WASHINGTON — Although it harshly criticized the CIA on many subjects, the Senate report on prewar intelligence sided squarely with the spy agency on one sensitive subject: the nature of links between Saddam Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's report said CIA analysts were reasonable in their conclusion that there was no "established, formal" relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, nor proof that the two had collaborated in attacks. The committee noted that no new information had emerged since the CIA's key reports to suggest otherwise.
Democratic committee members and other critics of the war seized on this conclusion to criticize the Bush administration for its continuing assertions of an important link between Hussein and the militant group.
"Our report found that the intelligence community's judgments were right on Iraq's ties to the terrorists, which is another way of saying that the administration's conclusions were wrong," Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the ranking minority member of the panel, said at a news conference.
But the White House contended that the committee's acknowledgment of "several" contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda during the 1990s supported its contention. "The report does not refute that there were contacts," Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said on CNN.
The committee analyzed at length the evidence and sources the CIA had used to reach its conclusions, and in the process supported the agency on several related issues.
It said the CIA had reasonably concluded that Iraq appeared to have been reaching out to terrorist groups, such as the anti-Israeli Hezbollah and Hamas, and might have intended to use such surrogates in the event of war. It agreed that, based on the evidence, Iraq -- if it were "sufficiently desperate" during a war -- might have tried to use "terrorists with global reach," such as Al Qaeda.
But the committee described as reasonable the intelligence agency's conclusions that Hussein was most likely to use his own intelligence operatives to carry out attacks. This assessment "turned out to be accurate" when war came, the report said.
The report said the CIA had acknowledged the limits of what it knew of the Iraq-Al Qaeda tie.
It said that in one important report, CIA analysts "were unable to make conclusive assessments" on the relationship, due to the "limited amount and questionable quality of reporting" on what Hussein and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had in mind.
The report said the CIA had conceded: "Our knowledge of Iraq's ties to terrorism is evolving."
The agency was sound in concluding that some operatives of Al Qaeda or associated groups had found haven in Baghdad and in the northeastern section of Iraq under the control of ethnic Kurds, the report said.
It accepted the agency's view that the "most problematic area of contact between Iraq and Al Qaeda" involved reports that Iraq had provided training in the use of unconventional weapons, specifically chemical and biological weapons. President Bush and other administration officials repeatedly mentioned such training in building the case for the war.
Though the Senate report did not challenge CIA assertions that there was evidence Iraq in the past had trained Al Qaeda members in combat, bomb-making and unconventional weapons, it pointed out that the sources of this information were of "varying reliability." The report noted that the agency was cautious in assessing the use of Iraq as a haven by terrorist groups.
The report said the CIA had estimated 100 to 200 Al Qaeda members had relocated to northeastern Iraq before the war. And the agency said that "a variety of reporting" indicated that Abu Musab Zarqawi, a senior Al Qaeda associate, was in Baghdad between May and July 2002 under an assumed identity.
But though the CIA said it believed Iraq was "aware of the general nature and scope of the activity taking place there," it did not assert that the Hussein regime had agreed to any arrangement permitting Al Qaeda members to pass through or live within Iraq.
The report cited the debriefings of two high-level Al Qaeda members on the relationship.
Abu Zubaydah, a captured senior Al Qaeda official, told interrogators that he believed some Al Qaeda members had good personal relationships with Iraqi government officials. But he said he was unaware of any relationship between the two organizations, and thought it was "extremely unlikely" that Bin Laden would ally himself with Hussein, the report said.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, also maintained he was unaware of any such relationship, and said ideological disagreements would have been an obstacle, the report said. The CIA, it said, concluded that Mohammed probably was telling the truth.