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Senator accuses Bush, Cheney of exaggerating ties between Saddam, al-Qaida

WASHINGTON—A senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday accused President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney of exaggerating the links between deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin's charge indicated that the committee's long-awaited report on flawed U.S. intelligence on Iraq, due to be released on Friday, would do little to quell feuding over how forthright Bush was in making his case for last year's invasion of Iraq.

Levin told a news conference that the report by the Republican-controlled panel would be "intensely and extensively critical" of the CIA for producing a key 2002 assessment that wrongly claimed that Iraq was hiding illegal weapons programs.

But the report, he said, would paint "only half the picture" because it wouldn't examine "the central issue of the administration's exaggerations of the intelligence that was provided to them."

"As the Intelligence Committee report to be released tomorrow will indicate, the CIA intelligence was way off, full of exaggerations and errors, mainly on weapons of mass destruction," Levin said. "But it was Vice President Cheney along with other policymakers who exaggerated the Iraq-al-Qaida relationship."

Kevin Kellems, a spokesman for Cheney, said Cheney's assertions have reflected the judgment of the intelligence community.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has said that the administration's portrayal of the intelligence on Iraq would be the focus of a second phase of the inquiry. His spokeswoman, Sarah Ross, confirmed Thursday that these issues would be addressed in the second phase. She said she didn't expect any conclusions in the second phase until after the August recess at the earliest.

A senior Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because the report hadn't been released, disputed Levin's contention that the document ignored the administration's assertion that Saddam was allied with Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

"It's all about politics," he contended.

To bolster his charges, Levin released a new unclassified CIA finding that cast serious doubt on Cheney's repeated suggestions that Mohamed Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers may have met with Ahmed al Ani, a senior Iraqi intelligence officer, in the Czech capital of Prague five months before the attacks.

The CIA finding said that the Iraqi intelligence officer, who is in U.S. custody, "denied ever having met Atta." The agency could confirm that Atta was in the Czech Republic only during a 1994 stopover en route to Syria and a departure for the United States in June 2000.

"Although we cannot rule it out, we are increasingly skeptical that (the April 2001) meeting took place," said the CIA's most definitive statement on the issue to date. "In the absence of any credible information that the April 2001 meeting occurred, we assess that Atta would have been unlikely to undertake the substantial risk of contacting any Iraqi official as late as April 2001, with the plot already well along toward execution."

"This newly released unclassified statement by the CIA demonstrates that it was the administration, not the CIA, that exaggerated relations between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida," contended Levin.

The CIA submitted the finding to Levin on July 1 in response to a query from the senator about whether agency officials believed Atta had met al Ani.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said the CIA had provided a similar assessment to senior Bush administration officials months before the invasion.

The issue is important because Bush, Cheney and other senior officials contended that Saddam had close ties to al-Qaida and had to be ousted before he could arm the terrorist network with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to attack the United States.

While the Bush administration never directly accused Saddam of complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks, public opinion surveys before the invasion showed that large majorities of Americans were persuaded that the former Iraqi dictator was involved.

The CIA, the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks and other experts have said that Iraq and al-Qaida had contacts during the 1990s, but there's no evidence that they cooperated in attacks on Americans.

Levin also released a newly declassified slide of a Pentagon assessment of links between Saddam and al-Qaida that had been given to Cheney and the White House in September 2002, but was omitted from the version provided to the CIA a month earlier.

The Pentagon in November 2003 disavowed the assessment, which was produced for Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith by officials with no formal training as intelligence analysts, after it was leaked to the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

The declassified slide criticized the CIA's analysis and appeared aimed at persuading the White House to accept the Pentagon view that they were in league.

Entitled "Fundamental Problems with How Intelligence Community is Assessing Information," the slide said the CIA was setting a standard for evidence of Iraq's cooperation with al-Qaida "that it would not normally obtain."

Meanwhile, George Tenet, who's retiring on Sunday after seven years as CIA chief, braced agency staffers for the critical findings of the Senate report in a farewell address at the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters.

He praised the CIA's analysts and spies for their "passion, creativity, intellect and daring," and said that "the American people know of your honesty and integrity."

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Alan Bjerga contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Carl Levin

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