WMD verdict: 'Dead wrong'

The damning verdict of America's official report into the reasons for going to war in Iraq
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The Independent US

A bipartisan US commission has delivered adevastating critique of the intelligence assessment of Iraq's pre-war weapons of mass destruction. It also implied that the country's spy agencies know "disturbingly little" about Iran and North Korea.

A bipartisan US commission has delivered adevastating critique of the intelligence assessment of Iraq's pre-war weapons of mass destruction. It also implied that the country's spy agencies know "disturbingly little" about Iran and North Korea.

The intelligence community was "dead wrong" in "almost all of its judgements" about Saddam Hussein's presumed chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes, declared the panel, which was set up by President George Bush in February last year.

It bleakly warned that the United States "simply cannot afford failures of this magnitude" again. And, as he formally took delivery of the 400-page report at the White House, Mr Bush concurred, saying that America's intelligence community - currently scattered across 15 separate agencies - needed "fundamental change". He promised that "concrete actions" would be taken soon.

Like Lord Butler's report in Britain, the nine-member commission, drawn from Republicans and Democrats, exonerates the administration of charges that it directly asked intelligence analysts to change their position or applied "undue influence" upon them. "We found absolutely no instance [of that]", the panel concludes.

But the rest of the document was almost uniformly damning, listing dozens of failings by a host of agencies - first and foremost the CIA, but also including the Defence Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon, and the top-secret National Security Agency which is responsible for electronic eavesdropping around the world.

Most alarming, however, is what the report conveyed about current US knowledge of the suspected nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, which, along with Saddam's Iraq, were described as the "axis of evil" by Mr Bush and which are under pressure from Washington to give up their nuclear ambitions.

"Across the board," the report said, "the intelligence community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programmes of many of the world's most dangerous actors." In some cases, said the report, "it knows less now than it did five or 10 years ago". However, the sections of the report specifically dealing with North Korea and Iran are classified and are not being made public.

This observation will do nothing to reassure the rest of the world that the weaknesses that led to the Iraq débâcle will not be repeated. Such public doubts from so eminent a source can only increase scepticism over assertions from Washington about what is going on in Iran and North Korea.

The commission, which was headed by a retired Republican judge, Laurence Silberman, and a former Democratic Senator, Charles Robb, set out 74 specific recommendations, which would change many of the ways that the CIA has operated since it was created in 1947.

Most importantly, it advocated broader powers for John Negroponte, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and currently Washington's envoy in Baghdad, who is Mr Bush's nominee to be the first director of national intelligence, with authority over the entire US espionage apparatus.

The suggested changes included bringing the FBI's counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations into a single office directly under the aegis of the DNI. It also called for a new and lean National Counter-Proliferation Centre, which would constantly monitor countries suspected of seeking nuclear and other unconventional weapons.

Among other improvements, the report recommended that confused lines of authority over information sharing created by last year's Intelligence Reform Act, setting up the DNI, should be resolved.

It wants Mr Negroponte to be given control of the country's $35bn (£18.5bn) intelligence budget, to avoid turf battles between the DNI and the Pentagon in particular.

There should be a single individual under the DNI chief who is in charge of "information sharing" and "information security". This would help "break down cultural and policy barriers," the report says. It also urges creation of a Human Intelligence Directorate within the CIA, to improve the gathering of human intelligence - an area where the US has been weak in the cases of Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

The CIA and other agencies have said that internal reforms are already under way. But the commission is unconvinced: "The flaws we found in the intelligence community's Iraq performance are still all too common." It urged Mr Negroponte to "hold accountable" the organisations that contributed to the Iraq fiasco.

The report also dwelled at length on the need for greater attention to conflicting views among intelligence analysts, instead of the system which prevailed in the Iraq débâcle, whereby inconvenient or nuanced pieces of information were eliminated from an assessment as it made its way up the bureaucratic ladder.

Republicans greeted the report last night as the last word on a controversy which has been the biggest embarrassment of the Bush presidency thus far. But Democrats insisted that the White House should not escape unscathed. Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, said: "Senior policymakers should be held accountable for their actions as well."