WASHINGTON - President Bush and his top aides made prewar claims about Iraq's weapons programs that weren't always backed up by available U.S. intelligence and painted a threatening picture that was far starker than what American spies knew, according to current and former intelligence officials and a review of available documents.
Bush and other White House officials also publicly cited evidence - particularly on Iraq's suspected nuclear-weapons program and ties with terrorists - that on closer examination turned out to be false or debatable.
Senior defense officials confirmed Friday that a report by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency last September expressed significant doubts about whether Saddam Hussein was producing and stockpiling chemical and biological weapons, as Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell all claimed.
"There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has - or will - establish its chemical warfare agent-production facilities," said portions of the report made available to Knight Ridder.
While Iraq had biological stockpiles, "the size of those stockpiles is uncertain and is subject to debate," said the classified report, titled "Iraq: Key Weapons Facilities - An Operational Support Study."
The DIA report and other developments illuminate a growing debate over the White House's use of intelligence on Iraq. So far that debate has revolved largely around allegations of pressure on professional analysts to shade intelligence estimates.
The new developments raise the possibility instead that some U.S. officials, deliberately or inadvertently, magnified what they were told by spy agencies, which had an incomplete picture of Iraq and few sources of their own to fill in the blanks.
The DIA report was completed just as the White House was launching a campaign last fall to make the case that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and terrorist ties presented a grave danger that justified pre-emptive military action.
Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, the DIA's director, said after a private meeting with senators Friday that the report didn't mean that Iraq didn't have caches of chemical and biological weapons, only that his agency couldn't definitively pinpoint them.
"Some people higher up the food chain made the leap from suspicion to conviction," said a senior military official who is critical of how the intelligence was handled.
"I think they honestly believed that, based on how the Iraqis had always behaved in the past and not just because they wanted to scare the public into supporting the war," said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the classified information involved.
In a speech Oct. 7 in Cincinnati, Bush said the Iraqi regime "possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons." Powell told a television interviewer Sept. 8: "There is no doubt that (Saddam) has chemical weapons stocks."
The DIA report, whose existence was first reported by U.S. News & World Report magazine, illustrates how intelligence reports were much more equivocal. That reflected the shortfalls in U.S. spying capabilities in Iraq and the uncertain nature of the intelligence profession, officials have said.
"It's looking like in truth the Iraqi (weapons) program was gray. The Bush administration was trying to say it was black," said former CIA Iraq expert Kenneth Pollack, who's now at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a research center.
Pollack, who advocated a war to overthrow Saddam, said he believes more evidence of Iraqi weapons activity will be found.
But on Iraq's suspected nuclear-weapons development, which for him and other analysts was the most alarming program, "we've clearly uncovered nothing" so far, he said.
The U.S. military has captured two Iraqi mobile laboratories apparently designed for biological arms, although no traces of germ weapons were found.
The failure by search teams nearly two months after the war's end to find chemical, biological or nuclear caches in Iraq has led to growing questions about the war, on Capitol Hill and in allied capitals.
It also has re-ignited vitriolic behind-the-scenes battles in Washington that have put administration hawks who advocated war on the defensive.
"The knives are out," said more than one official.
Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's No. 3 official, called a news conference Wednesday to deny reports that a special unit in his office had exerted pressure on the intelligence agencies to dramatize the evidence against Iraq.
The CIA is standing by its formal estimates of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, said a senior U.S. intelligence official. Those include an October 2002 report, which stated in part: "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of (United Nations) restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."
"I think it's appropriately caveated," said the senior official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
The report parallels a highly classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which represents the combined views of all U.S. intelligence agencies. The NIE now is being rechecked as part of an internal CIA review.
American intelligence officials expressed cautious optimism this week that they are getting closer to new information on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, after wasting a couple of months chasing bad leads drawn from Iraqi exiles and U.N. weapons inspections that ended in 1998.
Iraqi scientists and officials are beginning to talk after either refusing or repeating ritual denials that Iraq had any such weapons, they said. "We're starting to get better information now from people who initially didn't cooperate," one official said.
Still, along with the missing chemical and biological weapons stocks, several key statements by Bush and his aides have yet to pan out or have been proved false:
-In the president's State of the Union address Jan. 28, he cited a British intelligence report that Iraq sought to import "significant quantities" of uranium from Africa.
Intelligence officials said his statement was based on documents forged by a diplomat in Rome from the African nation of Niger, who made them using a fax machine. The diplomat sold the forgeries to Italian intelligence officials, who dutifully passed them on to the United States and Britain, officials said.
-Bush, Powell and others spoke of Iraq's attempt to import aluminum tubes, which they said could be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
Powell, in a presentation Feb. 5 to the U.N. Security Council, acknowledged there was a debate over the tubes' intended use, but said the majority of U.S. analysts believed they were meant for a nuclear weapons program.
Mohamed El Baradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Security Council a month later that extensive investigation "failed to uncover any evidence that Iraq intended to use these 81-millimeter tubes for any project other than the reverse engineering of rockets."
-Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and, to a lesser degree, Powell charged that Iraq was harboring terrorists, including a major cell linked to al-Qaida. Officials say they stand behind these statements, although no new evidence of terrorist links has emerged publicly since the war's end.
"What happened here is that people who meant well and who had a really aggressive foreign-policy agenda allowed their enthusiasm to overcome them," said Walter P. "Pat" Lang, formerly the DIA's top Middle East analyst.
"In some cases, they managed to push the intel guys back," Lang said, referring to pressure on analysts. "In other cases, where they couldn't do that, they simply ignored them."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)