Judge Laurence H. Silberman, co-chairman of the commission that released its report on U.S. intelligence failures yesterday, was given "full and complete access" to whatever information he needed. But when it came to what questions President Bush asked of the CIA, Silberman learned everything he needed to know from Bob Woodward.
"Actually, if you read the Woodward book, it would appear that the president did ask tough questions," Silberman said in a news conference hosted by the White House.
Why would the commission, with unfettered access to the government's most sensitive documents, rely on a book anybody can buy at Borders?
Pressed on this point, Silberman allowed that the commission did not interview Bush or Vice President Cheney during its 14-month inquiry -- although it had a "discussion" about "the nature of our inquiry."
The exchange set the tone for yesterday's session at the White House. Silberman and co-chairman Charles S. Robb flanked a beaming Bush as if they were bodyguards -- and in a sense, they were.
The commission -- appointed by Bush at a time of public pressure for a congressionally appointed panel -- was directed to look at how intelligence was developed, not how policymakers used or misused it. But in their appearance before the cameras at the White House, Silberman and Robb did a good job of acquitting Bush for the way he portrayed the intelligence leading up to the Iraq war.
Silberman acknowledged that "our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers" -- but he and Robb proceeded to do just that. Asked whether policymakers should be held to account, Silberman argued that they used it properly: "The intelligence community came up with a 90 percent certainty of weapons of mass destruction, and that was pretty high, number one. Number two, we looked at the flow, or the stream of intelligence that came to the White House in the two years before that, and if anything, it was even more alarmist."
Silberman echoed a line from Bush's campaign speeches, arguing: "The truth of the matter is that every intelligence agency that we know of, that cooperates with the United States, in the world, had the same views."
Robb had more exoneration: "There was, in the judgment of the intelligence community -- at least as presented to the senior policymakers -- very little evidence of any doubt."
The commission report is plenty tough, but it directs its fire at the intelligence professionals -- the same ones already beaten up by the Sept. 11 commission and congressional reports -- and gives the political figures a pass.
The contrast with the Sept. 11 commission is sharp. That commission, truly independent because it was created by legislation, had public hearings, issued subpoenas, quizzed Bush and Cheney, and released a report that led to sweeping legislation.
The Silberman-Robb commission made little public effort to show its independence -- evidenced yesterday by the decision to release the report in the White House complex. White House aides sat in the front row; at one point, during Robb and Silberman's presentation, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and homeland security adviser Frances Townsend could be seen sharing a laugh.
Bush was visibly delighted as he celebrated the commission for its "unvarnished look." His 800 words of praise for the commission included no direct admission that the prewar Iraq intelligence was wrong, but he hailed the commission for criticizing the intelligence community. "The commission report delivers a sharp critique of the way intelligence has been collected and analyzed against some of the most different intelligence targets, especially Iraq," he said.
The president ignored a question as he left the room, but Silberman and Robb proved able surrogates. Asked whether there was political pressure on the CIA, Robb was categorical in denial. "We found absolutely no instance," he said.
That statement by Robb, a former Democratic senator from Virginia, went too far for Silberman, who was made an appellate judge by President Ronald Reagan.
Silberman said intelligence analysts were questioned "a number of times" on an "important connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda or terrorism." The analysts were "quite resistant" to that notion.
After 36 minutes of this, Silberman called an end to the session. White House staff held reporters in the room until commissioners could be spirited out of the building -- and away from further questioning.