How Bush Got It Wrong

Report on the US Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq

by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
July 7, 2004, 511 pp., with deletions

No tyrannical father presiding over an intimidated household was ever tiptoed around with greater caution than is the figure of President George W. Bush in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s fat report of its investigation into the scary stories about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction cited by the President as all the justification he needed for going to war in Iraq.

Before the war the CIA expressed “high confidence” that once American soldiers had the run of Iraq they would find stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, mobile laboratories to make more, vigorous programs to buy uranium and develop atomic bombs, and much else confronting the United States with a “gathering threat” or “growing danger”—words used by the President and other high administration officials to summarize the intelligence laid out in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) issued by the CIA on October 1, 2002. Only a week later the dangers described in the NIE convinced Congress to vote for war, and in March 2003 President Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq to remove those dangers once and for all. There would have been no Senate investigation and no report if the weapons had been found—indeed, almost any one of them would have satisfied—but a year of looking has turned up nothing.

It is presidents, not secret intelligence organizations, who decide if and when the United States shall go to war, but that fact was set aside, perhaps only temporarily, by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at the outset of its investigation into the CIA’s embarrassing failure to be right about almost anything when it came to Iraq. It is unlikely that most Americans grasp the magnitude of the failure even now, but plenty of others around the world see it only too plainly. France, Germany, and Russia all resisted the American insistence on war in the Security Council of the United Nations, arguing that UN inspectors should be given additional weeks or months to continue their search for these weapons of mass destruction before war could be justified.

American officials and private citizens alike derided their concerns, ascribing them to naiveté, greed, or hatred of America. France in particular was held up to scorn. In the eighteen months since the invasion no one representing the United States—certainly not the President—has apologized for the administration’s arrogant insistence that it knew best, or even granted that in retrospect the French, the Germans, and the Russians might have had a point. But those who were proved right—Chirac, Schröder, and Putin—have said nothing triumphant or wounding about the weapons that weren’t there, perhaps because they share the Senate Intelligence Committee’s cautious restraint when it comes to the office of the President of the United States. More time for inspections might have allowed passions to cool, but the President was impatient, he was tired of “swatting flies,” as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice later told the 9/11 Commission; and he …

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