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Report Assails C.I.A. for Failure on Iraq Weapons

03/28/05 "
New York Times" - - WASHINGTON - -The final report of a presidential commission studying American intelligence failures regarding illicit weapons includes a searing critique of how the C.I.A. and other agencies never properly assessed Saddam Hussein's political maneuverings or the possibility that he no longer had weapon stockpiles, according to officials who have seen the report's executive summary. 

The report also proposes broad changes in the sharing of information among intelligence agencies that go well beyond the legislation passed by Congress late last year creating a director of national intelligence to coordinate action among all 15 intelligence agencies.

Those recommendations are likely to figure prominently in the confirmation hearings in April of John D. Negroponte, whom President Bush has nominated to be national intelligence director and who is about to move to the center of the campaign against terror. [Page A14.]

The report particularly singles out the Central Intelligence Agency under its former director, George J. Tenet, but also includes what one senior official called "a hearty condemnation" of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, two of the largest intelligence agencies. 

The unclassified version of the report, which is more than 400 pages long, devotes relatively little space to the holes in American intelligence about North Korea and Iran, the two nations now posing the largest potential nuclear challenge to the United States and its allies. Most of that discussion appears only in a much longer classified version.

In the words of one administration official who has reviewed the classified version, referring to the North Korean leader and the Iran clerical leaders, "we don't give Kim Jong Il or the mullahs a window into what we know and what we don't."

Mr. Bush is expected to receive the report officially on Thursday morning, White House officials said.

As early copies of the report circulated inside the government on Monday, officials said much of it went over ground already covered by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the two reports of the Iraq Survey Group, which was created by the government to search for prohibited weapons after the Iraq invasion, and came up basically empty-handed. 

After Iraq's defeat in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, international inspectors dismantled an active nuclear program, along with biological and chemical weapons. Much of the flawed intelligence was based on a series of assumptions that Mr. Hussein reconstituted those programs after inspectors left the country under duress in 1998. 

But in retrospect, those assumptions by American and other intelligence analysts turned out to be deeply flawed, even though some of Mr. Hussein's own commanders said after they were captured in 2003 that they also believed the government held some unconventional weapons. It was a myth Mr. Hussein apparently fostered to retain an air of power.

That forced Mr. Bush to appoint, somewhat reluctantly, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, which has operated largely in secret under the direction of Laurence H. Silberman, a senior judge on the United States Court of Appeals, and former Governor Charles S. Robb of Virginia.

According to officials who have scanned the document, the unclassified version of the report makes a "case study" of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the major assessment that the intelligence agencies produced at the White House's behest - in a hurried few weeks - in 2002. 

After the Iraq invasion in March 2003, the White House was forced to declassify part of the intelligence estimate, including the footnotes in which some agencies dissented from the view that Mr. Hussein had imported aluminum tubes in order to make centrifuges for the production of uranium, or possessed mobile biological weapons laboratories.

The report particularly ridicules the conclusion that Mr. Hussein's fleet of "unmanned aerial vehicles," which had very limited flying range, posed a major threat. All of those assertions were repeated by Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials in the prelude to the war. To this day, Mr. Cheney has never backed away from his claim, repeated last year, that the "mobile laboratories" were probably part of a secret biological weapons program, and his office has repeatedly declined to respond to inquiries about whether the evidence has changed his view.

One issue the commission grappled with is whether the intelligence agencies failed to understand what was happening inside Iraq after the inspectors left in 1998, a period that David Kay, the first head of the Iraq Survey Group, referred to last year as a time when the country headed into a "vortex of corruption." Mr. Kay, who also testified before the commission, said Mr. Hussein's scientists had faked some of their research and development programs, and Mr. Hussein was reported by his aides to be increasingly divorced from reality.

One defense official who had been briefed on an early draft of the report said Monday that one of its conclusions was that "human intelligence left a lot to be desired" in the global war against terror. 

The official also indicated that there was already considerable anxiety about the final report and its recommendations. "We're all wondering what it will say," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report had not been publicly released yet. "We all know there were shortcomings before 9/11," the official said. "Will this report take into account what we've done since then?"

The commission's mandate was to examine the intelligence agencies' ability to "collect, process, analyze and disseminate information concerning the capabilities, intentions and activities of foreign powers." Besides Iraq, Iran and North Korea, that mandate covered terrorist groups and private nuclear black market networks created by Dr. A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist. 

The classified version of the report is particularly critical of American failures to penetrate Iran's program, and notes how much of the assessment of the size of North Korea's suspected nuclear arsenal is based on what one official called "educated extrapolation." Officials and outside experts who were interviewed by the commission or its staff said they had been asked at length about the absence of reliable human intelligence sources inside both countries.

The commission's conclusions, if made public, may only fuel the arguments now heard in Beijing, Seoul and the capitals of Europe that an intelligence system that so misjudged Iraq cannot be fully trusted when it comes to the assessments of how much progress has been made by North Korea and Iran. North Korea has boasted of producing weapons - but has never tested them - and Iran has now admitted to covering up major elements of its nuclear program, even though it denies that it is building weapons.

The nine-member commission has met formally a dozen times at its offices in Arlington, Va., and in November visited Mr. Bush at the White House to speak with him and his staff. It had formal meetings with most top administration intelligence and foreign policy officials and interviewed former C.I.A. directors and academic experts on weapons proliferation. The commission, which has a professional staff of more than 60 people, mostly longtime mid-level intelligence professionals, has had access to even the most secret government documents. 

All the sessions have been closed to the news media and the public, and the commission members and staff have been tight-lipped about the contents of their report.

"We and the staff have made a commitment in blood not to discuss the report in advance," said Walter B. Slocombe, a former defense official and member of the commission. 

David Johnston and Anne E. Kornblut contributed reporting for this article.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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