WASHINGTON — While President Bush marshals congressional and international support for invading Iraq, a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats in his own government privately have deep misgivings about the administration's double-time march toward war.
These officials charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses—including distorting his links to the al-Qaida terrorist network—have overstated the amount of international support for attacking Iraq and have downplayed the potential repercussions of a new war in the Middle East.
They charge that the administration squelches dissenting views and that intelligence analysts are under intense pressure to produce reports supporting the White House's argument that Saddam poses such an immediate threat to the United States that pre-emptive military action is necessary.
"Analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A dozen other officials echoed his views in interviews with Knight Ridder. No one who was interviewed disagreed.
They cited recent suggestions by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that Saddam and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network are working together.
Rumsfeld said Sept. 26 that the U.S. government has "bulletproof" confirmation of links between Iraq and al-Qaida members, including "solid evidence" that members of the terrorist network maintain a presence in Iraq.
The facts are much less conclusive. Officials said Rumsfeld's statement was based in part on intercepted telephone calls, in which an al-Qaida member who apparently was passing through Baghdad was overheard calling friends or relatives, intelligence officials said. The intercepts provide no evidence that the suspected terrorist was working with the Iraqi regime or that he was working on a terrorist operation while he was in Iraq, they said.
In his Monday night speech, President Bush said that a senior al-Qaida leader received medical treatment in Baghdad this year _implying larger cooperation—but he offered no evidence of complicity in any plot between the terrorist and Saddam's regime.
Rumsfeld also suggested that the Iraqi regime has offered safe haven to bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
While technically true, that too is misleading. Intelligence reports said the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey, a longtime Iraqi intelligence officer, made the offer during a visit to Afghanistan in late 1998, after the United States attacked al-Qaida training camps with cruise missiles to retaliate for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But officials said the same intelligence reports said bin Laden rejected the offer because he didn't want Saddam to control his group.
In fact, the officials said, there's no ironclad evidence that the Iraqi regime and the terrorist network are working together, or that Saddam has ever contemplated giving chemical or biological weapons to al-Qaida, with whom he has deep ideological differences.
None of the dissenting officials, who work in a number of different agencies, would agree to speak publicly, out of fear of retribution. But many of them have long experience in the Middle East and South Asia, and all spoke in similar terms about their unease with the way that U.S. political leaders are dealing with Iraq.
All agreed that Saddam is a threat who eventually must be dealt with, and none flatly opposes military action. But, they say, the U.S. government has no dramatic new knowledge about the Iraqi leader that justifies Bush's urgent call to arms.
"I've seen nothing that's compelling," said one military officer who has access to intelligence reports.
Some lawmakers have voiced similar concerns after receiving CIA briefings.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said some information he had seen did not support Bush's portrayal of the Iraqi threat.
"It's troubling to have classified information that contradicts statements made by the administration," Durbin said. "There's more they should share with the public."
In his Monday night speech, Bush stressed that if Saddam gained control of radioactive material no bigger than "a softball" he could build a nuclear weapon sufficient to intimidate his region, blackmail the world and covertly arm terrorists. But a senior administration intelligence official notes that Saddam has sought such highly enriched uranium for many years without success, and there is no evidence that he has it now.
Moreover, the senior official said, Saddam has no way to deliver a nuclear weapon against a U.S. target.
"Give them a nuclear weapon and you have the problem of delivery. Give them delivery, even clandestine, and you have a problem of plausible denial. Does anyone think that a nuclear weapon detonating in a Ryder truck or tramp freighter would not automatically trigger a response that would include Iraq, Iran, North Korea," the intelligence official asked.
Several administration and intelligence officials defended CIA Director George Tenet, saying Tenet is not pressuring his analysts, but is quietly working to include dissenting opinions in intelligence estimates and congressional briefings.
