Senate Report's New Findings on Pre-War Deception

A previously undisclosed CIA report written in the summer of 2002 questioned the "credibility" and "truthfulness" of an Al Qaeda detainee who became a key source for the Bush administration's claims about links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
The statements of the detainee--a captured terrorist operative named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi--were the principal basis for President Bush's contention in a major pre-Iraq War speech that Saddam's regime had "trained Al Qaeda members in bombmaking and poisons and deadly gases." The speech was delivered in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, just as Congress was taking up the White House-backed resolution authorizing the president to invade Iraq.

But two months before Bush's dramatic assertion, the CIA had raised serious doubts about whether al-Libi might be inventing some of what he was telling his interrogators, according to a 171-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on pre-war intelligence released last week.
"Questions persist about [al-Libi's] forthrightness and truthfulness," the CIA wrote in the still-classified Aug. 7, 2002, report, which was circulated throughout the U.S. intelligence community. "In some instances, however, he seems to have fabricated information."

The agency found that al-Libi--in an "attempt to exaggerate his importance"--had told interrogators that he was a member of Al Qaeda's "Shura Council," or governing body. But that claim was not corroborated by other intelligence reporting, the CIA analysis concluded in its report, which was titled: "Terrorism: Credibility of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and the Information He has Provided While in Custody."

The CIA analysis on al-LIbi was described by intelligence officials as a document known as a SPWR--"Senior, Publish When Ready" report. Although it has more limited distribution than some other CIA reports, SPWRs are routinely provided to senior policymakers throughout the U.S. government, including officials of the National Security Council at the White House.

The CIA's al-Libi report is one of several new--but so far largely overlooked--disclosures to be found deep in the fine print of the Senate's long-awaited "Phase 2" report on pre-war intelligence. The Senate investigation sought to compare the public statements of top administration officials during the run-up to the Iraq War with the underlying intelligence-community reporting within the government that provided the basis for them. After much partisan squabbling within the panel over the issue, the final report (approved by all seven of the panel's seven Democrats and two of its Republicans) reached a largely unremarkable conclusion: that while most of the Bush administration's claims were "substantiated" by some internal intelligence-community reports, the public statements of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others were selective and failed to convey the considerable doubts, dissents and uncertainties within the community about much of the public case for war. (The panel's GOP vice chairman, Sen. Chris (Kit) Bond, and several other Republican members strenously dissented from the report on the grounds that it did not examine the pro-war statements of leading Democrats such as Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John Rockefeller, who now chairs the intelligence panel.)

Among the new nuggets in the report: the Defense Intelligence Agency was concerned that a key corroborating source for the claim that Iraq had developed mobile biological weapons labs "was being coached" by Ahmad Chalabi's controversial Iraqi exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, "to further its political agenda." In May 2002, the DIA cut off contact with the source, an Iraqi officer identified only as "Major General al-Assaf," and issued a warning notice about him after determining his information was "assessed as unreliable and, in some instances, [is] pure fabrication."

Even so, al-Assaf was cited by name as one of four corroborating sources for the mobile weapons-lab assertion in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. That report, which assessed Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, was delivered to Congress on the eve of the congressional vote authorizing an Iraq invasion. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his February 2002 Security Council speech, also cited four human sources for his assertion that the mobile labs were capable of producing biological weapons. (The main source for the mobile weapons-lab claim, an Iraqi exile with the code name Curveball, was found to be a fraud who had never worked on any Iraqi weapons program. In addition, investigations by Congress and the intelligence community later disclosed that the DIA's notice on al-Assaf was lost, because it was not properly recorded in the computer systems of other intelligence agencies, including the CIA.)

The new Senate report also discloses that on Sept. 18, 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction facilities could not be eliminated by simple aerial bombing because "a good many are underground and deeply buried" and therefore "not … vulnerable to attack from the air." In fact, the Senate report found, there was no intelligence-community reporting to support Rumsfeld's assertion. An August 2002 DIA report on the subject stated flatly that "no biological weapons (BW)-related underground facilities are currently confirmed to be in use in Iraq."

