The House and Senate intelligence committees have unearthed a series of failures in prewar intelligence on Iraq similar to those identified by former weapons inspector David Kay, leading them to believe that CIA analysts and their superiors did not seriously consider the possibility Saddam Hussein no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction, congressional officials said.
The committees, working separately for the past seven months, have determined that the CIA relied too heavily on circumstantial, outdated intelligence and became overly dependent on satellite and spy-plane imagery and communications intercepts.
Like Kay, the committees have found that CIA operatives and analysts failed to detect that the Iraqi chain of command for developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons had fallen apart, and that Iraqi scientists and others were engaged in their own campaign to deceive the Iraqi leader, telling him they had weapons that did not exist.
"It was like a runaway train," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, referring to the CIA's assessment of Iraq's weapons program. "Once it left the station, it kept going faster and faster. Some analysts may have been trying to slow it down, but it just kept going."
The White House, meanwhile, edged closer to acknowledging flaws in the intelligence about Iraq but continued to say it was not yet possible to draw final conclusions about Hussein's weapons. On CBS's "Early Show," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "What we have is evidence that there are differences between what we knew going in and what we found on the ground." But, she added, "that's not surprising in a country that was as closed and secretive as Iraq, a country that was doing everything that it could to deceive the United Nations, to deceive the world."
Asked whether the intelligence was wrong, Rice demurred: "I don't think . . . that we know the full story of what became of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction." Hussein, she added, "concealed hundreds of weapons-related activities and programs from the United Nations."
In Senate testimony Wednesday, Kay said that his months of searching in Iraq had convinced him that Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction immediately before the war, and he called for an independent inquiry into why U.S. intelligence agencies were so far off the mark.
The statements reignited a fiercely partisan debate about the performance of the CIA, and over whether the Bush administration twisted the intelligence, as some Democrats contend, as it built a case for war. Administration officials said Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that posed a grave threat to the United States.
That deep partisan split has also riven the two intelligence committees, and members and staff members fear party-line battling will make it impossible for Congress to provide a cogent analysis of the issues and answers to the public. The committees, which have yet to finalize their reports, have drawn on more than 175 interviews and a document trail that rivals the congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, congressional officials familiar with the separate House and Senate inquiries said.
"Bipartisanship has become the hardest" to achieve "since I've been on the committee, and I'm very, very sad about it," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), ranking minority member of the House intelligence panel. "This is a serious change. If these intelligence committees can't do it, no one can do it."
'Not yet knowable'
A senior U.S. intelligence official declined to respond to the committee findings, which have not been shared with them. Besides, he said, any final judgment is premature. He said U.S. weapons hunters still have "millions of pages of documents to read, hundreds of sites" to explore and thousands of interviews to conduct before determining whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
"We're not insisting in every case that what we said was right, but much of it is not yet knowable," he said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher sounded a similar note yesterday on the performance of U.S. intelligence. "I don't think one can draw conclusions at this point. Certainly some of the elements we know are subject to debate, disagreement. But until we know what the real full extent of the program was, you don't have anything to compare what the intelligence was at the time to what the final answers are," Boucher said.
Roberts called the prewar estimates of Iraq's capabilities "a world intelligence failure" and said: "There wasn't any real attempt to follow up, . . . to do the kind of things you should do to determine if it was true. They took it on faith."
"They just kept turning the page," said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House intelligence committee. "If it was true yesterday, it must be true today." Goss said the intelligence community provided enough caveats in its findings to signal the intelligence's murkiness to policymakers. "I don't fault the analysts. They tried to move the dots . . . in a way that made connections. Did the analysts fumble? I don't think so. They just didn't have enough pieces of the puzzle."
Roberts said he intends to put a 300-page draft report before the members next Thursday, give them one week to digest it, and then begin the process of finalizing and getting portions declassified for public hearings at the end of March.
According to Republicans and Democrats on both committees, there is a strong possibility that the Democrats on both panels will write a dissenting report that includes a Democrats-only analysis of how the Bush administration exaggerated claims about Iraq's weapons programs in the months leading to war.
Goss, a former CIA case officer, said he hopes to have a report finished by the end of the 108th Congress, which could last until the end of the year.
The new chief U.S. inspector, Charles A. Duelfer, Kay's successor, has spoken recently to the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees and on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Although he said he has not finalized his approach, Duelfer has told people he hopes to determine what Hussein's "game plan" was in the longer term, including whether he was trying to lull the U.N. Security Council into ending sanctions so he could resume the prohibited weapons programs.
Duelfer and Maj. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, commander of the Iraq Survey Group, are to present their findings in an interim report in late March, congressional sources said. Duelfer has told those he has briefed that he hopes to have a final, unclassified report after that to show the public that every possible step has been taken to find the truth.
As a former deputy head of the U.N. Special Commission that carried out inspections in Iraq between 1991 and 1998, Duelfer knows Iraqi scientists and is familiar with the weapons, stocks of agents and facilities Iraq admitted having in 1991, at least some of which were later destroyed. He also knows techniques Iraq used to hide weapons programs and those who ran them.
Staff writer Dana Milbank contributed to this report.