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Iraq Intel Back in Senate Spotlight
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Paul Kerr

Under pressure from Democrats, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is set to jump-start the languishing second phase of its investigation into pre-war U.S. intelligence on Iraq’s prohibited weapons programs. This phase is supposed to examine the role of Bush administration officials in gathering and using this intelligence, an issue that has not yet been formally investigated.

The committee issued a report in July 2004 after completing the first phase of its investigation, which examined the intelligence community’s assessments of Baghdad’s suspected weapons programs. The second, more politically controversial phase was delayed until after the 2004 presidential election. (See ACT, September 2004.)

Committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) publicly pledged this spring to complete the investigation, and Republican and Democratic committee staff members told Arms Control Today in March that work on the investigation was ongoing, although there were several evident areas of disagreement. (See ACT, April 2005.) But Democrats argue the committee is proceeding far too slowly and has made minimal progress.

In order to focus attention on the stalled probe, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Nov. 1 invoked a rarely used rule that allows the minority party to halt Senate deliberations and bring the body into closed session. The two sides agreed that same day to appoint a six-member, bipartisan task force to sketch out a plan for completing the investigation.

The Washington Post reported Nov. 17 that the two sides have drafted a schedule for the second phase but have not yet set a date for completing it. The task force also has not agreed on several ground rules concerning such matters as requesting documents from the executive branch and interviewing administration officials, The Washington Post reported.

The panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.V.), said in a Nov. 7 statement that the committee should be able to subpoena both documents and officials from the White House, the Office of the Vice President, and the Department of Defense. Rockefeller had accused the administration Nov. 1 of withholding requested documents from the committee.

The Democrats took action shortly after a grand jury Oct. 28 indicted I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. Libby is accused of having made false statements both to the grand jury and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the course of an investigation to determine whether administration officials disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA officer and wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Wilson had argued publicly that the Bush administration had misled the public in stating repeatedly that Iraq had attempted to obtain lightly processed uranium from Niger, a claim that was disputed before the war. (See ACT, September 2003.)

Past Investigations

Bush administration officials claimed before the invasion that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and had an active nuclear weapons program. But UN weapons inspectors who had been working in Iraq since November 2002 reported prior to the invasion that they had not found any evidence that Iraq either had illicit weapons stockpiles or had reconstituted its related programs.

A post-invasion investigation by the Iraq Survey Group, the task force charged with coordinating the U.S.-led search for Iraqi prohibited weapons, confirmed that the administration’s pre-war claims had been false. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Administration officials continue to attribute their statements to inaccurate intelligence, usually citing an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which stated that Baghdad possessed chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. An NIE is supposed to be the intelligence community’s most authoritative assessment of a given subject.

Indeed, the July Senate Intelligence Committee report, as well as a March report from the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, harshly criticized the intelligence community’s failure to describe Iraq’s suspected weapons programs accurately. These reports blamed such factors as a shortage of spies in Iraq and poor tradecraft for the community’s botched assessments. (See ACT, May 2005.)

However, competing intelligence priorities also played a role, according to a recently declassified July 2004 report from a group headed by former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Richard Kerr. “Technical [intelligence] collection priorities emphasized coverage of the Iraqi air defense system in southern Iraq in support of U.S. [pre-invasion] military operations and prevented collection on other important targets in Iraq,” the report says, adding that Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs “received higher priority…until late 2002.” The CIA had tasked the Kerr group with reviewing the agency’s performance.

The Senate and commission reports have probed whether pressure from policymakers may have influenced intelligence reporting. For example, the commission said its members “found no evidence” that intelligence had been “politicized” but added that “intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom.”

But Robert Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council from February 2003 until the end of January 2005, offered a different view during a May 6 interview with Senate Foreign Relations committee staff. Repeatedly pushing analysts to confirm a particular set of judgments, he said, has “the effect of politicizing intelligence, because the so-called ‘correct answer’ becomes all too clear.” Both the Senate and commission reports noted that some policymakers repeatedly tasked intelligence analysts with reviewing intelligence assessments about Iraq.

Such politicization “creates a climate of intimidation and a culture of conformity that is damaging,” Hutchings said.

A July 2002 British memorandum, which summarizes a meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair with top advisers and was made public last May, has also fueled public suspicions about the administration’s pre-invasion Iraq policies.

According to the memorandum, British Secret Intelligence Service chief John Scarlett, who had recently returned from Washington, said that President George W. Bush intended to overthrow the Iraqi regime “justified by” its suspected prohibited weapons programs and support for terrorists. “[T]he intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” Scarlett said.

The Second Phase

Democrats want the intelligence committee to investigate whether information obtained and analyzed outside traditional intelligence channels influenced White House judgments about Iraq. For example, Rockefeller in his Nov. 7 statement said that the committee needs to interview such officials as Libby and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith to determine whether they directly received intelligence from Iraqi exiles.

Additionally, Democrats suspect Feith and his colleagues of using this information, along with raw U.S. intelligence reports, to produce inaccurate assessments of Iraq’s suspected weapons and terrorist connections. For example, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, indicated in a Sept. 22 letter to the Pentagon’s inspector general that a Defense Department briefing to the White House may have contained statements “that were not supported by the available intelligence,” such as the assessment that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist organization “had a shared interest and pursuit of” weapons of mass destruction.

The committee may not yet be able to investigate Feith’s office, however. Responding to a September request from Roberts, the Pentagon’s inspector general has agreed to investigate whether Feith was involved in inappropriate intelligence activities, the Associated Press reported Nov. 18. Levin told reporters the same day that Roberts has given his “assurance” that committee members will “be able to look at any other aspects that we want to” after receiving the report.

The panel’s previous report also said it would examine such issues as whether policymakers’ public statements concerning the Iraqi threat were supported by intelligence. Bush administration officials, including the president, made some public statements that appeared not to be fully supported by the NIE, which contained numerous qualifiers and caveats.

Rockefeller said that the committee has a list of statements from various U.S. officials but added that comparing these statements with intelligence community publications is insufficient for determining whether administration claims were “substantiated by the intelligence.” Such determinations will “require analysis and context,” which may necessitate obtaining documents and interviewing administration officials, he said.