Conservatives falsely claimed White House and Congress saw "same intelligence" on Iraqi threat
Research ››› ››› JOSH KALVEN
Shortly after leading Democrats pushed for the completion of a congressional investigation into the Bush administration's use of prewar intelligence, White House officials responded that such scrutiny of their handling of the intelligence is unwarranted because both the White House and Congress possessed the same flawed reports and came to the same incorrect conclusions. Numerous conservative media figures have since echoed this argument. But the claim that the administration and Congress saw the same intelligence ignores several important facts. First, taking into account assessments such as the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB), the White House typically has access to more intelligence than does Congress -- and indeed, this was the case with prewar intelligence on Iraq. Second, the Bush administration began making claims about the Iraqi threat months before Congress received any substantial intelligence analysis. And third, the administration received information directly from alternative intelligence sources, specifically the since-discredited Office of Special Plans and Iraqi National Congress.
On November 1, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) forced the Senate into closed session and demanded a pledge that the Senate Intelligence Committee complete "phase two" of its investigation into prewar intelligence, as the committee's chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), had previously promised.
The "phase one" probe concerned the intelligence community's failure to provide accurate intelligence on the Iraqi threat and was completed in April 2004. During the course of the initial investigation, Democrats on the committee reached an agreement with their Republican counterparts to conduct a second phase of the probe. This investigation would examine five additional matters, including how the administration had used the available intelligence in public statements and reports. But 19 months after this agreement, and a year past the point at which Roberts had stated that "phase two" would become a priority, the Democrats on the committee claimed they had yet to see a draft, despite sustained efforts to move the investigation forward.
In response to Democratic demands for completion of phase two, the Republican National Committee issued talking points saying that "Just A Few Years Back, Dems Were Warning About WMDs In Iraq," and quoting numerous Democratic members of Congress stating in late 2002 that Iraq posed a significant threat to the United States. On the November 2 edition of CNN's The Situation Room -- a day after the closed Senate session -- White House communications director Dan Bartlett suggested that the investigation should start with the Democrats themselves, rather than the administration:
BARTLETT: Well, they don't have to have a secret session to have this debate. We ought to have it out in the open where the American people can see it. And maybe the investigation can start with the previous administration or [Sen.] Jay Rockefeller [D-WV] himself. He himself said that there was unmistakable evidence that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Harry Reid himself, who voted for the war, cited the same intelligence President Bush did. President Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Vice President Al Gore, John Kerry, there's a whole list of Democrats who stepped up, as did President Bush, looked at the threat in a post-9-11 world and said, this man is a threat.
We removed this dictator for good reasons. Now, everybody recognizes that the intelligence was incorrect. But the decision was correct in a post-9-11 world.
Also on November 2, on Fox News' Special Report, Fox News chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle reported as fact that the Democrats saw "the same intelligence reports" as the administration:
ANGLE: Democrats charge administration officials exaggerated the intelligence in order to sell the war, but in late 2002, Democrats, using the same intelligence reports, issued statements almost indistinguishable from the president's.
In recent days, conservative commentators and other media figures have echoed the White House's criticism of the Democratic push for the "phase two" investigation and repeated the claim that the Bush administration and members of Congress saw the same intelligence on Iraq:
- Human Events editor Terence P. Jeffrey argued, "The intelligence that [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein [D-CA] used when she voted to authorize that war in October of 2002, provided -- a National Intelligence Estimate provided by the CIA directly to the Senate. We know already from the Senate investigation, it was the same information the president and vice president had. It was bad intelligence, but the Senate and the president had the same intelligence. It came from the CIA." [CNN's The Situation Room, 11/2/05]
- A November 3 Wall Street Journal editorial claimed, "The scandal here isn't what happened before the war. The scandal is that the same Democrats who saw the same intelligence that Mr. Bush saw, who drew the same conclusions, and who voted to go to war are now using the difficulties we've encountered in that conflict as an excuse to rewrite history."
