T he Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s
report on prewar intelligence assessments was
released on a Friday, which in Washington is often a way to bury embarrassing stuff as people turn their attention to the weekend.
As people digest the information, however, they will find the report is devastating. Its key conclusion — that “most of the major key judgments in the Intelligence Community’s October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), ‘Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction,’ (were) either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting” — is backed by voluminous documentation and makes hash of the case presented for going to war with Iraq.
A paragraph early in the 30-page conclusions section sums up a great deal:
“The IC (Intelligence Community) had long assessed that Iraq maintained its ambitions to obtain (Weapons of Mass Destruction) and would seek to resume full WMD efforts once UN sanctions and inspections ended. Accordingly, after UN inspectors left Iraq in 1998, (Intelligence Community) analysts began to look for evidence that Iraq was expanding WMD programs. Analysts interpreted ambiguous data as indicative of the active and expanded WMD effort they expected to see (our emphasis).”
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, ranking Democrat on the committee, was probably correct when he said, “We in Congress would not have authorized that war … with 75 votes, if we knew what we know now.”
If the report has any weakness, it is its failure to acknowledge the intelligence community’s failure might have been linked to political pressure. As California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, “The committee’s report does not acknowledge that the intelligence estimates were shaped by the administration.”
Political pressure is not always obvious. It can come through winks and nods and tacit understandings.
Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reminded us, for example, that in September 2002, when the October report was being prepared, President Bush was addressing the United Nations and the minuet over a probable war was still being danced, Vice President Cheney visited the CIA several times, something vice presidents seldom do.
In June 2003, Cirincione wrote a piece, “Follow the Threat Assessments,” noting these regular assessments “underwent a dramatic transformation from 2001 to 2002,” with “little new evidence to account for this change.”
Before the war, the case was that Saddam’s weapons constituted a “grave and growing” threat. That case, as this report (and intensive postwar inspections) shows, was incorrect. We need to remember that the next time a politician starts beating the war drums.