Washington Post: Bush “May Have Exaggerated the Threat Posed by Iraq”

Washington Post

“Bush Certainty On Iraq Arms Went Beyond Analysts’ Views”

Washington – During the weeks last fall before critical votes in Congress and the United Nations on going to war in Iraq, senior administration officials, including President Bush, expressed certainty in public that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons, even though U.S. intelligence agencies were reporting they had no direct evidence that such weapons existed.

In an example of the tenor of the administration’s statements at the time, the president said in the Rose Garden on Sept. 26 that “the Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons. The Iraqi regime is building the facilities necessary to make more biological and chemical weapons.”

But a Defense Intelligence Agency report on chemical weapons, widely distributed to administration policymakers around the time of the president’s speech, stated there was “no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons or whether Iraq has or will establish its chemical agent production facilities.”

The disparities between the conviction with which administration officials portrayed the threat posed by Iraq in their public statements and documents, and the more qualified reporting on the issue by intelligence agencies in classified reports, are at the heart of a burgeoning controversy in Congress and within the intelligence community over the U.S. rationale for going to war. The failure of the United States to uncover any proscribed weapons eight weeks after the end of the war is fueling sentiment among some Democrats on Capitol Hill and some intelligence analysts that the administration may have exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq.

The White House yesterday defended the administration’s prewar claims. “We continue to have confidence in our statements about Iraq’s possession of chemical and biological weapons,” spokesman Ari Fleischer said. He added that “the precise location of where Iraq had chemical and biological weapons was never clear, but the fact they had it was never in doubt, based on a reading of the intelligence.”

[Fleisher’s comment makes no sense. If a US intelligence service knows Iraq has WMD, didn’t anyone bother to ask their sorces where the weapons were? On what basis did the US decide to bomb dozens of suspected Iraqi weapons sites?]

The controversy over the administration’s handling of the Iraq intelligence continued, however, as two senior defense intelligence officials discussed the issue behind closed doors with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The officials, Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, were asked by reporters afterward about the classified Defense Intelligence Agency report on Iraq’s chemical weapons.

“What we’re saying is that as of 2002 in September, we could not reliably pin down, for somebody who was doing contingency planning, specific facilities, locations or production that was underway at a specific location at that point in time,” Jacoby said.

The existence of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document was reported in this week’s U.S. News and World Report. The administration declassified a summary page of the document last night.

The report said that “although we lack any direct information, Iraq probably possesses chemical agent in chemical munitions” and “probably possesses bulk chemical stockpiles, primarily containing precursors, but that also could consist of some mustard agent and VX,” a deadly nerve agent.

As the administration built its case for war last fall, some policymakers used caveats in describing Iraq’s weapons holdings that mirrored the caution built into the DIA and other intelligence reports. In early September, for example, Bush used words such as “likely” or “suggests” in making the case that Iraq had a covert weapons program. But many of the president’s speeches, as well as statements by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, went without caveats.

Among those concerned by the discrepancy is Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who routinely asked at committee meetings on Iraq whether officials were certain they would find weapons of mass destruction if the United States toppled the Iraqi government. Warner’s committee and the Senate and House intelligence committees are deciding whether to launch an independent investigation of the administration’s handling of Iraqi intelligence by their staffs. The CIA is already conducting an internal probe.

Cheney kicked off the administration’s campaign to win congressional and U.N. support for military action in a speech on Aug. 26 to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville. “Simply stated,” Cheney said, “there’s no doubt that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.”

Before his Rose Garden statement in late September, Bush had used more measured language about Iraq’s chemical weapons program, in line with the Defense Intelligence Agency conclusion.

At the United Nations on Sept. 12, when he urged the world body to join the United States in confronting Iraq, Bush said that previous U.N. inspections revealed “that Iraq likely maintains stockpiles of VX, mustard and other chemical agents.”

But on Sept. 26, as the campaign to win congressional and U.N. Security Council approval for military action intensified, the president told congressional leaders Iraq “possesses” such weapons. On the same day, Rumsfeld told reporters that Iraq has “active development programs for those weapons, and has weaponized chemical and biological weapons.”

On Oct. 1, the CIA released a “white paper” on Iraq’s weapons programs derived from a broader, classified National Intelligence Estimate that had been sent to the White House and shared with members of Congress in briefings.

Among the “Key Judgments” in the first two pages of the National Intelligence Estimate that were meant to summarize the details that followed were statements in the white paper that “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons,” and “Baghdad has begun renewed production of chemical warfare agents, probably including mustard, sarin, cyclosarin and VX.”

However, the more detailed backup material later in the document did not support those assessments. The intelligence paper contained more qualified language, stating, for example, that “gaps in Iraqi accounting and current production capabilities strongly suggest Iraq has the ability to produce chemical warfare agents within its chemical industry.” It also said Iraq “has the ability to produce chemical warfare agents” — a softer formulation than the summary section of the document, which said that Iraq “has begun” producing the agents.

On Oct. 7, Bush echoed without qualification the white paper’s “key judgment” conclusion when he said that Iraq “possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons.” He went on to say, “Saddam Hussein has chosen to build and keep these weapons despite international sanctions, U.N. demands, and isolation from the civilized world.”

Asked about the president’s comments on the Iraq intelligence yesterday, Fleischer said: “Intelligence comes in the form of a mosaic. The president’s description of the complete picture resulted from an interagency process in which every statement was vetted and approved by each agency.” [Fleisher must have meant “vetted by Bush apointees in each agency.”]

A senior administration official, who consulted with analysts familiar with the white paper, said the document’s judgments “were a bit more categorical” than later statements “but the overall burden of the evidence pointed to that conclusion.” He added that the president’s statements were “based on the preponderance of the evidence” as he and policymakers saw it.

Throughout the run-up to war, according to senior intelligence officials, intelligence agencies had no direct evidence such as photographs or stolen Iraqi documents to support a firm conclusion about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. They said the case was circumstantial, largely because U.N. weapons inspectors had left Iraq in 1998, shutting off the last bit of direct knowledge available to the United States. Inspectors returned last November and remained in Iraq until March.

Some officials have said privately that, while they could influence the content of intelligence documents, they had no control over what administration policymakers said in interpreting the material.

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