Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
The United States went to war on the basis of false claims. More than 800 Americans and countless Iraqis have lost their lives because of these false claims. The American taxpayer has to pay up to $200 billion--and maybe more--because of these false claims. The United States' standing in the world has fallen precipitously because of these false claims. Two days before the war, when George W. Bush justified the coming invasion of Iraq by saying "intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal" weapons of mass destruction, he was dead wrong. And when he later claimed his decision to attack Iraq had been predicated upon "good, solid intelligence," he was dead wrong.
The debate is over--or it should be. According to the report released today by the Senate intelligence committee, the intelligence community--led by the CIA--"overstated" and "mischaracterized" the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. In the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, produced hastily and haphazardly in October 2002, the intelligence community concluded that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed chemical and biological weapons, was "reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program, was supporting an "active" and "advanced" biological weapons program, and was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle "probably intended to deliver" biological weapons. All of these critical findings, the committee report says, "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting."
As Senator Jay Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, put it at a press conference, this is one of the "most devastating...intelligence failures in the history of the nation." The 500 page report repeatedly details instances when the intelligence community botched its job by ignoring contrary evidence, embracing questionable sources, and rushing to judgments that just so happened to fit the preconceived notions of the Bush Administration. If CIA director George Tenet had not said good-bye to the CIA the day before the report came out, he would deserve immediate dismissal. But the report--justifiably harsh in its evaluation of the CIA--is part of an effort to protect Bush and his lieutenants. The political mission: make the CIA the fall guy.
The report does not examine how Bush and his senior aides handled and represented the flawed intelligence. Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the committee, has delayed that portion of the investigation and other aspects of the inquiry (including the role played by Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and the controversial actions of the office of Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy). The results of the committee's work on these fronts are not expected to appear until next year--that is, after the election.
But the case is already undeniable. Bush and his lot overstated the overstatements of the intelligence community. The National Intelligence Estimate said Iraq had an extensive biological weapons program. Bush said Hussein was sitting on a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons. The NIE concluded (also falsely) that Iraq was developing unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to hit the United States with biological weapons. Bush warned that Iraq already had a "growing fleet" of UAVs ready to hit the United States. The NIE noted that Iraq was "reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program but had no nuclear weapons yet. Bush said, "We don't know whether or not [Hussein] has a nuclear weapon"--a comment suggesting he might possess one.
The Senate intelligence report indirectly indicts Bush. It notes that there was one area where the intelligence community was correct: the supposed relationship between Hussein and Al Qaeda. "The Central Intelligence Agency," the report says, "reasonably assessed that there were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida throughout the 1990s, but that these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship." This means that when Bush said before the war that Saddam Hussein was "a threat because he's dealing with Al Qaeda," he was not basing this significant assertion on the findings of the US intelligence community. And he ignored the intelligence when he called Saddam Hussein "an ally" of Al Qaeda during his May 1, 2003, speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.
The Senate intelligence committee also reports that the CIA's "assessment that Saddam Hussein was most likely to use his own intelligence service operatives to conduct attacks was reasonable, and turned out to be accurate." Yet before the war the Bush White House declared there was a "high risk" that Hussein would hand over his WMDs to terrorists--presumably Al Qaeda--who would use them against the United States. What was the basis for this claim? Not the available intelligence. And the report notes that the CIA's "assessments on Iraq's links to terrorism were widely disseminated" to policymakers. Perhaps Bush neglected to read them--as he neglected to read the National Intelligence Estimate. (Don't believe that? Click here.)
Even without the Senate intelligence committee doing a single stitch of work regarding Bush's use of the intelligence, this report demonstrates that Bush hyped the threat to get his war. And weeks ago, when the independent, bipartisan 9/11 commission declared it had not found evidence of "collaborative relationship" between Hussein and Al Qaeda, Bush and Cheney insisted that there had been a "relationship." The Senate intelligence committee report is yet another reason to dismiss anything Bush and Cheney have to say on this subject.
At the press conference for the report's release, I asked Roberts the following question: Since 800 Americans lost the lives because of a phony threat assessment--and thousands of GIs lost limbs and the American taxpayers are out up to $200 billion--don't the relatives of the dead and injured and the rest of us have a right to know, before the election, whether the Bush Administration mishandled or misrepresented the intelligence?
The committee, he replied, "couldn't get it done" by now. This was, Roberts claimed, "a top priority," but he added that there were only twenty "legislative days" left in the Senate session, implying that was not enough time. "It is a priority," he repeated. But when another reporter asked, "In time for the election?" Roberts did not respond. Rockefeller then remarked that committee staff was not limited by the amount of days the Senate would be in session and could work on this matter through August and September. "The thought that we cannot get this done by the end of the year escapes me," he said. And a senior committee aide told me that this sort of project could be completed within months. "It is not hard work," he commented.
In hailing the committee's effort to produce a public version of its classified report--the CIA tried and failed to censor half of the report--Roberts said, "We believe the American people have a right to know." But he is not concerned about the people's timely right to know about Bush's use--or abuse--of the intelligence.
