WASHINGTON - Claims by U.S. President George W. Bush and other top administration officials before the 2003 invasion of Iraq regarding Baghdad's ties to al Qaeda and its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes were generally not supported by the evidence that the U.S. intelligence community had at the time, according to a major new report by the Senate Intelligence Committee released Thursday.
The long-awaited report, the last in a series published over the past several years by the committee, found that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, in particular, frequently made assertions in the run-up to the war that key intelligence agencies could not substantiate or about which there was substantial disagreement within the intelligence community.
"In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent," the Committee chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, said on releasing the 172-page report. "As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed."
"There is no question we all relied on flawed intelligence," he added. "But, there is a fundamental difference between relying on incorrect intelligence and deliberately painting a picture to the American people that you know is not fully accurate."
The Committee also released a second report Thursday on a series of initially secret meetings in Rome and Paris between neo-conservative Pentagon officials and alleged Iranian dissidents, including a notorious Iranian arms dealer, Manucher Ghobanifar who played a key role in the so-called Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s.
The report found that the meetings, which also included another Iran-Contra player, Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), were authorised by then-Deputy National Security Advisor (currently National Security Adviser) Stephen Hadley and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz who, it concluded, failed to keep relevant intelligence agencies and the State Department informed.
"The report found that the clandestine meetings...were inappropriate and mishandled from beginning to end" and that "senior Defence Department officials cut short internal investigations of the meetings..." after they became known, a press release issued by the committee stated.
Both reports were signed by 10 members of the Committee, including two Republicans, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Chuck Hagel. Five members -- all Republicans -- issued a strong dissent, arguing that the minority had been "entirely cut out of the process" and charging that the Democrats had "twisted policy makers' statements and cherry-picked the intelligence in order to reach their misleading conclusions." The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, called the report "political theatre".
The timing of the report's release, as well as its conclusions, however, is likely to fuel the ongoing political debate over the Iraq war at a critical moment in the presidential election campaign. This is particularly so with this week's securing of the Democratic nomination by Sen. Barack Obama, whose outspoken opposition to invading Iraq before the war is seen as a major reason for his victory over Sen. Hillary Clinton, who voted in favour of the Congressional authorisation to go to war in the fall of 2002.
Obama now faces Republican Sen. John McCain, who, as honourary chairman of the Committee to Liberate Iraq in the run-up to the invasion, not only endorsed the claims that were being made by Bush and Cheney at the time, but also helped to propagate them.
The new reports also tend to bolster the charges made in a new book by former White House spokesman Scott McClellan, a long-time Bush aide who was considered part of the president's inner circle during the same period.
"Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would almost certainly not support a war launched primarily for the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East," according to McClellan's memoir, 'What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception'.
"Over that summer of 2002, top Bush aides had outlined a strategy for carefully orchestrating the coming campaign to aggressively sell the war" in part through "innuendo and implication" and "intentional ignoring of intelligence" that contradicted or cast doubt on their justifications for going to war, McClellan wrote.
The book, which skyrocketed to the top of the best-seller list even before it was officially released, has drawn considerable media attention over the last two weeks.
The two new reports are the last to be issued by the Committee on the use of intelligence by the administration before the war. Last year, the same Committee issued a report on the administration's failure to heed warnings by the intelligence community, including two major reports by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), that an invasion of Iraq and its subsequent occupation would likely benefit al Qaeda, boost political Islam throughout the region, and give rise to possibly violent conflict between various sectarian and ethnic groups within Iraq -- all conclusions that were downplayed or ignored by senior administration officials at the time.
The latest report was focused on comparing statements made by top administration officials, particularly Bush and Cheney, between August 2002 and the actual invasion in March 2003 with intelligence reports that were available to them at the time.
It found that the White House consistently exaggerated ties between al Qaeda and Iraq by repeatedly suggesting or outright asserting that the two forged an operational relationship that included the provision of weapons training and possibly WMD expertise. The report found that these allegations "were not substantiated by the intelligence" at the time they were made.
The report also found that the intelligence also contradicted the White House's assertions that Saddam Hussein "was prepared to give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups for attack against the United States."
And it said that the intelligence community never confirmed the allegation, made repeatedly by Cheney in particular, that one of the 9/11 organisers, Mohammed Atta, met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Prague several months before the attack.
"The president and his advisors undertook a relentless public campaign in the aftermath of the (9/11) attacks to use the war against al Qaeda as a justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein," Rockefeller said. "Representing to the American people that the two had an operational partnership and posed a single, indistinguishable threat was fundamentally misleading and led the nation to war on false premises."
The intelligence community, according to the report, was also considerably more sceptical about the state of Iraq's chemical weapons programme and especially its alleged nuclear weapons programme than was indicated by top administration officials at the time. Testimony by then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the Iraqi government hid WMD in facilities buried deep underground did not reflect any of the intelligence held by the intelligence community at the time.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.
© 2008 Inter Press Service