WASHINGTON—The Bush administration backed away Tuesday from claims that Cuba has an offensive biological weapons effort, acknowledging in a report to Congress that "there is a split view" among intelligence analysts on the question.
The report says instead that Cuba has the "technical capability" to pursue biological weapons research and development because of its advanced pharmaceutical industry. But it leaves open the critical question of whether it has done so.
The State Department report apparently marks the first time that the U.S. government has publicly softened its earlier charge, which has been controversial from the outset.
Then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton had tried to reassign two intelligence analysts at the State Department and National Intelligence Council who had challenged Bolton's view that Cuba had biowar capabilities, according to testimony at Bolton's nomination hearing to become United Nations ambassador.
Democrats prevented a full Senate vote on Bolton's nomination. President Bush circumvented lawmakers with a recess appointment on Aug. 1.
The 108-page State Department report, mandated by Congress, assesses other nations' compliance with their arms-control obligations.
It repeats U.S. charges that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon in violation of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
However, on a positive note, it states that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has lived up to promises to dismantle his country's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs.
The new finding on Cuba is based on a U.S. intelligence-community-wide assessment, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, completed last year.
In that estimate, which is classified, "the Intelligence Community unanimously held that it was unclear whether Cuba has an active biological weapons effort now, or even had one in the past," the State Department report states.
A senior State Department official, briefing reporters on the document, said biological weapons programs are "some of the most difficult activities to verify" because the facilities needed are small.
Also, the technologies needed to make bioweapons are in some cases indistinguishable from those necessary for a pharmaceutical industry or for constructing defenses against biological weapons, which is permitted under international law.
The senior official, briefing on condition of anonymity, said the report was written to reflect that "there are a couple different views within the administration" on Cuba's efforts.
Cuba has denied any biological weapons work.
The classified evidence behind the U.S. charges has never been detailed publicly, but it's believed to include interviews with Cubans who worked in such programs and Cuban biotechnology sales to Iran.
The new stance on Cuba's efforts is a retreat from the unequivocal language in a previous report in June 2003. That document stated: "The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited, developmental offensive biological warfare research and development effort."
Tuesday's report states that while U.S. intelligence agencies are divided, policymakers believe the earlier statement "remains correct."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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