- New York Times columnist David Brooks stated, "They all had the same evidence." [PBS' The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, 11/4/05]
- National Review Online editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg wrote on November 4, "Sens. Evan Bayh [D-IN], Joseph Biden [D-DE], Hillary Rodham Clinton [D-NY], John Kerry [D-MA], and John Edwards [D-NC] all voted for the war. Most of these Democrats had access to the same intelligence as the president."
- Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke said, "[I]t is worth pointing out that Senator [Carl] Levin [D-MI] himself -- who is a member of -- the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and presumably saw whatever he wanted in terms of intelligence before this last war -- said, 'Uh-oh, Saddam Hussein may use chemical and biological weapons against our troops.' Now, what was that based on, if not his reading of intelligence that said that he had those weapons? [Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, 11/4/05]
- Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer claimed, "The Democrats are acting as if all of this happened in Armenia in 1917 secretly. It happened here two years ago. They looked at all of that intelligence. And that same night, they could hear what the administration was saying about the weapons. It isn't as if all of this was hidden." [Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, 11/4/05]
- Fox News Washington bureau managing editor Brit Hume stated, "[T]hey all looked at the same evidence, those guys on the Hill, many of whom are complaining about this now. And what did they do? They voted to authorize the war." [Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 11/6/05]
- U.S. News & World Report executive editor Mortimer B. Zuckerman wrote in the November 14 edition of the magazine, "Democrats who saw the same intelligence as President Bush drew the same conclusions."
"The owner of intelligence"
Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have repeatedly disputed the claim that members of Congress and the White House have equal access to intelligence information. During a November 4 press conference, Rockefeller and Feinstein directly addressed this issue. Both noted, for example, that committee members are not privy to the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) -- a written summary of intelligence information that the CIA provides to the president. (The White House even withheld from Senate investigators the PDBs on Iraq delivered to the Oval Office prior to the war.):
ROCKEFELLER: I mean, one of things that they -- that Chairman Roberts likes to do is to try to point out that there were a lot of Democrats who voted for the -- going to the United Nations, and if that didn't work, going to the war. And then people say, "Well, you know, you all had the same intelligence that the White House had." And I'm here to tell you that is nowhere near the truth. We not only don't have, nor probably should we have, the Presidential Daily Brief, we don't have the constant people who are working on intelligence who are very close to him. They don't release their -- an administration which tends not to release -- not just the White House, but the CIA, DOD [Department of Defense], others -- they control information. There's a lot of intelligence that we don't get that they have.
FEINSTEIN: As was said, the president gets intelligence that we do not get. The president is the -- White House is the owner of intelligence. We do not see the Presidential Daily Brief. Therefore, it is conceivable that the president would have had information that was not available to the Senate or to the Congress.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE), who served as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also made this point during an appearance on the October 8, 2004, edition of CNN's American Morning:
KERREY: The president has much more access to intelligence than members of Congress does [sic]. Ask any member of Congress. Ask a Republican member of Congress, do you get the same access to intelligence that the president does? Look at these aluminum tube stories that came out the president delivered to the Congress -- "We believe these would be used for centrifuges." -- didn't deliver to Congress the full range of objections from the Department of Energy experts, nuclear weapons experts, that said it's unlikely they were for centrifuges, more likely that they were for rockets, which was a pre-existing use. The president has much more access to intelligence than any member of Congress.
Indeed, the White House's involvement in development of the aluminum tubes allegation provides an example of how the administration's access to intelligence on Iraq differed from that of Congress. In particular, the aluminum tubes story exhibits the "very close" relationship -- which Rockefeller noted -- between the White House and those "working on intelligence."
An October 3, 2004, New York Times article detailed how the unfounded claim that Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes designed to enrich uranium became one of the administration's primary pieces of evidence that Saddam Hussein was attempting to reconstitute Iraq's nuclear weapons program. According to the Times, while the CIA assessments provided to policy-makers during the buildup to war omitted crucial dissenting views regarding the probable use of the tubes, administration officials "repeatedly" discussed dissenting opinions with the agency:
From April 2001 to September 2002, the agency wrote at least 15 reports on the tubes.
