Report Details Errors Before War

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006

The long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee report released yesterday sheds new light on why U.S. intelligence agencies provided inaccurate prewar information about Saddam Hussein and his weapons programs, including details on how Iraqi exiles who fabricated or exaggerated their stories were accepted as truthful because they passed Pentagon lie detector tests.

The two newly declassified chapters of the report fueled political accusations yesterday that the Bush administration lied to justify invading Iraq, but the documents' nearly 400 pages contain several examples of how bad information wound up accepted as truthful in intelligence assessments at the time.

A section includes the results of an evaluation by the CIA of its performance, which concludes that, despite repeated prewar assessments that the Iraqis were practicing deceit and deception to hide their weapons, there actually were no such efforts because there were no weapons.

The CIA concludes: "There comes a point where the absence of evidence does indeed become the evidence of absence." That statement is a play on a remark Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made frequently in the months before the war -- after U.N. inspectors in late 2002 and early 2003 could find no weapons -- that "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

One 208-page chapter from the Senate committee report covers the use of intelligence provided by the Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi. The panel wrote that three Iraqi exiles gave the Pentagon inaccurate information about Hussein's alleged training of al-Qaeda terrorists, as well as about the existence of mobile biological weapons factories and an alleged meeting between the Iraqi leader and Osama bin Laden. All three exiles passed lie detector tests given by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), adding credibility to their stories.

In each case, the information proved to be questionable, if not inaccurate. But in the case of the mobile labs, the source's information was used to corroborate data in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq even after the informant had been tagged as a fabricator.

The report notes that a DIA official who knew that the source was unreliable sat in on two meetings in which the mobile labs information was incorporated into the speech Secretary of State Colin L. Powell delivered in February 2003 to the U.N. Security Council, but that the official did not realize the information was based solely on the word of the untrustworthy source.

According to the Senate panel's report, another Iraqi National Congress source, recommended to the DIA by Chalabi through a high-ranking Defense Department official, passed two lie detector tests after "claiming to have seen Saddam meeting with a man, who Uday Hussein [Saddam's son] identified as bin Laden." The source said Uday Hussein told him that bin Laden was there "to discuss training of some of his people in Iraq."

The DIA subsequently distributed the information but pointed out that the source was connected with the Iraqi opposition and that the information "may have been intended to influence as well as inform decision makers." The CIA later noted in its assessment of the information that the meeting between Hussein and bin Laden had "not been corroborated" and that "other sensitive reporting . . . provides no indication that Saddam and bin Laden have met each other."

Although the Senate report raises questions about the reliability of the information provided by Iraqi exiles, it notes that the information had little direct impact on the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced in October 2002. Many of the Iraqi National Congress claims, however, were passed on to the White House and the office of Vice President Cheney through reports by a separate intelligence analysis group established by then-Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith.

The Senate committee's inquiry into the Feith group's activities, another part of the prewar intelligence study, has been delayed by committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who is awaiting the completion of a Pentagon inspector general inquiry into the same matter.

One surprising conclusion from the CIA retrospective is that the agency now believes that aggressive U.N. inspections in Iraq in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War led Hussein to what it describes as a "fateful decision." He covertly dismantled and destroyed the undeclared nuclear, chemical and biological facilities, materials and actual weapons he had put together in the preceding decade -- along with "the records that could have verified that unilateral destruction."

As a result, there was no proof in 2002 and 2003 when the Iraqis claimed they had no weapons of mass destruction, and Hussein could not demonstrate he was in basic, if not complete, compliance with U.N. resolutions. Noncompliance with the Security Council's October resolution was the main U.S. public rationale for the invasion of Iraq.

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