In one case, a senior administration official said, Tenet made sure that a State Department official told Congress that the Energy and State departments disagreed with an intelligence assessment that said hundreds of aluminum tubes Iraq tried to purchase were intended for Baghdad's secret nuclear-weapons program. Analysts in both departments concluded that the Iraqis probably wanted the tubes to make conventional artillery pieces.
Other examples of questionable statements include:
_ Vice President Dick Cheney said in late August that Iraq might have nuclear weapons "fairly soon."
A CIA report released Friday said it could take Iraq until the last half of the decade to produce a nuclear weapon, unless it could acquire bomb-grade uranium or plutonium on the black market.
_ Also in August, Rumsfeld suggested that al-Qaida operatives fleeing Afghanistan were taking refuge in Iraq with Saddam's assistance. "In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near-total control over its population, it's very hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what's taking place in the country," he said.
Rumsfeld apparently was referring to about 150 members of the militant Islamic group Ansar al Islam ("Supporters of Islam") who have taken refuge in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. One of America's would-be Kurdish allies controls that part of the country, however, not Saddam.
Current and former military officers also question the view sometimes expressed by Cheney, Rumsfeld and their civilian advisers in and out of the U.S. government that an American-led campaign against the Iraqi military would be a walkover.
"It is an article of faith among those with no military experience that the Iraqi military is low-hanging fruit," said one intelligence officer.
He challenged that notion, citing the U.S. experience in Somalia, where militiamen took thousands of casualties in 1993 but still managed to kill U.S. soldiers and force an American withdrawal.
Iraqi commanders, some officials warned, also could unleash chemical or biological weapons—although the American military is warning them they could face war crimes charges if they do—or U.S. airstrikes could do so inadvertently.
Saddam also might try to strike Israel or Saudi Arabia with Scud missiles tipped with chemical or biological weapons.
Air Force Secretary James Roche said Sunday that the mobile missiles posed a threat that the United States did not know how to counter. "In 1991, we did a horrible job of destroying Scud missiles" that Iraq fired into Israel, Roche said, "and it's not clear how well we would do now."
One military officer recalled the armed forces' "gung-ho" attitude in 1991 when called upon to drive Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, and contrasted it with today's reservations.
"People were ready to go. People were ready to volunteer," the officer said. "There's nothing like that now."
Some military and civilian officials say they're deeply troubled that in their private deliberations and public pronouncements, Bush and his top lieutenants gloss over the serious consequences that an invasion could have for the war on terrorism and for the Middle East.
Bush and his aides have tended to emphasize the benefits for the region of overthrowing Saddam, such as the spread of democracy through the Middle East. Iraqis "can one day join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world," the president told the United Nations in mid-September.
But Cheney, Rumsfeld and others are ignoring intelligence reports and analysis they don't like, the officials say.
"There is group-think among the leadership," said one Pentagon official.
It's impossible to predict how an American invasion of Iraq would affect Bush's war on terrorism or U.S. allies in the Middle East and South Asia, but intelligence analysts have concluded that some of the following are possible:
_ Such an attack, especially if it involves large-scale civilian casualties, could inflame Muslim sensibilities and help al-Qaida recruit more would-be terrorists.
_ The U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan and stabilize the fragile interim government of President Hamid Karzai could be undercut if Afghans become convinced that Washington has more urgent business elsewhere and is reverting to its historic pattern of turning its back on Afghanistan.
Perhaps the greatest concern is the impact a U.S. invasion of Iraq could have on nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and their conflict over the divided Kashmir region.
Some intelligence experts think an invasion could spark huge street demonstrations in Pakistan, threatening the stability of the country's pro-U.S. president, Pervez Musharraf.
Musharraf then would be under enormous pressure to make concessions to the country's powerful Islamists, which could include lifting restraints on infiltration by Islamic militants from Pakistan into the Indian-held side of Kashmir.
Senior Indian officials, who in recent days have talked about adopting Bush's new national-security strategy of preventive strikes, could respond by attacking Kashmiri militant camps in Pakistan, a step Musharraf already has threatened to counter by attacking India.