WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies are "in denial" and have yet to hold anyone accountable for the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and for the misjudgment that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Monday.
In a speech that was sharply critical of the CIA, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said members of Congress were especially troubled because no one in the U.S. intelligence community had "been disciplined, let alone fired" for the intelligence failures of the last three years.
Roberts also took a veiled swipe at CIA Director George J. Tenet, who reportedly assured President Bush before the war that it was a "slam dunk" case that Hussein possessed hidden stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program.
"Rarely is any intelligence case a 'slam dunk,' " Roberts told students at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., according to a copy of the speech released by Roberts' office. "We have found serious failures to share information before 9/11 and in the prewar work on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Where is the accountability?"
Roberts said one explanation may be "an institutional inability to recognize or admit there are problems. Simply put, the [intelligence] community is in denial over the full extent of the shortcomings of its work on Iraq and 9/11."
He said members of Congress, as well as the White House, were ill-served by a National Intelligence Estimate report that warned that Iraq had produced hundreds of tons of nerve gas and germ agents and was trying to build a nuclear bomb.
The estimate, presented as the best judgment of the CIA and 14 other U.S. intelligence agencies, was issued in October 2002 as Congress prepared to vote to authorize the administration to use force if necessary in Iraq.
"The problem is, the information was wrong," Roberts said.
He called it "unlikely" that weapons-hunting teams in Iraq still may find stockpiles of illicit arms. The CIA has said it is too early to conclude that no weapons will be found. Iraq Survey Group experts still have millions of pages of Arabic documents to read and hundreds of potential hiding places to visit.
Roberts also challenged claims that the intelligence community was short of money. Although intelligence budgets are classified, Congress sharply increased funding for U.S. intelligence operations after the Sept. 11 attacks, to an estimated $40 billion this year.
"The question is now less a matter of 'Do they have enough,' as opposed to 'Are they spending it wisely?' " Roberts said. "We continue to spend money on increasing collection when we still don't have the ability to fully analyze what we already collect."
A CIA spokesman, who insisted on anonymity, said Monday that he had no response to Roberts' charges.
Roberts was viewed as a strong supporter of the CIA when he became chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee last year. But he has grown increasingly critical of the agency's operations, especially for misjudgments in Iraq, and of Tenet's seven-year tenure as CIA director.
Partly as a result, the Senate committee completed what Roberts recently called "probably the most comprehensive review of intelligence" since the oversight committee was created in 1976 amid revelations that U.S. intelligence agencies had conducted illegal bugging, assassination plots and other abuses.
The committee, which has interviewed Tenet and more than 200 intelligence analysts and operatives, is expected to hold public hearings next month and to release unclassified portions of its 310-page report.
Democrats on the committee also have criticized the CIA's prewar intelligence, but have accused Roberts and other committee Republicans of blaming the CIA as part of a campaign to deflect criticism from the Bush White House.
Administration officials have denied pressuring CIA analysts to shade their judgments to support Bush's rationale for war, and have denied exaggerating or misrepresenting the intelligence. Roberts insisted Monday that "this was clearly an intelligence failure as opposed to alleged manipulation" of intelligence for political reasons.
The House Intelligence Committee, an internal CIA panel and an independent commission recently appointed by Bush are conducting separate investigations into the CIA's prewar assessments of the threat from Iraq.
Congressional staffers and experts say the inquiries have identified a broad array of intelligence problems before the war. Among them: The CIA relied too heavily on pictures from spy satellites and other high-tech systems, failed to recruit reliable spies inside Hussein's high command, and was duped by Iraqi defectors who were coached to provide false information.