WASHINGTON, July 14 – The country’s new acting intelligence chief said Wednesday that American intelligence agencies should not be blamed if there was inadequate debate about the decision to go to war against Iraq.
Those comments, by John E. McLaughlin, were aimed at the Senate Intelligence Committee, which issued a report last week that portrayed American intelligence agencies as having exaggerated the evidence that Iraq had illicit weapons. But the comments also were an implicit retort to arguments that the Central Intelligence Agency, not President Bush, was primarily responsible for sending the country to war.
The Senate panel dissected the intelligence behind a National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002. That document included flat assertions that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear program, statements that the Senate committee called unfounded and unreasonable.
But to treat the document as a pivotal element in the march to war would be “an oversimplification of the situation,” Mr. McLaughlin said on CNN, in one of a series of interviews intended to counter the sharp criticism of the agency, adding, “If there wasn’t sufficient debate about these issues, it wasn’t the fault of the people who prepared this estimate.”
The document included some qualifications and dissents, and Mr. McLaughlin suggested that these might well have given rise to more vigorous debate than was heard about the degree to which Iraq posed a threat to the United States.
The 30-minute television interview put Mr. McLaughlin on the public stage in a way that his predecessor, George J. Tenet, who left office Sunday, and most other directors of central intelligence have shunned. It followed an interview on Wednesday in which the acting intelligence chief answered callers’ questions on a radio program, and two interviews on Tuesday with news agencies.
Before the war, White House officials reached beyond the assessments spelled out in the intelligence reports. But in his appearances, Mr. McLaughlin demurred when asked whether the White House had exaggerated the intelligence.
Mr. McLaughlin’s interviews occurred as Mr. Bush continued to defend his decision to go to war, which he has said was the right thing to do though no banned weapons have been found in Iraq. But a leading Republican senator said he doubted that Mr. Bush would have ordered an invasion of Iraq based on what is now known of its arms program.
The senator, Pat Roberts of Kansas, is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which reported that American intelligence agencies badly overreached in declaring before the war that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons programs.
Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Roberts was a supporter of the war who has said the world and Iraq are better off with Saddam Hussein out of power.
But in an hourlong interview on Wednesday morning in his office, Mr. Roberts said he was “not too sure” that the administration would have invaded if it had known how flimsy the intelligence was on Iraq and illicit weapons. Instead, the senator said, Mr. Bush might well have advocated efforts to maintain sanctions against Iraq and to continue to try to unearth the truth through the work of United Nations inspectors. “I don’t think the president would have said that military action is justified right now,” Mr. Roberts said. If the administration had been presented with “accurate intelligence,” he said, Mr. Bush “might have said, ‘Saddam’s a bad guy, and we’ve got to continue with the no-fly zones and with inspections.’ “
At one level, Mr. Roberts’s comments can be seen as offering support for the White House, by underscoring the view that intelligence agencies, not Mr. Bush, should be held responsible for fundamental misjudgments about Iraq. But the suggestion that Mr. Bush might well have chosen a different course appeared to run counter to the White House suggestion that the president had been obliged in the case of Iraq to head off a potential threat.
Mr. Roberts said he was speaking solely on the basis of his own inference, not on any conversations with the president or White House officials. But the comments followed those of other senators, including Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, who have said they would have voted against a war resolution had they known that intelligence assessments about Iraq and illicit weapons were not solid.
Senator Rockefeller said last week that he believed a war resolution would have failed in Congress had the flimsiness of the intelligence been known; Senator Roberts has said he was “not sure.”
Seeking to defend the intelligence agencies’ reputation, Mr. McLaughlin spent well over an hour in all on Wednesday answering questions from reporters and callers, even traveling to a CNN studio for an interview with Wolf Blitzer, an anchor.
In the radio interview on the “Diane Rehm Show,” which is broadcast on public radio stations, Mr. McLaughlin said his agency was intensely focused on what he called its real work, and he said that the credibility of recent intelligence about possible terrorist attacks had raised concern in the administration to a level as high as it had been since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“In the summer of 2001, we had ample warning of attack, but we didn’t know anything about specificity: timing, targets, and so forth” he said. “But we did have conviction that something big was coming at us. We have that same conviction now.
“And the reason I say that is serious is that I think the information I’ve seen is very, very solid. We have very little doubt about the information we have in terms of its sourcing and specificity.”
Intelligence officials have said that Mr. McLaughlin should not be ruled out as a candidate for the permanent post, but his name has not been mentioned by White House officials, who say that Mr. Bush intends to nominate a successor soon, though almost certainly not this week.
Mr. McLaughlin has said that he will stay on as long as Mr. Bush likes and that he is willing to help any new intelligence chief.