IRAQ INTELLIGENCE FAILURES: Senate Panel Blasts Pre-War Intelligence

September 2004

By Paul Kerr

A Senate Intelligence Committee report released this summer critiquing the failure of the intelligence community to accurately portray Iraq’s pre-war weapons programs centered on a faulty October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).

The NIE had stated that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and, perhaps most worrying, was “reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.” In its more than 500-page July 9 report, the committee found that these judgments “either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting.” An NIE is supposed to be the entire intelligence community’s most authoritative assessment of a given subject.

Although the estimate contained numerous qualifiers and caveats, the panel report concluded that the intelligence community “did not accurately or adequately explain to policymakers the uncertainties behind the judgments.” The committee also faulted the CIA for sometimes failing to pay sufficient attention to other intelligence agencies’ dissenting views.

The report noted that the intelligence community was hampered by its lack of human intelligence sources in Iraq, arguing that the agency “relied too heavily on UN inspectors” who were in Iraq from 1991 until 1998. After the inspectors left, the United States had no human intelligence sources in the country familiar with Baghdad’s suspected weapons programs and, as a result, had to rely on unreliable defectors and foreign intelligence services, as well as other forms of intelligence.

According to the report, the intelligence collection problems were compounded by “a collective presumption” among intelligence officials that Iraq possessed prohibited weapons and related programs. This belief, reinforced by Iraq’s past weapons programs and efforts to conceal them, led these officials to “interpret ambiguous evidence” as conclusive proof of weapons efforts “as well as ignore or minimize” contrary evidence.

The committee’s review, which began in June 2003, is not yet complete. The second phase of the review will address such issues as the nature of intelligence activities conducted by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, as well as whether policymakers’ public statements concerning the Iraqi threat were supported by intelligence reporting. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The extent to which administration officials’ judgments were influenced by the NIE remains unclear. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney stated prior to the NIE’s completion that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and was developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, it was Congress, not the executive branch, that requested the NIE in September 2002.

According to the report, the committee found no evidence that administration officials attempted to “pressure analysts to change their judgments related to Iraq’s weapons…capabilities.” But three Democratic Senators noted in an “additional view” to the report that administration officials put “pressure” on intelligence analysts with their pre-NIE statements regarding Baghdad’s suspected illicit weapons and by “repetitively tasking” them to “revise their analytical judgments,” the committee said.

Acting Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin took issue with the notion that the NIE unduly influenced policymakers to support the invasion. He acknowledged in a July 14 appearance on CNN that the NIE’s “Key Judgments” were not adequately qualified, but also argued that “anyone who read this document from cover to cover would find in it ample material for serious debate.”

Nuclear Weapons

The NIE’s main judgments regarding Iraq’s nuclear weapons program had been debunked well before the invasion. In particular, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei reported to the UN Security Council approximately two weeks before the war that the inspectors had “found no evidence” that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.

Uranium Imports

Bush administration officials claimed on several occasions that Iraq was attempting to acquire lightly processed uranium from African countries such as Niger. This was considered important because Baghdad’s lack of fissile material was viewed as one of the most serious obstacles to its ability to produce nuclear weapons.

The committee faulted the CIA for failing to obtain and examine the documents detailing the alleged uranium deal between Iraq and Niger until well after they became available. This delay led to continued agency assessments that Iraq was trying to procure uranium from Africa, despite the fact that analysts in the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) believed as early as October 2002 that the documents were likely inauthentic. ElBaradei told the Security Council March 7, 2003, that the documents describing a suspected Iraq-Niger uranium deal were forged. The CIA issued a report four days later concurring with this assessment.

The committee concluded that the NIE “overstated what the intelligence community knew about Iraq’s possible procurement attempts.” The NIE stated that Iraq had been “vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake” from African countries, including Niger. The NIE contained a dissenting opinion to this assessment from the INR, which termed reports of Iraq’s uranium procurement efforts “highly dubious.” The intelligence community also had evidence that other factors, such as an international consortium’s control of Niger’s uranium industry, made it unlikely that Niger would transfer uranium to Iraq. Several inquiries from U.S. officials also found scant evidence that such a deal was discussed.

Moreover, the INR dissent was dropped from some subsequent reports, including a CIA analysis of Iraq’s UN-mandated December 2002 declaration of its weapons programs. These omissions happened even though then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet previously told both Congress and the White House of doubts the CIA had about the reports’ accuracy.


In the run-up to war, administration officials also cited the NIE’s assessment that Iraq was attempting to obtain aluminum tubes and magnets for use in a gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. They downplayed dissenting opinions from INR and the Department of Energy, which believed the tubes were for use in conventional rockets.

