Finding fault

A presidential commission's report on WMD blames the CIA for intelligence failures in Iraq, and warns they could be repeated in Iran and North Korea.

By Julian Borger
Published March 31, 2005 1:32PM (EST)

A final analysis of the intelligence fiasco over Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction released Thursday focuses blame on the CIA and other spy agencies, largely clearing the White House and the Pentagon of allegations that they shaped the intelligence to justify the invasion, according to early accounts of the report.

The assessment by a presidential commission on WMD intelligence follows 14 months of mostly secret inquiries at an undisclosed location in Virginia. It reportedly concentrates on mistakes in a multiagency assessment in October 2002, the National Intelligence Estimate, which portrayed Saddam Hussein's weapons programs as a serious threat to the United States.

A yearlong search by the U.S. Iraq Survey Group later concluded that those programs had collapsed more than a decade before the invasion.

The commission is expected to release a 400-page unclassified version of its report after delivering a complete version to George W. Bush Thursday morning. According to leaks, the commission found that many of the intelligence shortcomings on Iraq are being repeated with Iran and North Korea. In all three cases, the commission is said to have found that human intelligence -- actual spies -- are in short supply, and intelligence has relied on satellite pictures, electronic intercepts, the testimony of exiles and guesswork. The Los Angeles Times Wednesday quoted officials who had read some of the unclassified report as saying it pointed to "glaring gaps in core U.S. intelligence" about nuclear programs pursued by Tehran and Pyongyang.

According to the Washington Post the report will recommend that in the light of "group think" over Iraq, dissent and debate should be encouraged among the nation's 15 intelligence agencies.

However, there will be relatively little scrutiny of alleged political pressure by senior administration officials to exaggerate the WMD claims. "There's nothing really about shaping the intelligence," said an intelligence source in Washington familiar with the report. A Senate inquiry into political manipulation of intelligence, postponed until after the November elections, now appears to have been quietly dropped by its Republican chairman, Pat Roberts.

Ray McGovern, a former CIA official and persistent government critic, said the report was diverting the blame. "I see it as part of the continuing attempt to blame the CIA and other intelligence agencies and divert attention away from the White House and the Pentagon. It's worse than Butler [the inquiry into British intelligence shortcomings], or anything you've had over there."

Dick Cheney made several trips to the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters in the months before the war to discuss findings on Iraq's alleged WMD, and the agency's ombudsman told the Senate that analysts had undergone constant "hammering" to come up with a connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. However, none of the CIA employees who testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the issue last year admitted changing their analysis to suit the administration's wishes.

Thursday's report is expected to say that political pressure was not a significant factor, although it will advocate the creation of an ombudsman to hear from analysts who fear their work is being compromised, according to the Washington Post. It will reportedly include criticism of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, both under the Pentagon's control. But the burden of blame will once more fall on the CIA.

"I'm told it is going to make the CIA look even worse than before," said Melvin Goodman, a former CIA official. As for top administration officials, Goodman said: "It looks like they're going to escape again."

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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