John Prados is a senior analyst with the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming book is Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Ivan R. Dee Publisher).
As we approach the end of the fourth year of George Bush’s war in Iraq—when this conflict will have endured as long as the American Civil War—the struggle continues to establish exactly how Bush and his minions built their basis for war, by manipulating U.S. intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and then stretching the data even farther in a blatant deception of the American people. The Bush White House would prefer that this issue go away, and its spokesmen blandly talk about “re-litigating” the past. There is a simple reason why the Iraq deception does not fade: It goes to the very heart of governance. Democracy cannot flourish if leaders treat citizens so impudently and constitutional process with such insolence.
At the beginning Bush tried to frame the Iraq mess as the result of a simple intelligence failure, admittedly one so huge as to require extensive public review. Among others, the Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI) set out to investigate that failure. But even the flawed intelligence did not square with the extravagance of the administration’s claims during the prewar period. Democratic members of that Republican-controlled committee forced the SSCI to broaden the scope of its inquiry to include the Bush administration’s use of the intelligence.
The SSCI inquiry has been overtly political from the beginning. The full report was supposed to have appeared before the 2004 presidential election. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the committee, was able to kick the can down the road, deferring treatment of the political use of the intelligence to a “Phase II” investigation. Then he delayed work on that issue so strenuously that nothing happened for more than a year, until Democrats shut down the entire United States Senate to force an agreement to proceed. This September the “Phase II” inquiry has produced its first fruit but the can is further down the road—rather than the authoritative examination of the hoodwinking of the American people, the SSCI has released data on just two of five promised elements of its report, neither of them directly on topic (Incidentally, the Conyers Report, the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic staff report on the constitution in crisis, which appeared in July, though lacking the status of a bipartisan inquiry, represents a more comprehensive treatment of the hoodwinking).
What appeared on September 8 was a set of two separate reports, each representing just one chapter of the overall record. Neither contains the anticipated chapter and verse on Bush’s deception of America. One report compares prewar intelligence estimates on Iraq with data collected after Saddam Hussein had gone on the lam and U.S. troops were on the ground. That “chapter,” covers alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as well as reports on Saddam’s supposed ties to al-Qaida terrorists. The second report is an in-depth review of the use of information from Ahmad Chalabi’s exile group the Iraqi National Congress. Both display evidence of partisan maneuvers to protect President Bush. What is most enlightening—though also quite disturbing—is how despite the strongest Republican efforts to narrow the inquiry and ensure its shallowness, even these two “technical” reports reveal new evidence of the Bush administration’s manipulation of the Iraq intelligence.
Take the major charges against Iraq: that it possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al-Qaida. Its major conclusions, reported in the press, were exactly what Americans thought: the postwar evidence confirms there were no weapons and no ties to al-Qaida. In fact, Saddam was suspicious of al-Qaida, viewed them as a threat, and instructed his representative at the one meeting that took place to listen only. All the messages passed between the two sides resulted from al-Qaida approaches, not the other way. The infamous “Prague meeting” alleged with 9/11 plotter Mohammed Atta never took place. Several U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, called it that way at the time, yet officials, spearheaded by Vice President Dick Cheney, harped repeatedly on the claim then and later and never corrected themselves. We also learn that the Defense Intelligence Agency singled out this information as a fabrication at the time, that the CIA reported the source as lacking direct knowledge of what he alleged, but that under pressure from the administration the claim was included in agency analyses and CIA director George Tenet told Congress—with qualification hidden elsewhere in his testimony—that this claimed Iraqi training of terrorists had taken place.
The Republican majority on the SSCI attempted to insert, as “intelligence,” a U.S. Central Command press release alleging Iraqi training of terrorists, and it defeated Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden’s attempt to delete a citation to another report which relied on the recanted interrogation. The Republican-dominated SSCI also excluded from its examination the case of Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri, recruited as a CIA source and surely an authoritative one, on the specious grounds that information became available only late in its investigation. And when Michigan Senator Carl Levin tabled an amendment that would have put in citations to National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on Iraqi weapons from before 2002, which apparently illustrate CIA uncertainties more clearly, the Republican majority not only slapped down the initiative but tacked on a minority report asserting that the very effort to add this perspective “reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the NIE.”
The other SSCI “Phase II” report, on the Iraqi exiles, also demonstrates Republican damage control in its appended additional views, which in this instance are almost as long as the body of the document. First Chairman Pat Roberts opens with a statement that he agreed to release of the report despite misgivings regarding its conclusions. Then Roberts joins with five other Republican senators to lambaste the findings and conclusions in an extensive rehash of the material. Predictably there is a Democratic minority report that attempts to inject some of the real Phase II issues—the use of the intelligence by the Bush administration. But that appendix is then sandbagged by another Republican “additional view” from Pat Roberts and Orrin Hatch. There can be little doubt the Republicans were unhappy with this report.
On the supposed Prague meeting with Mohammed Atta, which Vice President Cheney hyped so much, now he is in denial. In a televised interview the weekend the SSCI reports were released, journalist Tim Russert pressed Cheney on this question. The vice president tried to shift blame to the CIA, answering it had “gone back” on early information and had forwarded to him a report from Czech intelligence, as if changing the attribution let him off the hook. It is a matter of record that Czech authorities publicly repudiated that claim at the time, and now we see that the charge had no basis in CIA reports, yet Cheney went on using the allegation.
The SSCI’s report on Chalabi’s Iraqi exiles has other contortions. The Republican majority defined the scope of the investigation to shield the Bush White House by excluding the relationship between the White House—particularly Cheney’s office—and the exiles, even though a key mechanism in the manipulation was that Cheney’s office used exile claims to demand fresh or revised CIA reports. The paper again attempted to cite the Central Command press release about Iraq training terrorists as intelligence, though this gambit was blocked by Democrats.
Casting the net narrowly the “Phase II” inquiry on the exiles concludes their information was used in “only” two intelligence studies, and on only two subjects. But the reports were the Iraq NIE and the CIA’s report on Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, which were the whole scope of the committee’s investigation. And the subjects were Saddam and the terrorists plus the alleged mobile biological weapons factories, the very heart of the Bush administration’s case for war. (How Republican senators can argue that the numerous exile reports on alleged Iraqi nuclear facilities had no impact on CIA reporting remains a mystery, particularly because the detail of the document notes that exile information was crucial in U.S. suspicions about one such plant.)
The claim that the exiles contributed to so few estimates also takes no notice of the multitude of intelligence information memoranda circulated by the Defense Intelligence Agency based on various defectors, most of them associated with the Iraq National Congress, whose data formed the raw material for many CIA and other reports. Even the SSCI was forced to note “a serious error” in using information from one exile-affiliated defector who had been found unreliable in several different assessments and had been directly accused of fabrication by the Defense Intelligence Agency. His subject? The alleged mobile biological weapons program.
So the Washington merry go round continues. Pat Roberts has done everything possible to delay, obfuscate, and frustrate this inquiry. The job the Senate Intelligence Committee was supposed to do—of documenting how the Bush White House manipulated the intelligence on Iraq to deceive the American people into war—still needs doing. Americans await the real Phase II investigation. It’s a fair bet they will not see it so long as Republicans control the Senate Intelligence Committee. George Bush’s problem is that all of this just buys time. When the full story comes out it may shake the foundations of the Republic.