CIA report offers fresh critiques of Iraq intelligence

Newly declassified study says intelligence agency managers failed to exercise quality control checks on analysis.

A CIA-commissioned report made public this week offers some new conclusions of prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, appearing to contradict findings by an earlier presidential panel.

The 12-page declassified report, completed in July 2004 and published on the Internet Thursday in full by the National Security Archive of George Washington University, was prepared by a group of experts led by former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Richard Kerr.

USA Today and the New York Times this week reported that the assessment criticizes the Bush administration for not heeding prewar warnings about the possibility of violence among rival factions after the fall of the Iraqi regime.

Beyond that, however, the report appears to contradict two major conclusions in a report from an earlier, prominent panel, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

First, the report concludes that Bush administration views on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and pressure for certain information might have affected the quality of analyses the intelligence community provided.

The previous commission's report, released in March, found "no evidence of political pressure to influence the intelligence community's prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons programs."

The new report also faults the intelligence community for failing to question whether Iraq may have abandoned weapons of mass destruction programs destroyed following the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The previous commission document also noted a failure "even to consider the possibility that Saddam Hussein would decide to destroy his chemical and biological weapons and to halt work on his nuclear program after the first Gulf War." However, it said that even if that possibility was considered, analysts could have justifiably concluded that such action by then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was unlikely.

The Kerr report instead argues that the intelligence community might reasonably have concluded Iraqi WMD programs could have been abandoned given a paucity of information indicating they existed.

"Collection strategies should recognize the extreme difficulty of requiring such a regime to prove the negative in the face of assumptions that it is dissembling," it said.

A post-invasion report from a U.S.-led investigation of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, known commonly as the "Duelfer Report," last year concluded that Iraq had abandoned its weapons and programs, was deliberately ambiguous about their fate in the interest of maintaining deterrence, and had no intention of attacking the United States with such weapons.

The Kerr report suggests that pressure to satisfy numerous administration requests for intelligence regarding suspected Iraqi weapons capabilities and links to al-Qaeda might have driven the intelligence community to cut corners and focus on providing the sought-after information rather than providing a more balanced picture.

"Eagerly responsive to quickly developed policy requirements, the quick and assured response gave the appearance of both knowledge and confidence that, in retrospect, was too high," it says.

The Kerr report does not blame Bush administration officials, though, noting that "serious pressure from policy-makers almost always accompanies serious issues." Instead, it says the intelligence agencies failed to exercise quality control checks on analysis. The community was satisfied to produce volumes of information that satisfied the intelligence consumers, it said.

"The extensive layers of critical management review that traditionally served to insure both the validity and standing of finished intelligence products seem to have been ineffective in identifying key issues affecting collection and analysis," it said.

The Kerr report further suggests that daily, close intelligence community contacts with policy-makers may have led to the conveyance of intelligence less tempered with caveats than would appear in written reports.

"In the case of Iraq, daily briefings and other contacts at the highest levels undoubtedly influenced policy in ways that went beyond the coordinated analysis contained in the written product. Close and continuing personal contact, unfettered by the formal caveats that usually accompany written production, probably imparted a greater sense of certainty to analytic conclusions than the facts would bear," it said.

The report says there "remains an open question" about whether "the climate of policy-level pressure" had "contributed to the problem of inconsistent analytic performance."

It notes that while a "constant stream of questions" from administration policy-makers on possible Iraq-al Qaeda connections caused analysts to conduct exhaustive, repetitive searches for such links, the community remained firm that "no operational or collaborative relationship existed."

With regard to suspected weapons, however, because policy views and intelligence community judgments were in accord, "the impact of pressure, if any, was more nuanced and may have been considered reinforcing," it says.

Without so much policy pressure, analysts may have been more inclined to examine underlying assumptions, it said.

"Precisely because we've had such inadequate investigation of this intelligence failure, we still haven't learned the real lessons of what went wrong and it seems like this report has started to correct the balance," said Joseph Cirincione, nonproliferation director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"There was conscious political effort to push the intelligence in a way that would support an already determined policy. And this report comes closer than any other in recognizing that fundamental reality," he said.

The report says underlying assumptions about Iraqi weapons were not questioned also because of how the intelligence community emphasizes technical intelligence over more qualitative, human-derived intelligence on cultural and political factors.

Intelligence collection efforts were "not focused or conceptually driven to answer questions about the validity of the premise that WMD programs were continuing apace," it said.

The study faulted a disproportionate reliance on satellite collection systems, which it said provided very little accurate information, sought information intended to satisfy preconceptions, and offered "little acknowledgement" of the political and cultural conditions that might influence such programs.

"Analysis of Iraq's WMD programs, therefore, provides an excellent case study for an assessment of the limitations of relying too heavily on technical systems with little acknowledgement of the political/cultural context in which such programs exist," it said.

Little collection was done on the social, cultural and economic impacts "on Iraq of nearly 20 years of war and 10 years of sanctions and isolation," the Kerr report said.

The report said gathering intelligence on "societal issues, personalities and elites" can be more difficult to accomplish than technical intelligence collection. However, "information on the stresses and strains of society may be equally, if not more, important."

Collection of such information, though, "does not fit with the reward system in the collection world and can be difficult to fully assess and integrate with other information."

Intelligence gathering on Iraq also "was the victim of inadequate funding and too intense competition between top priority targets," it said.