But several Congressional and intelligence officials with access to the 15 assessments said not one of them informed senior policy makers of the Energy Department's dissent. They described a series of reports, some with ominous titles, that failed to convey either the existence or the substance of the intensifying debate.
"They never lay out the other case," one Congressional official said of those C.I.A. assessments.
The Senate report provides only a partial picture of the agency's communications with the White House. In an arrangement endorsed by both parties, the Intelligence Committee agreed to delay an examination of whether White House descriptions of Iraq's military capabilities were "substantiated by intelligence information." As a result, Senate investigators were not permitted to interview White House officials about what they knew of the tubes debate and when they knew it.
But in interviews, C.I.A. and administration officials disclosed that the dissenting views were repeatedly discussed in meetings and telephone calls.
The timing of the statements
The claim that Congress and the White House saw the "same intelligence" also ignores that the Bush administration's public pronouncements concerning Iraq began long before any substantial intelligence analysis arrived on Capitol Hill. According to Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the environment created by these definitive statements may have contributed to the intelligence community's faulty judgments on Iraq. These fundamental analytical flaws were clearly evident in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which -- as Human Events' Jeffrey noted above -- informed lawmakers' positions on the war.
In the "Additional Views" section of the Senate Intelligence Committee's "phase one" report, Sens. Rockefeller, Levin, and Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) provided numerous examples of conclusive public statements made by administration officials in the weeks and months prior to Congress' receipt of the NIE. The report itself concluded that the key judgments contained in the NIE -- which summarized all available intelligence assessments on the threat posed by Iraq -- were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting" and that the intelligence community "did not accurately or adequately explain to policymakers the uncertainties behind the judgments" in the document. According to an April 19, 2004, Washington Post report by assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, Stuart A. Cohen, acting chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the time the NIE was being prepared, admitted seeking to "avoid equivocation" in the document wherever possible so it would not amount to "pablum." Rockefeller, Levin, and Dubin argued that, in public statements made in the summer and fall of 2002, the administration "repeatedly overstated what the Intelligence Community assessed at the time":
These high-profile statements in support of the Administration's policy of regime change were made in advance of any meaningful intelligence analysis and created pressure on the Intelligence Community to conform to the certainty contained in the pronouncements.
The three senators further stated that, by not examining the basis for the administration's statements, the "phase one" report had not adequately addressed the effect they may have had on the intelligence community's assessments:
As a result, the Committee's phase one report fails to fully explain the environment of intense pressure in which Intelligence Community officials were asked to render judgments on matters relating to Iraq when policy officials had already forcefully stated their own conclusions in public.
As noted above, administration officials were not simply recipients of intelligence. Whereas most members of Congress did not see a full assessment of the Iraqi threat prior to the delivery of the NIE, the president and his aides received daily intelligence briefings on Iraq throughout 2002. And more recent evidence -- such as the Downing Street Memo -- has further suggested that the administration participated actively in the interagency debates concerning what information would be included in the intelligence reports on Iraq.
The claim that the White House and Congress saw the "same intelligence" on Iraq is further undermined by the Bush administration's use of outside intelligence channels. For more than year prior to the war, the administration received intelligence assessments and analysis on Iraq directly from the Department of Defense's Office of Special Plans (OSP), run by then-undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas J. Feith, and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a group of Iraqi exiles led by Ahmed Chalabi.
The Senate Intelligence Commttee's "phase two" investigation is slated to examine the intelligence provided by these two entities. When the committee agreed to conduct the "phase two" probe, it laid out five areas of inquiry. Beyond determining whether government officials' "public statements and reports and testimony regarding Iraq ... were substantiated by intelligence information," the investigation was to examine:
F. any intelligence activities relating to Iraq conducted by the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group (PCTEG) and the Office of Special Plans within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; and
G. the use by the Intelligence Community of information provided by the Iraqi National Congress (INC)
In a November 4 letter to Senate leaders, Rockefeller, Levin, and Feinstein reiterated the need for these elements of the committee's investigation to be completed.
