Intelligence questions

You can't call it "WMDgate" yet, but the chorus of criticism aimed at the Bush administration for overselling, or misleading, the public and lawmakers about the existence and threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is climbing rapidly up the decibel meter.

Six weeks after the war, the search for biological and chemical weapons in Iraq is still fruitless. Members of Congress, foreign governments, the media, and, perhaps most ominously, a growing number of intelligence insiders are questioning the accuracy of pre-war intelligence on Iraq's weapons and whether it was hyped to build support for going to war.

The adjectives used to describe key parts of the administration's intelligence-some of them uttered on the record and some of them without attribution-are getting stronger and stronger with each passing day. They range from "spurious" and "intellectually dishonest," to "fraudulent" and "completely unscrupulous."

Vince Cannistraro, a 27-year veteran of the CIA who left in 1991, is one of several former agency officials who say that the administration's intelligence on Iraq's unconventional weapons capabilities now looks way off base. "It was at least incorrect and at the worst fraudulent," says Cannistraro. "The real story is the politicization of intelligence."

Other agency alumni hold similar views. "I don't like the fact that the U.S. government exaggerated that Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction were an imminent threat against U.S. forces or allies in the region," says Robert Baer, a 21-year CIA operative in the Middle East who retired in 1997. "People died. As an American, I'm mad, and I want to know why we're there."

Members of Congress, too, are asking, "Where are the WMD?" The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence this week began examining the issue at its weekly briefings on intelligence. Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat on the committee, says he's "still inclined to believe that some weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq," but he has "grave misgivings" about the administration's pre-war claims. "We'll continue to press and probe and try to get people who know the information," Rockefeller added. In addition, the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services panels are expected to work together on reviews of CIA documents relating to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and could launch a broader joint investigation later this year.

Meanwhile, in a May 22 letter, Reps. Porter Goss, R-Fla., and Jane Harman, D-Calif., the chairman and ranking Democrat respectively on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, asked CIA Director George J. Tenet some tough questions. The House committee, the letter said, is "interested in learning, in detail, how the intelligence picture regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was developed," and it asked for answers by July 1. The letter also pressed Tenet to explain "how the CIA's analysis of Iraq's linkages to terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, was derived."

Now some Republicans are accusing the Democrats of making partisan hay out of the situation. Goss, for instance, told National Journal, "There's no question that partisan politics has crept into the debate.... This is largely a media event so far." But Goss, a former CIA official himself, said the administration's intelligence product warranted a committee review, which will likely lead to hearings later this year.

The administration is starting to mount a defense, albeit with conflicting messages and some backtracking from its broader pre-war claims. On his recent European trip, President Bush went on Polish television and declared that two mobile trailers found in Iraq, which contained fermenters capable of making biological weapons, proved the administration's case. "We found the weapons of mass destruction," he said. "We found biological laboratories."

Moreover, in a highly unusual move, Tenet in a written statement defended intelligence on Iraq, saying that the "integrity of our process was maintained throughout, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong." The CIA had earlier announced that it had started a review to analyze how its pre-war assessments of the Iraqi threat measured up against what was being discovered after the war.

Tenet's statement came in response to a memo written to Bush, and posted on some Internet sites, by a group of retired CIA and State analysts known as Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. The memo declared that there was "growing mistrust and cynicism" among professionals about the intelligence that the administration's top officials, including Bush, cited to justify the war against Iraq.

These concerns certainly weren't allayed when Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy Defense secretary, told Vanity Fair last month that although there were three fundamental worries about Iraq's regime-its support for terrorism, criminal treatment of its own citizens, and weapons of mass destruction-"the truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction, as the core reason" for the war.

Indeed, senior administration officials hammered that theme home constantly in the months preceding the war. Last August 26, for instance, Vice President Dick Cheney, addressing a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, flatly declared, "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

Further, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in his February 5 presentation to the United Nations stated, "We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, he's determined to make more." And last October, Wolfowitz said that Saddam "will not easily give up those horrible weapons that he has worked so hard and paid such a high price to develop and retain."

For many critics, the primary problem with the pre-war assessments of the Iraqi threat was that the administration slighted more-conservative and more-nuanced intelligence reports on Iraq from the CIA, while relying too heavily on more-aggressive and more-pessimistic intelligence provided by a small and secretive unit that the Pentagon set up in late 2001 called the Office of Special Plans. The real mission of OSP, critics allege, was to amass intelligence to help administration hard-liners make their case that the threat posed by Iraq was imminent.

Cannistraro, along with other former CIA officials, charges that the OSP "incorporated a lot of debatable intelligence, and it was not coordinated with the intelligence community." Other intelligence veterans also point out that the Pentagon unit relied a great deal on the Iraqi National Congress and its leader Ahmed Chalabi, who were far from impeccable sources. "Chalabi never provided the CIA anything that could be corroborated," Baer says. "Chalabi had an agenda-he wanted to go back. You can take his information, but you need to caveat it."

Other former intelligence hands say that the caveats didn't happen because of pressures to reach certain conclusions. Larry C. Johnson, who did stints in counterterrorism at both the CIA and the State Department, says he's been told by people still in intelligence that what "they're experiencing now is the worst political pressure" they've ever faced. "Anyone who attempted to challenge or rebut OSP was accused of rocking the boat." Johnson adds that the OSP analysts "came in with an agenda that they were predisposed to believe."

Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst who is research director at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says, "One of the lessons to take away from the Iraq experience is that defectors are often biased and willing to tell the United States what they think we want to hear." The Pentagon and its special unit, he continues, "fought constantly with the CIA. They beat the crap out of the agency and their own analysis. It was a war of attrition, and they ground the agency down."

The real issue, Pollack concludes, "isn't over-reliance on defectors or opposition groups, but that some officials in the administration seem to have run with defector reports and opposition-group claims that other intelligence analysts believe were spurious or of dubious accuracy."

In developing good intelligence, intelligence veterans and others say that competition among agencies can be useful, but poses risks.

"Competition is good, up to a point," Rep. Goss says. But "I'm very much opposed to competition going to the point of obfuscation. This is a race that has to be run freely; you can't trip your opponent in the next lane."

That's what some CIA veterans now say happened in the Bush administration's effort to build its case against Iraq. Particularly troubling to former analysts are the British intelligence reports cited by Bush in this year's State of the Union speech on Iraq's supposed efforts to buy uranium from the Republic of Niger for a nuclear weapons program. The documents, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, are now considered forgeries, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has asked inspectors general at the CIA and the State Department to investigate.

Looking back, weapons experts are skeptical of America's pre-war intelligence on Iraq. "I think it's increasingly unlikely that Iraq was the imminent threat which was at the heart of the administration's case for pre-emptive action," says Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox. "The administration gave the impression that those weapons were deployed and ready to use."

Veteran intelligence operatives fear that the growing doubts about the administration's pre-war intelligence will harm U.S. credibility, especially in the conflict that everyone acknowledges is a direct threat to Americans-the war against terrorism.

"How good other countries believe our intelligence was about Iraq will color how they view our intelligence on other issues," Pollack warns. "If they believe our intelligence on Iraq was greatly exaggerated, either intentionally or unintentionally, then they're likely to be even harder to persuade next time around."

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