WASHINGTON — A former CIA director who advocated war against Saddam Hussein helped arrange the debriefing of an Iraqi defector who falsely claimed that Iraq had biological-warfare laboratories disguised as yogurt and milk trucks.
R. James Woolsey's role as a go-between was detailed in a classified Defense Department report chronicling how the defector's assertion came to be included in the Bush administration's case for war even after the defector was determined to be a fabricator.
A senior U.S. official summarized portions of the report for Knight Ridder on condition of anonymity because it's top secret. The report said that on Feb. 11, 2002, Woolsey telephoned Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Linton Wells about the defector and told him how to contact the man, who'd been produced by an Iraqi exile group eager to oust Saddam. Wells said he passed the information to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Woolsey's previously undisclosed role in the case of Maj. Mohammad Harith casts new light on how prominent invasion advocates outside the government used their ties to senior officials in the Bush administration to help make the case for war.
There's no indication that Woolsey was aware that Harith's information was unreliable.
By using his Pentagon contacts, Woolsey provided a direct pipeline to the government for Harith's information that bypassed the CIA, which for years had been highly distrustful of the exile group that produced Harith.
The Senate Intelligence Committee didn't address that issue last week in its 511-page report on Iraq intelligence.
The report largely blamed the CIA for hyping and misreading intelligence that buttressed President Bush's charges that Saddam had devastating weapons that he could use against the United States or give to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
Francis Brooke, Washington representative of the Iraqi National Congress, the exile group that produced Harith and other defectors, said intermediaries such as Woolsey and former Pentagon official Richard Perle, another leading war advocate, contacted the Bush administration multiple times on the INC's behalf.
Such referrals were an efficient way to get potentially crucial intelligence to the government, Brooke said. He stressed that the INC made no claims about the defectors' veracity and it was up to U.S. officials to decide whether to use their information.
The Senate Intelligence Committee assessed the Harith case and found that intelligence analysts thought his claim was crucial in appearing to corroborate allegations by another defector, code-named Curve Ball, the main source of claims that Iraq had developed mobile biological-weapons facilities to deceive U.N. weapons inspectors.
The allegation was one of the most dramatic made by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior administration officials.
The Senate committee's report said Harith, whom it identified only as an "INC source," was brought to the DIA's attention "by Washington-based representatives of the INC in February 2002."
After several meetings, a DIA debriefer concluded that some of Harith's information "seemed accurate, but much of it appeared embellished" and he apparently "had been coached on what information to provide."
Those findings weren't included in the initial DIA report on Harith, which noted that he'd passed a lie detector test, the Senate committee said.
However, further intelligence assessments in April, May and July 2002 questioned his credibility—including a "fabricator notice" issued by the DIA. Nevertheless, Harith's claim was included in an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and cited by Bush in his January 2003 State of the Union message.
There's no indication in the Senate Intelligence Committee report why Bush and other top administration officials used Harith's information after it was found by intelligence professionals to be bogus.
No evidence of a mobile Iraqi biological-weapons program has been found. Two truck trailers were found that appeared to match defectors' descriptions, but U.S. intelligence analysts and other experts remain divided over their purpose. Some think they were for making hydrogen for weather balloons.
Woolsey is an influential Washington insider who's on the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group. He served as CIA director from 1993 to 1995 and has close ties to top administration officials by virtue of stints in senior defense and diplomatic positions since the 1970s.
He's also close to the Iraqi National Congress, the former emigre group led by Ahmad Chalabi, whom U.S. intelligence agencies now suspect of passing highly classified American secrets to Iran. Chalabi vehemently denies the charge.
American intelligence agencies have determined that information on Iraqi weapons from defectors produced by the INC's Information Collection Program, a multimillion-dollar U.S.-funded effort to gather intelligence on Iraq, was marginal at best, and sometimes fabricated or exaggerated. Intelligence officials also think that the INC security official who handled the defectors was an Iranian agent.
In 2000, Woolsey served briefly as a corporate officer for the INC unit that handled U.S. funding, the Iraqi National Congress Support Foundation. He and his former law firm, Shea and Gardner, did pro bono work for the INC and Iraqi exiles.
Chalabi, Brooke and other INC officials said they did their utmost to assess defectors' claims before turning them over to U.S. officials. They denied knowingly providing unreliable informants or coaching them on what to say.
Typically, defectors are "walk-ins" who contact U.S. embassies and undergo scrutiny for reliability. In other cases it takes American intelligence professionals many months of painstaking work to recruit defectors, and those efforts are begun only after the potential value of the target's information is rigorously assessed.
Woolsey denied in a brief exchange with a Knight Ridder reporter July 1 that he brought Harith to the Defense Department's attention. He declined to respond to multiple efforts to contact him this week after Knight Ridder learned new details of the Harith case.
The classified Pentagon report said that on Feb. 11, 2002, Woolsey telephoned Wells, who at that time oversaw the Defense Intelligence Agency, with word that the INC had produced Harith. Wells then informed the DIA through an "executive referral" how to contact Harith through the INC's headquarters in London.
Wells confirmed details of the report in an e-mail to Knight Ridder.
"I discussed the issue of an individual with information on Iraq weapons of mass destruction with intelligence community members," he said. "They said they would follow up. I never met with any member of the INC."
Wells said he didn't know that the DIA, the CIA and the State Department had warned policymakers for years that they considered the INC's information unreliable.
"I was aware that sources always need to be vetted and this instance would be no different," he said. "This was not a big deal. It was simply a tip that needed to get to folks working the issue."
According to the Pentagon report, two DIA officers met with Chalabi later that day, and he arranged for them to interview Harith.
Harith reportedly claimed that he was a major in Saddam's intelligence service attached to a unit involved in concealing banned weapons.
In a March 2002 interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes," Harith claimed that he'd purchased seven Renault refrigerated trucks for conversion into biological warfare laboratories. In a videotaped interview with INC officials, reported two weeks later by the Sunday Times of London, he said the vehicles were disguised as milk and yogurt trucks.
Harith wasn't identified in either instance, but a senior U.S. official confirmed that he was the same man.
Woolsey was among the most outspoken advocates outside of government for invading Iraq.
In television appearances and in articles, he suggested that Saddam's Iraq was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax poisonings. He has also been critical of the CIA's intelligence-gathering on Iraq.
"We can work a lot more closely with Iraqi defectors. The Defense Department has been willing to do that," he said in a September 2002 television appearance. "The State Department and the CIA have been somewhat reluctant."
On July 1, Woolsey said his only role as an intermediary occurred shortly before the invasion of Iraq, when he heard about "an urgent threat" by Iraq to U.S. naval forces in the Middle East. "I called a military officer" and passed on the information, he said.
A former senior U.S. government official confirmed that Woolsey called Vice Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, then the DIA director, just before the war. Woolsey went to Wilson's house that evening, and the DIA chief put him in touch by secure phone with a DIA Iraq analyst, said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said he felt that Woolsey was sincerely concerned and trying to get the information to the U.S. government in a legitimate way.
He said he also recalled "a referral or two" from Woolsey regarding defectors.
As for sources introduced via executive referrals, "If anything, our position was to give them more, not less, scrutiny," he said.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.