Yesterday's report by the Senate intelligence committee left in shreds two of the Bush administration's main rationales for the war in Iraq: that Iraq had illicit weapons and that it cooperated with al Qaeda.
The conclusions are not earthshaking by themselves. Although President Bush and Vice President Cheney have not abandoned either rationale, both were already tattered after similar doubts were voiced over many months by U.S. weapons inspectors in Iraq, the commission probing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, CIA officials and others.
The larger question is whether voters will blame the White House for these two massive mistakes. Though officially agnostic on the White House role in using Iraq intelligence (that will come in a later report), the committee gives ammunition both to Bush and Democratic opponent John F. Kerry.
On the question of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the bipartisan committee report absolved administration officials of pressuring CIA analysts to inflate the case against Saddam Hussein. And while making no judgment on whether the administration distorted the intelligence it was given, the committee made plain that the CIA's case against Iraq was plenty exaggerated on its own. Without "any evidence" of administration coercion, the committee found, the intelligence community's judgments on Iraq's weapons were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting."
On the issue of Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda, however, the committee's findings imply that the White House, not the CIA, is to blame for making dubious claims that there were working ties between Osama bin Laden's organization and Hussein's Iraq. "The Central Intelligence Agency reasonably assessed that there were likely several instances of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda throughout the 1990s, but that these contacts did not add up to an established formal relationship," the committee found, echoing the Sept. 11 commission staff's finding of no "collaborative relationship" between the two.
"The Central Intelligence Agency's assessment that to date there was no evidence proving Iraqi complicity or assistance in an al-Qaeda attack was reasonable and objective," the committee found. "No additional information has emerged to suggest otherwise." Likewise, the report concluded: "No information has emerged thus far to suggest that Saddam did try to employ al-Qaeda in conducting terrorist attacks."
The undermining of the administration's case for war is potentially a grave threat to Bush, whose reelection prospects are closely tied to Americans' view of the merits of the Iraq war and whether it advances the fight against terrorism. For that reason, Bush has delayed a final reckoning on Iraq's forbidden weapons by naming a commission that will not report its findings until after the election. In the meantime, he continues to assert ties between al Qaeda and Iraq, and to place blame for any weapons miscalculation squarely on the CIA.
In that vein, Bush blessed the committee's work yesterday. "The idea that the Senate has taken a hard look to find out where the intelligence-gathering services went short is good and positive," he said in Pennsylvania, acknowledging "some failures" in the intelligence. "We thought there was going to be stockpiles of weapons," he said. "I thought so; the Congress thought so; the U.N. thought so. I'll tell you what we do know. Saddam Hussein had the capacity to make weapons."
Bush's distancing of himself from the flawed allegations may well be aided by the departure this week of CIA director George J. Tenet, who was criticized in the Senate report for not always being informed about dissenting views when he met almost daily with Bush.
Democrats, in turn, are determined not to let Bush avoid blame. Even before the report came out, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) sent out a press release saying the administration asserted Iraq-al Qaeda collaboration that the CIA doubted. Yesterday, the Kerry campaign issued a statement saying: "Nothing in this report absolves the White House of its responsibility for mishandling of the country's intelligence. The fact is that when it comes to national security, the buck stops at the White House, not anywhere else."
A senior intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity agreed with that logic yesterday, saying the CIA's assertions, whatever their accuracy, did not in themselves justify going to war; the agency made no recommendation on this. "Policymakers should not be immune from the decision on what to do," the official said.
In an early indication of political debates to come, the Senate panel's Republican chairman yesterday emphasized the findings that left the White House blameless, while the Democratic vice chairman emphasized that the CIA was right to dismiss the notion of al Qaeda ties to Iraq.
"Before the war, the U.S. intelligence community told the president, as well as the Congress and the public, that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and if left unchecked, would probably have a nuclear weapon during this decade," Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said in summarizing the report. "Well, today we know these assessments were wrong, and as our inquiry will show, they were also unreasonable and largely unsupported by the available intelligence."
Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) found a different point of emphasis. "Our report found that the intelligence community's judgments were right on Iraq's ties to terrorists, which is another way of saying that the administration's conclusions were wrong, and that is, of the relationship, the formal relationship, however you want to describe it, between Iraq and al Qaeda," he said.
Rockefeller continued to assert yesterday there was administration "pressure" on the CIA, although he endorsed the bipartisan committee report stating otherwise. The report, while stating that no intelligence analysts said they felt pressured to change their conclusions, found "tremendous pressure" to avoid missing a potential threat. That made the CIA "purposefully aggressive," as the agency described it, in drawing potential links between Iraq and al Qaeda.
Whatever the source of that pressure, the committee's finding yesterday casting more doubt on an al Qaeda-Iraq link make it likely the controversy will continue through the presidential campaign. The committee labeled as "accurate" the CIA's prediction that Hussein would rely on his own operatives to conduct attacks.
Even yesterday, after the committee report, Bush said Hussein's Iraq provided a safe haven for an "al Qaeda affiliate." Bush has previously described Hussein as "an ally of al Qaeda" and asserted that Iraq "provided al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training."
Cheney last month said: "There clearly was a relationship. It's been testified to; the evidence is overwhelming."
Cheney's office yesterday pointed to the committee's findings that the CIA was rightly concerned about "reports of training" in chemical and biological weapons and was reasonable to believe "al Qaeda or associated operatives" were in Iraq. A spokesman said the committee findings are consistent with administration claims.