As former secretary of state Colin L. Powell worked into the night in a New York hotel room, on the eve of his February 2003 presentation to the U.N. Security Council, CIA officers sent urgent e-mails and cables describing grave doubts about a key charge he was going to make.
On the telephone that night, a senior intelligence officer warned then-CIA Director George J. Tenet that he lacked confidence in the principal source of the assertion that Saddam Hussein's scientists were developing deadly agents in mobile laboratories.
"Mr. Tenet replied with words to the effect of 'yeah, yeah' and that he was 'exhausted,' " according to testimony quoted yesterday in the report of President Bush's commission on the intelligence failures leading up to his decision to invade Iraq in March 2003.
Tenet told the commission he did not recall that part of the conversation. He relayed no such concerns to Powell, who made the germ- warfare charge a centerpiece of his presentation the next day.
That was one among many examples -- cited over 692 pages in the report -- of fruitless dissent on the accuracy of claims against Iraq. Up until the days before U.S. troops entered Iraqi territory that March, the intelligence community was inundated with evidence that undermined virtually all charges it had made against Iraq, the report said.
In scores of additional cases involving the country's alleged nuclear and chemical programs and its delivery systems, the commission described a kind of echo chamber in which plausible hypotheses hardened into firm assertions of fact, eventually becoming immune to evidence.
Leading analysts accepted at face value data supporting the existence of illegal weapons, the commission said, and discounted counter-evidence as skillful Iraqi deception.
The commission's anatomy of failure on Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program is a case in point. It begins in early 2001, as Bush took office, when the CIA got its first report that Iraq was trying to buy black-market aluminum tubes. The agency swiftly concluded, after intercepting a sample in April of that year, that Iraq intended the tubes to be used in centrifuges that would enrich uranium for the core of a nuclear weapon.
The CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC) never budged from that analysis, the report said. In the following 18 months, WINPAC analysts won a fierce bureaucratic battle against dissenters from other agencies who said the tubes -- roughly three feet long and three inches in diameter -- were the wrong size, shape and material for plausible use in centrifuges.
The tubes became the principal evidence for a "key judgment" in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which said Iraq had "reconstituted" a nuclear weapons program and could build a bomb before the end of the decade.
To support its assertions about the aluminum tubes, the CIA made a series of arguments that the nation's leading centrifuge physicists described repeatedly as technically garbled, improbable or unambiguously false, the report said.
One WINPAC analyst -- identified previously in The Washington Post as "Joe," with his surname withheld at the CIA's request -- responded by bypassing the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the nation's only major center of expertise on nuclear centrifuge technology. Joe commissioned a contractor to conduct tests of his own design, then rejected the contractor's results when they did not meet his expectations.
Yesterday's report said the CIA also created a panel of experts to rival the Oak Ridge team. Those experts concluded, based on "a stack of documents provided by the CIA," that the tubes were meant for centrifuges.
The CIA refused to convene the government's authoritative forum for resolving technical disputes about nuclear weapons. The Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee proposed twice, in the spring and summer of 2002, to assess all the evidence. The CIA's front office replied, according to yesterday's report, "that CIA was not ready to discuss its position."