WASHINGTON – In a long-delayed report, the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday rebuked President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for making prewar claims – particularly that Iraq had close ties to al-Qaida – that were not supported by available intelligence.
The report, which was opposed by most Republicans on the panel, accuses the president and other members of his administration of repeatedly exaggerating evidence of an al-Qaida connection to take advantage of the charged climate after Sept. 11.
It amounts to the most-pointed reproach to date of the Bush administration’s use of intelligence to build the case for the Iraq war. But the document stops short of calling for any follow-up investigation or sanction.
“In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even nonexistent,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., chairman of the panel. “Sadly, the Bush administration led the nation into war under false pretenses.”
The committee’s 170-page report on the Bush administration’s case for war reads like a catalog of erroneous claims. The document represents the most detailed assessment to date of whether those assertions were backed by classified intelligence reports available to senior officials at the time.
The report largely exonerates Bush administration officials for some of their prewar assertions, including claims that Baghdad had stockpiles of illegal chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing a nuclear bomb. Although those claims were subsequently proven to be wildly inaccurate, the report noted, they were largely consistent with U.S. intelligence at the time.
But the report said the Bush administration veered away from its own intelligence community’s conclusions in two key areas: on Iraq’s relationship with al-Qaida, and whether it would be difficult to pacify Iraq after a U.S. invasion.
Statements made during dozens of speeches and interviews before the war created the impression that Baghdad and al-Qaida had forged a partnership. But the report concluded such assertions “were not substantiated by the intelligence” being shown to senior officials at the time.
Claims that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, Czech Republic, for example, were dubious from the beginning and subsequently discounted. The idea that Saddam Hussein had provided chemical and biological weapons training to al-Qaida hinged on intelligence from a source who soon was discredited.
Bush officials strayed even farther from the evidence when suggesting that Saddam was prepared to provide weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaida terrorist groups – a linchpin in the case for war.
In October 2002, for example, Bush warned in a key speech in Cincinnati that “secretly, and without fingerprints, (Saddam) could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.”
The threat was repeated frequently in the run-up to war, but was “contradicted by available intelligence information,” the committee said.
On post-war prospects, the report contrasted the rosy scenarios conjured by Cheney and others with more sober intelligence warnings that were being presented to senior officials.
Cheney’s prediction that U.S. forces would “be greeted as liberators” was at odds with reports from the CIA as well as the Defense Intelligence Agency, which warned nearly a year earlier that invading U.S. forces would face serious opposition from “the Baathists, the Jihadists and Arab nationalists who oppose any U.S. occupation of Iraq.”
The release of the report is likely to touch off renewed debate over the committee’s approach and methodology. Senior Republicans accused Democrats of using the report to score political points in an election year.
White House press secretary Dana Perino called the panel’s report “a selective view,” adding the White House regrets faulty information.