WASHINGTON — In a scathing report released Thursday, President Bush’s commission on weapons of mass destruction found that America’s spy agencies were “dead wrong” in most of their judgments about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.
The commission was also highly critical of U.S. abilities to assess what existing adversaries have, stating that the United States knows “disturbingly little” about their weapons programs.
The president, after receiving the unsparing critique, said that “the central conclusion is one which I share. America’s intelligence community needs fundamental change.”
He said he had directed Fran Townsend, his White House-based homeland security adviser, to “review the commission’s finding and to assure that concrete actions are taken.”
On Saddam, the commission stated that “we conclude that the intelligence community was dead wrong in almost all of its prewar judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure.”
'Analysis was based on assumptions'
The main cause, the commission said, was the intelligence community’s “inability to collect good information about Iraq’s WMD programs, serious errors in analyzing what information it could gather and a failure to make clear just how much of its analysis was based on assumptions rather than good evidence.
“On a matter of this importance, we simply cannot afford failures of this magnitude,” the report said.
But the commission also said that it found no indication that spy agencies distorted the evidence they had concerning Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, a charge raised against the administration during last year’s presidential campaign.
“The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments,” the report said.
But it added: “It is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom.”
And in what amounted to a direct assault on George Tenet, who was CIA director in the run-up to the Iraq war and gave the president his daily intelligence briefing, the commission found that “the daily reports sent to the president and senior policymakers discussing Iraq over many months proved to be disastrously one-sided.”
"Through attention-grabbing headlines and repetition of questionable data, these briefings overstated the case that Iraq was rebuilding its WMD programs,” the commission wrote.
Unanimous advice: Strengthen intel chief
The commission called for dramatic change to prevent future failures. It outlined more than 70 recommendations, saying that Bush must give John Negroponte, nominated to the new post of national intelligence director, broader powers for overseeing the nation’s 15 spy agencies.
“It won’t be easy to provide this leadership to the intelligence components of the Defense Department or to the CIA,” the commissioners said. “They are some of the government’s most headstrong agencies. Sooner or later, they will try to run around — or over — the DNI. Then, only your determined backing will convince them that we cannot return to the old ways,” the commission told Bush.
American intelligenceThe panel, which was unanimous in its report and advice, also recommended that Bush demand more of the intelligence community, which has been repeatedly criticized for failures as various investigations have looked back on the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“The intelligence community needs to be pushed,” the report said. “It will not do its best unless it is pressed by policymakers — sometimes to the point of discomfort.”
It said analysts must be pushed to explain what they don’t know and that agencies must be pressed to explain why they don’t have better information on key subjects. At the same time, the report said the administration must be more careful about accepting the judgment of intelligence agencies.
“No important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the (intelligence) community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment and what alternatives might also be true,” the report said.
The commission also called for sweeping changes at the FBI to combine the bureau’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence resources into a new office.
Problems with 'Curve Ball'
The proposals were prompted in part by an Iraqi defector code-named “Curve Ball” who may have had a drinking problem and who provided suspect information on Saddam’s purported mobile weapons labs, officials said. The defector and the questions about his veracity have been described in recent government reports.
The information the defector provided was included in the much-maligned October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a high-level collection of intelligence that the White House used to argue for invading Iraq. That document said Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, but no such weapons have been found.
The commission's report will single out that document, which said there was “compelling evidence” that Iraq sought uranium for nuclear weapons.
The document included dissent in the form of cautionary footnotes from the State Department’s intelligence bureau, the Energy Department and the Air Force.
Official: Rice didn't read footnotes
But a senior administration official acknowledged in July 2003 that Bush and then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice did not read footnotes in the 90-page document.
By glossing over or omitting dissenting views about Iraq’s weapons programs, the estimate overstated the accuracy of U.S. intelligence, according to an official who described the commission’s report. "There’s a need for more complete reporting,” the official said.
The estimate was also the basis for then Secretary of State Colin Powell going to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 to lobby for military action.
Powell this week told the German magazine Stern that he was “furious and angry” that he had been misinformed about Iraq’s capabilities.
“It was information from our security services and from some Europeans, including Germans. Some of this information was wrong. I did not know this at the time,” he said. “Hundreds of millions followed it on television. I will always be the one who presented it. I have to live with that.”
The commission released its final report, spanning more than 600 pages, after more than a year of work that included closed-door sessions with Bush and other top administration officials.
Numerous government reports have detailed intelligence failures since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This commission is the first formed by Bush to look at why U.S. spy agencies mistakenly concluded that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, one of the administration’s main justifications for invading in March 2003.
The panel also considered a range of intelligence issues beyond Iraq, including congressional oversight, satellite imagery and electronic snooping. Among numerous soft spots, officials familiar with the findings say “human intelligence” — the work of actual operatives on the ground — is lacking.
Some of the recommendations
Among other things, the report:
- Recommends forming a new intelligence center to focus on weapons proliferation.
- Chastises intelligence agencies for their continued failure to share information, despite numerous reforms aimed at improving coordination.
- Stresses the need for ongoing training for analysts and operatives and new procedures for considering dissenting intelligence analysis.
- Calls on intelligence agencies to take concrete steps to ensure information from their sources is valid — a move prompted in part by 'Curve Ball'.
- Proposes updating the FBI’s computers and creating a new national security division within the Justice Department.
Bush formed the commission — led by Republican Laurence Silberman, a retired federal appeals court judge, and Democrat Charles Robb, a former senator from Virginia — as it became clear that U.S. weapons inspectors were not going to find stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Little known about adversaries
The unclassified version of the report does not go into significant detail on the intelligence community’s abilities in Iran and North Korea because commissioners did not want to tip the U.S. hand to its leading adversaries. Those details are included in the classified version.
“The bad news is that we still know disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries,” the report said.
The commission did not name any country, but appeared to be talking about nations such as North Korea and Iran.
“Our review has convinced us that the best hope for preventing future failures is dramatic change,” the report said. “We need an intelligence community that is truly integrated, far more imaginative and willing to run risks, open to a new generation of Americans and receptive to new technologies.”
In an implicit swipe at the Bush administration, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the report did not review how federal policy-makers used the intelligence they were given.
“I believe it is essential that we hold both the intelligence agencies and senior policy-makers accountable for their actions,” Reid said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.