WASHINGTON — There’s no evidence Saddam Hussein had ties with al-Qaida, according to a Senate report issued Friday on prewar intelligence that Democrats say undercuts President Bush’s justification for invading Iraq.
Bush administration officials have insisted on a link between the Iraqi regime and terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Intelligence agencies, however, concluded there was none.
Republicans countered that there was little new in the report and Democrats were trying to score election-year points with it.
The declassified document released Friday by the intelligence committee also explores the role that inaccurate information supplied by the anti-Saddam exile group the Iraqi National Congress had in the march to war.
It concludes that postwar findings do not support a 2002 intelligence community report that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, possessed biological weapons or ever developed mobile facilities for producing biological warfare agents.
The 400-page report comes at a time when Bush is emphasizing the need to prevail in Iraq to win the war on terrorism while Democrats are seeking to make that policy an issue in the midterm elections.
It discloses for the first time an October 2005 CIA assessment that prior to the war Saddam’s government “did not have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates.”
Bush and other administration officials have said that the presence of Zarqawi in Iraq before the war was evidence of a connection between Saddam’s government and al-Qaida. Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in June this year.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the report was “nothing new.”
“In 2002 and 2003, members of both parties got a good look at the intelligence we had and they came to the very same conclusions about what was going on,” Snow said. That was “one of the reasons you had overwhelming majorities in the United States Senate and the House for taking action against Saddam Hussein,” he said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a member of the committee, said the long-awaited report was “a devastating indictment of the Bush-Cheney administration’s unrelenting, misleading and deceptive attempts” to link Saddam to al-Qaida.
The administration, said Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., top Democrat on the committee, “exploited the deep sense of insecurity among Americans in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, leading a large majority of Americans to believe — contrary to the intelligence assessments at the time — that Iraq had a role in the 9/11 attacks.”
The chairman of the committee, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said it has long been known that prewar assessments of Iraq “were a tragic intelligence failure.”
But he said the Democratic interpretations expressed in the report “are little more than a vehicle to advance election-year political charges.” He said Democrats “continue to use the committee to try and rewrite history, insisting that they were deliberately duped into supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
Divisions slowed release
The intelligence committee issued a portion of its analysis, labeled Phase I, on prewar intelligence shortcomings in July 2004. But concluding work on Phase II of the study has been more problematic because of partisan divisions over how senior policymakers used intelligence in arguing for the need to drive Saddam from power.
Last November, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada forced the Senate into a rare closed-door session to discuss the delay in coming out with the new data.
The 400-page report covers only two of the five topics outlined under Phase II. Much of the information — on the intelligence supplied by the INC and Chalabi and the overestimation of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction threat — has been documented in numerous studies.
The committee is still considering three other issues as part of its Phase II analysis, including statements of policymakers in the run-up to the war.
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