Debunking Prewar Intelligence Falsehoods

In recent days, conservatives have pushed two principal falsehoods -- echoed by President Bush in a November 11 speech and uncritically reported in mainstream news reports -- to rebut Democratic criticism that the White House manipulated intelligence to build the case for war in Iraq.

First, conservatives have claimed that the White House's Democratic critics saw the same intelligence as the Bush administration and similarly concluded that Iraq was a significant threat. Second, the administration's defenders have conflated two issues: whether the administration pressured intelligence analysts to produce intelligence supporting its case for war, and whether the administration manipulated or cherry-picked the intelligence it received.

By conflating the two questions in news reports, the media have advanced the Bush administration's line that several government inquiries have already cleared the administration of both pressuring intelligence agencies and manipulating intelligence. In fact, Media Matters for America has debunked each of these claims, documenting that:

  1. The White House had access to intelligence that was unavailable to Congress and began making claims about the Iraqi threat months before Congress received any substantial intelligence analysis; and;
  2. 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.

Falsehood #1: White House, congressional Dems saw "same intelligence"

When Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) forced the Senate into closed session November 2 and demanded a pledge that the Senate Intelligence Committee complete its investigation into whether the Bush administration manipulated intelligence in the run-up to the war, numerous White House officials and conservative media figures responded that both the White House and Congress possessed the same flawed reports and came to the same incorrect conclusions, as Media Matters has documented.

Since President Bush echoed the claim in a November 11 speech by asserting that "more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate -- who had access to the same intelligence -- voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power," it has been increasingly reported -- without correction -- in mainstream news reports.

For example, on the November 11 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight, correspondent Jake Tapper uncritically reported that "the president charged critics with hypocrisy, saying many Democrats also believed the same intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein had a dangerous arsenal." Similarly, in a November 12 article, New York Times reporter Richard W. Stevenson also uncritically reported Bush's assertion that "the resolution authorizing the use of force [against Iraq] had been supported by more than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate based on the same information available to the White House."

But while Bush accused his critics in the speech of "rewrit[ing] the history of how that war began," it is those who are pushing the "same intelligence" argument who are engaging in revisionism. As Media Matters documented, the White House had access to intelligence assessments such as the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) that Congress never was able to review, and the administration failed to provide lawmakers with certain dissenting views within the intelligence community. The administration also received information directly from two alternative intelligence sources that were doubted by the Intelligence Community at the time and have since been discredited: The Office of Special Plans and Iraqi National Congress.

Even among the intelligence that Congress did ultimately receive, most lawmakers did not see a full assessment of the Iraqi threat prior to the delivery of the National Intelligence Estimate, the classified October 2002 document summarizing the intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs, whereas the Bush administration began making definitive claims about the Iraqi threat months earlier. Democrats have alleged that the administration's early public pronouncements may have contributed to the intelligence community's faulty judgments on Iraq, 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 intelligence reports on Iraq. Moreover, the White House's failure to declassify the caveats and dissenting views in the NIE limited [anchor at "While the NIE ..."] lawmakers' ability to speak publicly about discrepancies between the administration's statements and the underlying intelligence.

Falsehood #2: Pressuring intelligence analysts equals manipulating intelligence

The second falsehood pushed by conservatives to absolve the Bush administration of charges that it misled the country into war, also identified by Media Matters, has been to deceptively conflate manipulating or misusing intelligence with "pressuring" intelligence analysts. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) appeared to do just that on the November 6 broadcast of CBS' Face the Nation, claiming that phase one of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, as well as 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" that there was no "political manipulation or pressure" by the Bush administration. Bush appeared to follow suit in his November 11 speech:
Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs.
This falsehood has also gone uncorrected in many news reports since Bush adopted it. For example, while noting that some of the administration's prewar claims have been proven to be "overstated or wrong," the Times' Stevenson wrote that "[t]wo official inquiries" -- phase one of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation and the Robb-Silbermann report -- "stopped short of ascribing the problems to political pressures," and then directly quoted Bush's statement that conflated pressuring intelligence analysts with manipulating intelligence.

