The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #534 on Iraq

July 13, 2004

July 13, 2004 | WebMemo on Iraq

The Senate Intelligence Report: Fair and Balanced?

It is worth reading all 511 pages of the Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq-both for what is said and what is left unsaid. Both have a lot to tell us about how to make America safer. The Senate Intelligence Committee's report makes the case for responsible intelligence reform and offers no evidence that political influence was brought to bear in shaping analysis to support particular policies. On the other hand, the report largely ignores the strategic challenges presented by the Iraqi regime and does not consider how the Select Intelligence Committee fulfilled its own oversight responsibilities in the months preceding the war in Iraq.


The Senate report concludes that the intelligence community's assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs was deeply flawed. In particular, it finds that most of the key judgments in the critical October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) were "overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting." At the root of the problem was a lack of analysis, unchallenged assumptions, poor Human Intelligence (HUMINT), and a CIA that "abused" its position by withholding key information from other members of the intelligence community. Equally troubling, the report concluded that even now, post-9/11, the United States still lacks a consistent approach to analyzing and reporting terrorist threats. Shortfalls cited in the report are further proof that it is past time for fundamental intelligence reforms.


Another significant finding of the report is that the Committee unearthed no evidence that intelligence findings were driven by undue political influence. Writing for several members of the committee, Senator Pat Roberts concluded, "We found quite the opposite." Intelligence officials claimed assessments were the product of their own analysis. Still, Senator Jay Rockefeller and others say the issue is not settled and requires further investigation. Fair enough. What they are likely to find in a fair investigation is more evidence that the weaknesses of the intelligence community transcend the policies of any one administration. The poor advice described by the report was the fruit of decades of neglect that left intelligence fragmented and without adequate resources. The administration was ill served by the intelligence services' legacy.


Where the Senate's findings fall seriously short is in providing any context for the analysis provided in pre-war assessments of Iraq's capabilities. True, the intelligence community had no "smoking gun." But, there was substantial evidence of unaccounted-for material, stockpiled dual-use equipment, and specific and suspicious technical abilities. What we knew for sure is that Saddam had had weapons in the past; that he had used them before; that there were many unanswered questions; and that the regime made serious and continuous efforts to deceive and cover-up its activities. Given how badly the United States had underestimated Iraq's WMD programs in 1991, it is understandable that the administration and Congress were more willing to accept aggressive intelligence assessments and, more importantly, were unwilling to let Saddam continue to flaut U.N. sanctions that required him to not only disarm, but also to reveal the scope of Iraq's weapons development efforts, and to relinquish the capability to resurrect his WMD programs.


Also missing from the report is any assessment of the Committee's own performance during this period. The Senate report castigates the intelligence community for "not accurately or adequately explaining to policymakers the uncertainties" behind the NIE. This conclusion does little to explain why the Intelligence Committee did not more closely scrutinize the evidence it was provided before the war and why it was incapable of recognizing the shortcomings of the intelligence community then.


The candor and sober judgments provided in the report are praiseworthy and an important contribution to guiding further reforms. However, the Committee's inability to consider its own shortfalls is a notable omission.


James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Related Issues: Iraq