In an addendum to the report, Rockefeller and two other Democratic members of the committee--Carl Levin and Richard Durbin--criticize Roberts' decision to put off this part of the investigation. They note:
In the months before the production of the Intelligence Community's October 2002 Estimate, Administration officials undertook a relentless public campaign which repeatedly characterized the Iraq weapons of mass destruction program in more ominous and threatening terms than the Intelligence Community analysis substantiated. Similarly, public statements of senior officials on Iraqi links to terrorism generally, and Al Qaeda specifically, were often based on a selective release of intelligence information that implied a cooperative, operational relationship that the Intelligence Community did not believe existed."
In addition to casting all the blame at the CIA, the Senate intelligence committee also helps the Administration by declaring that the intelligence community's mistakes were not made in response to pressure from the hawks of the Bush White House. "The Committee found no evidence," the report says, "that the [intelligence community's] mischaracterization of exaggeration of the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities was the result of political pressure."
But Rockefeller, Levin and Durbin argue that Bush officials made "high-profile statements" about the threat from Iraq "in advance of any meaningful intelligence analysis and created pressure on the Intelligence Community to conform to the certainty contained in the pronouncements." More specifically, they point to a statement made by Richard Kerr, a former deputy CIA director who conducted an internal review of US intelligence on Iraq. He said, "There was a lot of pressure [on the analysts], no question. The White House, State, Defense, were raising questions, heavily on WMD and the issue of terrorism. Why did you select this information rather than that? Why have you downplayed this particular thing?.... Sure, I heard that some of the analysts felt pressure." The CIA ombudsman, according to this addendum, told the committee "that he felt the 'hammering' by the Bush Administration on Iraq intelligence was harder that he had previously witnessed in his thirty-two-year career with the agency. Several analysts he spoke with [who were involved in preparing a report on Iraq and Al Qaeda] mentioned pressure and gave the sense that they felt the constant questions and pressure to reexamine issues were unreasonable." Tenet, too, told the committee that some agency officials raised with him the issue of pressure.
There is a split within the committee--and it just so happens to occur along party lines--between those who say there was no undue pressure (just perhaps intense demands for the best information) and those who say repeated requests to look at a topic (say, possible links between Al Qaeda and Hussein) were a form of pressure. As of yet there has been no smoking memo or whistleblowing analyst willing to come forward. The full report blames "group think" and "a combination of systemic weaknesses, primarily in analytic trade craft, compounded by a lack of information sharing, poor management, and inadequate intelligence collection" for this gargantuan intelligence screw-up.
The intelligence committee report does dig into other troubling areas. It notes that a public white paper on Iraq produced by the intelligence community did not include the caveats contained in the NIE and "misrepresented" intelligence findings "to the public which did not have access to the classified National Intelligence Estimate containing the more carefully worded assessments." But the committee never discovered who was responsible for this. The committee also examined a Pentagon effort mounted by Feith to examine intelligence on Al Qaeda and Hussein in order to make a case that a working relationship existed between the two.
The committee report downplays the importance of this episode. But pointing to an August 20, 2002, meeting in which Feith's underlings gathered with intelligence community analysts, Rockefeller, Levin and Durbin say, this "meeting is clear evidence of the Administration politicizing an analytical process that should be protected from the meddlesome reach of policy officials. The Pentagon's policy office had delayed the publication of an important Intelligence Community assessment on Iraq and terrorism [which did not find evidence of a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda] and insinuated themselves into a coordination meeting in the hopes of molding the judgments to establish a link between Iraq and the attacks carried out by al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11th. The Pentagon officials [according to a memo they drafted] 'raised numerous objections to the paper' as if they believe it was the policy office's role to object to an Intelligence Community assessment prior to its publication.... The problem is that the Intelligence Community did not find the report alleging a meeting between al Qaeda hijacker [Mohamed] Atta and an Iraq intelligence official in the Czech Republic to be credible, a meeting Vice President Cheney had already said publicly was 'pretty well confirmed.'"
Rockefeller, Levin and Durbin report that the intelligence community analysts did not yield to the pressure from the Pentagon. Consequently, Feith's staffers mounted an end run. Two days before the CIA disseminated its assessment of Al Qaeda and Iraq, Feith's guys presented an alternative analysis to the White House--specifically to Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, and I. Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff. Tenet told the committee that he was unaware that this alternative briefing had taken place. All this does suggest that the Bush White House countenanced an effort to skirt and manipulate the intelligence process.
For months, Bush and his crew repeatedly said Iraq was a "grave and gathering threat." That was the primary rationale for war. The Senate intelligence report is further proof that the war was launched on lies. There was no good intelligence that Iraq had WMDs. There was no good intelligence that Hussein was in cahoots with Al Qaeda. Will Bush admit that this war was based on false information? The report does give his defenders an escape route: they can point an accusing finger at the hapless hacks of the CIA. But Bush made hyperbolic assertions about the Iraq threat that were not only unsupported but contradicted by the existing intelligence. Along with Tenet and the culprits at the CIA, Bush and his posse deserve to take the rap for one of the most immense and consequential strategic failures in US history. But unlike the CIA crowd--which messed up by producing misinformation--Bush peddled both misinformation and disinformation to grease the way to war.
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