The Office of the Vice President (OVP) is reported to have heavily utilized the OSP and INC -- both of which have since been discredited -- as it assembled the White House's case for war with Iraq. A December 8, 2003, article (subscription required) in The New Republic described how Vice President Dick Cheney's distrust for the intelligence community led him to cultivate these alternative channels:
From the OVP's perspective, the CIA -- with its caveat-riddled position on Iraqi WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and its refusal to connect Saddam and Al Qaeda -- was an outright obstacle to the invasion of Iraq. And, as Cheney and his staff remembered so vividly from their Pentagon days, the CIA was often wrong on the biggest security questions. So Cheney reverted to the intelligence-gathering method he had perfected at Halliburton: He outsourced.
The Pentagon operation that would later be named the Office of Special Plans was formed by Feith in October 2001 to work on issues related to a potential conflict with Iraq. Over the next 16 months, the New Republic article reported, the office supplied the OVP with substantial amounts of intelligence:
In addition to actual planning, the OSP provided memoranda to Pentagon officials recycling the most damaging -- and often the most spurious -- intelligence about Iraq's Al Qaeda connections and the most hopeful predictions about liberated Iraq. In the fall of 2002, one of the memos stated as fact that September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent months before the attacks -- a claim the FBI and CIA had debunked months earlier after an exhaustive investigation. And the OSP didn't just comb through old intelligence for new information. It had its own sources.
An April 28, 2004, New York Times article detailed how the OSP's "two-man intelligence team" of Michael Maloof and David Wurmser operated. The team, known as the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group (CTEG), "began work in October 2001 in a 15-by-15-foot space on the third floor of the Pentagon. The pair spent their days reading raw intelligence reports, many from the Central Intelligence Agency, in the Pentagon's classified computer system." The Times documented how Feith's analysts bypassed the CIA by presenting their findings directly to Pentagon officials and how they received intelligence directly from Chalabi:
At the end of 2001, Mr. Maloof and Mr. Wurmser briefed top Pentagon officials as well as John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security and a veteran of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Maloof also met with Mr. [Richard N.] Perle at his suburban Washington home. As chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory group, he had security clearance.
That session was interrupted by a call from Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group. At Mr. Maloof's request, Mr. Perle asked Mr. Chalabi, now a member of the interim government of Iraq, to have his staff provide Mr. Maloof information gleaned from defectors and others. The request was unusual, because Mr. Feith's analysts were supposed to review intelligence, not collect it. And Mr. Chalabi at that time had a lucrative contract to provide information on Iraq exclusively to the State Department, which would send it along to the intelligence agencies.
Mr. Maloof later met with member [sic] of the Iraqi National Congress's staff.
Chalabi and the INC provided the basis for much of the intelligence that the OSP ultimately delivered to the vice president's office, as an article in the May 2004 edition of Vanity Fair reported:
[M]uch of the supposedly new intelligence which crossed the desks of [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and Cheney originated with the I.N.C., a group the C.I.A. had long distrusted. In the fall of 2001, and for much of the next year, Chalabi's people produced a series of men and women termed "defectors" from Iraq, and they were accorded disproportionate influence. At least two, who were interviewed by the D.I.A. [Defense Intelligence Agency] and whose information was taken very seriously by the Pentagon and vice president, brought with them hair-raising stories of Saddam's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. The most important, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, claimed that Saddam had secret labs making biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons hidden in underground wells, under villas, and beneath the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad; to date, no trace of such facilities has been found.
In the October 27, 2003, edition of The New Yorker, journalist Seymour M. Hersh described the administration's swift distribution of INC intelligence, as well as the White House's efforts to conceal the intelligence community's doubts about these reports:
Chalabi's defector reports were now [early 2002] flowing from the Pentagon directly to the Vice-President's office, and then on to the President, with little prior evaluation by intelligence professionals. When INR analysts did get a look at the reports, they were troubled by what they found.
