Few senators read Iraq NIE report

Only a handful of senators outside the Intelligence Committee say they read the full 92-page National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s ability to attack the U.S. before voting to go to war, according to a survey conducted by The Hill.

The low interest in the classified estimate, or NIE, could offer valuable cover to the five senators seeking the presidency who acknowledged during recent debates that they did not read the complete document before the pivotal Iraq vote.

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The Hill contacted all 69 sitting senators who voted on the war authorization in the wee hours of Oct. 11, 2002, as well as former senators who did so.

Twenty-two senators told The Hill that they read the document before the vote. The offices of 38 senators said they had not read the full report or could not recall, while six senators did not comment. Nine sitting senators and 21 former senators did not return repeated requests for comment (see chart).

Despite not reading the assessment, many senators defended their preparation to examine the administration's ultimately debunked portrayal of Iraqi weapons capability.

“A lot of people on both sides of the aisle are getting whacked around with this,” said former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), who voted for authorizing war but did not read the full report. “You have to understand that the briefings are so thorough that it’s common for members not to read entire reports.”

Similarly, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee who voted in favor of the invasion, said, “I read the summary, but I didn’t read the full report because I got it from them straight,” referring to personal briefings he had with senior administration officials.

Of the 22 senators who reported reading the full NIE, eight are Republicans and 14 are Democrats. All but one Democrat on the 17-person Intelligence Committee in 2002 recalled reading the NIE: Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) told a campaign-trail audience earlier this month that he had, but later recanted. Edwards voted to authorize war.

Critics of the war suggest that more senators may have voted against the war authorization had they had read the full report.

Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, one of the senators who read the report and a staunch critic of the war, said the findings were “enough to have me vote against going to war in Iraq.”

But others said that the NIE report had enough intelligence to back the administration’s vehement claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in his possession.

“I thought he had WMD based on the NIE report of 2002,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who read the report and sat on the Intelligence panel.

One Republican on the Intelligence panel in 2002, James Inhofe (Okla.), acknowledged not reading the full NIE and another GOP member of the committee, Richard Lugar (Ind.), said he could not recall whether he read the assessment, which was released 10 days before the war vote. Another Intelligence member in 2002, White House hopeful and former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), did not respond to requests for comment on the NIE.

Multiple senators recalled reading staff memos prepared on the case for the war and attending top-secret briefings with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and George Tenet, who at the time was director of the CIA.

Those who did not read the intelligence — which was available to all members, as well as aides with security clearances — often pointed out that they were not alone.

“Well, I don’t think anybody read the entire report; everybody gets summaries of it,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who voted to authorize war. “But I read certain parts of it that I thought were the most important.”

Even some who did not read the full report say the briefings were enough to leave them unconvinced.

“After all the briefings, I simply was not convinced that the Iraqi weapons program posed an imminent threat to our country,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who viewed a draft copy during a closed hearing weeks before the vote.

“At the time, I knew it was a close call,” said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) of the war vote.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) is the only 2008 presidential hopeful who contends he read the NIE before casting his vote in support of authorizing war.

Though former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), then the Intelligence chairman, pushed for the document’s release to all senators in the run-up to war, the NIE’s much-maligned reliance on single sources — often biased in favor of invasion — makes it a dubious indicator for some.

"I don’t think it's fair to call it a litmus test and say people wouldn’t be qualified to be president of the United States if they didn’t read this particular document,” said one senior congressional intelligence staffer, now off the Hill. “People gave [the administration] the benefit of the doubt, and it turned out they were skewing things."

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who also sat on the Intelligence panel and voted for the war, said there “was a little bit of partisanship in the report, which really bothered me.”

Whether the number of senators who read the document can ever be known is also in dispute. The Washington Post reported in 2004 that only six senators had read the NIE, citing logs that senators were required to sign, but the Intelligence panel now says no such proof exists.

“There is no record, committee or otherwise, of who read the NIE,” said Wendy Morigi, spokeswoman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), now Intelligence Committee chairman, who read the NIE before the pivotal fall vote of 2002.

When Rockefeller referred to the half-dozen number during a 2005 Fox News interview, Morigi added, he was citing the Post’s report. Spokeswomen for Intelligence vice chairman Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also said that the number of senators who read it is unknowable.

But the former senior congressional intelligence staffer, who asked to comment anonymously due to the sensitivity of the subject, said that knowledgeable aides can estimate the approximate number of senators reading the NIE.

"It’s probably pretty hard to say with 100 percent certainty how many read it,” the senior staffer said. “You can say with 100 percent certainty that it’s less than 10.”

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