Vindication on Iraq? Not exactly

The commission assigned to investigate intelligence failures on Iraq says that political pressures from the White House didn't change analysts' views. But that's only half of the story -- or less.

Published April 1, 2005 1:10PM (EST)

The presidential commission assigned to investigate the intelligence failures that led to the war in Iraq delivered its final report to George W. Bush Thursday, but the commission's conclusions -- among them, that the U.S. intelligence community was "dead wrong" about almost everything related to WMDs -- were all but buried under news of the death of Terri Schiavo.

The rest will be spun away by the Bush administration. If the White House is ever forced to grapple with the report -- and amid all those live aerial shots of the medical examiner's van Thursday, the moment may have passed -- you can count on the president's spinners to focus on the commission's conclusion that "political pressure" did not cause the intelligence community to "make or change any analytical judgments." Indeed, White House homeland security advisor Fran Townsend told reporters Thursday that the report leads to the conclusion that policy makers should insert themselves further in the intelligence process without fear of being "sort of cowed by the notion of being accused of politicization."

But the commission's conclusion on the effects of political pressure represents only half -- or maybe a third -- of the story.

While the commission could not identify a single instance where the Bush administration's drive to war caused a CIA analyst to come up with some conclusion he wouldn't have otherwise, the commission said that the "pervasive conventional wisdom that Saddam retained WMD affected the analytic process" of the intelligence community. There is "no doubt," the commission said, "that analysts operated in an environment shaped by intense policymaker interest in Iraq. Moreover, that analysis was shaped -- and distorted -- by the widely shared (and not unreasonable) assumption, based on his past conduct and non-cooperation with the United Nations, that Saddam retained WMD stockpiles and programs. This strongly held assumption contributed to a climate in which the intelligence community was too willing to accept dubious information as providing confirmation of that assumption. Neither analysts nor users were sufficiently open to being told that affirmative, specific evidence to support the assumption was, at best, uncertain in content or reliability."

Underlying many of the intelligence failures described in the commission's report is what the commission called a "failure to question assumptions or keep an open mind about the significance of new data." The commission said that such failures are "more likely if management within the intelligence community does not foster, or at least tolerate, dissenting views." In the run-up to the Iraq war, top officials in the intelligence community hardly fostered dissenting views. Working-level analysts at the Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center told the commission that they worked in an "environment in which managers rewarded judgments that fit the consensus view that Iraq had active WMD programs and discouraged those that did not. To the degree that analysts judged -- as we believe some of them did -- that 'non-consensus' conclusions would not be welcomed, vigorous debate in the analytic process was made much more difficult."

Still, the commission did not say that the dissent-will-not-be-tolerated environment led to intelligence conclusions that were different than those analysts would have reached otherwise. Rather, that sort of politically motivated twisting of intelligence -- misrepresentations about unmanned aerial vehicles that posed a threat to the United States, about metal tubes that could only be used for nuclear weapons, about Saddam's attempts to buy uranium in Niger -- was the specialty of Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush. And their misuse of intelligence that was faulty in the first place was beyond the scope of the commission's charge. "We were not authorized to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence assessments they received from the intelligence community," the commission wrote. "Accordingly, while we interviewed a host of current and former policymakers during the course of our investigation, the purpose of those interviews was to learn about how the intelligence community reached and communicated its judgments about Iraqs weapons programsnot to review how policymakers subsequently used that information."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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