U.S. intelligence agencies were "dead wrong" in their prewar assessments of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and today know "disturbingly little" about the capabilities and intentions of other potential adversaries such as Iran and North Korea, a presidential commission reported yesterday.
While praising intelligence successes in Libya and Pakistan, the commission's report offered a withering critique of the government's collection of information leading to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, calling its data "either worthless or misleading" and its analysis "riddled with errors." That resulted in one of the "most damaging intelligence failures in recent American history."
President Bush joins former senator Charles S. Robb, left, and Judge Laurence H. Silberman, at a news conference announcing the panel's findings.
(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
Video: President Bush discusses the release of the commission's report.
Transcript: Text of Bush's Thursday press conference with commission co-chairs.
Transcript: The Post's Dana Priest discusses the WMD commission's report.
_____White House Briefing_____
Columnist Dan Froomkin's report about the WMD Commission.
The 692-page report to President Bush determined that many of the problems that led to the Iraq breakdown have not been fixed, and warned that they may be undercutting the quality of current U.S. evaluations of Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons development. To avoid a repeat performance, the commission produced a set of 74 recommendations intended to "transform" a sprawling intelligence bureaucracy that it described as "fragmented, loosely managed and poorly coordinated."
The report presents the most extensive examination to date of how the United States came to believe that Saddam Hussein was harboring secret weapons of mass destruction, leading to a war that toppled a dictator but turned up no such weapons. The report depicted an intelligence apparatus plagued by turf battles, wedded to old assumptions and mired in unimaginative thinking.
Yet while unstinting in its appraisal of intelligence agencies, the panel that Bush appointed under pressure in February 2004 said it was "not authorized" to explore the question of how the commander in chief used the faulty information to make perhaps the most critical decision of his presidency. As he accepted the report yesterday, Bush offered no thoughts about relying on flawed intelligence to launch a war and took no questions from reporters.
Instead, he focused on the proposals to revamp the intelligence agencies further after their post-Sept. 11 reorganization. "The central conclusion is one that I share," Bush said, flanked by the commission's co-chairmen, retired judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.). "America's intelligence community needs fundamental change to enable us to successfully confront the threats of the 21st century."
Bush ordered White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend to cull through the recommendations, most of which could be enacted by executive action, and she directed Cabinet secretaries to report back to her quickly. "You will begin to see action in a matter of weeks," Townsend said.
Some Democrats complained that the commission effectively ducked the central issue of how Bush decided to go to war in Iraq to eliminate weapons that were not there. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said the report "fails to review an equally important aspect of our national security policymaking process -- how policymakers use the intelligence they are provided."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) was even sharper. "The president's decision to go to war in Iraq was also dead wrong," she said, adding, "The investigation will not be complete unless we know how the Bush administration may have used or misused intelligence to pursue its own agenda."
But former CIA director George J. Tenet, who reportedly once told Bush that the Iraq weapons intelligence was a "slam dunk," said the report is too harsh on the agency. "I wish the commission had spent more time reflecting on how far the intelligence community has come in rebuilding American intelligence," he said.
The nine-member panel, officially called the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, blamed intelligence agencies for overselling their knowledge and not disclosing conflicting information to policymakers. At the same time, it exonerated Bush and Vice President Cheney from allegations of pressuring analysts to conclude that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction.
"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," the commission said. "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."
In fact, the commission concluded that policymakers should in the future challenge analysts harder to justify their conclusions, even at the risk of being accused of politicizing intelligence. "It's very important for policymakers to question and push hard on the intelligence community to explore and to fill gaps," Silberman said.
The panel's report became the latest to document the Iraq intelligence failures and offered details never disclosed in previous reports. It revealed, for example, that the National Security Agency, the organization that intercepts electronic signals, was effectively shut out of Iraq and lost access to "important aspects of Iraqi communications."