Led by Roberts, conservatives continued to falsely claim government reports found that Bush administration didn't manipulate intelligence

In recent days, conservative pundits have repeated the false claim -- now advanced by Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) -- that government investigations have already cleared the Bush administration of “manipulat[ing]” intelligence in 2002 and 2003 as it made the case for the war in Iraq. In fact, while several reports found that analysts felt no “pressure” from senior policy-makers in reaching their intelligence assessments -- a conclusion that has since been challenged by several senior intelligence officials -- no government entity has thus far investigated and reported on whether Bush administration officials manipulated that intelligence once they received it.

Appearing on the November 6 broadcast of CBS' Face the Nation, Roberts, in a discussion with host Bob Schieffer of how policy-makers used intelligence in the buildup to the invasion, claimed that for the "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq," which the Senate Intelligence Committee released in 2004, “we interviewed over 250 analysts, and we specifically asked them, 'Was there any political manipulation or pressure?' Answer, 'No.' ” Roberts then claimed that the March report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (i.e. the Robb-Silberman Commission) and the Butler report on British intelligence came to the “same conclusion.” Whether Roberts was referring to the Bush administration's “manipulation” in the use of intelligence, as The New York Times interpreted his statement, or as part of the alleged “pressure” on analysts is unclear. If Roberts meant the former, his assertion is simply false -- none of the investigations addressed the issue of the administration's use or misuse of intelligence. If instead Roberts meant “manipulation” as interchangeable with “pressure” on analysts, his assertion is irrelevant to the issue on which Senate Democrats have demanded an investigation, and therefore it is highly misleading. At no point did Schieffer note that Roberts was either misrepresenting, or simply avoiding, the issue in question, which Roberts has alternately pledged to investigate, denied pledging to investigate, and dismissed as irresolvable: whether the administration manipulated, fabricated, or otherwise misused intelligence in making its case for war. The New York Times reported Roberts's remarks uncritically on November 7:

With Democrats stepping up their attacks over prewar intelligence on Iraq, the Republican leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee said on Sunday that the panel's initial work had found no evidence of “political manipulation or pressure” in the use of such intelligence.

Other Republican senators made similar, false statements. Also on Face the Nation, Schieffer did not correct Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who falsely claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee's report “showed that there was no politics being played with this matter.” Hatch added, "[T]here was no indication whatsoever in that 500-page report, unanimously approved, that there was any notice or knowledge that was improper." On the November 6 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert did not correct Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who falsely asserted that the issue of the use of prewar intelligence "[has] been looked at by three or four commissions." Coburn continued, “The question is, 'Did somebody try to manipulate the intelligence to make a justification?' That's the question that we want to -- and I don't think that anybody's seen that, and where it's been looked at.”

Conservative media figures have also made the false claim that the investigations exonerated the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence, when, in fact, the reports stated only that investigators had not found that the administration exerted pressure on intelligence analysts to produce particular results. For example, on the November 4 broadcast of PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, New York Times columnist David Brooks falsely claimed: "[T]here was a Senate intelligence report, a Butler report. There were all of these reports. None of them found manipulation of intelligence." In the November 14 edition of U.S. News & World Report, editor-in-chief Mortimer B. Zuckerman cited the Senate Intelligence report and the Robb-Silberman report to falsely claim that “the consensus view of those who investigated the question of whether the Bush administration lied about intelligence or distorted it, or pressured our intelligence agencies to support a commitment to invade Iraq, is unanimous in rejecting these assertions.” In the November 14 edition of The Weekly Standard, editor William Kristol joined Roberts in blurring the line between “political manufacture,” or pressure, and “manipulation,” claiming that "[T]he bipartisan Silberman-Robb commission found no evidence of political manufacture and manipulation of intelligence" in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Despite the many Republicans and conservatives who have pushed it, the assertion that three government reports have exonerated the Bush administration of mishandling intelligence is false. The yet-to-be-completed “phase two” of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on pre-war Iraq intelligence would mark the first assessment of whether proponents of the war exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime, as Media Matters for America has noted.

The first phase of the Senate Intelligence report determined that intelligence assessments were not tainted by “pressure” that analysts received from policy-makers, but the committee postponed until after the 2004 presidential election analysis of whether the Bush administration misused that intelligence, pledging to include it in the second phase of the report. The Robb-Silberman report similarly excluded examination of the use of intelligence, noting: "[W]e were not authorized to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence assessments they received from the Intelligence Community." Finally, the Butler report focused on whether intelligence was “distort[ed]” in assessments by the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), not in statements by the Bush administration. The Butler report did conclude that President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address claim that Iraq had “sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” was “well-founded,” an assessment that was contradicted in July 2003 by then-CIA director George J. Tenet . But the Butler report produced no new evidence in support of this conclusion and instead relied upon anonymous “intelligence assessments at the time.”

Even the conclusion reached in the first phase of the Senate Intelligence report and in the Robb-Silberman report -- that analysts received no “pressure” in gathering intelligence -- has been disputed by several senior intelligence officials. As The American Prospect documented in its November 23 edition, W. Patrick Lang, the former chief of the Middle East office of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), cast doubt on the conclusion that intelligence analysts felt no pressure. The Prospect quoted Lang: “The senior guys [Senate investigators] got together and said, 'You guys weren't pressured, right? Right?' ” The Prospect also noted that according to Richard Kerr, a one-time acting CIA director who “led an internal investigation of the agency's failure to correctly analyze Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities,” intelligence analysts “were pressured, and heavily so.”

As Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), and Carl Levin (D-MI) noted in the “additional views” portion of phase one of the Senate Intelligence report, the CIA's independent review, led by Kerr, found that "[r]equests for reporting and analysis of [Iraq's links to al Qaeda] were steady and heavy in the period leading up to the war, creating significant pressure on the Intelligence Community to find evidence that supported a connection." Rockefeller, Durbin, and Levin noted that Kerr's findings were confirmed in a second independent investigation, by the CIA ombudsman, who found that the “hammering” by the Bush administration on Iraq intelligence was unusual and that Tenet “confirmed that some agency officials raised with him personally the matter of repetitive tasking and the pressure it created during this time period.”