In a disclosure that one Intelligence Committee member, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, called "stunning," the Senate panel found Rumsfeld commissioned the National Intelligence Council to prepare a secret special assessment on the underground-facilities issue. The council's conclusion in November 2002 ran directly counter to Rumsfeld's testimony to Congress: it found that "all the military and regime associated UGFs [underground facilities] we have identified thus far are vulnerable to conventional, precision-guided penetrating munitions because they are not deeply buried." (The intelligence council report also stated that while it assessed that Iraq "has some large, deeply buried UGFs … we have not been able to locate any of these"--a failure that the council concluded was because of the "Iraqi denial and deception program.") The classified intelligence-council report was shared with the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time it was finished, but its existence was not made public until last week.

But the questions about al-Libi may be the most significant--and embarrassing--new disclosure in the Senate panel's report, both for the White House and the CIA. The Senate report found that al-Libi was "the principal intelligence source" for assertions by Bush, CIA director George Tenet, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Powell that Iraq had provided chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda operatives.

It has been previously reported that the Defense Intelligence Agency repeatedly raised doubts about al-Libi prior to the Iraq War. But the existence of the CIA's even sharper and more pointed questions about his credibility--including the possibility that he might be a fabricator--was not previously known.

The CIA's analysis is even more surprising given that, as Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee pointedly noted, the agency itself had vetted and approved the language based on al-Libi's claims in both Bush's Cincinnati speech and Powell's presentation to the United Nations. Without actually using his name, Powell included the most expansive version of al-Libi's claims about chemical- and biological-weapons training--without hinting that there were doubts about the source's credibility. "I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to Al Qaeda," Powell said during one dramatic flourish. "Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story. I will relate to you now as he himself described it."

Powell then went on to recount how Osama bin Laden had been unable to develop chemical or biological agents at Al Qaeda labs in Afghanistan and turned elsewhere for help. "Where did they go? Where did they look?" he asked. "They went to Iraq." Saddam's regime, he added, had provided "help in acquiring poisons and gases."

Asked how the agency could have approved the language in the Powell and Bush speeches given the earlier doubts raised about al-Libi, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano e-mailed this response: "There are better procedures in place within our government now, both to ensure speeches are looked at and to ensure that the right people know of any concerns about an intelligence source and its reliability. Our review of speeches is designed to check for specific errors of fact in draft material that draws on intelligence information. Because CIA is not a policy agency, we would not--and are not asked to--provide blanket approvals or endorsements of policy speeches."

Al-Libi's story unraveled after the invasion of Iraq when, as first reported by NEWSWEEK, he recanted his claims about Iraq's supposed weapons training for Al Qaeda, forcing the agency to withdraw all its reporting based on his interrogations. The case prompted even greater interest by Congress when it was disclosed that al-Libi only made his claims about Saddam's training for Al Qaeda after the CIA rendered him to a foreign intelligence service (later identified by Tenet as Egypt), where he was allegedly subjected to brutal interrogation. According to al-Libi, he was locked in a tiny box less than 20 inches high and held for 17 hours--an interrogation technique known as a "mock burial," which was considered even by some of the most aggressive Bush administration lawyers as illegal under U.S. and international laws banning torture. After being let out, al-Libi claimed, he was thrown to the floor and punched for 15 minutes. According to CIA operational cables, only then did he tell his "fabricated" story about Al Qaeda members being dispatched to Iraq.

A White House spokeswoman today referred NEWSWEEK to general comments made last week by Press Secretary Dana Perino on the day that the Senate report was released. "The administration's statements on Iraq were based on the very same intelligence that was given to Congress, and they came to the same conclusions, as did other countries around the world. The issue about Iraq's WMD ultimately turned out to be false, and we have fully admitted that. We regret it. And we have also taken steps to make sure that we can correct it for--in the future."