Iraq: What did Congress know, and when?

The President says Democrats in Congress “had access to the same intelligence” he did before the Iraq war, but some Democrats deny it.”That was not true,” says Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. “He withheld some intelligence. . . . The intelligence was corrupted.”

Neither side is giving the whole story in this continuing dispute.

The President’s main point is correct:  the CIA and most other US intelligence agencies believed before the war that Saddam had stocks of biological and chemical weapons, was actively working on nuclear weapons and “probably” would have a nuclear weapon before the end of this decade. That faulty intelligence was shared with Congress – along with multiple mentions of some doubts within the intelligence community – in a formal National Intelligence Estimate just prior to the Senate and House votes to authorize the use of force against Iraq.

No hard evidence has surfaced to support claims that Bush somehow manipulated the findings of intelligence analysts. In fact, two bipartisan investigations probed for such evidence and said they found none. So Dean’s claim that intelligence was “corrupted”  is unsupported.

But while official investigators have found no evidence that Bush manipulated intelligence, they never took up the question of whether the President and his top aides manipulated the public , something Bush also denies.

In fact, before the war Bush and others often downplayed or omitted any mention of doubts about Saddam’s nuclear program. They said Saddam might give chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons to terrorists, although their own intelligence experts said that was unlikely. Bush also repeatedly claimed Iraq had trained al Qaeda terrorists in the use of poison gas, a story doubted at the time by Pentagon intelligence analysts. The claim later was called a lie by the al Qaeda detainee who originally told it to his US interrogators.


The latest round of this continuing partisan dispute started Nov. 11, when Bush said in a Veterans’ Day speech:

Bush: 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. 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.

They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein. They know the United Nations passed more than a dozen resolutions citing his development and possession of weapons of mass destruction. . . .   That’s why 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.

What Was Congress Told?

The intelligence to which Bush refers is contained in a top-secret document that was made available to all members of Congress in October 2002, days before the House and Senate voted to authorize Bush to use force in Iraq. This so-called National Intelligence Estimate was supposed to be the combined US intelligence community’s “most authoritative written judgment concerning a specific national security issue,” according to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The report was titled “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

Though most of the document remains classified, the “Key Judgments” section and some other paragraphs were cleared and released publicly in July, 2003. The most recent and complete version available to the public can be read on the website of George Washington University’s National Security Archive, which got it from the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act.

The NIE as declassified and released by the CIA says pretty much what Bush and his aides were saying publicly about Iraq’s weapons – nearly all of which turned out to be wrong:

CIA Release of NIE, October 2002: We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions. If left unchecked it probably will have a nuclear weapon within this decade.

Chemical Weapons: The CIA document expressed no doubt that Iraq had large stocks of chemical weapons. “We assess that Baghdad has begun renewed production of mustard, sarin, GF (cyclosarin), and VX,” it said. “Saddam probably has stocked at least 100 metric tons (MT) and possibly as much as 500 MT of CW agents – much of it added in the last year.” (“CW” refers to “chemical warfare” agents.)

Biological Weapons: The document also said “we judge” that Iraq had an even bigger germ-warfare program than before the first Gulf War in 1991. “We judge Iraq has some lethal and incapacitating BW agents and is capable of quickly producing and weaponizing a variety of such agents, including anthrax, for delivery by bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers, and covert operatives,” the report said. (“BW” refers to “biological warfare.”)

Nuclear Weapons: The document also said “most” US intelligence agencies believed that some high-strength aluminum tubes that Iraq had purchased were intended for use in centrifuge rotors used to enrich uranium, and were “compelling evidence” that Saddam had put his nuclear weapons program back together.

On the matter of the tubes, however, the report noted that there was some dissent within the intelligence community. Members of Congress could have read on page 6 of the report that the Department of Energy “assesses that the tubes are probably not” part of a nuclear program.

Some news reports have said this caveat was “buried” deeply in the 92-page report, but this is not so. The “Key Judgments” section begins on page 5, and disagreements by the Department of Energy and also the State Department are noted on pages 5,6,8 and 9, in addition to a reference on page 84.

Though much has been made recently of doubts about the tubes, it should be noted that even the Department of Energy’s experts believed Iraq did have an active nuclear program, despite their conclusion that the tubes were not part of it. Even the DOE doubters thought Saddam was working on a nuclear bomb.

