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WSJ: War relied on shaky intelligence

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The Case for War Relied

On Selective Intelligence

Bush Team Bypassed Internal Disputes

In Laying Out Evidence of Iraqi Weapons



WASHINGTON -- In a classified report last fall, the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Iraq appeared to have resumed work on obtaining nuclear weapons -- a finding that President Bush began trumpeting.

But one important fact was kept secret: Some State and Energy department analysts dissented, arguing there wasn't enough evidence to support that conclusion. "Whole agencies ... were in disagreement" with the October report, says Greg Thielmann, an intelligence official at the State Department who was responsible for Iraq until retiring last fall.

The episode underscores an important point about prewar U.S. intelligence findings on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction: Much of it wasn't very solid, and the fragmentary information sometimes produced fierce internal disagreements about its meaning.

Yet those shades of gray were washed out in pronouncements by administration policy makers eager to win United Nations support for military action. The transformation of intelligence from uncertain analysis to seemingly hard fact lies at the heart of a burgeoning political storm over how information on Iraqi weapons was gathered, analyzed and disseminated.

Worried that intelligence agencies could face blame for providing poor information, officials at some agencies have begun defending their work more openly in recent days. "The process was somewhat reversed -- not intelligence informing policy, but policy makers going to the intelligence community to find ways to sell the policy that was predetermined," says a senior intelligence analyst involved in Iraq.


U.S. intelligence reports on Iraq's weapons programs were less clear-cut than President Bush's public assertions in the months leading up to the war.


Uranium The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Jan. 28, 2003 The CIA had doubts about the report beginning in 2002, later concluded the British had been fooled by forged documents.

Aluminum Tubes Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Jan. 28, 2003 A major debate raged over the topic in intelligence circles; many State and Energy Dept. officials felt the tubes were unsuitable for use in centrifuges for making nuclear weapons.

Chemical Agents We know that the regime has produced thousands of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas, VX nerve gas. Oct. 7, 2002 U.S. intelligence agencies knew Iraq had produced and used chemical agents in the 1980s and early 1990s, but had no direct evidence that it still had stockpiles.

Biological Agents Iraq has 'a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for…capable of killing millions. Oct. 7, 2002 Intelligence officials were never sure that Iraq still possessed biological agents, only that it had not accounted for agents it had produced years ago and claimed to have destroyed.

Doug Feith, undersecretary for defense policy, contested that complaint as controversy about the matter escalated Wednesday. At an unusual Pentagon news conference called to dispute reports his office had set up a small team of analysts to supplement the CIA's work, Mr. Feith said he didn't know of pressure by Pentagon officials on CIA or other analysts to conform to the administration's view of the threat posed by Iraq. "This suggestion that we said to them, 'This is what we're looking for, go find it,' is precisely the inaccuracy that we are here to rebut," he asserted.

But there is no sign the issue is going away. Several congressional committees have announced inquiries into U.S. intelligence on Iraq. The CIA itself has brought back several former analysts to compare prewar intelligence reports with whatever is found in Iraq to assess whether there were flaws. Democratic presidential candidate Bob Graham said Wednesday that President Bush should be held accountable if intelligence was exaggerated. "It would raise serious questions about the political leadership that engaged in that manipulation and the misleading of the American people," said Mr. Graham, former chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

This week, the British Parliament launched two similar investigations, and Mr. Bush's strongest wartime ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, has suffered significant political damage over the weapons issue. "The whole credibility of his government depends on clearing this up," said Iain Duncan Smith, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, which strongly backed the war.

Intelligence officials insist they didn't overstate what they knew. They say agencies were scrupulous about including contrary evidence and agency disagreements in formal reports presented to senior officials. That approach was dictated by CIA Director George Tenet, who since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has worried about criticism of the quality of U.S. intelligence.

But Mr. Tenet, despite close relations with the president, couldn't stop administration officials from dropping those nuances when they made their arguments against Iraq. "He tells them this ... is how we would say it, but if somebody decides to do it differently, that's OK," explains a senior intelligence official. Mr. Tenet, whose spokesman said he wasn't granting interviews, released a statement saying, "The integrity of our process was maintained throughout, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong."

White House officials say that Mr. Bush and other officials were careful in public statements not to exaggerate what was known about Iraq's weapons activities. It is also still possible that significant weapons stockpiles or documents revealing more about what Iraq was doing will be uncovered in coming months and years, they say. "It's a process that continues, and it will take a lot of time," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Days after completion of October's formal assessment of Iraq's weapons programs, Mr. Bush himself glossed over a debate on whether the attempted purchase of aluminum tubes was evidence of an active nuclear program. CIA weapons experts insisted the tubes were suitable as rotors for gas centrifuges used in making nuclear-weapons material. But analysts from the Department of Energy's nuclear labs were dubious, according to officials involved. They argued that coatings on the tubes aimed at preventing corrosion were inconsistent with use in centrifuges. More likely, the tubes were intended for making rockets, some U.S. analysts argued.

In a speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, Mr. Bush made no reference to this disagreement. "Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons," he said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell spent days culling intelligence about Iraq's weapons activities before his Feb. 7 presentation to the U.N. Security Council. He decided not to refer to an intelligence report that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium oxide -- material for nuclear weapons known as yellow cake -- from African countries, including Niger. According to two senior officials, some U.S. intelligence analysts had been suspicious for months of the reports, one of which was later deemed a forgery.

Yet only a month earlier, Mr. Bush had cited one of the reports in his State of the Union address. "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he said.

Officials now conclude the U.S.'s ability to see inside Iraq's weapons programs was always sketchy. Analysts across the intelligence community were in rough agreement that Iraq probably had hidden stocks of chemical nerve agents. An unclassified version of October's report on Iraq's weapons activities asserted that "Baghdad has begun renewed production of chemical warfare agents." Yet none have been found so far in more than a month of searching by Pentagon inspectors.

Bush administration officials suggest that Iraq destroyed its weapons stocks just before the troops arrived. But some experts have a different theory. They say Iraq may have been focused on keeping intact the brainpower and hardware for making chemical and biological agents -- not on producing the weapons themselves.

Iraq had made biological and chemical weapons in the past. Restarting production would have been easy -- once the inspectors went away -- as long as facilities and scientists were available, but getting caught with actual weapons stockpiles was too risky, this theory holds.

-- Marc Champion contributed to this article.

Write to David S. Cloud at [email protected]

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