White House Gets a Pass

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 31, 2005; 12:22 PM

The commission that President Bush appointed to determine how intelligence on Iraqi WMDs could have gone so wrong is spreading blame just about everywhere but the White House.

Here, from the full text of the unclassified version of the report released this morning, is Conclusion 26: "The Intelligence Community did not make or change any analytic judgments in response to political pressure to reach a particular conclusion, but the pervasive conventional wisdom that Saddam retained WMD affected the analytic process."

The commission acknowledges this: "Many observers of the Intelligence Community have expressed concern that Intelligence Community judgments concerning Iraq's purported WMD programs may have been warped by inappropriate political pressure."

A footnote helpfully sources some of those concerns, and I have hyperlinked it for your reading pleasure: "Senator Carl Levin, 'Buildup to War on Iraq,' Congressional Record (July 15, 2003) at pp. S9358-S9360; Walter Pincus and Dana Priest, 'Some Iraq Analysts Felt Pressure from Cheney Visits,' Washington Post (June 5, 2003) at p. A1; Nicholas D. Kristof, 'White House in Denial,' New York Times (June 13, 2003) at p. A33; Jay Taylor, 'When Intelligence Reports Become Political Tools . . . ' Washington Post (June 29, 2003) at p. B2; Douglas Jehl, 'After the War: Weapons Intelligence; Iraq Arms Critic Reacts to Report on Wife,' New York Times (Aug. 8, 2003) at p. A8; Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus, 'As Rationales for War Erode, Issue of Blame Looms Large,' Washington Post (July 10, 2004) at p. A1; Glenn Kessler, 'Analyst Questioned Sources' Reliability; Warning Came Before Powell Report to UN,' Washington Post (July 10, 2004) at p. A9; T. Christian Miller and Maura Reynolds, 'Question of Pressure Splits Panel,' Los Angeles Times (July 10, 2004) at p. A1; James Risen and Douglas Jehl, 'Expert Said to Tell Legislators He Was Pressed to Distort Some Evidence,' New York Times (June 25, 2003) at p. A11; Robert Schlesinger, 'Bush Aides Discredit Analysts' Doubts on Trailers,' The Boston Globe (June 27, 2003) at p. A25; Seymour M. Hersh, 'The Stovepipe,' The New Yorker (Oct. 27, 2003) at p. 77."

The commission concludes otherwise: "According to some analysts, senior decisionmakers continually probed to assess the strength of the Intelligence Community's analysis, but did not press for changes in the Intelligence Community's analytical judgments. We conclude that good-faith efforts by intelligence consumers to understand the bases for analytic judgments, far from constituting 'politicization,' are entirely legitimate. This is the case even if policymakers raise questions because they do not like the conclusions or are seeking evidence to support policy preferences. Those who must use intelligence are entitled to insist that they be fully informed as to both the evidence and the analysis. . . .

"Furthermore, all of the Iraqi WMD analysts interviewed by the Commission staff stated that they reached their conclusions about Iraq's pursuit of WMD independently of policymaker pressure, based on the evidence at hand. In fact, given the body of evidence available, many analysts have said that they could not see how they could have reached any other conclusions about Iraq's WMD programs."

The report concludes that while "there is no doubt that analysts operated in an environment shaped by intense policymaker interest in Iraq," the blame lies in the distorting power of the "conventional wisdom" that Iraq retained his stockpiles and programs.

"Some analysts were affected by this 'conventional wisdom' and the sense that challenges to it -- or even refusals to find its confirmation -- would not be welcome."

The closest the report comes to suggesting that analysts were affected by what their bosses were planning would appear to be this: "The general assumption that Saddam retained WMD and the backdrop of impending war, particularly in the wake of September 11, affected the way analysts approached their task of predicting the threat posed by Iraq's WMD programs. For example, this atmosphere contributed to analysts' use of a worst-case-scenario or heightened-burden-of-proof approach to analysis. This overall climate, we believe, contributed to the too-ready willingness to accept dubious information as supporting the conventional wisdom and to an unwillingness even to consider the possibility that the conventional wisdom was wrong.

"But while some of the poor analytical tradecraft in the pre-war assessments was influenced by this climate of impending war, we have found no evidence to dispute that it was, as the analysts assert, their own independent judgments -- flawed though they were -- that led them to the conclusion that Iraq had active WMD programs."