Connection to terrorism.

On one important point the National Intelligence Estimate offered little support for Bush’s case for war, however. That was the likelihood that Saddam would give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists for use against the US.

Al Qaeda: The intelligence estimate said that – if attacked and “if sufficiently desperate” – Saddam might turn to al Qaeda to carry out an attack against the US with chemical or biological weapons. “He might decide that the extreme step of assisting the Islamist terrorist in conducting a CBW attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him,” the NIE said.

The report assigned “low confidence” to this finding, however, while assigning “high confidence” to the findings that Iraq had active chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, and “moderate confidence” that Iraq could have a nuclear weapon as early as 2007 to 2009.

That was the intelligence available to Congress when the House passed the Iraq resolution Oct. 10, 2002 by a vote of 296-133. The Senate passed it in the wee hours of Oct. 11, by a vote of  77-23. A total of 81 Democrats in the House and  29 Democrats in the Senate supported the resolution, including some who now are saying Bush misled them.

A point worth noting is that few in Congress actually studied the intelligence before voting. The Washington Post reported: “The lawmakers are partly to blame for their ignorance. Congress was entitled to view the 92-page National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq before the October 2002 vote. But . . . no more than six senators and a handful of House members read beyond the five-page executive summary.”

“Corrupted” Intelligence?

On all key points, of course, that National Intelligence Estimate turned out to be wrong. No stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons have been found, nor any evidence that Saddam had an active program to enrich uranium or make nuclear weapons. The aluminum tubes turned out to be for use in Iraqi rockets, just as the Department of Energy experts had argued.

That has led to claims that intelligence was deliberately slanted to justify the war in Iraq. On NBC’s Meet the Press Nov. 13, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said the intelligence given to Congress was “corrupted” and that Bush withheld information.

Dean:   The intelligence was corrupted, not just because of the incompetence of the CIA; it was corrupted because it was being changed around before it was presented to Congress . Stuff was taken out and not presented. All of this business about weapons of mass destruction, there was significant and substantial evidence . . . that said, “There is a strong body of opinion that says they don’t have a nuclear program, nor do they have weapons of mass destruction.” And that intelligence was not given to the Congress of the United States.

NBC’s Tim Russert: It was in the National Intelligence Estimate, as a caveat by the State Department.

Dean: It was, a very small one, but the actual caveat that the White House got were (sic) much, much greater. And the deputy to Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, just said so. He just came out and said so.

On this point Dean is incorrect . Wilkerson, who was State Department chief of staff during Bush’s first term, actually said there was an “overwhelming” consensus within the intelligence community. He said the State Department dissented only regarding a nuclear program, not about whether Saddam possessed chemical and biological weapons.

Wilkerson, Oct. 19, 2005: And people say, well, INR (the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research) dissented.  That’s a bunch of bull.   INR dissented that the nuclear program was up and running.  That’s all INR dissented on.  They were right there with the chems and the bios.

. . . The consensus of the intelligence community was overwhelming. I can still hear (CIA Director) George Tenet telling me, and telling my boss (Colin Powell) in the bowels of the CIA, that the information we were delivering . . . (He) was convinced that what we were presented was accurate. 

Wilkerson, it should be noted, is no apologist for Bush. This excerpt comes from the same speech in which Wilkerson went public with a well-publicized complaint that decisions leading up to the war were made by a “cabal” between Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and “a President who is not versed in international relations and not too much interested in them either.”

Previously, two bipartisan commissions investigated and found no evidence of political manipulation of intelligence.

In 2004 the Senate Intelligence Committee said, in a report adopted unanimously by both Republican and Democratic members:

Senate Intelligence Committee:   The Committee did not find any evidence that intelligence analysts changed their judgments as a result of political pressure, altered or produced intelligence products to conform with Administration policy, or that anyone even attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to do so. When asked whether analysts were pressured in any way to alter their assessments or make their judgments conform with Administration policies on Iraq’s WMD programs, not a single analyst answered “yes.”  (p273)

A later bipartisan commission, co-chaired by Republican appeals-court judge Laurence Silberman and a Democratic former governor and senator from Virginia, Charles Robb, issued a report in March, 2005 saying:

Silberman-Robb Report: These (intelligence) errors stem from poor tradecraft and poor management. The Commission found no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community’s pre-war assessments of Iraq’s weapons programs. As we discuss in detail in the body of our report, analysts universally asserted that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments. We conclude that it was the paucity of intelligence and poor analytical tradecraft, rather than political pressure, that produced the inaccurate pre-war intelligence assessments.

