By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006
A declassified report released yesterday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that U.S. intelligence analysts were strongly disputing the alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda while senior Bush administration officials were publicly asserting those links to justify invading Iraq.
Far from aligning himself with al-Qaeda and Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Hussein repeatedly rebuffed al-Qaeda's overtures and tried to capture Zarqawi, the report said. Tariq Aziz, the detained former deputy prime minister, has told the FBI that Hussein "only expressed negative sentiments about [Osama] bin Laden."
The report also said exiles from the Iraqi National Congress (INC) tried to influence U.S. policy by providing, through defectors, false information on Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capabilities. After skeptical analysts warned that the group had been penetrated by hostile intelligence services, including Iran's, a 2002 White House directive ordered that U.S. funding for the INC be continued.
The newly declassified intelligence report provided administration critics with fresh ammunition, less than two months before midterm elections and in the middle of President Bush's campaign to refocus the public's attention away from Iraq and toward the threat of terrorism. Senior Senate Democrats immediately seized on the findings, using some of their strongest language yet to say the president continues to willfully and falsely connect Hussein to al-Qaeda.
As recently as Aug. 21, Bush suggested a link between Hussein and Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed by U.S. forces this summer. But a CIA assessment in October 2005 concluded that Hussein's government "did not have a relationship, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi and his associates," according to the report.
"The president is still distorting. He's still making statements which are false," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), an intelligence committee member.
The partial release of the report came after nearly three years of partisan wrangling over what is to be a five-chapter analysis of the use of prewar intelligence in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The heart of the report -- a detailed comparison of administration statements with the intelligence then available -- is far from release. But the committee voted Thursday to release two chapters, one on the role that Iraqi exiles played in shaping prewar intelligence, the other on the accuracy of the prewar analyses of Hussein's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capabilities and his suspected links to al-Qaeda and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissed the findings as old news. "If we have people who want to re-litigate that, that's fine," he said.
But Republican attempts to paint the findings as a partisan rehash were undercut by intelligence committee members from the GOP. The committee report's conclusions are based on the Democrats' findings because two Republicans -- Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) -- supported those findings.
"After reviewing thousands of pages of evidence, I voted for the conclusions that most closely reflect the facts in the report," Snowe said in a written statement. "Policy-makers seemingly discounted or dismissed warnings about the veracity of critical intelligence reports that may have served as a basis for going to war."
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) was emphatic this week that Iraqi exiles did not fundamentally shape the critical assessment of the Iraqi threat in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.
But, as Snowe emphasized in her statement, the report concluded that information provided by an INC source was cited in that estimate and in Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's February 2003 speech to the United Nations as corroborating evidence about Iraq's mobile biological weapons program. Those citations came despite two April 2002 CIA assessments, a May 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency fabrication notice and a July 2002 National Intelligence Council warning -- all saying the INC source may have been coached by the exile group into fabricating the information.
Democrats and Republicans agree that analysts and politicians of all political stripes were wrong about the prewar assessments of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. But the committee report indicates that intelligence analysts were substantially right about Hussein's lack of operational links to al-Qaeda. And Democrats compared the administration's public statements with newly declassified intelligence assessments to build their case that efforts to link Iraq to al-Qaeda were willfully misleading.
In a classified January 2003 report, for instance, the CIA concluded that Hussein "viewed Islamic extremists operating inside Iraq as a threat." But one day after that conclusion was published, Levin noted, Vice President Cheney said the Iraqi government "aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda."
Intelligence reports in June, July and September 2002 all cast doubts on a reported meeting in Prague between Iraqi intelligence agents and Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Yet, in a Sept. 8, 2002, appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press," Cheney said the CIA considered the reports on the meeting credible, Levin said.
In February 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that "Iraq is unlikely to have provided bin Laden any useful [chemical and biological weapons] knowledge or assistance." A year later, Bush said: "Iraq has also provided al-Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training."
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), an intelligence committee member, said it was unfair for Democrats to compare the intelligence assessments in the report with the administration's statements. He said such comparisons go beyond the scope of the chapters released.
But Democrats were unequivocal in asserting that the chapters chronicle an indisputable pattern of deception.
"It is such a blatant misleading of the United States, its people, to prepare them, to position them, to, in fact, make them enthusiastic or feel that it's justified to go to war with Iraq," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the committee's vice chairman. "That kind of public manipulation I don't know has any precedent in American history."
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.