JERUSALEM - Israeli officials overestimated the military threat posed by Iraq because of faulty intelligence that was derived from conjecture rather than based on fact, an investigation by Israel's parliament concluded in a report released yesterday.
A special parliamentary committee, basing its findings on eight months of closed hearings, recommended restructuring Israel's intelligence services, including the Mossad, but said there had been no deliberate attempt to falsify information about Iraq before the U.S. invasion of the country last March.
Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of parliament's Foreign Relations and Defense Committee and head of the investigative panel, said Israel had played "a very minor role" in providing the justification for war, and the panel concluded that Israel's intelligence services and politicians had not conspired to mislead the public.
"Israel did not deceive," Steinitz said. "There are no signs of a deliberate deception or distortion of intelligence data. If mistakes were made, they were made innocently."
His committee criticized what it called overlap in work by Israel's military intelligence agency and the Mossad, Israel's CIA. The committee recommended that the Mossad concentrate on foreign intelligence gathering and that the military intelligence agency narrow its focus to threats of war.
The committee also prepared a more-detailed, classified version of its report.
Steinitz said U.S. and British officials had little need for Israeli intelligence in the months before the war against Iraq because the United States and Britain could spy on Iraq from bases in neighboring countries and were able to rely on spy flights.
Israeli leaders, who were strong advocates of the war, repeatedly said they believed that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, information that was shared with allied countries as the push for an invasion mounted. No such weapons have been found.
The panel concluded that the Israeli government, based on the information available at the time, acted reasonably when in the weeks before the war it activated civil defense measures, inoculated 17,000 emergency workers against smallpox and ordered citizens to prepare sealed rooms in their homes as protection against chemical or biological attacks.
But the committee questioned how Israeli intelligence agencies concluded after the Persian Gulf war in 1991 that Iraq had no more than two missile launchers and two dozen missiles capable of reaching Israel, yet reported much higher numbers in the months leading to the recent war.
"The closer the war became, we had more information about dozens of missiles," Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud Party, said yesterday. "In the days before the war, we had information that Iraq had a minimum of 50 and up to 100 missiles."
Estimates, not evidence
He said that those inflated assessments were made public "without finding any data to justify the change in estimates." During the war and its aftermath, no missiles aimed at Israel were found.
The report criticizes the intelligence agencies for repeatedly "stating as facts" both Iraq's possession of unconventional weapons and its ability to use them.
"The question that really bothered us was why we relied on estimates rather than hard evidence," Steinitz said.
Steinitz said questionable intelligence that Israel provided to other countries in many cases ended up returning to Israel in repackaged form, and that officials wrongly assumed that their sketchy information had been independently collaborated.
"This is a failure that we should be very careful about," he said.
The committee criticized Israeli intelligence agencies for missing altogether Libya's development of weapons of mass destruction. Israel was unaware, the committee said, of Libya's weapons program until the country's leader, Col. Muammar el Kadafi, announced his decision to dismantle it.
In the course of its investigation, the committee heard testimony in closed sessions from 50 witnesses, including Sharon. The last such inquiry into intelligence-gathering failures was after the surprise attacks by Egypt and Syria that began the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Before the Iraq war, Israeli military officials warned repeatedly that missile launchers had been detected in western Iraq and that there was a high probability that missiles would be fired at Israel before or during the war. Some military officials bragged of helping the United States gather intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.
Parliament member Haim Ramon of the opposition Labor Party served on the investigative committee and delivered a minority report, disagreeing with the conclusion that the government acted reasonably. Ramon concluded that the intelligence errors undermined people's trust in their leaders and wasted tens of millions of dollars.
"No single agency - not the Americans nor the British nor Israel - could find a single launcher or missile in Iraq," Ramon said yesterday. Arguments that, just because they couldn't be found didn't mean the missiles didn't exist, he said, "can't hold for 10 years. If it doesn't look like a missile, if it doesn't sound like a missile, then it's not a missile.
"We had the necessary information," he said of the intelligence services. "The information was misinterpreted."