John McLaughlin, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, responds to the Senate report, below right, bashing the agency. He said the agency is already making changes.
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WASHINGTON - In a hard-hitting report, the U.S. Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday said the CIA and other agencies used unfounded assumptions to assess the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before last year's U.S. invasion and reached conclusions that were often "overstated," "unreasonable," or "not supported by the underlying intelligence."
The 511-page report, the product of the committee's year-long investigation of prewar intelligence on Iraq, also pointed to severe management problems at the CIA. The agency's director, George Tenet, announced his resignation last month for personal reasons and leaves office tomorrow.
Director Tenet's temporary successor, deputy John McLaughlin, said yesterday the agency is learning from its mistakes and already has made changes, including adding reviews from a "devil's advocate" perspective to all future national intelligence estimates.
"We get it," Mr. McLaughlin said at a rare news conference at CIA headquarters. "Although we think the judgments were not unreasonable when they were made nearly two years ago, we understand with all we have learned since then that we could have done better."
President Bush, campaigning in the battleground state of Pennsylvania as the Senate panel said his decision to invade Iraq was based on flawed intelligence, insisted the war was necessary because Saddam Hussein had the potential to make weapons of mass destruction and cooperated with terrorists who hated America.
"I'm the President who was in office during Sept. 11. I remember the lessons well. The choice was to trust Saddam Hussein or to make the decisions necessary to defend our country. And given that choice, I will defend America every time," President Bush said.
In a joint news conference to present the report, the committee's Republican chairman and Democratic vice chairman agreed that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies had suffered a massive intelligence failure in assessing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs in Iraq before the March, 2003, U.S. invasion.
The report caused anger and frustration with the U.S. intelligence community among Republicans and Democrats alike.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kansas), chairman of the Senate committee, said, "In the end, what the President and the Congress used to send the country to war was information that was provided by the intelligence community and that information was flawed."
He said he did not know if the vote in Congress authorizing President Bush to go to war would have been different if the intelligence had correctly said there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he had no doubt that Congress would never have passed the war resolution if the CIA had said Saddam did not have stores of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or even if the agency had said it did not know.
Clearly upset, Senator Rockefeller told reporters at a briefing on the report: "Tragically, the intelligence failures set forth in this report will affect our national security for generations to come. Our credibility is diminished. Our standing in the world has never been lower. We have fostered a deep hatred of Americans in the Muslim world, and that will grow. As a direct consequence, our nation is more vulnerable today than ever before."
The report was adopted unanimously by the nine Republicans and eight Democrats on the committee.
However, the Democrats were critical that the report does not address whether there was pressure from the White House on the CIA to skew its intelligence reporting.
Republican Senator Roberts said the pressure of time will keep that part of the report from being prepared until after the Nov. 2 elections. "We simply couldn't get it done," he said. "It is my top priority."
Democratic Senator Rockefeller strenuously disagreed.
"I have one comment I need to make, and that is that if we're serious about doing intelligence reforms, why do we have to be somehow limited by the fact that the leadership in the Senate and the House are saying that we're out of here after 20 legislative days?" he said.
"We could work through August. We can work through September," the senator said.
"This is the most dangerous moment in American history," he added. "The thought that somehow we can't get this done before the end of the year simply escapes me as an adequate rationale to honor the families of those who died and to protect the families and people who are still living, but may be in a lot more danger."
In October, 2002, the intelligence community put out a then-secret intelligence assessment that said that "Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction program in defiance of U.N. resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of U.N. restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."
Senator Roberts said the committee report shows none of that was true.
The report said the CIA believed Iraqis who said there were such weapons programs and purposefully did not believe Iraqis who said there were no such programs.
For example, speculation that the presence of one specialized truck could mean an effort to transfer chemical weapons was puffed up into a conclusion that Iraq was actively making chemical weapons, the report said.
Analysts concluded that Iraq had a mobile biological weapons program based mainly on the since-discredited claims of one Iraqi defector code-named "Curveball."
The report said American agents did not have direct access to Curveball or his debriefers, but the source's information was expanded into the conclusion that Iraq had an advanced and active biological weapons program.
According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), a CIA official wrote to a subordinate who had raised questions about the source: "Let's keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn't say, and the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he's talking about."
The report faults the administration for letting President Bush falsely say in his State of the Union speech that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa, saying that Director Tenet, for one, should have vetted the speech more closely.
Senator Rockefeller said, "There is simply no question that the mistakes leading up to the war in Iraq rank among the most devastating intelligence failures - with the most grave consequences - in the history of our nation."
Blade Washington Bureau Chief Ann McFeatters contributed to this report.