The Robb-Silverman Commission report to the president on WMD intelligence is more than 600 pages long and too rich to digest quickly. However, the New York Sun’s Eli Lake has picked up a few points of current interest: “Libya may be hiding germs, chemicals, report warns.” The report’s key conclusion regarding Iraq is this: “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.” Apart from the headlined item, this point related to the underlying intelligence failure is of special interest:
In one area, the report partially exonerates the Iraqi National Congress, a frequent target of war critics who said that the organization’s intelligence was foisted upon the CIA – leading to the inaccurate assessment of Iraq’s weapons programs.
The report also clears the Iraqi National Congress of charges leveled in the press that a defector code named “Curveball” was put up by the organization to influence America’s assessment that Iraq had mobile biological weapons labs. “The CIA’s post-war investigations were unable to uncover any evidence that the INC or any other organization was directing Curveball to feed misleading information to the Intelligence Community,” the report states. “Instead, the post-war investigations concluded that Curveball’s reporting was not influenced by, controlled by, or connected to, the INC.”
In a statement yesterday, INC leader Ahmad Chalabi said, “We welcome this report as a vindication of the INC. We have consistently stated that the INC played a very small role in U.S. intelligence reporting on Saddam’s WMDs and the report proves that.”
The Wall Street Journal expands on this point in an editorial (subscribers only) titled “A media intelligence failure”:
We’ll need time to dig through the details in the 600-plus-page Robb-Silberman report on intelligence that was released yesterday. But one important conclusion worth noting, even on a quick reading, is that the report blows apart the myth that intelligence provided by Iraqi politician and former exile Ahmed Chalabi suckered the U.S. into going to war.
That myth was a media and antiwar favorite last year, before the U.S. and Iraq elections, and when all of Washington thought President Bush was a one-termer. CIA and State Department sources peddled the idea that an Iraqi defector code-named “Curveball” had planted bad information about Saddam’s WMD. “Curveball” was widely broadcast as an agent of Mr. Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, with the not-so-subtle implication that his intelligence was used by the Pentagon to deceive Mr. Bush into going to war.
The promoters of some version of this theory included Senator Ted Kennedy and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as such prominent journalists as NBC’s Tim Russert, reporters at the Los Angeles Times, Joe Klein of Time, and Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball of Newsweek. “The ideologues at the Defense Department were warned by doubters at the State Department and CIA that Chalabi was peddling suspect goods,” declared Newsweek. “Even so, the Bushies were bamboozled by a Machiavellian con man for the ages.”
Yesterday’s bipartisan report shows that these writers were “bamboozled” by their own U.S. sources. “Post-war investigations concluded that Curveball’s reporting was not influenced by, controlled by, or connected to, the INC,” says the Robb-Silberman report. (INC refers to the Iraqi National Congress.) And: “Over all, CIA’s post-war investigations revealed that INC-related sources had a minimal impact on pre-war assessments.”
The report’s larger conclusion is that the CIA’s intelligence on Iraq was faulty almost from start-to-finish, never mind “Curveball.” The attempt to finger Mr. Chalabi and “the ideologues” in the Pentagon was an exercise in blame-shifting to deflect attention from that enormous failure. It was also intended to tarnish Mr. Bush as he attempted to win re-election while also trying to defeat an insurgency that the CIA had never predicted.
Mr. Chalabi’s vindication comes as he is playing a prominent role in negotiations to form a new Iraqi government. As for the media, we await their reports into how their own trusted, if usually anonymous, sources could have given them so much bad intelligence.