Faulty intelligence continues to plague U.S. efforts in Iraq

Knight Ridder NewspapersMarch 19, 2004 

WASHINGTON — The U.S.-led war against Iraq began one year ago with an urgent message from a clandestine team of U.S. intelligence officers who'd infiltrated Baghdad: An Iraqi agent who said he had "eyes on" on Saddam Hussein was reporting that Saddam would be spending the night at a compound in southern Baghdad.

The encrypted message arrived at CIA headquarters outside Washington on Wednesday afternoon, March 19. At 7:12 p.m., President Bush ordered an airstrike on the compound. Two hours later, 37 minutes before dawn March 20 in Baghdad, two Air Force F-117 stealth warplanes dropped four 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs on the compound, known as Dora Farms.

The attack reportedly killed one civilian, injured 14 others and obliterated the target, but Saddam and his two sons, Odai and Qusai, survived. Either they weren't there or, as some intelligence officers have since theorized, the agent's information was misunderstood or mistranslated because the Arabic words for "bunker" and "compound" sound somewhat alike, and Saddam was in an outbuilding in the compound, not in a bunker.

Meager, mishandled and made-up intelligence plagued the U.S.-led mission in Iraq long before the war and continues to plague it now. Many of the Bush administration's charges about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to terrorism now appear to have been wrong. U.S. troops are battling a stubborn insurgency that their civilian leaders didn't expect.

There are hopeful signs. The country's 25 million people are freed from a ruthless dictatorship and some are enjoying electricity and water for the first time. Iraq's economy is beginning to pick up, oil output is slowly growing, and just over half the respondents to a recent public opinion survey said their lives are better than before the war and expect the improvement to continue.

But the cost of rebuilding Iraq far exceeds initial estimates and handing power back to Iraqis is proving to be harder than the proponents of war thought it would be. In the recent survey of which leaders Iraqis did and didn't trust, the favorite of some administration officials, former exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, finished dead last, behind even Saddam.

At least seven official inquiries into U.S. intelligence involving Iraq are under way in Washington, including one by the Senate Intelligence Committee and another by an independent commission appointed by Bush. As more and more questions are raised about why the United States seems now to have had so little accurate information about Iraq, it's clear that there's more than enough blame to go around:

_U.S. intelligence agencies had few if any independent sources of information in Saddam's Iraq. There was no U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—relations were essentially severed ahead of the 1991 Gulf war—to provide diplomatic cover for American spies. The best sources of information on Iraq's weapons and missile programs were the U.N. weapons inspectors who were kicked out of Iraq in 1998.

_Lacking any good intelligence on Saddam's weapons programs, the CIA erred on the side of what appeared to be caution and extrapolated—essentially, it guessed—the size of Iraq's hidden chemical and biological weapons stockpiles and the extent of its nuclear weapons program from the last data the U.N. inspectors had collected.

_Without its own sources of information from inside Iraq, the United States came to rely increasingly on Iraqi exiles and Kurds living in areas of Iraq that had been under U.S. protection and essentially autonomous since the Gulf War. Intelligence professionals at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department regarded many of the exiles, particularly Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, with disdain.

Much of the exiles' information has been found to be marginal at best, and sometimes exaggerated or fabricated. But that information became increasingly important to U.S. judgments, particularly in the absence of other sources.

How the exiles' information affected judgments about Iraq is one element of the probes into the way the war in Iraq was conducted. CIA Director George Tenet has acknowledged that official government assessments of Iraq included information from known fabricators and has promised an investigation.

Some Washington officials believe the seeds of the intelligence problems in Iraq can be traced to the 1970s when people now influential in the Bush administration concluded that the Central Intelligence Agency had grossly underestimated the threat posed by the Soviet Union. The group of outside experts asked to reassess the Soviet threat included Paul Wolfowitz, who's now deputy secretary of defense. Their allies included Richard Perle, who recently resigned from the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel that consults with Pentagon leaders about policy.

