WMD Commission Continues The Stonewall For Bush
by David Corn
Published on Friday, April 1, 2005 by David Corn
The stonewall continues.
On Thursday, President Bush's commission on weapons of mass destruction intelligence released a 692-page report that harshly
criticizes the US intelligence establishment. It notes that "the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of it
pre-war judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure." That's no news flash.
The Senate intelligence committee issued a report last July that said the same. But like the Senate committee, Bush's commission--cochaired
by Judge Laurence Silberman, a Republican, and former Senator Chuck Robb, a Democrat--ignored a key issue: whether Bush and
his aides overstated and misrepresented the flawed intelligence they received from the intelligence agencies. As I wrote about
days ago, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, promised last summer that his committee
would investigate the administration's prewar use (or abuse) of the WMD intelligence after the 2004 election, but more recently
Roberts backed away from that vow, claiming such an inquiry would now be pointless. The commission, which claimed it found
no evidence that Bush officials pressured intelligence analysts to rig their reports, notes in a footnote,
Our review has been limited by our charter to the question of alleged policymaker pressure on the Intelligence
Community to shape its conclusions to conform to the policy preferences of the Administration. There is a separate issue of
how policymakers used the intelligence they were given and how they reflected it in their presentations to Congress and the
public. That issue is not within our charter and we therefore did not consider it nor do we express a view on it.
So two years after Bush launched the invasion of Iraq, there still has been no official inquiry into how he and his lieutenants
handled the prewar intelligence. The question is whether Bush and other administration officials exaggerated the intelligence
community's overstatements. And the evidence suggests they did. Bush claimed Saddam Hussein was "dealing with" al Qaeda before
the war, but the CIA had not reported that. Bush said Hussein had amassed a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons, yet
the intelligence community had only reported (errantly) that Iraq had an active research and development program for biological
weapons. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress have so far succeeded in keeping his role in the WMD scandal out of the
picture. (Democrats, where are you?)
The presidential WMD commission found numerous problems within the intelligence community. It says, "we still know disturbingly
little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries." (This is
bad news for anyone who wants to bomb Iran or North Korea.) The report is mostly depressing, as it describes severe dysfunctions
within the intelligence establishment. But the commission casts little, if any, blame toward the person ultimately responsible
for the intelligence community: the president of the United States. And the current president even bestowed upon former CIA
director George Tenet, who was at the helm during this period of screw-ups, the presidential Medal of Freedom. (Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz received one, too. And yesterday the Rand Corporation released a report concluding that his Pentagon
failed to plan adequately for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. The Rand study says that stabilization and reconstruction
issues "were addressed only very generally" and "no planning was undertaken to ensure the security of the Iraqi people.")
The WMD commission took only a few modest steps toward addressing--in the most general terms--the role played by Bush and
the policymakers in the Iraq WMD intelligence failure. For instance, the commission notes,
The Intelligence Community needs to be pushed. It will not do its best unless it is pressed by policymakers-sometimes
to the point of discomfort. Analysts must be pressed to explain how much they don't know; the collection agencies must be
pressed to explain why they don't have better information on key topics. While policymakers must be prepared to credit intelligence
that doesn't fit their preferences, no important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that
forces the community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment and what alternatives might also be true.
It's obvious that Bush did not push the intelligence services in this fashion. As the White House has conceded, Bush did
not even read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced in October 2002. This was the intelligence community's ultimate
summary of its intelligence on Iraq. A close reading of the document could have led Bush or national security adviser Condoleezza
Rice (who also did not read the 90-page paper) to raise the sort of questions the commission suggests. But that did not happen.
When Silberman was asked at a press conference if Bush had been inquisitive enough, he referred to a passage in Bob Woodward's
latest book in which Bush is depicted asking Tenet if the intelligence is sound and Tenet maintains it is a "slam-dunk." That
clearly was not good enough.
The commission also observes,
The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure
cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments. That said, it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence
analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom.
The commission suggests that it is partly the responsibility of the president to guarantee that conventional wisdom is
questioned. But Bush did no such thing. With this report, the CIA is again cast as the fall guy. And Bush escapes merrily.
A government nonproliferation expert with experience dealing with intelligence analysts, who has read the report, sent
me his/her assessment. This source asked to go unnamed, fearing retribution at the workplace for publicly blasting the report.
Below is an excerpt of his/her analysis:
[The commission] focuses on how and why the dogs barked [and got it wrong]. The real point, however, is: why didn't someone
look out the window? And why have no policymakers taken responsibility, anywhere, for drastically wrong assessments on Iraq?
The Commission's report is a good read and thorough. The recommendations -- to collect better intelligence, do better
analysis, and communicate better -- however, reflect the absurdity of having intelligence experts tell each other how to do
their job better. The users of intelligence should be involved. The Commission had 60 staff members, but only three have identifiable
expertise in nonproliferation and none have nonproliferation policy experience. Why didn't the Commission include more nonproliferation
There are lots of reasons....The Commission was appointed by the president and it is politically easier for this administration
to focus on intelligence rather than policy failures, for obvious reasons. Nonproliferation experts might point out that even
though the intelligence was flawed, someone with enough nonproliferation experience would have asked more questions. Despite
the fascinating details of how and why the intelligence on uranium from Niger was faulty, an expert would point out that there
were tons of natural and low-enriched uranium already in Iraq: even if Iraq got uranium from Niger, it wouldn't make a discernible
difference in the quantity it could enrich. Iraq's first choice would be to take the safeguarded material (just as it planned
to do before the 1991 war) and use that. Faster and less complicated. A nonproliferation expert would also know that the CIA's
arguments that Iraq was reconstituting its cadre of nuclear weapons personnel were an old, tired mantra repeated since the
early 1990s. In interagency meetings ten years ago, I used to ask them, what evidence do you have? "Well," the analysts would
say, "we think he's doing it." Apparently their evidence never got any better.
For Bush--or the commission--to say he was misled by the intelligence community is not a sufficient explanation or defense.
First, Bush didn't ensure the intelligence he received was solid. Then he and his lieutenants repeatedly said in public that
the intelligence was beyond doubt, and they made dramatic assertions about the supposed threat presented by Hussein's WMDs
that went far beyond what the intelligence (wrongly) claimed. In keeping the spotlight exclusively on the intelligence gang
and not turning it also on the policymakers at the White House, the WMD commission has served Bush well, but not the public.
© 2005 David Corn