Intelligence failures?
Steve Schell
March 2004

We got it right. We were all wrong.

"We got it right. And it was the right decision to remove [Saddam Hussein] from power." Those were the words of Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan, during a press briefing on February 2, 2004. McClellan was trying to stay "on message" in front of an increasingly persistent press corps, a scene that would never have taken place in the run-up to the Iraqi war last year. But the press corps, and many media outlets, seems to now be emboldened to ask the questions they should have been asking more than a year ago. Maybe it's because of the mounting irrefutable evidence that there were major missteps--some even say a conspiracy to mislead the American public and Congress--by the Bush administration not only in its post-9/11 haste to attack Iraq, but even prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The full transcript of the briefing, which makes for very interesting reading, can be found at:

"It turns out that we were all wrong, probably in my judgment." Those were the words of David Kay, former head of the Iraq Survey Group, as he spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee just days before McClellan's briefing, after returning from Iraq and resigning his position. Kay told the committee that the majority of the Group's work had been completed and that he had concluded that Iraq likely had no Weapons of Mass Destruction. The full transcript of Kay's testimony can be found at:

In today's news stories of pre-war intelligence failures, the focus seems to be on bad information: The CIA relied too much on high-tech intel and not nearly enough on human sources; analysts relied on outdated information; the Iraqi National Congress (the exiled Iraqi opposition headed by Ahmad Chalabi) provided false information in order to bolster its case for removing Saddam Hussein from power. Comparatively little, however, is heard about whether the intelligence community had abandoned its intricate analysis process and had instead focused on providing the administration with the information it needed to prove the case for war to the rest of the world.

While evidence has yet to be found linking Hussein to Al-Qaida, the administration continues to link the two even now, consistently referring to the "War on Terror" and the 9/11 attacks when talking about the war in Iraq, or Operation Iraqi Freedom, as it's so cheerfully referred to (OIF, in policy circles). Key figures in Washington had been advocating an attack on Iraq almost immediately after the U.S. began its campaign in Afghanistan. One of those figures was Richard Perle, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan.

In October 2001, barely a month after the attacks of 9/11, Perle, in a PBS Frontline interview, said that it was a mistake to have left Saddam Hussein in power after the Gulf War. It was a mistake, Perle said, because Saddam "has weapons of mass destruction, because he has expelled U.N. inspectors. He has violated all of the terms and conditions of the U.N. resolutions that had been allowed to fall into disuse. He is winning. Because he is winning, and because he has awesome capabilities, he poses a continuing threat to us and to others." Perle was Chair of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory panel made up of leading defense and national security types - people like Henry Kissinger, Newt Gingrich, and Tom Foley. Perle also said that the war on terrorism was being conducted "in phases" and that he "would have gone about this differently. I would have gone after Iraq immediately. I would not have relegated it to some subsequent phase. But it's all right, as long as we get to phase two. Phase two should be overwhelming support for the Iraqi opposition. They're eager; they're ready to go. I believe they can do it. We haven't done that until now, and the State Department opposes doing it." Perle was correct on at least one point: "I think the regime of Saddam Hussein is far weaker than most people believe," he told Frontline, "and what it would take to topple it is a tiny fraction of what was necessary to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991." Toppling Iraq was "easy"; cleaning up the mess is proving to be next to impossible. The entire transcript can be found at:

In that interview and in various speeches in subsequent months, Perle laid out the number one reason that the administration would use in building the case for attacking Iraq - Iraq had nuclear and biological weapons that represented a clear threat to the United States.

After the 9/11 attacks, the intelligence that was provided to the administration didn't seem to jibe with what the administration claimed it already knew: that Iraq had ties to Al-Qaida and had WMD consisting of biological, chemical, and possibly nuclear weapons that posed an immediate threat to the United States. Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, suggested to his boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that a special intelligence unit be set up within the Department in order to obtain the crucial information that had so far eluded the CIA and other agencies. One of the primary sources of information for the Office of Special Plans, as the new unit was named, was the Iraqi National Congress. What's important to remember here is that the paramount interest of the INC was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the return of Chalabi and his associates to Iraq, ostensibly to assume power. So it's entirely possible that the INC's information may have been fashioned to support that goal, which was one that the Bush administration shared.

So now we have the established intelligence community in effect, in competition with the Office of Special Plans, but their goals were not the same. The CIA and other agencies in the realm operated by receiving information and subjecting it to rigorous analysis before arriving at a final conclusion that it could present to the administration. The analysis process was crucial, in that it could expose factually incorrect information or fraudulent information. As CIA analysts pored over information they questioned the reliability of sources, they compared the information obtained to other known facts to expose contradictions, they looked for substantiating information from other sources. They weren't looking to arrive at a specific conclusion. OSP, however, had a specific conclusion in mind. They knew that Hussein had biological and chemical weapons. They knew that Hussein was working on nuclear weapons. They knew that Hussein had connections to Al-Qaida. All they needed was intelligence to support the claim.