Their distrust of the CIA was still evident 30 years later. The CIA's analysis "isn't worth the paper it's written on," Perle, then chairman of the Defense Policy Board, told Knight Ridder in 2002 as the administration's internal intelligence wars over Iraq escalated.

The CIA had stopped working with Chalabi in the mid-1990s. An audit found that the INC couldn't account for how it had spent all of the millions of dollars provided by the U.S. government. In January 2002, the State Department suspended funding for the INC in a similar dispute over its accounting for government funds. Funding eventually was restored.

Some of the money supported the INC's Information Collection Program, an intelligence-gathering effort that supplied information from Iraqi defectors that appeared to substantiate assessments that Saddam had illicit weapons and worked with al-Qaida.

Responsibility for the $4 million-a-year effort was transferred in late 2002 to the Defense Intelligence Agency.

A letter written to the Senate Appropriations Committee by the INC in June 2001 said that information gathered by the group went directly to the Defense Department and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, the chief proponents of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq.

Officials in the Pentagon and the vice president's office deny they were recipients of the INC-supplied information.

Many of the unsubstantiated assertions the administration made can be traced to INC information, including:

_ A September 2002 paper on Iraq released by the White House in conjunction with President Bush's speech to the United Nations claimed that Iraq was training international terrorists in airplane hijacking at a facility south of Baghdad called Salman Pak. At the time, several intelligence officials told Knight Ridder and CBS News, among others, that the allegation wasn't true and that the facility probably was used by the Iraqis for counterterrorism training. Since then, inspections in Iraq found no such facility.

_ Secretary of State Colin Powell's claim before the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, that three human sources had described Iraq's mobile germ weapons production labs and a fourth had revealed a mobile biowarfare research facility. The DIA concluded that the defector who described the mobile research lab was a fabricator, but an alert on that went unnoticed. Tenet later said questions also have been raised about the veracity of the defectors who described the mobile production facilities. No mobile biowarfare production or research facilities have been found in Iraq.

The same combination of dubious intelligence and distrust of the intelligence bureaucracy also infected planning for the war and for the postwar period.

Largely on the strength of what INC sources had told them, Pentagon planners expected U.S. troops to be welcomed with opened arms. Pentagon civilians led by Wolfowitz dismissed warnings from then-Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki and others about how many troops it might take to secure postwar Iraq and largely ignored a huge "Future of Iraq" project assembled by 17 U.S. agencies and led by the Department of State.

Instead, U.S. troops were met by a series of guerrilla attacks by Iraqi irregular forces and an insurgency that persists to this day. U.S. occupiers found Iraq's infrastructure in much worse shape than they had been led to believe—though the State Department report had laid out many of the problems.

A U.S. Army War College study last August found that Iraqi scouts in civilian clothes reconnoitered U.S. positions continuously, reporting via cell and satellite phones, landlines and couriers. The Iraqis and their foreign allies who've been attacking the U.S.-led occupation for 11 months appear to be employing the same techniques: using civilians to keep tabs on U.S. forces, Western civilians and Iraqis who are cooperating with the occupation to prepare ambushes, plant improvised explosive devices and mount other attacks.

In addition, military and civilian officials in Iraq say, Saddam loyalists and others may have infiltrated some coalition offices, much as the Viet Cong did in Vietnam, to provide intelligence on high-ranking coalition officials and other plans.

"Some of the Iraqis may have prepared for what came after the war better than we did," said one senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his remarks weren't authorized. The official said some Iraqi commanders appear to have realized that fighting the American military was hopeless and prepared instead for what he called "a Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia-style war that they thought they had a better chance of winning."

The CIA station in Baghdad, now the largest in the world with hundreds of officers, reported in November that growing numbers of Iraqis were concluding that the U.S.-led coalition could be defeated and were supporting the resistance. In January, agency officers in Iraq warned that the country could be on a path to civil war.

There Iraq remains one year after the war began, teetering between democracy and disaster.

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

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