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Unraveling intelligence

Posted: Monday, July 14, 2003

Most of what Washington and London knew about Saddam Hussein's suspected mass weapons programs before the war was based on old intelligence. The few new details, which garnered the most attention, now are under serious scrutiny and in question.

Some information about Iraq's purported chemical, biological and nuclear weapons program already has been dismissed by U.N. inspectors or international experts. Other intelligence has turned out to be uncorroborated or has not been agreed upon by government officials inside the CIA, the State Department and in Britain.

With no mass weapons found three-and-a-half months since President Bush launched the war against Iraq, intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic now are scrambling to explain not only why their information failed to lead U.S. troops to the goods but exactly how they came by the knowledge in the first place.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged last week that no ''dramatic new evidence'' was discovered showing Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. ''We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light through the prism of our experience on Sept. 11,'' Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

According to a British House of Commons report released in London this week, the picture Blair's government painted in 2002 ''is little different from that set out in a much shorter document released by the government in 1998,'' ahead of four days of airstrikes launched that year against Iraq.

Since Bush came to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, the two English-speaking allies chose to highlight some of the long unanswered questions identified by U.N. inspectors as they campaigned for world support for war against Saddam.

After eight years in the field, inspectors said in 1999 that they still were missing information from the Iraqis on the production of the nerve agent VX, evidence that 550 mustard-gas filled artillery shells were destroyed, and an accounting of ingredients for the production of anthrax and botulinum toxin.

Those items were highlighted in a State Department fact sheet distributed Dec. 19 together with several pieces of newer intelligence, such as a charge that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium from Niger. It also included a mention of mobile laboratories for a biological weapons program and an allegation that Iraq was involved in a secret missile program.

U.N. nuclear inspectors from the Interna-tional Atomic Energy Agency, which tried unsuccessfully to get evidence to support the uranium claim when the British alluded to it in September, now asked Washington to share what it knew on Niger.

Six weeks later, supporting documents were handed over to the U.N. inspection office in New York and within weeks, the IAEA was able to determine that the documents were forged. U.N. officials say they repeatedly asked Washington and London to provide any further evidence to support the charge.

''It was not provided to us,'' IAEA spokes-person Mark Gwozdecky said.

Both the Bush administration and the government of Tony Blair said Sunday that the president's statement in the State of the Union address about Iraq seeking uranium was accurate and is supported by other British and U.S. information.

Nevertheless, said Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, the statement should not have been in the Jan. 20 speech in which Bush laid out reasons for military action against Iraq. ''We have a higher standard for presidential speeches'' than raw intelligence, she said.

Rice said Britain was unable to share more information it has with Washington because of sensitivities surrounding the source. But Britain, like all U.N. members, is resolution-bound to share any intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs with U.N. inspectors.

Robin Cook, who resigned from Blair's Cabinet to protest the war, told the House of Commons committee that information sharing between Washington and London was so intense that it was often difficult ''to spot which raw data was originally gathered in the United Kingdom and which was originally gathered by the United States.''

Other new intelligence presented by the United States and Britain before the war included a charge that Iraq was hiding scud missiles. So far no scuds have been found, U.S. weapons hunters told The Associated Press.

The United States claimed there were signs of suspicious activity at a number of sites previously used in Iraq's former weapons program. U.N. inspectors checked those sites and found no such activity. American weapons experts have not found anything either.

U.S. claims that Iraq was trying to buy aluminum tubes for a renewed nuclear program were dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by an outside panel made up of two American nuclear physicists, two British experts and a German expert. The United States however insists the tubes were for a nuclear program.

Two mobile labs found in Iraq which the Bush administration believes were designed to be used in a biological weapons program were reviewed by three different groups of experts who couldn't agree on the trailers' use. Some State Department analysts have questioned the CIA conclusion the two truck trailers were mobile weapons labs.

Compelling evidence linking Saddam to al-Qaida also has not been confirmed. In the run-up to the war, the United States failed to convince much of the world of the ties. Most U.N. Security Council members said flatly that they didn't believe a connection existed.

A U.N. terrorism committee says it has no evidence other than Secretary of State Colin Powell's assertions in his Feb. 5 U.N. speech of any ties between al-Qaida and Iraq. And U.S. officials say American forces searching in Iraq have found no significant evidence tying Saddam's regime with Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.



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