Questions, criticism surround information that led to start of war

Knight Ridder NewspapersJuly 18, 2003 

WASHINGTON — In a speech last August, Vice President Dick Cheney said he was convinced that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." Iraq, he continued, was amassing weapons of mass destruction to use "against our friends, against our allies and against us."

Cheney's address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars kicked off a seven-month campaign by President Bush and his top aides to persuade the United States and the world that Iraq was a gathering threat that could be stopped only by war.

Nearly a year later, that case appears to be coming apart, with some key pieces of evidence in doubt and others disproved outright.

The questions go far beyond the faulty intelligence about Iraq's alleged attempts to purchase uranium, which has dominated recent news coverage.

Saddam may not have been an imminent threat to the world at all, but a regional bully whose weapons programs weren't nearly as advanced as widely believed, according to current and former intelligence officials and other analysts.

The unaccounted-for chemical and biological weapons that Bush, Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and others cited have yet to be found, and may never be. Nor has evidence turned up of an advanced nuclear-weapons program or hidden ballistic missiles.

Iraq never was an imminent threat, said Andrew Wilkie, an Australian intelligence analyst who resigned in March to protest his government's support for the war.

There was no intelligence to show that Iraq's chemical and biological programs had advanced to the stage that they were ready to be used as weapons, Wilkie said, remarks that receive some backing from U.S. intelligence reports that recently have come to light.

Critics and even nonpartisan analysts say the White House took what America's spy agencies knew about the Iraqi threat and pushed it to the limits of credibility, and perhaps beyond.

The United States and Britain "did not find the right balance of persuasion and objectivity in their public analyses of the threat before the war and in their arguments in favor of the conflict," military analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote in a report released Wednesday.

Washington and London presented "worst-case estimates to the public and the U.N. without sufficient qualification, and ... their intelligence communities came under serious political pressure to make something approaching a worst-case interpretation of the evidence," wrote Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center for national-security issues.

The criticism has brought added political peril for Bush because U.S. troops in Iraq are being killed in almost-daily guerrilla attacks.

The president has rejected postwar criticism from what he derisively called "revisionist historians."

As his defenders point out, bipartisan majorities in Congress supported the war. Even European nations that refused to join the fighting argued not with the premise that Saddam was hiding weapons he was banned from having after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but with Bush's proposed solution.

The Clinton administration saw Saddam as enough of a threat that it formally adopted a policy of "regime change" in Iraq.

So did some of Bush's critics. At a White House briefing this week, Press Secretary Scott McClellan read a 1998 letter from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who urged then-President Clinton to "take necessary actions to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq's refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs."

McClellan said Bush's case for confronting Iraq "was based on solid evidence."

But it also was based on assumptions about Iraq that government officials presumed were certainties after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Bush acted not "because we had discovered dramatic new evidence," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress on July 10. "We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light through the prism of our experience on Sept. 11."

Bush's most potent argument for war was that Saddam might share chemical or biological weapons with al-Qaida or other terrorist groups to use against the United States. Right behind that was the contention that Iraq was close to having a nuclear weapon.

Neither has proved true.

Administration claims of ties between Iraq and al-Qaida, disputed by counter-terrorism experts before the war, haven't been borne out.

The intelligence behind such claims was thin at best, said a former U.S. official who had access to classified material about Iraq.

"Normally, you would credit this to being ambiguous and therefore inconclusive. Everything was spun," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Said Wilkie, the Australian analyst: "I never saw a single piece—a single piece—of hard intelligence to persuade me there was any active cooperation at all between Iraq and al-Qaida."

On March 16, four days before the war began, Cheney made the White House's most alarming claim about Saddam's nuclear weapons program: "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

That and similar statements went far beyond an October intelligence assessment, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, that said Iraq "probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade" if left unchecked.

CIA director George Tenet said last week that there were six reasons for concluding that Iraq was seeking nuclear weapons. He didn't describe them.

One piece of evidence, not among the six but cited by Bush in his State of the Union address, was that Iraq had attempted to purchase large quantities of uranium ore in Africa.

Documents from the African country of Niger that supported the allegation were known at the time to have been forgeries, and the White House has acknowledged that Bush shouldn't have made the claim.

Bush, Powell and others also cited Iraqi attempts to import high-strength aluminum tubes for use in centrifuges to purify uranium for a nuclear bomb.

But the State and Energy departments, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency, disputed the CIA's conclusion that the tubes were intended for that purpose.

The issue was even more crucial than the uranium imports for determining whether "the clock" had started counting down to the day when Saddam would have the bomb, said a U.S. intelligence official.

"If you don't start the clock, then you can't say things like, `He can have a nuclear bomb in three years,' " said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive material involved.

Evidence found since the war of a nuclear program consists primarily of pieces of a centrifuge buried in an Iraqi scientist's backyard.

In making the case against Iraq, Bush and his aides also cited stocks of chemical and biological weapons that U.N. weapons inspectors knew once existed but were never accounted for. The White House suggested these caches still existed.

None has turned up, and an internal CIA study found that most U.S. intelligence on Iraqi arms dated from before the first U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998.

A Defense Intelligence Agency report last year said there was "no reliable information" on whether Iraq was producing and stockpiling chemical weapons.

Absent new production, most of the unaccounted-for material from the `80s and `90s would be "mush" now, Wilkie said, adding that Iraqi chemical weapons were "notoriously impure," thus more subject to deterioration.

A British allegation that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes also has been discredited.

Some analysts argue that the misstatements and exaggerations will make it harder for Bush or other leaders to make their case when the world next confronts the danger of weapons proliferation, say in Iran or North Korea.

But Cordesman said that in today's world, asking for near-certainty may be too much. In the future, he wrote, "it may not be possible to wait to take military action until many key uncertainties are resolved."

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