WASHINGTON — The newly retired head of the State Department's intelligence arm said Tuesday that the U.S. intelligence community "badly underperformed" for years in assessing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and should accept responsibility for its failure.
The assessment by Carl W. Ford Jr., former assistant secretary of State for intelligence and research, marked the first time a senior official involved in preparing the prewar assessments on Iraq has asserted that serious intelligence errors were made.
Before the war, the intelligence community concluded that Iraq possessed biological and chemical weapons and that Saddam Hussein had restarted a nuclear weapons program. After nearly six months of occupation, no such weapons have been discovered.
The intelligence community "has to bear the major responsibility for WMD information in Iraq and other intelligence failures," Ford said in two interviews with The Times. The Vietnam veteran worked for years in U.S. military intelligence, the CIA and the Defense Department and retired Oct. 3. "We badly underperformed for a number of years," he added, "and the information we were giving the policy community was off the mark."
Ford could not pinpoint what had gone wrong, but the question, he said, must be answered.
The entire intelligence community -- including Ford and the bureau he ran -- should have done a better job of ferreting out the truth about Iraq's capabilities, he said. The first step in improving the performance of the agencies, he added, is to admit error.
"It's sort of like the first step in a 12-step program," he said. "You have to have that moment of clarity to realize that you've got a problem. We in the community have not yet accepted that we have a problem. The worst thing, for me, is we could do better.... We can do far better with the people, the leadership and the money we've got. It's the lost opportunities I find troubling."
Ford's comments contrast sharply with the defiant statements by other senior administration officials, including President Bush.
At a news conference Tuesday, Bush defended the intelligence on Iraq and noted that much of it preceded his taking office.
"We took action based upon good, solid intelligence," Bush said. "It was the right thing to do to make America more secure and the world more peaceful."
CIA Director George J. Tenet has vigorously defended the community's performance and disputed any suggestion that its prewar conclusions were wrong.
Tenet has apologized for allowing discredited allegations about Hussein seeking uranium from Africa -- supposedly for nuclear weapons -- to be included in Bush's State of the Union address.
But recently, agency officials said that an exhaustive internal review nearing completion validates their work on Iraq and has yet to turn up any evidence that their prewar conclusions were flawed.
Asked for comment on Ford's remarks Tuesday, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said: "It is entirely premature to reach conclusions about the accuracy of prewar judgments about the status of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction efforts. The difficulty in locating highly compartmented, secret weapons programs in a country that was extensively bombed and looted should not be underestimated."
Harlow said that while the agency awaits the conclusions of David Kay, the chief U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq, who is writing a report on his findings, "we continue to believe that the work of the intelligence community on Iraq WMD was solid."
Contrary to charges by some critics that the Bush administration politicized the intelligence, Ford argued that the intelligence community -- a collection of agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and Ford's bureau at the State Department -- cannot blame its failure on pressure from the administration.
Analysts "are trained almost from birth" how to deal with political pressure to tailor their conclusions to bolster policymakers' views, Ford said in two lengthy telephone interviews. "We push back on political pressure ... and the only problem is when there's a weasel in the intelligence community who does not have the backbone and starts giving the policymakers what they want to hear."
Ford said he suspected there may have been such "weasels," analysts who succumbed to the very human temptation to find evidence to support the prevailing political view. If so, Ford said that he does not know who they were.
"I certainly wouldn't say that key members of the intelligence community leadership that I worked with were weasels," Ford said.
Nevertheless, "when you have policymakers going astray as they did on Iraq, the principal problem has to be with intelligence. If somebody gives them bad information, nothing but bad can happen after that ... and the intelligence community gave them bad information."