WASHINGTON — Dramatic claims by President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other top officials that Iraq was hiding vast stocks of banned weapons so far have proven to be without foundation, raising serious questions about whether U.S. intelligence on Iraq was twisted for political reasons—or simply wrong.
The failure almost two months after major combat ended to find solid evidence of chemical, biological and nuclear arms in Iraq has undercut Bush's justification for the war and complicated his quest to get international backing for a tough stance against Iran and North Korea. It also has prompted calls for congressional investigations.
Senior U.S. intelligence officers said that CIA chief George Tenet resisted insistent pressure from some quarters—particularly the Pentagon—to shape intelligence estimates on Iraq to provide backing from the war.
But those charges miss the point and mask a larger, more important and far more troubling intelligence failure, the officers said Monday.
"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.
The lack of an extensive spy network inside Iraq left the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department at a disadvantage in the bitter inter-agency battle over Iraq intelligence that preceded the war, this official and others said.
Pentagon civilians, supported by Vice President Cheney's office and some officials on the National Security Council staff, were pushing more alarmist views, based in part on intelligence and defectors made available by exile groups with their own agendas, particularly the Iraqi National Congress. The exiles' data was fed to a special, unit established by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.
"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 political 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."
U.S. personnel in Iraq on Monday began a fresh search for evidence of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, and U.S. officials said the renewed effort would not rely on intelligence supplied by the INC and its head, former banker Ahmed Chalabi.
Powell, whose credibility is on the line because of his dramatic February presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Iraq's WMD, said the beefed-up U.S. search would be "the most extensive regime imaginable."
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," he said during a press conference in Rome.
So far, however, checks of hundreds of major sites—many of which were also bombed during the Iraq war—have not turned up conclusive evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
Top Bush administration officials say some 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 Powell described in his February presentation.
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.
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.
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 from charges of politicization.
"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."
But the CIA lost most of its covert network in Iraq in a series of reversals during the 1990s.
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 agency officials in Jordan 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, Washington wasn't serious about overthrowing Saddam, officials have said.
The senior 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.)