The scarcity of skepticism about WMD

April 01, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Two years after President Bush invaded Iraq to rid the world of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the commission he appointed to find out why we didn't know they weren't there hasn't minced words.

Of all the assessments made by the U.S. intelligence community, the commission's report says that "not one bit of it could be confirmed when the war was over" in what was "one of the most public - and most damaging - intelligence failures in recent American history."

The report spreads the blame widely among all the elements of that community, which "collected precious little intelligence for the analysts to analyze, and much of what they did collect was either worthless or misleading."

The report says, "Intelligence analysts were all too wedded to their assumptions about Saddam's intentions" and failed "to communicate effectively with policy-makers" about "how little good intelligence" they had or how much their assessments "were driven by assumptions and inferences rather than concrete evidence."

The co-chairmen of the commission, former Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia and federal appellate Judge Laurence H. Silberman, told reporters that they had found no evidence of policy-makers trying to influence intelligence analysis, or what Mr. Robb called "politicization" of the process.

But the report expresses difficulty in believing that the "conventional wisdom" that WMD existed didn't raise skepticism among intelligence analysts.

There can be no doubt that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumseld, in the run-up to the invasion, repeatedly voiced the "assumptions and inferences" cited by the report that Iraq had WMD and that they required U.S. military action.

Before the invasion, Mr. Bush injected an urgency into his demand for U.N. authorization by citing Mr. Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds after the first Persian Gulf war. In retrospect, the U.N. inspections that Mr. Bush thwarted and ignored proved to be valid - no WMD were found.

"The bottom line," Judge Silberman told a news conference, "was that the intelligence community operated on assumptions based on what they had seen in 1991 [during the gulf war] and they continued on with those assumptions, hardened into presumptions, and they had precious little evidence to support those assumptions. What little evidence they did have ... was tortured into those presumptions."

In his acceptance of the report, Mr. Bush, not surprisingly, chose to accent the positive, citing its mention of the intelligence community's role "in getting Libya to renounce weapons of mass destruction and in exposing the long-running A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network" in Pakistan.

The need for secrecy in intelligence work, Mr. Bush said, was why he couldn't talk about other successes. By way of low-balling the report's sharp criticism, he said such work "will never be perfect."

In response to a question about the harsh criticism in the report, Mr. Robb said, "It was not our intention to kick anybody in the teeth," but the commission had an obligation "to point out where there were some very serious errors with respect to trade craft. ... The bottom line is there was no real question raised about whether or not there was any doubt" about the WMD assumptions.

The lingering question is whether Mr. Bush simply bought into the assumptions and the ultimate presumption that Iraq had WMD, or helped fuel them with his incessant public insistence that they existed.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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