The Bush administration has been let off the hook by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s skewering of U.S. intelligence agencies for providing unfounded or overstated conclusions on Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD). The key issue, unaddressed by the Senate committee, is whether the Bush administration created pressure for the intelligence agencies to reach such an exaggerated opinion of the Iraqi threat.
The Democrats on the committee foolishly bought into an agreement that will likely postpone a committee report on that more important issue until after the election. Yet voters would profit from information about whether the Bush administration pressured the intelligence community or exaggerated, twisted the truth or even lied about the Iraqi threat in its rush to justify war. The very fact that the Republicans wanted a delay in resolving such important questions should indicate where the evidence leads.
Suspiciously and surprisingly, up until high profile declarations by President Bush and Vice President Cheney in August 2002, the CIA had never stated categorically that Saddam Hussein had WMD. According to Bob Woodward, in his book Plan of Attack, the vice president noted on August 26, 2002 that “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” According to Woodward, one month later, the president said, “The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons.” After those speeches, CIA director George Tenet–a holdover from the Clinton administration and, according to some intelligence officials, eager to win a place in the president’s conservative inner circle–”rushed to commission a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD. The last prior intelligence estimate on the subject was done in 2000 and was duly cautious–”as intelligence estimates usually tend to be.
Yet in the wake of the high profile comments of the president and vice president, the new October 2002 estimate stated boldly and without caveats, in its summary of “Key Judgments,” that “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons.” Yet the evidence in the body of the report to back up this key judgment was thin and sometimes even contradictory to this conclusion. The thinness of the intelligence community’s evidence was reflected in the Senate committee’s searing finding that the community’s conclusions on Iraqi WMD were mostly unsubstantiated or overreaching. Furthermore, such grandiose conclusions from a normally cautious intelligence community, after categorical statements by its masters and funders, seem to indicate a response to pressure. After all, the process is supposed to work the other way around. Statements of high-powered policymakers are supposed to reflect the best estimates that the intelligence community has to offer, not vice versa. In August and September 2002, the president and vice president’s statements clearly went beyond what the intelligence community had concluded at that time.
Even if some would naively believe that this suspicious chronology did not indicate administration pressure, the administration is still responsible for the analysis that its intelligence community produces and should have actively reviewed, detected and questioned the overly ambitious conclusions based on thin evidence.
In another example of top administration officials going beyond the intelligence community’s findings, President Bush, at a meeting with 18 members of Congress on September 26, 2002, declared that, “Saddam Hussein is a terrible guy who is teaming up with al Qaeda.” Yet despite its harsh criticism of the intelligence community, the Republican-controlled Senate committee commended the CIA for its finding that no close relationship existed between Iraq and al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission recently reached the similar conclusion that no collaborative relationship existed between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the terrorist group. On this issue, CIA analysts that came before the committee reported feeling pressured by administration officials but should be commended for not wilting under the heat.
Does other evidence exist that the Bush administration pressed the intelligence community to agree with its harsh assessment of the Iraqi threat? First, in a highly unusual move, the administration set up a competing office in the more hawkish Pentagon to explore links between Iraq and terrorist groups–”most likely to stiffen the CIA’s backbone on this issue. In addition, Vice President Cheney made five to eight out-of-the-ordinary visits to the CIA. Normally, CIA officials go to the offices of high-level officials to give briefings on their findings. Furthermore, the Senate committee reported that the repetitive questions asked by administration officials were regarded by some intelligence analysts a pressure tactic.
So although the Senate committee report is useful, it allows the Bush administration to escape addressing the most important question facing voters in November: Did the Bush administration pressure the intelligence community to hype the Iraqi threat in order to justify shedding American blood in an unnecessary and ill-advised war?