What About the Other Charge?

Well, what about the charge that in the run-up to war in Iraq, Bush and Cheney and others gravely mischaracterized and overstated the intelligence they were given? (See, for instance, the House Democrats Web site, Iraq on the Record.)

Not our purview, says the commission. Here's Footnote 830: "Our review has been limited by our charter to the question of alleged policymaker pressure on the Intelligence Community to shape its conclusions to conform to the policy preferences of the Administration. There is a separate issue of how policymakers used the intelligence they were given and how they reflected it in their presentations to Congress and the public. That issue is not within our charter and we therefore did not consider it nor do we express a view on it."

Word Count

I could spend all day on this, but here's a few interesting word counts from the 600-page report:

Iraq: 1,852

CIA: 1,567

Curveball: 355

White House: 8 (mostly in footnotes)

Cheney: 2

Karl Rove: 0

More About the Report

You can use this link to see all the very latest stories from The Post and the wires.

Here, from the letter of transmittal, are some of the highlights: "We conclude that the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure. Its principal causes were the Intelligence Community's inability to collect good information about Iraq's WMD programs, serious errors in analyzing what information it could gather, and a failure to make clear just how much of its analysis was based on assumptions, rather than good evidence. On a matter of this importance, we simply cannot afford failures of this magnitude.

"After a thorough review, the Commission found no indication that the Intelligence Community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. What the intelligence professionals told you about Saddam Hussein's programs was what they believed. They were simply wrong."

One recommendation that could directly affect Bush's routine is this:

"Rethink the President's Daily Brief

"The daily intelligence briefings given to you before the Iraq war were flawed. Through attention-grabbing headlines and repetition of questionable data, these briefings overstated the case that Iraq was rebuilding its WMD programs. There are many other aspects of the daily brief that deserve to be reconsidered as well, but we are reluctant to make categorical recommendations on a process that in the end must meet your needs, not our theories. On one point, however, we want to be specific: while the DNI [Director of National Intelligence] must be ultimately responsible for the content of your daily briefing, we do not believe that the DNI ought to prepare, deliver, or even attend every briefing. For if the DNI is consumed by current intelligence, the long-term needs of the Intelligence Community will suffer."

Walter Pincus had a reaction story this morning in The Washington Post -- even before the report was issued.

"Some of the recommendations to be officially presented today by President Bush's commission on intelligence were already drawing criticism yesterday inside and outside the intelligence community."

For instance, there is a concern "that giving the DNI, whose prime concern is foreign intelligence, a role in domestic counterterrorism operations could create civil liberties issues."

Furthermore: "Several current and former intelligence officials, who had access to part or all of the report, praised many of its findings and recommendations but said the panel at times ignored changes instituted since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They also criticized the commission for failing to take into consideration complexities of the intelligence business."

Adam Entous notes for Reuters: "Democrats have derided the commission as 'wholly owned' by the executive branch since its members were all appointed by Bush."

You can read all about the members of the commission on my About the Commission page.

The Associated Press has a partial list of witnesses, and a brief look at past intelligence investigations.

So Far This Morning

Bush is coming out to speak on the report, but after my deadline. Here's what happened earlier, from the pool report filed by Peter Baker of The Washington Post: "The pool was brought in for what was certainly among the shortest sprays on record. POTUS was seated at the conference table in the Cabinet Room, with the two co-chairmen of the WMD commission flanking him, former senator Charles Robb to his right and retired judge Laurence Silberman to his left. On the other side of Robb was Steve Hadley and on the other side of Silberman was Andy Card. Others were in the room but we were ushered out so fast we didn't see who. Without saying a word, POTUS gave the 'thank you' signal to clear out the pool even before some of the photogs had snapped more than a couple shots. When one asked, 'Is that it?' POTUS replied cryptically, 'We've got more work to do, clear out the riff raff.' No elaboration on whether the work of clearing out the riff raff referred to your pool or someone else."

The Denver Three

With Air Force One winging its way to another carefully staged Social Security event yesterday in Iowa, the press corps peppered press secretary Scott McClellan with questions about the makeup of the audience at those events -- and the eviction of three people from an event in Denver on March 21, apparently because of a bumper sticker on their car. (See yesterday's column for more.)