Although the Silberman-Robb commission was appointed by President Bush, it included prominent Democrats and Republican Sen. John McCain, whom Bush defeated for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

Misleading the Public?

Neither the Senate Intelligence Committee nor the Silberman-Robb commission considered how Bush and his top aides used the intelligence that was given to them, or whether they misled the public. The Senate Intelligence Committee is supposed to take that up in “phase two” of its investigation – and there’s plenty to investigate.

Vice President Cheney, for example, said this on NBC’s Meet the Press barely a month before Congress voted to authorize force:

Cheney, Sept. 8, 2002:  But we do know, with absolute certainty, that he (Saddam) is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.

As we’ve seen, that was wrong. Department of Energy and State Department intelligence analysts did not agree with the Vice President’s claim, which turned out to be false. Cheney may have felt “absolute certainty” in his own mind, but that certainty wasn’t true of the entire intelligence community, as his use of the word “we” implied.

Similarly, the President himself said this in a speech to the nation, just three days before the House vote to authorize force:

Bush, Oct. 7, 2002: We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases . And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein’s regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America.

Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.

That statement is open to challenge on two grounds. For one thing, as we’ve seen, the intelligence community was reporting to Bush and Congress that they thought it unlikely that Saddam would give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists – and only “if sufficiently desperate” and as a “last chance to exact revenge” for the very attack that Bush was then advocating.

Furthermore, the claim that Iraq had trained al Qaeda in the use of poison gas turned out to be false, and some in the intelligence community were expressing doubts about it at the time Bush spoke. It was based on statements by a senior trainer for al Qaeda who had been captured in Afghanistan. The detainee, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, took back his story in 2004 and the CIA withdrew all claims based on it. But even at the time Bush spoke, Pentagon intelligence analysts said it was likely al-Libi was lying.

According to newly declassified documents, the Defense Intelligence Agency said in February 2002 – seven months before Bush’s speech –  “it is . . .  likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers. Ibn al-Shaykh has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest. . . .  Saddam’s regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control.” The DIA’s doubts were revealed Nov. 6 in newly declassified documents made public by Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Whether or not Bush was aware of the Pentagon’s doubts is not yet clear.


Transcript:“President Commemorates Veterans Day, Discusses War on Terror,” Tobyhanna Army Depot, Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania, The White House 11 Nov 2005.

Transcript: “Transcript for November 13: Guests: His Majesty King Abdullah II, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Ken Mehlman, Chairman, Republican National Committee; and Howard Dean, Chairman, Democratic National Committee,” Meet the Press, NBC, 13 November 2005.

Select Committee On Intelligence, United States Senate, ” Report On The U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments On Iraq ,” 7 July 2004.

The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, ” Report to the President of the United States ,” 31 March 2005.
Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus, ”
Asterisks Dot White House’s Iraq Argument,” The Washington Post , 12 Nov 2005; A1.

Central Intelligence Agency, NIE 2002-16HC, ” National Intelligence Estimate : Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” October 2002. Redacted, declassified version released under Freedom of Information Act to George Washington University’s National Security Archive, posted 9 July 2004.

Transcript, Remarks of former State Department chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, New America Foundation, Washington DC, 19 Oct. 2005.

Judd Legum, Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney Amanda Terkel, Payson Schwin & Christy Harvey, ” Bush’s Reverse Slam Dunk,” The Progress Report, American Progress Action Fund 14 Nov 2005.

“Vice President Dick Cheney discusses 9/11 anniversary, Iraq, nation’s economy and politics 2002,” Transcript, Meet the Press, NBC, 8 Sep 2002.

Transcript: “President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat,” Remarks by the President on Iraq, Cincinnati Museum Center – Cincinnati Union Terminal,Cincinnati, Ohio, 7 Oct 2002.

“Levin Says Newly Declassified Information Indicates Bush Administration’s Use of Pre-War Intelligence Was Misleading,” press release with supporting documents, office of Sen. Carl Levin 6 Nov 2005.

Copyright 2005 Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania

Judgments expressed are those of’s staff, not the Annenberg Center