WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials with access to top-secret intelligence on Iraq say they have detected no alarming increase in the threat that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein poses to American security and Middle East stability.
But some top officials, notably Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, argue that American intelligence can't be counted on to spot Iraqi nuclear, biological or chemical weapons breakthroughs in time to defend against them. Therefore, Cheney, Rumsfeld and other officials say, the United States has no choice but to remove Saddam before he can use such weapons or give them to terrorists.
It has long been known that Iraq is aggressively trying to rebuild its nuclear, chemical, biological-warfare and long-range missile programs. U.S.-led forces destroyed some of these weapons and production sites during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and U.N. inspectors eliminated more of them afterward.
Since Saddam blocked inspections in 1998, Iraq secretly has been trying to buy weapons-related materials and technologies and to repair plants that could be used to produce weapons, some senior officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But there is no new intelligence that indicates the Iraqis have made significant advances in their nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programs, said a U.S. intelligence official who argues that Cheney's and Rumsfeld's focus on Iraq is hurting the hunt for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
"Do I have a smoking gun? No," said another U.S. official. "Can I tell you we've been looking like crazy? Yes."
Still another senior administration official said the Bush administration was finishing classified and unclassified versions of a report on Iraq for Congress, allies and other countries, but that it contained no dramatic new evidence that Iraq had made major advances on weapons of mass destruction or was supporting the al-Qaida terrorist network.
The absence of intelligence pointing to a spike in the Iraqi threat contrasts sharply with Cheney's warnings that Saddam soon will have a nuclear bomb, could move on his neighbors or could supply a weapon of mass destruction to terrorists.
The administration's failure to present hard evidence publicly has cost it significant support on Iraq from the American public and Congress. Many U.S. allies and other nations oppose an attack.
Yet it is precisely the absence of specific evidence that seems to have President Bush so worried about Iraq's capabilities.
"The things that we know that we don't know are part of the president's calculation and would have to be part of the Congress' calculation if we respond to this," Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, said after a classified briefing by Rumsfeld on Wednesday.
Rumsfeld has long questioned the abilities of U.S. intelligence agencies to predict threats in time for the United States to eliminate them.
"The question is . . . whether the nature and magnitude of a particular threat will be perceived with sufficient clarity in time to take appropriate action," said a 1998 report by a commission Rumsfeld chaired on the global spread of long-range missiles.
The report warned that it could take less time for Iraq, Iran and North Korea to develop missiles capable of reaching the United States than intelligence analysts thought possible.
Rumsfeld and Cheney separately have cited the U.S. intelligence community's failure to accurately assess Iraq's nuclear weapons program before the Gulf War. Both pointed out that after the war, U.N. inspectors found Iraq had been far closer to building a bomb than previous intelligence estimates of five to 10 years.
The fear that Iraq is closer to obtaining a nuclear device than estimated, the huge numbers of deaths that weapons of mass destruction could cause and Saddam's long history of aggression, deception and defiance appear to be the driving forces behind Bush's determination to oust him.
The question before the nation is whether these are sufficient grounds for sending tens of thousands of young Americans to war.
Bush has stressed that he has made no decision on how to topple the Iraqi leader. He said he would outline his reasons for ousting Saddam when he spoke at the United Nations next Thursday.
Cheney, in the administration's most detailed explanation so far, said Iraq had been "very busy" improving its chemical weapons and biological agents and that many top officials were convinced that Saddam would obtain a nuclear bomb "fairly soon."
"Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could . . . be expected to seek domination over the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten American's friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail," Cheney asserted Aug. 26 at a Veterans of Foreign War convention in Nashville, Tenn.
Rumsfeld on Wednesday suggested that concrete evidence that Saddam is planning to use weapons of mass destruction or to supply them to terrorists might not be needed.
"You may want that kind of knowledge in a law enforcement case, where we're interested in protecting the rights of the accused," he said. "You may have a different conclusion if you're talking about the deaths of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children. We're not talking about combatants here. We're talking about the kinds of people who were killed on September 11."
U.S. intelligence officials said evidence actually suggested that Saddam had been careful to keep al Qaida at arms' length to avoid giving Bush an excuse to invade Iraq.
These officials said the consensus in the American intelligence community was that Saddam was more concerned with eliminating any domestic threat to his grip on power and ensuring that he was succeeded by one of his sons, Uday and Qusai.
Another part of this view is that Saddam didn't use gas against the Americans in 1991 and there's considerable skepticism that he would invite devastating retaliation by doing so now. And while he played host to terrorists in the past, they haven't been active while living in Iraq.
The officials insisted on anonymity because of the sensitive nature of intelligence information and an apparent desire not to be seen as disputing administration policy.
Sanctions, U.S. military containment and unobstructed U.N. inspections are the best way to prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction, say critics of the administration's plan.
Former President Carter, in an opinion article this week, wrote: "In the face of intense monitoring and overwhelming American military superiority, any belligerent move by Hussein against a neighbor, even the smallest nuclear test (necessary before weapons construction), a tangible threat to use a weapon of mass destruction, or sharing technology with terrorist organizations would be suicidal."