In fact, 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 misused intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime. As Media Matters has documented, the first phase of the Senate Intelligence report concluded 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 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, including W. Patrick Lang, the former chief of the Middle East office of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and Richard Kerr, a onetime acting CIA director who led an internal investigation of the CIA's failure to correctly assess Iraq's WMD capabilities.

Several media outlets identified Bush's false intel talking points

While many media outlets uncritically reported Bush's false statements, a front-page article on November 12, the Washington Post documented that neither of Bush's arguments was "wholly accurate":
Bush and his aides had access to much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the administration to provide the material. And the commissions cited by officials, though concluding that the administration did not pressure intelligence analysts to change their conclusions, were not authorized to determine whether the administration exaggerated or distorted those conclusions.
On the November 11 broadcast of the CBS Evening News, White House correspondent John Roberts also addressed the difference between inquiries absolving the administration of pressuring intelligence analysts and of manipulating intelligence:
ROBERTS: [A]n investigation found "no evidence of political pressure to influence the intelligence community's prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons programs." But investigators were not allowed to look into how the White House used the intelligence.
Later on the Evening News, correspondent David Martin referenced the recent revelation that the White House did not seek out -- or even ignored -- a 2002 report by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that seriously questioned the reliability of a captured senior Al Qaeda operative at the time that the administration was relying on the detainee to allege a connection between the terrorist organization and Saddam Hussein's regime. After noting that the CIA disputed Bush's claim that "you can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam," Martin concluded:
MARTIN: The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded "there was little useful intelligence collected that helped determine Iraq's possible links to Al Qaeda," but you would never know that from listening to the president and his aides.
From the November 11 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:
TAPPER: Speaking at an army depot near Scranton, Pennsylvania, the president charged critics with hypocrisy, saying many Democrats also believed the same intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein had a dangerous arsenal.
BUSH [video clip]: While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.
TAPPER: It is true that at the time even some anti-war Democrats thought Iraq was a serious threat.
[begin video clip]
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (ABC host): According to Iraq, they have no weapons of mass destruction. Do you believe them?
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Saddam Hussein certainly has chemical and biological weapons. There's no question about that.
[end video clip]
TAPPER: But Democrats say Bush misrepresented the urgency of the threat.
PELOSI [video clip]: It never, ever, ever said that there was an imminent threat to the United States. And I guess because he knows he is wrong, he has got to flail out and attack others.
From the November 12 New York Times article titled "Bush Contends Partisan Critics Hurt War Effort":
In his speech, Mr. Bush asserted that Democrats as well as Republicans believed before the invasion in 2003 that Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons, a conclusion, he said, that was shared by the United Nations. He resisted any implication that his administration had deliberately distorted the available intelligence, and said that the resolution authorizing the use of force had been supported by more than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate based on the same information available to the White House.
Before the war, the administration portrayed Iraq as armed with weapons that made it a threat to the Middle East and the United States. No biological or chemical weapons were found in Iraq after the American attack, and Mr. Hussein's nuclear program appears to have been rudimentary and all but dormant.
Mr. Bush has acknowledged failures in prewar intelligence but has maintained that toppling Mr. Hussein was still justified on other grounds, including liberating Iraqis from his rule.
Two official inquiries -- by the Senate Intelligence Committee and by a presidential commission -- blamed intelligence agencies for inflating the threat posed by Iraq's weapons programs, but stopped short of ascribing the problems to political pressures.
But the Senate review described repeated, unsuccessful efforts by the White House and its allies in the Pentagon to persuade the Central Intelligence Agency to embrace the view that Iraq had provided support to Al Qaeda. According to former administration officials, in early 2003, George J. Tenet, then the director of Central Intelligence, and Colin L. Powell, then the Secretary of State, rejected elements of a speech drafted by aides to Vice President Dick Cheney that was intended to present the administration's case for war, calling them exaggerated and unsubstantiated by intelligence.
And some assertions by administration officials, like Mr. Cheney's statement in 2002 that Mr. Hussein could acquire nuclear weapons "fairly soon" and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's statement the same year that Iraq "has chemical and biological weapons," have been proven overstated or wrong.
In defending his administration against the new round of Democratic criticism, Mr. Bush said Friday, "While it is perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began."
"Some Democrats and antiwar critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war," he said. "These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs."

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