Panel heaps blame on CIA for `group think' over Iraq

Prewar information was inaccurate and overblown, report says

July 10, 2004|By Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan | Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Falling victim to "group think," American intelligence agencies gave top policy-makers and Congress inaccurate or overblown information about Iraq's banned weapons and repeatedly dismissed contrary viewpoints, the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a report released yesterday.

The long-awaited report concluded that the key intelligence judgments used by the Bush administration to justify invading Iraq last year were incorrect or exaggerated. It attributed the failures to reliance on unproven assumptions, inadequate or misleading sources and bad management.

"Before the war, the U.S. intelligence community told the president as well as the Congress and the public that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and if left unchecked, would probably have a nuclear weapon during this decade," said the committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. "Well, today we know these assessments were wrong."

The senior Democrat, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, said that if Congress had not been misinformed, "we in Congress would not have authorized that war."

The unanimous committee report, 521 pages, found "no evidence" that intelligence agencies exaggerated the Iraqi threat because of political pressure. But in comments appended to the report, Democrats insisted that pressure from an administration bent on war was inescapable.

Rockefeller and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan wrote that intelligence estimates were produced "in a highly-pressurized climate wherein senior administration officials were making the case for military action against Iraq."

The scathing report, particularly its statement that the intelligence agencies' corporate culture and management are "broken," seemed sure to increase pressure on President Bush to nominate quickly a replacement for CIA Director George J. Tenet, whose retirement takes effect tomorrow. That could set the stage for an election-year confirmation battle.

The committee said the intelligence community had been afflicted with "group think," describing it as "examining few alternatives, selective gathering of information, pressure to conform or withhold criticism, and collective rationalization."

The panel found that the CIA "abused its unique position" as the foremost of the nation's 15 intelligence agencies by withholding information from other agencies and at times ignoring or dismissing conflicting views.

`We get it'

John E. McLaughlin, the deputy CIA director, who becomes acting director next week, said the findings should not be taken as a broad indictment of all the agencies' vast efforts, but acknowledged, "We get it."

"Although we think the judgments were not unreasonable when they were made nearly two years ago, we understand with all that we have learned since then that we could have done better," he said.

Bush called the report a useful accounting of the agencies' shortcomings, but defended his decision to go to war and his assertions about Hussein.

"We haven't found the stockpiles, but we knew he could make them," Bush said at a campaign stop in Kutztown, Pa. "The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power."

His presumed Democratic challenger in November, Sen. John Kerry, sought to pin responsibility for the failures on Bush, saying, "The fact is that when it comes to national security, the buck stops at the White House, not anywhere else."

Examples of stretching the truth about Iraq's purported arsenal of weapons of mass destruction abound in the report. It describes how a questionable assertion that Iraq was trying to acquire nuclear-weapons fuel found its way into the president's 2003 State of the Union address and how misstatements or exaggerations were used by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council.

On Iraq's biological weapons, the report found intelligence officials based most of their conclusions on a handful of Iraqi defectors with whom they had little direct access and who had been deemed unreliable by lower-level intelligence officers.

One dubious source, code-named Curve Ball, was used to bolster the idea that Hussein had mobile biological weapons facilities, despite warnings from the only U.S. intelligence agent to have contact with him that he was an unreliable alcoholic.

The agent sent an urgent e-mail to higher-ups expressing his concerns after he read a draft of Powell's speech, saying the one time he was allowed to meet directly with Curve Ball, who was being "handled" by a foreign intelligence agency, Curve Ball showed up almost incapacitated by a hangover.

According to the report, the CIA official who received the agent's e-mail, the deputy chief of the CIA's Iraqi Task Force, told staff investigators he didn't forward the e-mail because he didn't believe it "contained any new information."

Assessing Curve Ball

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