Here's the text of yesterday's gaggle.

Given the opportunity to express some concern about what could turn out to be quite the First Amendment case, McClellan chose instead to defend White House procedures.

"Q Did the White House condone the decision of somebody in Denver to evict some people because of a bumper sticker they had?

"MR. McCLELLAN: . . . I did look into that a little bit more yesterday, a few of you all called my office to talk about it. My understanding is that it was a volunteer involved in that matter. My sense is that the volunteer thought that these individuals, these three individuals were coming to the event to disrupt it. And those individuals -- I think if you look at some of the early news reports even said something to that effect. Now, we welcome a diversity of views at events, but if people are coming to the event to disrupt it, that's another matter. If they want to disrupt the event, then I think that, obviously, they're going to be asked to leave the event. There is plenty of opportunity for them to express their views outside of events; there are protest areas."

He then attacked the alleged victims:

"I think that, to a large extent, this is more of a few individuals trying to divert attention from the real issue here."

As for the event itself, the press corps asked McClellan:

"Q Are we hearing any new language today?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's conversation, so it's not formal, prepared remarks, per se.

"Q It's not scripted? (Laughter.)"

Ann Imse writes in the Rocky Mountain News: "The White House reaction to the Denver case is different from its response to a case in Fargo, N.D., where a 'black list' was used to bar 42 people from obtaining tickets to a presidential appearance there in February.

"After the list's existence was revealed by the Fargo Forum newspaper, White House spokesman Jim Morrell apologized. He was quoted in the Forum as saying do-not-admit lists are not standard practice for the White House. 'We regret that it happened,' he said."

"The White House never identified the person responsible in Fargo. It blamed an 'overzealous volunteer.'

"The White House also described the man who ousted the three Coloradans as 'a volunteer,' and it has not criticized his actions."

Susan Greene and Mike Soraghan write in the Denver Post: "The administration would not provide details about the man's identity nor about how much public money paid for the carefully staged event, part of Bush's 60-city Social Security tour.

"Courtney Walsh, sales director at the museum, said the three were overheard in line talking about how they planned to disrupt the event with protest.

" 'They got exactly what they deserved,' said Walsh, who refused to disclose how much the White House paid to rent the museum.

"Although the 'Denver Three' wore T-shirts reading 'Stop the Lies' underneath their business attire, Young said they decided before entering the building not to expose them, but rather to challenge Bush during a question-and-answer session. As it turned out, the audience was not allowed to converse with the president."

Mary Jo Almquist writes in the Fargo Forum: "North Dakota's congressional delegation wants to get to the bottom of a list that barred more than 40 people from President Bush's speech last month in Fargo.

"Rep. Earl Pomeroy said Wednesday his concern stems from a similar incident in Denver, where three people were removed from Bush's March 21 town hall meeting on Social Security.

"Pomeroy said the Denver incident raises disturbing questions given what also happened in Fargo. He said he'll evaluate what must be done to launch an inquiry. . . .

"Sen. Kent Conrad and Sen. Byron Dorgan echoed the concern.

" 'We believe the black lists ought to be investigated,' Dorgan and Conrad said in a joint statement. 'Holding public events in public buildings and developing black lists to keep members of the public out is wrong.' "

The Associated Press writes: "Dan Recht, an attorney for the three self-described progressives who were removed, said he was getting 'the run-around' about the matter and sent a letter Wednesday asking Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to launch an investigation.

"Recht's letter said the man who removed his clients may have illegally impersonated a Secret Service agent, used illegal physical force to remove his clients, and violated his clients' First Amendment rights. He also sought investigation of the use of taxpayer funds for events at which certain citizens were excluded."

Social Security Watch

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times: "Nearly halfway through his 60-day publicity tour on Social Security, President Bush declared on Wednesday that the idea of changing the retirement system was 'beginning to permeate' the public consciousness. . . .

"But 27 days after opening a highly publicized campaign to sell the public on the idea of creating individual retirement accounts, Mr. Bush offered little evidence that he was moving the question ahead or making progress moving legislation forward. He has not offered a detailed plan. Almost every Democrat in Congress has rejected the idea of a system that diverts some of the current payroll tax into individual accounts."

