WASHINGTON—The failure of U.S. search teams to find significant stocks of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons nearly two months after the Iraq war is prompting tough scrutiny of the CIA and reviving a debate over the quality of U.S. intelligence assessments.
President Bush and other top officials repeatedly charged that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hiding vast caches of toxins and poisons, was developing a nuclear weapon and had links to international terrorism, charges that have yet to be borne out by discoveries in U.S.-occupied Iraq.
The CIA's formal assessments generally were more cautious than the Pentagon and White House rhetoric, although its spies and analysts, too, concluded that Saddam was deceiving U.N. weapons inspectors and hiding banned weapons.
CIA chief George Tenet resisted pressure to shape the agency's estimates to provide justification for the war, according to current and former officials with knowledge of the CIA's workings.
But senior intelligence officials said the agency didn't have an extensive network of spies in Iraq who might have provided an alternate view to the one put forward by the Pentagon and officials in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
That view, which was more alarmist, was based largely on intelligence passed on by exile groups with their own agendas, particularly the Iraqi National Congress, via a special unit established by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.
"The real issue isn't whether the intelligence community hyped what we had. It's how little we had. We had no significant high-level political sources inside (Iraq); we had no significant penetration of Saddam's WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs and we had no high-level agents in the Iraqi military," said one official, who like the others spoke only without attribution because it's illegal to discuss classified intelligence information.
That left the CIA at a disadvantage in the fierce bureaucratic struggle over intelligence on Iraq, they said.
"You can't beat something with nothing, and nothing's what we had," said one official.
But framing the public debate, congressional inquiries and an internal CIA review around the question of whether officials revised intelligence estimates to serve the Bush administration's purposes "misses the point and lets everybody off the hook," one of the officials said.
"Were estimates doctored? Not to my knowledge. Were analysts told what to write? I don't believe so," the official said. "But was our intelligence on Iraq as good as it needed to be? Absolutely not."
The CIA lost most of its covert network in Iraq in a series of reversals.
Most notable was a failed 1996 coup attempt against Saddam, which the Iraqi regime not only prevented but also used the plotters' CIA-provided satellite phones to tell American operatives that it had failed. The U.S.-backed group that planned the coup, the Iraqi National Accord, was found to have been thoroughly penetrated by Saddam's agents.
Efforts to rebuild the CIA network were hampered by Iraqis' suspicions that, after numerous failures during the 1990s, Washington wasn't serious about overthrowing Saddam, officials have said.
The chairmen of two Senate committees have said their panels will investigate U.S. intelligence on Iraq.
Tenet, who has begun providing Capitol Hill with extensive documentation to support the CIA's past statements on Iraq, issued a public statement Friday defending his agency's work.
"Our role is to call it like we see it; to tell policymakers what we know, what we don't know, what we think and what we base it on. That's the code we live by and that is what policymakers expect from us," Tenet's statement said. "That is exactly what was done and continues to be done on intelligence issues related to Iraq."
Top Bush administration officials say evidence of banned weapons activity by the Iraqis has been found, and they predict that much more will surface.
They point to two mobile laboratories found in Iraq that appear to have been designed to produce biological weapons and are similar to those that Secretary of State Colin Powell described before the war in a February presentation to the U.N. Security Council.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, in a report Monday, said the vehicles were unlike any that Saddam's regime had declared. But Blix declined to draw broader conclusions.
Powell, in a news conference Monday in Rome, noted that no one is challenging the American contention that the labs were designed to produce biological agents.
A beefed-up U.S. search for Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear facilities, which began Monday, will be "the most extensive regime imaginable," Powell said. It's designed to "look at all of the sites, to exploit all of the documents that have come into our possession since the war and to interview people who are now available, who were not made available for interviews previously."
Another senior intelligence official added that top officials from Saddam's regime who are in U.S. custody, who initially declined to provide information to interrogators, are slowly beginning to talk about WMD programs.
"They're starting to say a little bit about efforts that were under way," he said.
This official disputed charges that the CIA had inadequate intelligence coverage of Iraq, saying the quick pace of the war and the fact that the agency had advance word of Saddam's movements, which allowed U.S. forces to target him twice, proved otherwise.
"The military successes were not conceived immaculately," the official said.
But other officials said the paucity of good intelligence was revealed in several ways.
U.S., British and Australian Special Forces who searched western Iraq found none of the Scud missiles that some American officials were convinced were hidden there, loaded with chemical weapons and aimed at Israel.
Spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping, known as "national technical means," did help track some of Saddam's illicit foreign purchases and construction projects over the years.
But after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam's regime installed fiber-optic telephone lines—with Chinese help—to foil electronic eavesdropping, put many of its illicit weapons programs undercover or underground and masked others as "dual-use" facilities, such as pesticide or pharmaceutical plants that could be converted to make chemical or biological weapons.
So while satellites and antennae suggested that Iraq was up to something, the United States didn't have spies to reveal what that was.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay, traveling with Powell, contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.