WASHINGTON – Current, reliable information on Iraq's weapons efforts was sometimes lacking but U.S. intelligence analysts did not exaggerate their findings under pressure from Bush administration officials trying to build a case for war, says Richard Kerr, who is heading the intelligence community's internal review of its prewar performance on Iraq.
The analysts cataloged some uncertainties about the data in intelligence reports but still generally concluded Iraq had active weapons of mass destruction (search) programs, Kerr, a retired senior analyst and former deputy director of central intelligence, said in an Associated Press interview.
Some Democrats in Congress say those doubts never were made public. In the two months since the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (search), U.S. and British forces have not validated many of their prewar claims, including those that said Iraq had chemical and biological weapons stockpiles.
Critics have accused the administration of exaggerating or mishandling intelligence to convince Americans and the world that it was necessary to invade Iraq.
Kerr is leading a team of three other retired intelligence officers in a review of the performance of the CIA and other agencies. They have submitted an initial report to CIA Director George Tenet (search), who has vigorously defended the agency's efforts on Iraq.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the contents of Kerr's report. The official said it was part of a self-evaluation of the intelligence community's prewar performance that was proposed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in October 2002.
In discussing the report, Kerr primarily described his finding that the integrity of the intelligence process was maintained. Efforts to gauge the accuracy many of agencies' prewar predictions will have to wait until a more thorough search of Iraq is completed, he said.
The foundation of the U.S. information on Iraq's weapons programs was discoveries after the 1991 Gulf War, Kerr said. But after U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998, much of the information dried up, leaving the U.S. government to discover what it could from satellite images, intercepted communications and spies and refugees.
Solid information was sometimes lacking from those sources. However, what the intelligence agencies did learn seemed to confirm their conclusions that Iraq indeed had active programs to make chemical and biological weapons and to develop nuclear weapons, said Kerr.
"There was, in some areas, a dearth of hard, detailed intelligence," he said. "That presents a real problem for intelligence analysts."
Still, he said, "it would have been very hard for an intelligence analyst to determine that there were no weapons of mass destruction programs. There was a lot of information over time."
In the run-up to the war, intelligence analysts faced intense pressure from Bush administration officials seeking information to prove Iraq was a threat, Kerr said.
"While there was an awful lot of pressure to try to support various positions, that's always the case," he said. "People are going to prod the intelligence community to try to make them more precise but also to convince them they're right."
But a review of the prewar findings shows the analysts didn't change their position, Kerr said.
"They were pretty consistent over a considerable period of time," he said.
Kerr predicted that more evidence of weapons programs would yet be found in Iraq but acknowledged the search might be fruitless. "It's a set of judgments," he said. "It may be wrong. It may not be completely accurate."
Congressional intelligence oversight committees are conducting preliminary inquiries.
Critics have raised a variety of questions: Was bad information collected and wrongly believed? Were the analysts wrong or inappropriately influenced? Did the Bush administration not accurately reflect the real intelligence in its statements to the public and United Nations?
Prewar intelligence reports also note uncertainties and acknowledge gaps in U.S. knowledge, Kerr said.
But many of those uncertainties, qualifications and caveats never reached the public, congressional Democrats say. Statements by Bush administration officials rarely expressed doubts about Iraq's weapons programs.
"When discussing Iraq's WMD, administration officials rarely included the caveats and qualifiers attached to the intelligence community's judgments," said Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, during a House debate last week. "For many Americans, the administration's certainty gave the impression that there was even stronger intelligence about Iraq's possession of and intention to use WMD."
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said some uncertainties about Iraq's alleged weapons programs were glossed over in the run-up to the war.
"These are our best judgments," he said. "The public sometimes receives them as gospel, when in fact they're our best judgments. Our intelligence is good, but it's not infallible."
In recent weeks, the Defense Intelligence Agency (search), the CIA's counterpart at the Pentagon, declassified part of a prewar report on Iraq's weapons. Its language suggests some uncertainties that Bush administration officials ignored in public statements.
"Although we lack any direct information, Iraq probably possesses CW agent in chemical munitions, possibly including artillery rockets, artillery shells, aerial bombs and ballistic missile warheads," the report says.