She adds: "The scripted nature of Mr. Bush's appearances -- and the efforts by organizers to keep out voters who did not already support the president -- have raised questions about Mr. Bush's interest in hearing diverse points of view and allowing all citizens to attend presidential events, which are paid for with taxpayer money."

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Two key GOP lawmakers who joined President Bush on Wednesday as he pitched restructuring Social Security said that Bush has failed to sell the American people on his plan to change the 70-year-old federal retirement system."

VandeHei observes: "What concerns many Republicans the most is the intense level of opposition to restructuring Social Security -- nurtured by an aggressive campaign by the senior citizens lobby group AARP -- even before the most politically unappealing aspects of the plan are discussed in detail, including a reduction in guaranteed benefits."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "The more President Bush stumps for restructuring Social Security, the less popular his own plan seems to become. His poll ratings are dropping, too, but Bush says he is not deterred."

Here's the transcript of Bush's Cedar Rapids event.

Bush also sat down for a radio interview with local conservative talk show host Jan Mickelson.

A Word From the Economists

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "In barnstorming the country over Social Security, administration officials predict that American economic growth will slow to an anemic rate of 1.9 percent as baby boomers reach retirement.

"Yet as they extol the rewards of letting people invest some of their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts, President Bush and his allies assume that stock returns will be almost as high as ever, about 6.5 percent a year after inflation. . . .

"A growing number of economists, however, including many who favor personal accounts, say Mr. Bush's assumptions are optimistic. . . .

"In a paper to be presented on Thursday at the Brookings Institution, three economists who are longtime critics of Mr. Bush argue that stock returns are likely to be about 4.5 percent if economic growth slows as much as the administration predicts."

Cabinet Watch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush is requiring Cabinet members to spend several hours a week at the White House compound, a move top aides say eases coordination with government agencies but one seen by some analysts as fresh evidence of the White House's tightening grip over administration policy. . . .

"Some scholars said the new office-hours requirement continues a trend in which Cabinet secretaries have become less architects of policy than purveyors of initiatives hatched by the political and policy officials in the White House."

First Lady Watch

Laura Bush is back from her quick trip to Afghanistan.

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "The 'new' Laura Bush -- the one who comments publicly on thorny policy matters and actually enjoys giving speeches -- can add another mark to her growing résumé as first lady: diplomat.

"Her six-hour visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday, announced just before she left Washington, marked a rare solo trip abroad for Mrs. Bush and may be a sign of increasing visibility for a first lady who started life here by keeping the lowest of profiles."

Feldman notes: "In the US, no one affiliated with this administration is more popular than Laura Bush: A February Gallup survey shows 80 percent of Americans approve her performance as first lady -- down from her January rating of 85 percent. Compare that with her husband's current ratings in the mid-40s, and jokes about 'Laura to the rescue' can't be too far away."

Here is the text of the first lady's speech.

Cheney Dynasty

Eric Lipton writes in the New York Times: "President Bush has nominated the vice president's son-in-law, Philip J. Perry, as general counsel of the Homeland Security Department, where he would oversee 1,500 lawyers who work on legal matters like Coast Guard maritime laws and immigration. . . .

"If confirmed, Mr. Perry will not be the only member of Mr. Cheney's family working for the administration. Elizabeth Cheney, the vice president's daughter and Mr. Perry's wife, was appointed last month by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the second-ranking United States diplomat for the Mideast."

Karl Rove Watch

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "D.C. resident Karl Rove answered the call to jury duty for a criminal trial in U.S. District Court on Tuesday -- and was more than willing to serve despite his commitments at the White House, reports The Post's Carol Leonnig."

Kim Jong-il Watch

Oliver Bullough writes for Reuters: "North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il could attend Russian World War II victory celebrations in May, raising the prospect of an unprecedented encounter with President Bush."

Chimp Watch

Reuters reports: "Belgian trainers helping police to understand body language have caused a row by likening George Bush's facial expressions to a chimpanzee's. . . .

"The training presentation pictured the U.S. president's face in various expressions beside photographs of a chimpanzee, the paper showed on its front page, in what was meant to be a humorous introduction to the subject of reading expressions."

Here's the story, with a photo, from Belgium's Het Laatste Nieuws.

The Bush-chimp metaphor has been a lively one on the left axis of the Web for quite a while. See, for instance: bushorchimp.com or bushisnotachimp.org.

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