WASHINGTON — Leaders of the House intelligence committee have criticized the U.S. intelligence community for using largely outdated, "circumstantial" and "fragmentary" information with "too many uncertainties" to conclude that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida.
Top members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which spent four months combing through 19 volumes of classified material used by the Bush administration to make its case for the war on Iraq, found "significant deficiencies" in the community's ability to collect fresh intelligence on Iraq, and said it had to rely on "past assessments" dating to when U.N. inspectors left Iraq in 1998 and on "some new 'piecemeal' intelligence," both of which "were not challenged as a routine matter."
"The absence of proof that chemical and biological weapons and their related development programs had been destroyed was considered proof that they continued to exist," the two committee members said in their letter Thursday to CIA Director George Tenet. The Washington Post obtained a copy this weekend.
The letter constitutes a significant criticism of the U.S. intelligence community from a source that does not take such matters lightly. The committee, like all congressional panels, is controlled by Republicans, and its chairman, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., is a former CIA agent and a longtime supporter of Tenet and the intelligence agencies. Goss and the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman of California,, signed the letter. Neither was available for comment Saturday. The full committee has not voted on the letter's conclusions.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said the agency could not comment because it had not had a chance to review the letter.
The letter said the buildup to the war in Iraq amounted to "a case study" of the CIA's and other agencies' inability to gather credible intelligence from informants in Iraq or to employ technologies designed to detect weapons programs.
"Lack of specific intelligence on regime plans and intentions, WMD, and Iraq's support to terrorist groups appears to have hampered the IC's (intelligence community's) ability to provide a better assessment to policymakers from 1998 through 2003," the letter said.
The administration based its argument for going to war on the dangers allegedly posed by Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and its reported ties to al-Qaida. The Goss-Harman letter may give new ammunition to critics who say the administration overstated the threat posed by then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The committee became concerned about the underlying intelligence on Iraq when U.S. forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and when President Bush admitted he should not have used discredited intelligence in last January's State of the Union speech to suggest that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from an African nation.
The committee reviewed the underlying information used by U.S. intelligence agencies to write a classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq. The NIE was the most comprehensive assessment of Iraq available to lawmakers before the war and many of them based their approval of Bush's war resolution on it.
The letter acknowledges one sharp difference between the two committee leaders. Harman, the letter indicated, believes the NIE judgments "were deficient with regard to the analysis and presentation." Goss believes the judgments were not deficient and were properly caveated to reflect the incomplete nature of the intelligence. A congressional source said Goss "does not believe that community's judgments were inaccurate."
On the question of Iraq's ties to terrorists, the committee scrutinized three volumes of data and found that "substantial gaps" in credible information from human sources that would have allowed U.S. intelligence agencies "to give policymakers a clear understanding of the nature of the relationship." Instead, the agencies had a "low threshold" or "no threshold" on using information it obtained on Iraq's alleged ties to al-Qaida.
"As a result, intelligence reports that might have been screened out by a more rigorous vetting process made their way to the analysts' desks, providing ample room for vagary to intrude," the letter states. The agencies did not clarify which of their reports "were from sources that were credible and which were from sources that would otherwise be dismissed in the absence of any other corroborating intelligence."
Goss and Harman were particularly critical of the underlying intelligence used to conclude that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program.
"Our examination has identified the relatively fragile nature of this information," the letter states. It notes internal intelligence agency disputes about whether Iraq attempted to buy high-strength aluminum tubes that could be used in nuclear weapons manufacture, and points out the dual-use nature of other attempted purchases of equipment cited in the NIE.
Moreover, Goss and Harman dispelled the assertion, made frequently by administration officials, that they possess more concrete information about Iraq's nuclear intention, but are unable to disclose it because it remains classified. "We have not found any information in the assessments that are still classified that was any more definitive," the two wrote Tenet.
On this point, the letter said the committee "had reviewed extensively the allegations that there was a disconnect between public statements by administration officials and the underlying intelligence."
The letter continued: "We do believe ... that if public officials cite intelligence incorrectly, the IC (intelligence community) has a responsibility to go back to that policymaker and make clear that the public statement mischaracterized the available intelligence." It does not say whether Tenet fulfilled that responsibility.