WASHINGTON — In a classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared before the Iraq war, the CIA hedged its judgments about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, pointing up the limits of its knowledge.
But in the unclassified version of the NIE -- the so-called white paper cited by the Bush administration in making its case for war -- those carefully qualified conclusions were turned into blunt assertions of fact, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on prewar intelligence.
The repeated elimination of qualifying language and dissenting assessments of some of the government's most knowledgeable experts gave the public an inaccurate impression of what the U.S. intelligence community believed about the threat Hussein posed to the United States, the committee said.
Dedicating a section of its 511-page report to discrepancies between the two versions of the crucial October 2002 NIE, the panel laid out numerous instances in which the unclassified version omitted key dissenting opinions about Iraqi weapons capabilities, overstated U.S. knowledge about Iraq's alleged stockpiles of weapons and, in one case, inserted threatening language into the public document that was not contained in the classified version.
"The intelligence community's elimination of the caveats from the unclassified white paper misrepresented their judgments to the public, which did not have access to the classified National Intelligence Estimate containing the more carefully worded assessments," the Senate panel's report concluded.
"The fact that the NIE changed so dramatically from its classified to its unclassified form and broke all in one direction, toward a more dangerous scenario ... I think was highly significant," the committee's vice chairman, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), said Friday.
NIEs commonly take months to prepare, but the Iraq report and its unclassified version were compiled in a matter of weeks, the panel said.
As the Bush administration ratcheted up its case for war in September 2002, senators on the Intelligence Committee wrote to the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, requesting an NIE about Iraq's weapons programs and any connections to Al Qaeda. With Congress set to vote on the war resolution the next month, intelligence officials rushed to produce the estimate.
But the Senate committee's sharpest criticism of the unclassified document focused not on changes made in haste but on the systematic alteration of the classified version.
For example, the panel cited changes made in the section of the NIE dealing with chemical weapons:
"Although we have little specific information on Iraq's CW stockpile," the classified NIE read, "Saddam Hussein probably has stocked at least 100 metric tons" of such poisons.
In the unclassified version of the report, the phrase "although we have little specific information" was deleted. Instead, the public report said, "Saddam probably has stocked a few hundred metric tons of CW agents."
The Senate report also noted one instance in which a dissenting view was left out of the unclassified version.
In that example, the classified NIE stated that Iraq was developing unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, "probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents."
But in a footnote, the U.S. Air Force's director for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance said he did not agree.
By eliminating that footnote from the unclassified version, the panel said, the public NIE "is missing the fact that [the] ... agency with primary responsibility for technological analysis on UAV programs did not agree with the assessment."
During a nationally televised speech in October 2002, President Bush cited the threat of Iraqi drone aircraft being used for terrorist attacks against the United States. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also discussed the UAVs in his speech to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003.
The committee's report describes not just sins of omission, but of addition.
The classified NIE stated, for instance, that "Iraq has some lethal and incapacitating BW [biological weapons] agents and is capable of quickly producing ... a variety of such agents, including anthrax, for delivery by bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers and covert operatives."
In the unclassified version, the words "potentially against the U.S. homeland" are inserted at the end of the statement.
During a briefing before the report was released, one committee aide said the Senate panel had asked Tenet and Stu Cohen -- who, as acting chairman of the National Intelligence Council, oversaw production of the NIE -- who was responsible for inserting those words into the unclassified document.
"They did not know and could not explain," said the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A similar degree of mystery surrounds the larger question of exactly how the classified NIE morphed into its unclassified version.