On the November 27 broadcast of Inside Washington, a program produced by Washington, D.C., TV station WJLA, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer claimed that a bipartisan presidential commission concluded that “not a scintilla of evidence” existed showing that the Bush administration withheld intelligence from Congress that may have undermined the case for war in Iraq. Krauthammer also claimed that the commission's report concluded that any information received by the president, but not by Congress, “was far more indicting of Saddam and of the existence of weapons of mass destruction [WMD].” In fact, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, chaired by former Sen. Charles Robb (D-VA) and Reagan appointee Judge Laurence H. Silberman, did not examine whether the administration withheld information from Congress.
Further, Krauthammer's claim that the Robb-Silberman report concluded that information available only to Bush presented a stronger case for the existence of WMDs in Iraq refers only to one section of the report dealing with the Presidential Daily Briefings (PDBs). But the PDBs were only one of several intelligence sources that the White House received, but Congress did not, as Media Matters for America has documented. Further, the Robb-Silberman Commission did not conduct a full investigation of the PDBs and reached no conclusions about what information they contained that was not provided to Congress. Rather, the report merely examined how a limited sample of the documents reflected flawed intelligence-gathering at the CIA. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) has called for the CIA to release to the Senate Intelligence Committee PDBs referring to Iraq and dating from when Bush took office through the start of the war. Kennedy wants the briefings for the second phase of the committee's investigation into whether the White House manipulated intelligence in the buildup to the war.
During a discussion about a November 20 Washington Post op-ed by former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) detailing conflicting intelligence in the lead-up to war, Krauthammer responded to National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg's assertion that information had been withheld from Congress by claiming that the Robb-Silberman report “concluded precisely the opposite -- that there was not a scintilla of evidence of that.”
In fact, the Robb-Silberman report never examined the administration's use or provision of intelligence, so there was no “opposite” conclusion for it to reach. As The Washington Post noted in a November 12 article, upon releasing the report in March, Silberman said: “Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us were agreed that that was not part of our inquiry.”
In challenging Totenberg's assertion, Krauthammer also claimed that the Robb-Silberman report concluded that “the information that the president received was far more indicting of Saddam and of the existence of weapons of mass destruction than the information that the Congress received, and Congress came to precisely the same conclusion.”
The only section of the report that indicated any difference between intelligence received by the Bush administration and by Congress, however, was an indication that the PDBs and Senior Executive Intelligence Briefs (SEIBs) contained information not “markedly different” from that contained in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) presented to Congress. The report described the PDBs and SEIBs as “more alarmist and less nuanced than the NIE,” creating “an impression of many corroborating reports where in fact there were very few sources.”
Krauthammer's assertion echoed a November 15 White House press release that sought to refute, by pointing to the same section of the Robb-Silberman report, a New York Times editorial published the same day; the editorial asserted: “Congress had nothing close to the president's access to intelligence.”
Presumably because the commission was not tasked with investigating the Bush administration's use of intelligence, it did not consider the mounting evidence that the administration did in fact withhold and distort prewar intelligence. The report did not address sources that provided the administration with their own intelligence assessments, such as then-undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith's Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, or a Defense Intelligence Agency report that questioned intelligence hyping Saddam Hussein's ties to Al Qaeda. On April 27, 2004, The New York Times reported plans by the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate whether Feith's operation “exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq to justify the war” by circumventing the CIA and providing its own analysis of raw intelligence reports to lawmakers. And as the Los Angeles Times reported on November 7, though the Defense Intelligence Agency provided the White House and the CIA with a February 2002 report concluding that intelligence provided by a detained Al Qaeda operative was “intentionally misleading,” members of the Bush administration nevertheless continued to cite information supplied by the detainee when presenting the case for a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. According to Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the DIA report was not provided to members of Congress.
Moreover, while it is clearly false that the Robb-Silberman investigation settled the question of whether Congress saw the same intelligence as President Bush, even Krauthammer's more specific claim that the investigation found that the PDBs and SEIBs provided Bush with no more intelligence than Congress received is problematic.
The report discusses the PDBs only within the context of evaluating the ways in which they generally reflect flawed intelligence-gathering. As the commission indicated, it examined “a limited cross-section of this product.” The report contains no definitive statement about all of the PDBs available to the president and their comparison with intelligence provided to Congress. A full analysis that would produce such a statement has not been performed.
Indeed, as recently as November 22, National Journal contributor Murray Waas reported that a newly discovered PDB from September 21, 2001, advised the president of “no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the [9-11] attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda.” Waas reported that “according to highly placed government officials, little evidence has come to light [since the PDB given the president shortly after the attacks] to contradict the CIA's original conclusion that no collaborative relationship existed between Iraq and Al Qaeda.” Waas cited congressional sources as saying that the existence of the PDB was not disclosed to the Senate Intelligence Committee until the summer of 2004.
As The Washington Post reported on November 19, Sen. Kennedy has called for an expansive release of PDBs by the CIA as part of the second phase of the Intelligence Committee's investigation into pre-war intelligence, which will address the question of whether members of the Bush administration misrepresented intelligence when making the case for war.
From the November 27 broadcast of WJLA's Inside Washington:
TOTENBERG: There is a difference between manipulating intelligence to back up your pre-conceived notion that there are weapons of mass destruction and ignoring all the countervailing indicia that come from the intelligence community, from lots of other places, and just cherry-picking the stuff you want. You don't have to actually believe that you're lying, but you are abdicating your responsibility as the president, the vice president, the top officials, when you do that because you are misrepresenting -- perhaps not deliberately -- what the real situation is.
GORDON PETERSON (host): Charles, did you read what Senator Bob Graham had to say about the intelligence this week?
PETERSON: He said that in fact the whole story had not been told by this administration -- that he had access to intelligence that a lot of people don't have access to.
KRAUTHAMMER: And did he tell us what that hidden information was?
TOTENBERG: He said -- he said --
KRAUTHAMMER: Isn't that exactly Joe McCarthy's technique?
TOTENBERG: No, he said very --
KRAUTHAMMER: Tell us what this secret information is.
TOTENBERG: He very specifically said that there was a lot of information that was left out of what was given to Congress, including the highest-ranking intelligence committee people. And that based on the information that they had, the assessments that they made were less -- were less valid.
KRAUTHAMMER: They were not --
JOHN HARWOOD (Wall Street Journal national political editor): And he was responding to --
KRAUTHAMMER: Bob Graham --
HARWOOD: -- hawk who all along has been against this war as a diversion against the war on terrorism.
KRAUTHAMMER: Bob Graham is also a Democrat, and the Silberman-Robb Commission, which is not Democratic or Republican, concluded precisely the opposite -- that there was not a scintilla of evidence of that, and that in fact the information that the president received was far more indicting of Saddam and of the existence of weapons of mass destruction than the information that the Congress received, and the Congress came to precisely the same conclusion.