A routine settled in: the Pentagon's defector reports, classified "secret," would be funnelled to newspapers, but subsequent C.I.A. and INR analyses of the reports -- invariably scathing but also classified -- would remain secret.
In the year prior to the war, Cheney became an ardent defender of the intelligence provided by the INC, according to the New Republic article:
Any doubts expressed by the intelligence community about the OVP's sources, especially Chalabi, were ignored. ... To the OVP, the CIA's hostility to such "unique" INC intelligence was evidence of the Agency's political corruption. Before long, "there was something of a willingness to give [INC-provided intelligence] greater weight" than that offered by the intelligence community, says the former administration official.
A November 7 Slate.com article underscored the special treatment the OSP's intelligence received and the high-level access the group enjoyed:
The information CTEG put together was treated differently than other intelligence. Unlike other reports, CTEG's conclusions about Iraq's training of jihadists in the use of explosives and weapons of mass destruction were never distributed to the many different agencies in the intelligence community.
Dick Cheney was CTEG's patron. He had the group present its material at OVP and the National Security Council. He made frequent public remarks, drawing on CTEG conclusions, alleging an al-Qaida/Saddam connection. (Even after the 9/11 commission delivered its verdict that there was no collaborative relationship between the two sides, Cheney announced that the evidence of the Bin Laden-Baghdad ties was "overwhelming.")
The New Republic further reported that "the OVP's alternative analyses found their way into the administration's public case for war." The foundations for many of these analyses have since been discredited, however. An internal assessment performed by the Defense Intelligence Agency determined in September 2003 that the information provided by the INC defectors "was of little or no value." Moreover, a report compiled by Levin and the Democratic staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee determined that OSP "misrepresented" to Congress the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
From the November 2 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
JEFFREY: I think we have to remember, [host] Wolf [Blitzer], the CIA director at this time was George Tenet, appointed by Bill Clinton. He vouched for all of this intelligence. The intelligence that Dianne Feinstein used when she voted to authorize that war in October of 2002, provided -- a national intelligence estimate, provided by the CIA, directly to the Senate. We know already from the Senate investigation, it was the same information the president and vice president had. It was bad intelligence, but the Senate and the president had the same intelligence, it came from the CIA.
From the November 4 broadcast of PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:
BROOKS: We had a 98-0 vote in the Senate to get rid of Saddam because of the belief that he was a menace to the world. Now what changed? September 11 changed. September 11 said, OK, now -- the change in attitude was we now can't sit back and wait for him to use it. The threshold of tolerance changed. And so we had a big national debate. We were all here for it. A lot of Democrats supported it. Almost every single senior member of the Clinton administration supported the resolution to go to war. A lot of people like Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton voted. It was a big national debate. They all saw the same evidence.
From the November 4 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
KONDRACKE: But it's worth pointing out -- it is worth pointing out that Senator Levin himself, who is a member of -- the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and presumably saw whatever he wanted in terms of intelligence before this last war, said, "Uh-oh, Saddam Hussein may use chemical and biological weapons against our troops." Now, what was that based on, if not his reading of intelligence that said that he had those weapons?
KRAUTHAMMER: The Democrats are acting as if all of this happened in Armenia in 1917 secretly. It happened here two years ago. They looked at all of that intelligence. And that same night, they could hear what the administration was saying about the weapons. It isn't as if all of this was hidden. It was all out in the open, and they were watching it as it happened. I never heard a single Democrat at the time saying, "The statement this afternoon is exaggerated."
From the November 6 broadcast of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:
HUME: Now, I was told at a very high level this week that the White House is now prepared to have this debate about Iraq, that they are armed with all of the things that people like Senator [Charles E.] Schumer [D-NY], as you illustrated earlier on this program, said at the time, many of them with exposure to intelligence information every bit as good as that in the administration.
I mean, you heard about how he said he wasn't as convinced as the president was, but he said it every bit as strongly as the president did. And many others did as well. The list is endless.
HUME: Well, they all looked at the same evidence, those guys on the Hill, many of whom are complaining about this now. And what did they do? They voted to authorize the war.