cheney's prediction that U.S. forces would "be greeted as liberators" was at odds with reports from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, which warned nearly a year earlier that invading U.S. forces would face serious resistance from "the Baathists, the jihadists and Arab nationalists who oppose any U.S. occupation of Iraq."
The release of the report is likely to touch off renewed debate over the committee's approach and methodology. Senior Republicans accused Democrats of using the report to score political points in an election year and of refusing to subject congressional Democrats' prewar claims to similar scrutiny. Republicans also complained that officials mentioned in the report were not afforded a chance to respond.
In dissenting views attached to the main text, Republicans cited quotes from Rockefeller, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and others that often echoed Bush administration language in describing the Iraq threat.
"The report released today was a waste of committee time and resources," said a conclusion signed by Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the committee, and three of his colleagues. Bond accused Democrats of "a partisan agenda" and said they had "cherry-picked information and distorted policymakers' statements."
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino called the report "a selective view," adding that the White House regretted faulty information.
The reports released Thursday were the final installments of a multi-part investigation of Iraq intelligence failures that the committee launched in 2004.
Previous pieces documented blunders that led U.S. spy agencies to reach erroneous assessments of Iraq's weapons capability.
But the evaluation of prewar claims by policymakers took far longer to finish, largely because it was so controversial. Over the last several years, panel members repeatedly sparred over the merits and scope of the work.
The document was approved in April on a 10-5 vote, with two of the committee's seven Republicans siding with Democrats to endorse its release.
Those two, Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, said in a statement Thursday that they had some misgivings but hoped future administrations would "learn from this comprehensive review and avoid making similar mistakes."
Even though intelligence at the time backed some of the prewar claims, many of the quotes cited by the report were striking in retrospect for their seeming certainty and specificity.
Among those were statements about alleged weapons stockpiles in testimony from then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld before the House Armed Services Committee in 2002.
"Of the facilities we do know, not all are vulnerable to attack from the air," Rumsfeld said. "A good many are underground and deeply buried. Others are purposely located near population centers -- schools, hospitals, mosques -- where an airstrike could kill a large number of innocent people."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Rumsfeld's elaborate descriptions were designed to discourage airstrikes like those employed by the Clinton administration and to make the case for a ground invasion.
"Many analysts suspected that Saddam had deeply buried WMD facilities," Wyden said Thursday. "But no intelligence agency claimed to know their location, and no intelligence agency even expressed certainty that they existed."
The second report focuses on secret meetings Defense Department officials held with an Iranian exile, Manucher Ghorbanifar, who had been a middleman in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal of the 1980s and was shunned by the CIA as unreliable and untrustworthy.
The meetings, which took place in Rome and Paris in 2001 and 2003, have been a source of intrigue since they were first disclosed, with speculation that they were part of a broader effort by the Pentagon to usurp the role of the CIA.
The report accuses Hadley and Paul D. Wolfowitz, then deputy Defense secretary, of failing to keep the CIA and the State Department adequately informed of the meetings. The document also provides new details on the nature of the contacts.
In Rome, according to the report, Ghorbanifar and two other Iranians told Defense Department officials that Iran had "hit teams" targeting U.S. personnel in Afghanistan and that Tehran had built tunnel complexes in Iran for weapons storage and the escape of regime officials.
Ghorbanifar sought $5 million in covert U.S. funding for operations he said could lead to regime change in Iran. Ghorbanifar "laid out his plan on a napkin," calling for disruptions and work stoppages in Tehran.
The plan was never pursued.
One of the Defense Department participants was Lawrence A. Franklin, an analyst who has since been sentenced to 13 years in prison after pleading guilty to passing U.S. secrets to Israel.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.