A congressional committee has held the first public hearing into the question of intelligence used by the Bush administration to justify military action in Iraq. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence heard from two former directors of the CIA and other experts.
The first public hearing of either of the two congressional committees examining pre-Iraq war intelligence issues asked key questions of former CIA directors and intelligence officials:
What challenges do intelligence agencies face in obtaining and reporting accurate information? How can the president and other officials make the best decisions about what constitutes an imminent threat? What lessons can be learned from the controversy over information that led to pre-emptive military action in Iraq?
Republican committee chairman Porter Goss described information on alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa as a "tidbit" not critical to intelligence assessments provided to the administration. Mr. Goss says he has no reason to believe long-held intelligence assessments regarding Iraq were wrong, inaccurate, untimely or biased.
Other members of the committee, however, took a different view. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California, says many questions need to be answered.
"The intelligence that was given with such certainty that led to a war with Iraq, that very intelligence today is being called into question by the American people," he said. "If, in fact, it was stated, and it was over and over again, that Iraq posed an imminent threat to our country, where is the imminence of that threat today?"
Both former CIA Directors James Woolsey, and John Deutch, say investigations into pre-war intelligence should not focus on laying blame.
Committee Chairman Goss agreed. "This is not about blame, this is about better protecting the United States of America in the world as it is today, with the type of threats that we have," he said.
However, Mr. Deutch, who served as CIA director under President Clinton, says the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would constitute, what he calls, "an intelligence failure of massive proportions."
"The apparent mis-estimate of the presence and readiness of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is a very serious intelligence mistake," he said. "Because intelligence bearing on a decision to take military action must be reliable and it must be accurate."
Former CIA Director Woolsey says there should be no "hasty conclusions" that intelligence concerning Iraq was false. As for the "imminence" of the threat from Iraq, he says realities of the war on terror may require a different approach.
"If you have a dictatorship like Iraq that had ties, certainly to terrorist groups, I think," he said, "some to al-Qaida, but certainly to abu-Nidal and to others, and WMD programs, even if you don't know where the stocks are, we know they had made chemical and bacteriological weapons and the possibility existed of their giving bacteriological weapons let's say to some terrorist group, to my mind that is the nature of the imminence we have to deal with and worry about in this new post 9-11 world."
Mr. Woolsey predicts U.S. forces will get more cooperation from Iraqis about the possible location of weapons of mass destruction, especially now that Saddam Hussein's two sons no longer pose an intimidating threat. But he says the process will take some time.
A key criticism of congressional investigators is that the Bush administration left out "qualifying" information when it made the case to Congress last year for military action, thus mis-leading Americans about the nature of the threat from Iraq.
John Hamre of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says it is all too easy for intelligence analysts to draw conclusions that they shouldn't have.
"You are always looking for certainty when it is inherently uncertain. You're trying to find out what is real here, what can I rely on? And the further things move away from the analyst, the more the footnotes disappear," he said. "The footnotes that qualify where did we get this information, how good was it, how reliable, did we control the agent or not?"
The hearing was the first and only open public session on the Iraq intelligence question before lawmakers adjourn for their five-week summer recess.
The House intelligence committee promises additional public hearings likely starting in September. It's unclear at this time whether or when current Bush administration officials, such as CIA Director George Tenet, may make appearances.