A Classified CIA Mea Culpa on Iraq

In this exclusive from the National Security Archive, a secret agency report on its WMD failures is published for the first time.

This remarkable CIA mea culpa, just declassified this summer and published here for the first time, describes the U.S. intelligence failure on Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction as the consequence of "analytic liabilities" and predispositions that kept analysts from seeing the issue "through an Iraqi prism." The key findings presented in the first page-and-a-half (the only part most policymakers would read) are released almost in full, while the body of the document looks more like Swiss cheese from the many redactions of codewords, sources, and intelligence reports that remain classified even today, seven years after the Iraq Survey Group reported to the Director of Central Intelligence how wrong the prewar assessments had been. The key findings do not contain the most striking sentences; instead, these are tucked into the tail-end of the document. For example, on page 14, the assessment reports, "Given Iraq's extensive history of deception and only small changes in outward behavior, analysts did not spend adequate time examining the premise that the Iraqis had undergone a change in their behavior, and that what Iraq was saying by the end of 1995 was, for the most part, accurate." On page 16, going even further, the assessment says, "Analysts tended to focus on what was most important to us -- the hunt for WMD -- and less on what would be most important for a paranoid dictatorship to protect. Viewed through an Iraqi prism, their reputation, their security, their overall technological capabilities, and their status needed to be preserved. Deceptions were perpetrated and detected, but the reasons for those deceptions were misread."

At the National Security Archive, we first saw a reference to this CIA Retrospective Series document in a footnote to a Senate Intelligence Committee report in September 2006, so we immediately filed a Mandatory Declassification Review request for this specific item (MDRs often move through the backlogged declassification system faster than Freedom of Information requests when you have this kind of exact title and date reference to cite). Still, the CIA took almost six years to release the report. How many years to learn the lessons?

This remarkable CIA mea culpa, just declassified this summer and published here for the first time, describes the U.S. intelligence failure on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction as the consequence of "analytic liabilities" and predispositions that kept analysts from seeing the issue "through an Iraqi prism." The key findings presented in the first page-and-a-half (the only part most policymakers would read) are released almost in full, while the body of the document looks more like Swiss cheese from the many redactions of codewords, sources, and intelligence reports that remain classified even today, seven years after the Iraq Survey Group reported to the Director of Central Intelligence how wrong the prewar assessments had been. The key findings do not contain the most striking sentences; instead, these are tucked into the tail-end of the document. For example, on page 14, the assessment reports, "Given Iraq’s extensive history of deception and only small changes in outward behavior, analysts did not spend adequate time examining the premise that the Iraqis had undergone a change in their behavior, and that what Iraq was saying by the end of 1995 was, for the most part, accurate." On page 16, going even further, the assessment says, "Analysts tended to focus on what was most important to us — the hunt for WMD — and less on what would be most important for a paranoid dictatorship to protect. Viewed through an Iraqi prism, their reputation, their security, their overall technological capabilities, and their status needed to be preserved. Deceptions were perpetrated and detected, but the reasons for those deceptions were misread."

At the National Security Archive, we first saw a reference to this CIA Retrospective Series document in a footnote to a Senate Intelligence Committee report in September 2006, so we immediately filed a Mandatory Declassification Review request for this specific item (MDRs often move through the backlogged declassification system faster than Freedom of Information requests when you have this kind of exact title and date reference to cite). Still, the CIA took almost six years to release the report. How many years to learn the lessons?

<p> Tom Blanton is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. </p>

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