Hype seen in weapons rhetoric
By Bryan Bender, Globe Correspondent, 7/20/2003
WASHINGTON -- In building the case for war in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein "has chemical weapons stocks." A classified Defense Intelligence Agency report, produced in the same period, stated flatly that there was "no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling" such weapons.
Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that the administration knew Hussein "has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons." A contemporaneous CIA report to Congress was more cautious, saying "Baghdad may be attempting to acquire materials that could aid" in developing nuclear weapons.
The controversy that has erupted over the administration's rationale for going to war has centered largely on a sentence in the State of the Union speech, delivered by President Bush in January, that said Iraq had sought uranium in Africa. The White House now concedes that the allegation was based on flimsy evidence and should not have been included in the address.
A close review of available intelligence reports, along with interviews with current and former defense and intelligence officials, indicates that senior administration officials frequently characterized the threat that Iraq posed to the United States more starkly than did US intelligence analyses.
And as three months have passed since the end of major combat in Iraq, without the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, administration officials have been backing away from their assertions about Iraq's stockpiles of dangerous weapons and hewing more closely to the intelligence analyses. "We won't be proven wrong," Bush told reporters last week. "We will find the truth, and the truth is [Hussein] was developing a program for weapons of mass destruction."
But weapons specialists note that "developing a program" -- intending or endeavoring to acquire weapons of mass destruction -- represents a far less imminent threat than would the possession of a stockpile of such arms, raising questions about the haste to go to war in Iraq without broad international support.
Retired Lieutenant General Patrick M. Hughes, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said policy makers have long had a tendency to hype intelligence information. "What we have going on is this proclivity, not just in this administration, by decision makers to fail to put things in the right context," he said.
Failing to include the caveats included in intelligence reports -- that a piece of evidence might lead to a certain conclusion -- amounted to misleading the public in making the case for the Iraq war, Hughes said. "If you are not sure of it, you have to say that," he said.
Starting in early 2002, when Bush named Iraq as part of an "axis of evil," the rhetoric of administration officials began to diverge from the assessments of Hussein's suspected arsenal that were published by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and United Nations inspectors.
And in the months leading to the war, administraton officials laid out a case that the Hussein regime posed a direct threat to the United States that required immediate military action. The case culminated in a televised speech to the nation by the president on the eve of the US-led invasion. Bush said on March 17 that "intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
While most of the intelligence available to top officials in the runup to the war is secret, a series of intelligence community assessments was made public by the administration; others have been leaked to the media. Many of the assessments raise questions about liberties that administration officials took in interpreting the data, the intelligence officials say.
"We know now that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," Cheney said at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville on Aug. 26, 2002, in a speech that several legislators have said helped persuade them to support military action in Iraq.
But a CIA report to Congress at the time said only that "procurement activity in recent years may be supporting a reconstituted nuclear weapons program." Intelligence information declassified on Friday included questions about whether aluminum tubes Iraq had sought to acquire were to be used -- as Bush suggested in his State of the Union address -- to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials.
On Sept. 8, 2002, Powell said in a Fox News interview that "there is no doubt" that Saddam Hussein "has chemical weapons stocks."
The Defense Intelligence Agency, in a classified report that same month, had a different view: "There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons."
Bush told the UN General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002, that "UN inspectors believe Iraq has produced two to four times the amount of biological agents it declared."
The UN inspectors' report on the subject, published in 1999, indicated that 520 kilograms of yeast extract, which can be used to grow bacteria, remained unaccounted for and "is sufficient to produce 26,000 liters of Bacillus anthracis spores or over 3 times the amount declared by Iraq."
As the administration pressed its argument, many of the qualifiers included in threat assessments -- the "could be's," "may have's" and "possibly's" -- were dropped to make the case for war to the public, Greg Thielmann, a senior State Department intelligence analyst who retired last September, told the Arms Control Association on July 11.
Thielmann said that even the CIA director, George Tenet, exaggerated the facts. In February 2003, Tenet told Congress that "Iraq retains . . . a small number of Scud missiles." But Thielmann said the supporting classified analysis said: "We cannot confirm that all of those over 800 missiles that Iraq obtained have all been destroyed."
"I would argue that's an important difference," he said.
Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, which is completing a study of the debate on weapons of mass destruction -- from the Clinton administration through the war in Iraq -- said that in 2002 the Bush administration's assessment of the threat had "changed dramatically, but not because of new evidence."
The end of major combat in Iraq has not yielded evidence to support another key administration assertion: that Iraq had direct ties with the Al Qaeda terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters on Sept. 26, 2002, that he had "bulletproof" evidence of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
In the State of the Union address last January, Bush said that "evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda."
But a National Intelligence Estimate from October 2002, portions of which were declassified on Friday, stated that "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks . . . against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington a stronger case for making war."
Analysts previously questioned whether bin Laden's Islamic network would have formed an alliance with Hussein's secular government. "Nobody thought there were any very serious links on the Al Qaeda aspect of it," a senior intelligence official said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"They were definitely making things a little bit clearer than the truth in order to sell the war," said John Pike, who is the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank in Alexandria, Va. "They were acting like it was an electoral campaign -- you can say all kinds of wild things and whatever it would take to get people to buy the war."
Asked whether the president misled the American people, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said on Thursday that "Saddam Hussein is gone; he is no more. He cannot use his weapons of mass destruction."
To date, US forces scouring Iraq have publicly identified two tractor-trailers that some intelligence officials say were designed to manufacture chemical or biological pathogens, although no residue has been found and some analysts disagree with those conclusions. Pentagon and CIA officials directing a beefed-up search for weapons of mass destruction have been quiet about its progress, and officials declined requests to discuss what has been learned from interviews with scientists and top leaders of the former regime and from what officials say are thousands of pages of seized Iraqi documents. But the gulf between what Iraq was purported to be concealing before the war and what officials now say seems likely to be found has been growing.
Rumsfeld said on March 30, less than two weeks into the war, that weapons of mass destruction would soon be found in the areas around Baghdad and Tikrit. But in a turnaround, Rumsfeld told a Senate panel on July 11 that "the coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. We acted because we saw the evidence in a dramatic new light, through the prism of our experience of 9/11."
Retired Admiral Stansfield Turner, CIA director in the Carter administration, said, "They are backing off because they are apparently less and less confident they are going to find actual weapons."
The coming challenge, he added, will be to square the administration's contentions about the imminent danger that Iraq posed with a program that more closely resembles what intelligence analysts had said was a series of failed attempts by Baghdad to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
"I don't quite see how they can square that circle," Turner said. "They are digging themselves in deeper by constantly trying to revise the facts."
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/20/2003.