By Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 6, 2008
President Bush and top administration officials repeatedly exaggerated what they knew about Iraq's weapons and its ties to terrorist groups as the White House pressed its case for war against Iraq, the Senate intelligence committee said yesterday in a long-awaited report.
While most of the administration's prewar claims about Iraq reflected now-discredited U.S. intelligence reports, the White House crossed a line by conveying certainty about the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the United States, according to the report, approved over the objections of most of the committee's Republican members.
"In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the committee chairman, said at a news conference. "As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed."
The report, the last and most contentious of a series of Senate reviews of prewar intelligence, sought to compare the administration's public claims about Iraq with the intelligence reports available to them at the time. While many of the White House's statements -- such as Bush's warnings about a secret Iraqi nuclear program -- were amply supported by intelligence files at the time, the report said, others were not.
Bush and other administration officials strayed far from official intelligence reports when it came to describing alleged ties between al-Qaeda and Hussein, the report said. It cited repeated statements by Bush, including his Oct. 7, 2002, Cincinnati speech in which he alleged that Iraq had "trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making" and had maintained "high-level contacts that go back a decade."
The report said that "statements and indications by the president and secretary of state suggesting that Iraq and al-Qaeda had a partnership, or that Iraq had provided al-Qaeda with weapons training, were not substantiated by the intelligence."
Approved by eight Democrats and two Republicans on the 15-member committee, the report also highlights an October 2002 claim by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that Iraq had concealed its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in underground bunkers too deep to be destroyed by air power alone. Rumsfeld, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, had told senators that U.S. officials did "know where a fraction" of Hussein's banned weapons were, adding that a "good many are underground and deeply buried," suggesting that ground forces were required to destroy them. His statement contradicted intelligence at the time that no such facilities were known to exist, the report states.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a committee member, called for a separate investigation of Rumsfeld's statements, which he said appeared intended to drive support for an invasion. "This is stunning: The secretary of defense, testifying before Congress about whether or not ground forces would be strategically necessary in a war against Iraq, said the executive branch 'knew' something that it did not know," he said.
The report's conclusions were sharply criticized by several Republican members, who accused the Democratic majority of rehashing old material for political advantage.
Committee Vice Chairman Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) called the new report a "waste of time" and said the allegations about administration officials were deliberately misleading. "It is ironic that the Democrats would knowingly distort and misrepresent the Committee's findings and the intelligence in an effort to prove that the Administration distorted and mischaracterized the intelligence," he said.
Bond also noted that key Democrats -- including several who ran for their party's presidential nomination this year -- also made public statements during the same period portraying Iraq's weapons as a threat to the United States. Those statements were omitted from the report over Republican objections, resulting in a flagrantly partisan document that is "flawed, incomplete and irrelevant," he said.
The committee's final report also focused on efforts by Bush appointees at the Pentagon and White House to collect intelligence on Iran. The effort included a series of meetings in Rome and Paris that featured Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian exile the CIA had labeled as a fabricator based on his role in the Iran-contra affair.
The group kept the CIA in the dark about Manucher's involvement, the report said, and as a result the agency never learned about "potentially useful and actionable intelligence" gained in a December 2001 meeting in Rome with two Iranian intelligence officers. The CIA also was prevented from learning of Ghorbanifar's attempts to obtain Pentagon funds for covert activities in Iran and otherwise influence U.S. government activities, committee members found.
The new report is the last in a series of Senate reports on the intelligence failures in the run-up to the Iraq war. The first such report, released in July 2004, focused on flaws in intelligence-gathering and analysis by the U.S. intelligence agencies but put off the politically explosive question of whether Bush administration officials deliberately distorted or misused the information they were given. The final report was delayed as committee members clashed over what the report should say and whether such a report was still necessary.
The earlier Senate report, released when Republicans controlled the chamber, concluded unanimously that U.S. intelligence agencies had botched the task of assessing Iraq's capabilities regarding weapons of mass destruction. It said key intelligence reports made unwarranted assumptions and overstated what was then known about Hussein's weapons programs. The report faulted the CIA and other agencies for failing to cultivate reliable informants and for basing key assessments on extrapolation and inference.