WASHINGTON - The Bush administration pressed the CIA in the run-up to the war on Iraq to look for evidence of close cooperation between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, but the agency found no proof, according to an internal CIA intelligence review.
The review also reaffirmed that U.S. intelligence agencies had no credible reports that Saddam knew in advance about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Some members of Congress and other critics contend that the Bush administration, in arguing for military action against Iraq, exaggerated the links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
Several recent public opinion polls have found that a majority of Americans were convinced there was clear evidence of connections between Iraq and al-Qaida.
A majority of Americans also think Bush administration officials implied that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, although only a minority of Americans came to believe that.
Senior U.S. officials who were skeptical of the administration's case for going to war with Iraq have said there were contacts between al-Qaida members and Iraqis and that Islamic extremists associated with al-Qaida were in Iraq. But, these officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, there was never any compelling evidence that Saddam provided support or weapons to al-Qaida for terrorism against Americans.
The internal CIA review is examining the agency's performance during the year before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in analyzing intelligence on weapons of mass destruction programs and ties between Saddam and al-Qaida. It also has been looking at the CIA's predictions of how long the war would last and what postwar Iraq would look like.
The review is ongoing and hasn't been made public. Preliminary findings were delivered to the CIA in mid-June.
Richard Kerr, a former senior CIA official who's overseeing the review, told Knight Ridder in an interview Thursday that the agency was "pushed hard" by the administration to "make judgments" on whether there was any evidence of close cooperation between Saddam and al-Qaida.
He said it wasn't unusual to have "policy-makers putting pressure on people to make sure they examine the evidence" and ask the right questions, particularly on such an important topic.
The CIA, he said, did a "pretty good job" of analyzing the intelligence and didn't find any proof that Saddam and bin Laden's followers were working together on terrorist operations against the United States.
A senior intelligence official, who asked not to be named because the matter is classified, said there were only several mentions of terrorism in the draft review.
But, he added, it found there was no credible evidence that Saddam had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks or any other terrorist operations.
In the months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Bush and his senior lieutenants charged that Saddam was providing support and refuge to al-Qaida members.
The president, in his State of the Union speech Jan. 28, said, "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaida."
He painted a catastrophic picture of what would happen if Saddam supplied chemical or biological weapons to al-Qaida or helped them develop their own.
"Imagine those 19 hijackers (who committed the Sept. 11 attacks) with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known," he said.
In a speech Feb. 5 to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at length on the presence in Iraq of Islamic extremists associated with al-Qaida and led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a bin Laden collaborator who trained at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan.
Powell cited a series of "secret high-level intelligence contacts" between Iraq and al-Qaida members, and said Saddam provided training in forgery to bin Laden followers. Iraq, he said, also offered chemical and biological weapons training to al-Qaida members.
Senior Powell aides said at the time that the secretary wasn't alleging that Iraq and al-Qaida had cooperated on specific terrorist operations.
The Senate and House intelligence committees are conducting closed-door reviews of the intelligence Bush used to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.