Commission Slams WMD Intelligence

Article excerpt

A White House-appointed commission March 31 offered a scathing A. A-account of U.S. intelligence failures prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Additionally, it acknowledged that U.S. intelligence is not much better on other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, such as those of North Korea and Iran. The report also contains a series of recommendations for improvement.

In a letter and accompanying report to President George W. Bush, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction stated that the intelligence community was "dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments" concerning Iraq's suspected chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. Former Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.) and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Laurence Silberman chaired the commission, which was established by Bush in February 2004.

In addition to Iraq, the report includes case studies of the intelligence community's assessments of Libya's and a! Qaeda's WMD activities. The commission also evaluated U.S. intelligence capabilities with regard to several other countries.

For example, the report notes that the United States lacks sufficient intelligence regarding Russia's and China's "nuclear arsenals and emerging capabilities," which "pose a challenge" to Washington.

The more than 600-page unclassified version of the report also indicates that the intelligence community lacks "critical information" about Iran's and North Korea's WMD programs, but the relevant sections are classified.

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The report adds little new information to previous reports from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the task force charged with coordinating the U.S.-led post-war search for Iraqi prohibited weapons.

An October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated that Baghdad possessed chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. An NIE is supposed to be the intelligence community's most authoritative assessment of a given subject.

These assessments were inaccurate. The ISG reported in September 2004 that Iraq neither possessed chemical or biological weapons, nor had it restarted its nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs before the invasion. (see ACT, November 2004.) An April 25 addendum to the report did not change these conclusions.

International weapons inspectors reported prior to the invasion that they had not found any evidence that Iraq either had WMD stockpiles or had reconstituted its related programs. They had not been able to account, however, for the disposition of some of Iraq's previous chemical and biological weapons, as well as some related materials.

The commission attributes the inaccurate U.S. pre-war assessments to deficiencies in intelligence gathering, such as a lack of useful human intelligence and reliance on unreliable Iraqi defectors. The Senate Intelligence Committee articulated similar conclusions in a report issued this past summer. (see ACT, September 2004.)

The commission's report also echoes the committee's finding that the intelligence assessments were skewed by a presumption within the community that Iraq was concealing prohibited weapons. This presumption, reinforced by Iraq's past efforts to conceal its WMD programs from UN inspectors, led analysts to dismiss evidence that Iraq did not possess illicit weapons.

The report's evaluation of the evidence underlying the assessments largely recapitulates the committee's work, but there are some new details, such as an extensive discussion regarding the intelligence community's reliance on an unreliable defector for much of its information regarding Iraq's biological weapons program.

The commission did not examine policymakers' use of the intelligence. This issue has been particularly controversial because administration officials, including the president, made definitive public statements regarding Iraq's suspected weapons that appeared to be unsupported by the NIE, which contained numerous qualifiers and caveats. …