Iraq errors said to result from breakdowns

Findings: System called `dead wrong' leading up to war.

Intelligence

April 01, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The United States' intelligence community had "high confidence" in early 2003 that Iraq was manufacturing and hiding biological weapons inside a fleet of mobile laboratories, as then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the United Nations in a speech six weeks before the war began. Powell's source was a former Iraqi chemical engineer, nicknamed "Curveball," who had offered detailed accounts of the program.

But Curveball was a liar - a "fabricator," according to the intelligence report released by the White House yesterday - and doubts about him had surfaced within the CIA months before Powell delivered his speech to the United Nations. Powell and other administration officials weren't told of those doubts, and the CIA did not formally recall Curveball's statements until May of 2004, more than a year after major combat operations in Iraq ended.

The reliance on that single, faulty source of information to form such a damning and critical assessment of Iraq's weapons capabilities was indicative of a flawed intelligence system that got most of the Iraqi weapons threat "dead wrong," the report concludes. In precise and often scathing detail, the roughly 600-page document describes an American intelligence network overwhelmed by modern developments in global politics and technology, and unable to recognize shortcomings that led the nation to war based on dubious conclusions.

"The Intelligence Community's errors were not the result of simple bad luck, or a once-in-a-lifetime `perfect storm,' as some would have it," the report says. "Rather, they were the product of poor intelligence collection, an analytical process that was driven by assumptions and inferences rather than data, inadequate validation and vetting of dubious intelligence sources, and numerous other breakdowns.

"In many ways, the Intelligence Community simply did not do the job that it exists to do."

Compiled by a bipartisan team selected to assess the intelligence failings that led up to the war in Iraq, the report paints the most vivid picture to date of the intelligence sources and methods that led the White House to conclude in 2003 that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing and hiding weapons of mass destruction. The CIA is often singled out in the report for its failings, but none of the nation's intelligence gathering agencies escapes criticism.

Human intelligence in Iraq was "paltry," the report said, while electronic eavesdropping was minimal and of "questionable value," and satellite imagery was misinterpreted. Agencies did not communicate information that would have led other agencies to reach different conclusions. Analysts misinterpreted an increase in intelligence-gathering as a simultaneous increase in suspicious activity by the Iraqis they were spying on.

What little information they had was filtered though an intelligence system predisposed to finding weapons of mass destruction. Because of Saddam Hussein's history of developing and using illicit weapons, and trying to hide them from international inspectors, analysts had shifted the burden of proof where Iraq was involved, the report says. Agents required proof that Iraq did not have banned weapons rather than proof that it did - and they often disregarded evidence that did not support the premise.

Some of the most telling detail concerns Curveball. Intelligence officials often pointed to "multiple sources" for their claims about Iraq's active biological weapons laboratories, but they were relying on single reports from two sources and more than 100 detailed reports from Curveball. And doubts about Curveball, whose reports were passed to American agents through a foreign intermediary, were widespread.

An interviewer working with the CIA became suspicious in 2000 when he found that Curveball spoke English, despite the common understanding that access to him was controlled by a foreign agency because he did not speak the language. The interviewer also noted that Curveball appeared to have a severe hangover and suggested he might be an alcoholic, and a foreign intelligence agent reported in 2001 that the source was "out of control."

Specific doubts about Curveball's information surfaced as well. For instance, a foreign intelligence service noted in 2001 that surveillance photographs showed a wall where Curveball claimed Iraq's biological weapons trailers were driven.

According to the report, two CIA officials say they tried to remove references to Curveball's information when copies of Powell's speech were circulated within the agency, though their accounts are disputed by others. CIA Director George J. Tenet said he was not aware of the concerns about Curveball until the source was discredited by the CIA in 2004.

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