The committee concluded that “the information available to the Intelligence Community indicated that these tubes were intended to be used for an Iraqi conventional rocket program and not a nuclear program.” ElBaradei also reported in March 2003 that there was no evidence that Iraq was procuring the tubes for anything other than rockets.

The report is especially critical of the CIA’s analysis of this issue. For example, it states that the CIA erred when it assessed that “the dimensions of the aluminum tubes match those of a publicly available gas centrifuge design from the 1950s.” Additionally, the agency’s “initial reporting” of tests conducted on similar tubes to determine their suitability for centrifuges was “misleading and, in some cases, incorrect,” according to the report.

The committee also concluded that intelligence showed Iraq was trying to obtain magnets, but the intelligence “did not suggest that the materials were intended to be used in a nuclear program.” ElBaradei reported a similar conclusion to the Security Council.


The administration claimed that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was meeting with top nuclear weapons experts and that Iraq maintained the scientific know-how to produce nuclear weapons.

The committee report states that intelligence showed that Iraq had kept its nuclear personnel “trained and in positions that could keep their skills intact for eventual use in a reconstituted nuclear program” but adds that this intelligence did not show a “recent increase in activity,” suggesting that Iraq was reconstituting the program.

The report also says that the intelligence did not indicate the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission “was engaged in nuclear weapons-related work.”


Bush said in an October 2002 speech that Iraq was reconstructing buildings at sites where its nuclear weapons facilities had previously been located.

The NIE assessed that the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission was “expanding the infrastructure—research laboratories, production facilities, and procurement networks—to produce nuclear weapons,” but the committee concluded that this claim was “not supported by the intelligence.”

In March 2003, ElBaradei told the Security Council that “[t]here is no indication of resumed nuclear activities in those buildings that were identified…as being reconstructed or newly erected since 1998.”

Chemical and Biological Weapons
In addition, the report concluded that two important NIE assessments concerning Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs were inaccurate. These assessments were included in the report’s “Key Judgments” section.

The first is the assessment that “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons.” The report says this conclusion “overstated both what was known and what intelligence analysts judged about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons holdings.” Although the intelligence community had evidence, such as Iraq’s procurement of dual-use materials and its failures fully to account for its past weapons stockpiles, that could lead analysts reasonably to infer that Baghdad possessed chemical and biological weapons, it “did not have enough information to state with certainty that Iraq ‘has’ these weapons.”

The second is the judgment that “all key aspects—[research and development], production, and weaponization—of Iraq’s offensive [biological weapons] program are active and…more advanced than they were before the [Persian] Gulf War.” The report also concludes that this assessment “was not supported by the underlying intelligence.”

The committee report revealed that most of the intelligence underlying the NIE’s statement that “Baghdad has mobile transportable facilities for producing…biological weapons agents” came from unreliable Iraqi defectors. Intelligence analysts were concerned about these facilities because they could enable Iraq to conceal its biological weapons activities more easily.

In addition, the underlying intelligence reports regarding dry biological agents only indicated that Iraq either had or was attempting to acquire dual-use equipment that could be used for this purpose. Dry biological agents are more easily dispersed and handled than liquid biological agents.

Furthermore, the NIE’s judgment that Iraq had increased its stockpile of chemical weapons was based on flawed interpretations of the available data. For example, analysts judged that Iraq had increased its chemical stockpiles on the basis of reports that Iraq had been moving chemical munitions. However, these reports were based on the fact that tanker trucks were spotted at suspected chemical munitions sites. Although these trucks could be used as decontamination vehicles—a possible sign that chemical weapons are being moved—they could also be used for fire control.

UN inspectors also had told the Security Council prior to the invasion that there was no evidence that Baghdad had restarted its chemical and biological weapons programs.

Delivery Vehicles
The report concluded that the NIE’s assessments of Iraq’s development and possible retention of prohibited missiles were supported by the available intelligence. However, the report found that the NIE’s assessment that Iraq was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) “probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents” did not accurately reflect either the available information regarding these vehicles or the judgments of “most analysts,” who believed the UAVs were for conventional missions.

Powell’s UN Speech
The report also discussed the intelligence behind Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech before the Security Council, which argued that Iraq continued to hide weapons from inspectors. (See ACT, March 2003.) Several pieces of intelligence in Powell’s presentation have proven inaccurate.

INR reviewed Powell’s presentation, although the CIA was the agency directly involved in composing it. Most but not all of the material to which INR objected was removed. For example, Powell told the council that Iraqi officials were moving “key files”…in cars “to avoid detection,” a claim INR analysts labelled “highly questionable.”