As former secretary of state Colin L. Powell worked into the night in a New York hotel room, on the eve of his February 2003 presentation to the U.N. Security Council, CIA officers sent urgent e-mails and cables describing grave doubts about a key charge he was going to make.
On the telephone that night, a senior intelligence officer warned then-CIA Director George J. Tenet that he lacked confidence in the principal source of the assertion that Saddam Hussein's scientists were developing deadly agents in mobile laboratories.
"Mr. Tenet replied with words to the effect of 'yeah, yeah' and that he was 'exhausted,' " according to testimony quoted yesterday in the report of President Bush's commission on the intelligence failures leading up to his decision to invade Iraq in March 2003.
Tenet told the commission he did not recall that part of the conversation. He relayed no such concerns to Powell, who made the germ- warfare charge a centerpiece of his presentation the next day.
That was one among many examples - cited over 692 pages in the report - of fruitless dissent on the accuracy of claims against Iraq. Up until the days before US troops entered Iraqi territory that March, the intelligence community was inundated with evidence that undermined virtually all charges it had made against Iraq, the report said.
In scores of additional cases involving the country's alleged nuclear and chemical programs and its delivery systems, the commission described a kind of echo chamber in which plausible hypotheses hardened into firm assertions of fact, eventually becoming immune to evidence.
Leading analysts accepted at face value data supporting the existence of illegal weapons, the commission said, and discounted counter-evidence as skillful Iraqi deception.
The commission's anatomy of failure on Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program is a case in point. It begins in early 2001, as Bush took office, when the CIA got its first report that Iraq was trying to buy black-market aluminum tubes. The agency swiftly concluded, after intercepting a sample in April of that year, that Iraq intended the tubes to be used in centrifuges that would enrich uranium for the core of a nuclear weapon.
The CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC) never budged from that analysis, the report said. In the following 18 months, WINPAC analysts won a fierce bureaucratic battle against dissenters from other agencies who said the tubes - roughly three feet long and three inches in diameter - were the wrong size, shape and material for plausible use in centrifuges.
The tubes became the principal evidence for a "key judgment" in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which said Iraq had "reconstituted" a nuclear weapons program and could build a bomb before the end of the decade.
To support its assertions about the aluminum tubes, the CIA made a series of arguments that the nation's leading centrifuge physicists described repeatedly as technically garbled, improbable or unambiguously false, the report said.
One WINPAC analyst - identified previously in The Washington Post as "Joe," with his surname withheld at the CIA's request - responded by bypassing the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the nation's only major center of expertise on nuclear centrifuge technology. Joe commissioned a contractor to conduct tests of his own design, then rejected the contractor's results when they did not meet his expectations.
Yesterday's report said the CIA also created a panel of experts to rival the Oak Ridge team. Those experts concluded, based on "a stack of documents provided by the CIA," that the tubes were meant for centrifuges.
The CIA refused to convene the government's authoritative forum for resolving technical disputes about nuclear weapons. The Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee proposed twice, in the spring and summer of 2002, to assess all the evidence. The CIA's front office replied, according to yesterday's report, "that CIA was not ready to discuss its position."
The same summer, then-deputy CIA director John E. McLaughlin brought talking points to a meeting of Bush's national security cabinet, asserting that the tubes were "destined for a gas centrifuge program" and that their procurement showed "clear intent to produce weapons-capable fissile material." The next month, the CIA sent policymakers a report calling the tubes "compelling evidence that Iraq has renewed its gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program."
Within weeks of the tubes' interception, the report said, Energy Department experts told the CIA that they matched precisely the materials and dimensions of an Italian-made rocket called the Medusa, a standard NATO munition. They also pointed out that Iraq was building copies of the Medusa and declared a stockpile of identical tubes to U.N. inspectors in 1996.
The CIA asked the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center for an analysis of the tubes but withheld the information about the Medusa and the 1996 discovery. The Army analysts said, among other things, that no known rocket used that particular aluminum alloy - disregarding not only the Medusa but also the US-built Hydra rocket.
"The intercepted tubes were not only well-suited, but were in fact a precise fit, for Iraq's conventional rockets," the commission said yesterday, but "certain agencies were more wedded to the analytical position that the tubes were destined for a nuclear program."
Even the Energy Department did not hold fast to its analysis. Although it dissented on the tubes, it went along with the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in concluding that Iraq had resumed a nuclear weapons program, based on arguments the commission called insubstantial and illogical. One analyst told the commission, "DOE didn't want to come out before the war and say [Iraq] wasn't reconstituting."
Another key piece of evidence came from an Iraqi defector who told the DIA that Iraq had built a secret new nuclear facility. US intelligence could not verify the report, or locate the alleged facility, which did not exist. After the war, the CIA concluded that the defector was "directed" in his claims by the Iraqi National Congress, led by then-exile Ahmed Chalabi. To this day, however, the DIA has not withdrawn the defector's reporting from national databases, the report showed.
Nor has the DIA withdrawn assessments provided by defectors such as "Curveball," whose tales of mobile laboratories in which scientists cooked up biological weapons were pure fabrication, according to the commission.
Concerns over Curveball had been floating around the CIA for more than three years by the time Powell shared his claims with the world. No CIA officer even met Curveball before the war, although on the night before Powell's presentation, a defense intelligence officer wrote an e-mail to colleagues noting that in his meeting with the defector, Curveball appeared "hung over" and unreliable.
"These views were expressed to CIA leadership," the commissioners wrote, including to McLaughlin and his assistant. But they were also watered down as they moved up within the intelligence community, and were never shared with outsiders. "We found no evidence that the doubts were conveyed by CIA leadership to policymakers in general - or Secretary Powell in particular."
In fact, the more Curveball's credibility came into question, the more his allegations were used to bolster the case for war, the report said.
Even after Powell's now-famous presentation in the chamber of the U.N. Security Council, the CIA tried to find out more information about Curveball, whose stories had been relayed to the Pentagon through German intelligence. Five days after Powell's presentation, the CIA sent an e-mail to a senior defense intelligence official seeking more information about the defector.
What followed, in the commission's account, highlights the terrible working relationships within the intelligence community, the lack of interest in getting the truth about Curveball and the ease with which the DIA discarded concerns about the case against Iraq.
The defense intelligence division chief who received the CIA e-mail forwarded it to a subordinate in an e-mail that was inadvertently copied back to the sender. In it, the division chief expressed shock at the CIA's suggestion that Curveball might be unreliable. The "CIA is up to their old tricks" and did not "have a clue" about how the source had been handled, the division chief wrote in excerpts quoted in the commission's report.
Only in March 2004, one year after the invasion of Iraq, did the CIA confront Curveball over his prewar claims.
Dafna Linzer and Barton Gellman
Copyright: Washington Post.