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Controversy Grows Surrounding Prewar Intel

Paul Kerr

FUELED BY A White House admission that discredited intelligence was used in President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have come under increasingly intense scrutiny. As the search for proscribed weapons continues without any actual weapons being found, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Bush administration officials’ unequivocal claims that Iraq possessed militarily significant quantities of weapons of mass destruction were likely flawed and, in some cases, did not accurately reflect the more ambiguous judgments of the intelligence community.

The dispute has gained political traction as U.S. casualties in Iraq continue. Members of Congress and the public have questioned both the veracity of U.S. claims about Iraq and the magnitude of the Iraqi threat at the time of the U.S.-led coalition forces’ March 19 invasion. The controversy has harmed British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s political standing and coincided with a decline in the U.S. public’s confidence about operations in Iraq. Bush could face a new round of questions this fall, with the House and Senate intelligence committees continuing their investigations into intelligence matters when Congress returns from its summer recess.

The controversy has centered around two claims Bush made in the State of the Union speech about Iraq’s suspected nuclear weapons program. The first was that “the British government has learned that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” a reference to a claim that appeared in a September 2002 British report about Iraqi weapons capabilities. The second was that Hussein “has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production” when used in centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

The claims were not limited to the State of the Union address. Bush asserted two days before the invasion that “[i]ntelligence…leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised,” but recent revelations regarding U.S. intelligence on Iraq have raised doubts about that statement. Additionally, UN weapons inspectors—who had been working in Iraq since late November 2002—reported less than two weeks before the invasion that they had found no evidence Iraq had active programs to produce nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

Much of the supporting evidence for the claim about Iraq’s attempts to procure uranium in Africa was known to be weak at the time of Bush’s speech, and UN inspectors further undermined it shortly after, particularly when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in March that documents supporting the claim were forged. Additionally, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published in October 2002, which is said to be the basis for the claims in the speech, contains a dissent by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) that characterizes “claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa” as “highly dubious.”

These facts have raised questions about the process for clearing the information in Bush’s speech. Bush first tried to pin the blame on the CIA, claiming July 14 that the speech was “cleared by the CIA.” Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet stated July 11 that his agency cleared the speech but should not have allowed the language to appear in the final draft.

Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, however, acknowledged July 22 that the CIA had previously warned him that the information might be inaccurate, and White House speechwriters subsequently removed the information from an October 7, 2002, presidential speech. Hadley said he should have removed it from the State of the Union address but that he had forgotten the CIA warnings.

Hadley also said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was informed about the CIA’s warnings, but Rice claimed July 30 that she did not remember seeing them. A senior administration official said July 18 that Rice did not read the INR dissents in the NIE.

Although Rice said July 13 that the uranium line should not have been included in the State of the Union address, she claimed that the statement was still accurate because it referred to British intelligence that originates from sources that have not yet been discredited. Washington does not have access to that information, she added. Blair said July 17 that his government continues to stand by the intelligence, but Tenet stated that the CIA “expressed reservations” to British officials about the uranium information before the United Kingdom published its September 2002 report.

Bush’s second claim was that Hussein tried to buy specialized aluminum tubes that could be used for producing material for nuclear weapons. The October 2002 NIE states that Iraq was attempting to obtain such tubes for use as rotors in a gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility but notes that part of the intelligence community disagreed on this point. Uranium enrichment has civilian uses, but it also can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the UN Security Council in March that IAEA experts concluded that it was “unlikely” Iraq was procuring the tubes for centrifuges.

Bush administration officials also continue to argue that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons at the time of the U.S.-led invasion. Although U.S. pre-inspections intelligence is more consistent with administration statements that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons, it still contains qualifiers that were not reflected in the administration’s public statements. (See ACT, July/August 2003.)

Shifting Rationale for War

Meanwhile, administration officials have downplayed the importance of the intelligence controversy, arguing that evidence of Hussein’s malicious motivations and his residual capability to develop and use weapons of mass destruction, along with uncertainty surrounding Iraq’s suspected weapons programs, provided sufficient basis for determining that Iraq was a threat. This level of certainty satisfied the White House because the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States made the administration less tolerant of perceived risks of catastrophic terrorism, according to officials’ statements.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained this argument to the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, stating that the U.S.-led coalition did not invade Iraq “because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of WMD; we acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light—through the prism of our experience on 9/11.”

Although critics have argued that inspections should have been given more time to succeed, the administration contended that this course was futile because Iraq was deceiving inspectors and refused to cooperate fully with them.

UN inspectors, however, also reported that they saw no evidence that Iraqi agents had infiltrated the organization or were moving prohibited weapons materials to avoid detection. They told the Security Council in March that Iraqi cooperation with the inspectors was increasing, albeit marginally. (See ACT, April 2003.)

In addition, intelligence reports had suggested that inspections could contain Iraq’s nuclear programs. For example, the October 2002 NIE stated that Iraq could obtain a nuclear weapon “if left unchecked”; a 2001 Defense Department report states, “From April 1991 to December 1998, Iraqi nuclear aspirations were held in check by...[UN] inspections and monitoring.”

Search, Hearings Continue

In Iraq, forces of the U.S.-led coalition continue to search for evidence of prohibited weapons but have yet to reveal any significant finds. David Kay, special adviser for strategy to the CIA on the weapons search, stated July 31 that the Iraq Survey Group (ISG)—the organization formed to ferret out Iraqi weapons of mass destruction—was making “progress.” He said the ISG would probably have a “substantial body of evidence before six months” during a July 15 interview on NBC’s “Nightly News.”

However, a July congressional delegation, led by Porter Goss (R-FL), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Jane Harman (D-CA), the committee’s ranking member, reported July 15 that the “evidence emerging on Iraq’ s WMD programs does not point to the existence of large stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons.” In recent weeks, discussion of the Iraqi threat has emphasized Iraq’s weapons programs rather than actual weapons, although administration officials continue to assert that forces will find functional chemical and biological weapons.

The intelligence committees plan to continue their investigations into the matter, but no specific hearings have been scheduled, and it is not known whether government officials will testify in open hearings.