This is not to say that the CIA's process and information were without fault. In fact, given the extent to which the CIA was pilloried for failing to provide information on the 9/11 hijackers early enough to have possibly prevented the attacks, it is quite possible that Director George Tenet might have been keen to make up for the agency's past shortcomings by providing some foundation for the administration's claims about the Iraqi threat. It has been widely reported that Dick Cheney visited the CIA headquarters numerous times, something that Vice Presidents just generally don't do. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, in an article written for, said "During my 27-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency, no vice president ever came to us for a working visit." Cheney's visits were purportedly to press the agency to provide information that would support the claim that Iraq was an immediate danger to the U.S. In a lengthy article written for The New Yorker last October, Seymour Hersh quoted a senior administration official as saying that CIA analysts "got pounded on, day after day," and that, "pretty soon, you say 'fuck it.'" The conclusion being that the analysts began providing the information--it's no longer intelligence--that the administration wanted.

Perhaps the most serious administration blunder was the assertion that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium ore from Niger. The claim was based on information obtained from the Italian government. But how did this information end up being used as the basis for the now-infamous claim in the 2003 State of the Union message from George Bush: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Although Tenet took full responsibility for allowing that statement to be made, it could well have been that he was "just following orders."

The Niger story is large and convoluted. The information from the Italian government first came in late 2001, very soon after the attacks of 9/11. There was simply a statement, with no backup information, that the Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican had visited Niger and that perhaps he was there to arrange procurement of uranium ore. The CIA couldn't substantiate the claim and said so in its reports to Cheney. The CIA also called on Joe Wilson, a retired Ambassador with plenty of experience in both Iraq and Africa, to travel to Niger and attempt to get to the bottom of the issue. Wilson went in early 2002, and returned saying that the information was not credible. Keep in mind that this is a full year prior to the State of the Union assertion. Nevertheless, the administration apparently used that simple report from Italy as its basis for later public statements questioning Iraq's attempts to obtain uranium ore. In late 2002, an informant who claimed to have papers to prove the Iraq-Niger connection contacted an Italian journalist and offered to sell the papers. The journalist, Elisabetta Burba, according to many published accounts, went to Niger to attempt to validate the information, but instead concluded that the documents were fakes. Upon her return, her editor instructed her to turn over the documents to the American Embassy. It is not clear why he recommended that course of action, rather than just destroy the papers that were clearly forgeries.

Once the CIA got a look at the documents, it came to the same conclusion. Pentagon officials, however, decided that this was enough evidence to support the administration's claims. Director Tenet felt so strongly about it, at least initially, that he intervened and had reference to those papers eliminated from a presidential speech in late October 2002. What isn't clear is why that reference reappeared in the State of the Union speech three months later.

Almost immediately after the State of the Union speech, several accounts were published that claimed that the Iraqi - Niger documents were fakes, but most of the mainstream media outlets failed to seize the opportunity to question the administration on this topic. If the forgery issue had developed into a full-blown scandal, the administration would have been forced to confront the issue. Instead, most national news media kept waving the flag and pounding the drum. At the same time, however, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Cal) wrote to the president and expressed his concern that the administration had used evidence that it had known to be forged in support of its war position. Waxman wrote, in part:

"The evidence in question is correspondence that indicates that Iraq sought to obtain nuclear material from an African country, Niger. For several months, this evidence has been a central part of the U.S. case against Iraq. On December 19, the State Department filed a response to Iraq's disarmament declaration to the U.N. Security Council. The State Department response stated: "The Declaration ignores efforts to procure uranium from Niger." A month later, in your State of the Union address, you stated: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Defense Secretary Rumsfeld subsequently cited the evidence in briefing reporters.

"It has now been conceded that this evidence was a forgery. On March 7, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, reported that the evidence that Iraq sought nuclear materials from Niger was "not authentic." As subsequent media accounts indicated, the evidence contained "crude errors," such as a "childlike signature" and the use of stationary from a military government in Niger that has been out of power for over a decade.

"Even more troubling, however, the CIA, which has been aware of this information since 2001, has never regarded the evidence as reliable. The implications of this fact are profound: it means that a key part of the case you have been building against Iraq is evidence that your own intelligence experts at the Central Intelligence Agency do not believe is credible"

The full text of Waxman's letter can be found at: or is linked from Rep. Waxman's site at

Note that in the last paragraph Waxman states that the CIA had "never regarded the evidence as reliable." This was less than two months after the speech; yet national news media did not begin to focus on this story until late July 2003, well after Bush proclaimed "mission accomplished" from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

There are many unanswered questions; some will likely remain so. This might be a good time for our Congressional Representatives to pause and ask themselves whether it made sense to rush to give Bush unprecedented powers in the run-up to war without first getting solid information on which to base their decisions. It might be a nice time for the media conglomerates to take a good hot shower with Lava soap and ask themselves whether they will be so quick to toe the line in the future. It would also be nice if, in its investigation of pre-war intelligence failures, Bush's Special Commission could find out whether the administration insisted that CIA pass raw intelligence to the Pentagon and Cheney without first subjecting it to analysis. Intelligence failures are one thing, willful attempts to circumvent proven methods and deliberately mislead the American public is quite another.

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