Terror Watch: Error in Judgment

A classified Senate report strongly criticizes the Central Intelligence Agency for major "errors in judgment" regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs--mistakes that were greatly compounded by the agency's failure to develop reliable on-the-ground sources with direct knowledge of Saddam's military capabilities, according to people familiar with the document.

The 300-page draft report by the Senate Intelligence Committee also seeks to directly refute allegations that the White House pressured CIA analysts to alter their assessments about Iraqi WMD, the sources said.

In interviews with Senate investigators, intelligence-community officials and analysts once viewed as potential whistleblowers denied being pressured and, in some cases, defended their analysis--even though their judgments about Iraqi weapons programs now appear to have been flatly wrong, sources said.

The report is already being described by Senate Republicans as evidence that President Bush and his top advisors were primarily the victims, not the abusers, of faulty intelligence about Iraq. But some administration critics are calling the report a whitewash. And Senate Democrats insist its scope was so narrowly focused that it fails to present the full picture of an intelligence failure on Iraq that now appears to have bordered on the catastrophic.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, has already read major portions of the report. On Tuesday, he said that administration policymakers "as well as the intelligence establishment itself owes an enormous apology to the American people and, obviously, most particularly, to the families of those who have been killed ... because our intelligence was clearly off."

But a Rockefeller aide said later the West Virginia senator and other Senate Democrats want to continue the committee's probe in order to pursue instances where the White House hyped evidence about Iraqi WMD and shunned dissenters within the intelligence community. "The question is, how do you define pressure?" said the aide, noting that in many instances dissidents within the intelligence community were simply ignored or not invited back to meetings where their views could be aired. "There are clear-cut cases where the administration exaggerated the intelligence," the aide said, adding that Rockefeller and other Democrats on the Intelligence Committee view the report as "incomplete."

But that may come as small solace to the CIA, where some sources said mounting evidence that Iraq simply didn't have the large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons that the agency predicted has taken a devastating toll on morale. One key question is how CIA director George Tenet-a notoriously shrewd bureaucratic infighter who has long enjoyed the confidence of President Bush--will respond when he testifies before the intelligence committee early in March.

In the meantime, the agency is still publicly refusing to acknowledge error--a position that has been made all the more untenable this week now that David Kay, the chief U.S. weapons inspector appointed last year by Tenet, has publicly acknowledged that the weapons he has been looking for simply don't exist. "Clearly, the intelligence we went to war on was inaccurate, wrong," Kay told NBC's Tom Brokaw. Kay also told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that "I had innumerable analysts come to me in apology ... but not in a single case was the explanation, 'I was pressured to do this'."

The CIA has not yet received a copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee report and therefore is not in a position to respond, an intelligence-community official said this week. "The search [for Saddam's WMD] continues," the official said. "It's premature to reach any conclusions."

Sources familiar with the Senate report says it particularly lambastes the CIA for failing to develop its own spies inside Iraq. Instead, the agency relied for years on United Nations inspectors who expressed repeated concerns that Iraqis had failed to account for large quantities of biological and chemical agents it was supposed to destroy in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

When the weapons inspectors reported that the Iraqis were being protective of certain sites and facilities, the CIA--along with other Western intelligence agencies--concluded that the Iraqis were hiding the presence of banned weapons.

But once the U.N. inspectors were evicted from Iraq in 1998, the CIA lost its main source of on-the-ground information--and never replaced them by penetrating Iraq with its own reliable agents. In fact, Kay has now concluded, Iraqi behavior was part of a vast con game by Saddam in which he apparently wanted the world, and his own potential enemies inside the country, to believe he had weapons that actually didn't exist.

One crucial witness in the Senate probe was Alan Foley, the recently retired director of the CIA's Non-Proliferation Center, who was instrumental in shaping agency claims that Iraq was aggressively reconstituting its nuclear weapons program--an assessment that was widely embraced by the White House but which Kay has now concluded was also mistaken.

Some media accounts have depicted Foley as a prime victim of pressure by Vice President Dick Cheney's office, who wanted the agency to endorse the view that Saddam was actively pursuing nuclear weapons. "He was bullied and intimidated," a friend of Foley's was quoted as saying in an influential and widely read New Republic article last December on Cheney's role in shaping U.S. intelligence assessments of Iraq.

In addition, Foley was widely reported last year to have challenged White House plans to include a reference in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech to purported Iraqi efforts to acquire large quantities of "yellowcake" uranium from Africa--a claim that was invoked as prime evidence of ongoing attempts by Saddam to build a nuclear bomb. After Foley objected, the White House included the claim anyway--but presented it as information that the British government had learned, not the CIA.

In fact, Foley's own testimony to the Senate panel appears to dispute the conventional wisdom on both of these points. Foley, in a recent interview, told NEWSWEEK that he in fact believed there may well have been "something to" the claims that the Iraqis sought to purchase uranium from Niger--and that a secret mission to that country in February 2002 by former ambassador Joseph Wilson did not, in his view, completely debunk the reporting on the subject.

"I think its still possible the Iraqis did send emissaries to Africa seeking yellowcake," Foley said. He only objected to the inclusion of the African uranium story in the State of the Union because it was based on "classified" reporting--an objection that led him and National Security Council official Robert Joseph to suggest attributing the reporting to the British, he said.

In fact, intelligence-community officials and the Senate report have found no evidence that such Iraqi efforts to buy African uranium ever took place and that documents purporting to prove such purchases were crude forgeries. But Foley insisted that he wasn't pushed by the White House to change his views on this matter--or his broader conclusions that Iraq was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. "I don't think I was pressured at all," he said.