What went wrong with Iraq intelligence?

Knight Ridder NewspapersFebruary 6, 2004 

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's case that Iraq had chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs before the U.S. invasion weakened further this week, with new revelations from CIA Director George Tenet about problems with U.S. intelligence.

Increasingly, the question from here on out will be: What went wrong and who's to blame?

That's the focus of the new independent commission that President Bush named Friday. It's also the subject of a round of finger-pointing that pits the CIA against the White House, intelligence professionals against their political masters and Republicans against Democrats.

It's a question that Bush will face when he makes an unusual solo appearance Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

There's no single answer, according to current and former intelligence officials, the administration's own public statements and a review of the publicly available documents on Iraq's weapons programs.

In what now appears to have been a cascade of errors, U.S. intelligence overestimated Iraq's weapons progress in several key areas. That was in part because analysts, mindful of Iraq's long history of deception, had to assume the worst, according to Tenet and others.

Compounding the damage, top officials including Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others exaggerated what the available intelligence said about Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs and left out important caveats.

And the process was warped by the Pentagon's creation of an alternate intelligence channel that fed questionable data on Iraq's weapons and links to the al-Qaida terrorist network into the system.

The White House's charges that Saddam Hussein's regime had links to al-Qaida are missing entirely from the current debate, although they were key to the administration's argument for war. Tenet never mentioned them in his Thursday speech at Georgetown University in which he defended the CIA, which has argued consistently that there's no compelling evidence of anything more than occasional contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida.

Some of the questionable material, which came largely from Iraqi defectors, some of whom were considered unreliable by intelligence professionals, was weeded out. But not all.

Each of these factors was to blame, according to Walter P. "Pat" Lang, a former top official from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency and critic of the administration's handling of Iraq.

"The intelligence community, generally, screwed up," he said. Lang blames administration hawks who favored overthrowing Saddam and who he said "acted out of conviction," and he blames intelligence agencies, which he said were weak in standing up to political pressure.

The administration, former chief weapons inspector David Kay and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have all denied that intelligence analysts were subjected to political pressure.

Here's a summary of the administration's prewar claims on Iraq's weapons and what's now known:

_Nuclear weapons: Bush, Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice raised the specter of Saddam working feverishly to get the bomb. The vice president may have gone the furthest, saying in an August 2002 speech that "many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon."

But a major intelligence report, called a National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, two months later said Iraq could make a nuclear bomb "within several months to a year" only if it acquired plutonium or uranium from abroad. Without that huge assist, it would take until 2007 to 2009, declassified portions of the document said.

Tenet said Thursday that the CIA now doesn't know whether Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, "but we may have overestimated the progress Saddam was making."

Several key pieces of evidence in the nuclear file have proved false, such as administration claims that Saddam was seeking uranium in Africa, or highly questionable, such as claims that Iraq was acquiring aluminum tubes to make centrifuges to purify uranium for nuclear arms.

Cheney, in the August 2002 speech, said some of the information on Iraq's nuclear program came from Iraqi defectors.

_Unmanned aerial vehicles: In an October 2002 speech, Bush said the United States had discovered that Iraq "has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVS for missions targeting the United States."

That statement came from the NIE. But the document adds an important caveat that Bush never mentioned: The Air Force, the leading expert on such vehicles, disagreed that Iraq was developing the drones "primarily" for delivering chemical or biological weapons.

Another key piece of evidence has since been proved false: that the Iraqis were trying to acquire mapping software so they could target the United States.

Tenet, in his speech, said the U.S. intelligence community's record on UAVs was mixed. It detected prohibited and undeclared Iraqi programs, he said, "but the jury is still out on whether Iraq intended to use its newer, smaller unmanned aerial vehicle to deliver biological weapons."

_Biological weapons: One of the most dramatic parts of Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council on the Iraq threat was his detailed description of mobile facilities for producing and researching germ weapons.

Powell said there were three human sources who described the mobile production labs and a fourth who revealed the mobile research facilities.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the reference to the research labs was the only claim in Powell's speech based on a single type of information: human sources, or spies.

But, in a snafu hinted at by Tenet, the source of the information on the labs was believed to have fabricated information and an alert stating this went unnoticed. The source was a defector provided by the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi exile group favored by hard-liners in the Pentagon and the vice president's office.

In his speech, Tenet said questions also have been raised about the veracity of sources who described Iraq's alleged biological weapons production facilities.

Intelligence agencies now disagree over whether two trailers found in Iraq after the war were intended for making biological weapons—the CIA's original assessment—or hydrogen for military balloons. State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency experts favor the latter explanation.

_Chemical weapons: Powell, Cheney, Bush and numerous other officials either said or suggested before the war that Iraq had large stocks of chemical weapons, a claim based in part on Saddam's failure to account for known caches of ingredients used to make poison gas.

The NIE said Iraq probably had renewed production of mustard gas, sarin and other deadly substances, and it estimated that Saddam has stockpiled between 100 and 500 metric tons of chemical weapons.

But a September 2002 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, while agreeing that Iraq probably had a covert chemical weapons program, said there was "no reliable information" about whether Iraq was producing or stockpiling the weapons.

Tenet indicated that a key moment came when CIA analysts saw "what they believed to be" satellite photos of material being moved from Iraqi ammunition sites. The photos appeared to be evidence of revived chemical weapons production. But the reasons for the movements have never been determined.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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