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Intelligence Failure: Inside This Month's Senate Report

The Senate intelligence committee released its two-part report this month exploring pre-war intelligence on Iraq and its use by the Bush administration. We asked James Martin, a Paul Mellon fellow at Cambridge University who writes on international security issues, to wade through the 172-page report for us. He'll be guest-posting his findings here over the next few days.

Released only three days after the publication earlier this month of Scott McClellan's damning indictment of the Bush administration, What Happened, new reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee on prewar Iraq intelligence seem to confirm the conclusions of the former press-secretary's mea culpa: that the administration misused and misrepresented the findings of the intelligence community in the run-up to the war.

The findings of the first report, aptly named "Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information," strikes one now as rather anti-climatic--its conclusions having long since become common knowledge: "In the push to rally public support for the invasion of Iraq," writes committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), "Administration officials often failed to accurately portray what was known, what was not known, and what was suspected about Iraq and the threat it represented to our national security."

But while its conclusions are perhaps not breaking-news, the committee's report is arguably the clearest and most direct presentation to date of the disconnect between what was known by the intelligence community in the run-up to the war and what was claimed to be true by the administration. On the question of Iraq's nuclear weapons capability, for example, the report analyzes in detail the White House's willful disregard of the conclusions of the Department of Energy and the Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research that the aluminum tubes claimed by the CIA to be part of Iraq's supposed uranium enrichment apparatus were in fact being used for the purposes of a conventional rocket program--a point that was confirmed by the postwar findings of the Iraq Survey Group. And when confronted with CIA and DIA assessments that a purported meeting between Mohammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence officials in 2001 could not be confirmed, the administration continued to insist that such a meeting had taken place and that it proved high-level cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaida.

On the other hand, the report describes numerous instances of agreement between the intelligence community and the White House on the status of Iraq's WMD program and Saddam's ties to terrorism. On the question of Iraq's biological weapons programs, for instance, the report argues that the administration's public declarations were "substantiated" by available intelligence information. And, the report claims, the White House was on sure-footing in arguing for official Iraqi tolerance of the presence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other al-Qaida-related terrorists within Iraq prior to the invasion.

The impassioned minority views of some of the committee's dissenting Republican members--Senators Kit Bond, Saxby Chambliss, Orrin Hatch, and Richard Burr--focus on these areas of agreement, and argue that charges of dissimulation on the part of the administration are weakened by the fact that prominent Democratic members of Congress relied upon the same intelligence information in drumming up support for the war. If the White House was lying, they claim, then what were Kerry, Edwards, and Clinton doing?

But as Dan Froomkin at the WashPost points out, the fact that Congress "bought the administration line" does not necessarily mean that the two were operating on a level playing field: "It takes a lot of chutzpah to defend yourself against charges that you've engaged in a propaganda campaign," he writes, "by noting that it worked."

It's likely that the administration had access to more intelligence on Iraq than Congress, as Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has recently argued, although the extent of its knowledge remains unclear. Unfortunately, the Senate committee report takes into account only a handful of official intelligence estimates and excludes from consideration "less formal communications" between the White House and the intelligence community that undoubtedly contained even more details on the status (or non-status) of Iraq's WMD programs. A more comprehensive investigation into these other intelligence channels would help clarify what information exactly was available to the White House and what to Congress, and the extent to which we can rightfully accuse the former of having lied to the public about the reasons for going to war.

--James Martin