WASHINGTON — The CIA was justified in telling President Bush and top aides last fall that Saddam Hussein was still seeking weapons of mass destruction, but the agency often lacked precise, up-to-date information about the threat that those weapons posed, an internal CIA review has found.
Former CIA deputy director Richard Kerr, who is leading the study, said he found that the spy agency was "surprisingly consistent" in reporting during the year before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that Baghdad was trying to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
But Kerr, in a telephone interview with Knight Ridder, said the status and locations of those weapons programs was "harder to conclude."
The report, while broadly backing the spy agency, is likely to provide ammunition to critics who say the White House exaggerated the Iraqi threat beyond what was known by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top officials rarely, if ever, mentioned uncertainties about the state of Saddam's weapons programs or the quality of U.S. intelligence when making the case last fall and spring for an invasion of Iraq.
The report on the internal CIA review, which has not been made public, was delivered to the CIA in draft form in mid-June.
Revelations of the CIA findings come as questions continue over the failure of U.S. troops to find unequivocal evidence of active weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs three months after the fall of Saddam's regime.
House and Senate committees are doing their own reviews to determine whether intelligence estimates were slanted under political pressure to dramatize the Iraqi threat and make the case for war.
Kerr, who emphasized that he believes the CIA did a good job on Iraq, said that the CIA's sourcing on Iraq's weapons program in recent years was "less specific and detailed, scattered" than in earlier years. That was particularly true after United Nations weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998, he said.
He said it was reasonable to determine that Saddam was seeking banned weapons, in part because of reports of Iraqi agents trying to covertly acquire materials for WMD.
The report rebuts charges that the intelligence agency erred in concluding that Saddam was still seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
"It is unlikely that even the most critical review of (CIA) reporting would have led to a conclusion that WMD programs were not being pursued," the draft report states, according to a senior intelligence official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kerr, in a subsequent telephone conversation, emphasized that he believes that the CIA, on balance, did a good job on Iraq.
Agency intelligence reports included "appropriate caveats" when there was a lack of specific information, he said. "Their analysis was quite strong on the full range of problems. ¿ As far as we could find, there weren't many gaps."
Kerr said his four-person team looked at all CIA reporting on Iraq, including its daily reports; daily briefings especially for Bush; other special reports and an October 2002 National Intelligence Assessment or NIE, which is the combined judgment of all U.S. intelligence agencies.
An unclassified version of the NIE released by the CIA the same month concluded that Saddam's regime "has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."
In some ways, Kerr's findings of uncertainty in the intelligence picture parallel a September 2002 report on Iraq's chemical weapons program from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.
The DIA concurred with other intelligence agencies that Saddam had an ongoing chemical weapons program in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. But its report, disclosed in part last month, acknowledged significant questions about the state of the poison gas program.
"There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or where Iraq has - or will - establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities," it said.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials have said the White House appears to have made a largely black-and-white case based on information that was piecemeal and far from clear-cut.
Kerr said the strongest indications of Saddam's continuing interest in weapons of mass destruction came from earlier data, before the U.N. inspectors left. Many of the CIA's conclusions were "based on knowledge acquired (before) then, but salted with new information," he said.
Greg Theilman, a former analyst in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, concurred.
Estimates of Saddam's weapons potential were based largely "on information acquired in the early 1990s and then dribs and drabs afterward," said Theilman, who has been critical of the way the administration interpreted Iraq intelligence.