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09/17/2002-Updated12:03 AMET

U.S. assertions go beyond its intelligence
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is expanding on and in some cases contradicting U.S. intelligence reports in making the case for an invasion of Iraq, interviews with administration and intelligence officials indicate.

Administration officials accuse Iraq of having ties to al-Qaeda terrorists and of amassing weapons of mass destruction despite uncertain and sometimes contrary intelligence on these issues, according to officials.

Key events

In some cases, top administration officials disagree outright with what the CIA and other intelligence agencies report. For example, they repeat accounts of al-Qaeda members seeking refuge in Iraq and of terrorist operatives meeting with Iraqi intelligence officials, even though U.S. intelligence reports raise doubts about such links. On Iraqi weapons programs, administration officials draw the most pessimistic conclusions from ambiguous evidence.

Although the Bush administration made significant progress last week in generating international and domestic support for a campaign against Iraq, some lawmakers and diplomats question the evidence being assembled by the U.S. and British governments. Hans Blix, the chief United Nations arms inspector, said satellite images of Iraq show no evidence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was rebuilding an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. And House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that in secret intelligence briefings, administration officials were presenting "embellishments" on information long known about Iraq.

A senior Bush administration official conceded privately that there are large gaps in U.S. knowledge about Iraqi weapons programs but insisted that the only prudent course is to suspect the worst. To give Iraq the benefit of the doubt, officials argue, would be naive and dangerous.

Last week, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice boiled the administration's case down to a single line that evoked both the uncertainty and the risk associated with Iraq: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

The differences between the administration and intelligence officials may be, in part, institutional. The CIA tends to be cautious in its predictions and estimates and careful not to overinterpret a situation based on incomplete information. Some agency officials say privately that they do not want to be pushed into going beyond the facts to provide justification for a war.

Not only the facts are in dispute, but also the interpretation of those facts. CIA analysts have reported that Saddam wants weapons for prestige and security, not for an attack on U.S. interests that would almost certainly bring a devastating U.S. response. Bush administration officials warn that once Saddam develops his arsenal, he must be considered a risk to use it.

Conversely, the CIA says the U.S. military should assume that Saddam would use chemical and biological weapons against American invaders if the survival of his regime were at stake. Bush's top advisers view this risk as manageable.

One of the administration's key arguments is that the intelligence on Iraqi weapons may be wrong.

Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recall that inspections after the 1991 Persian Gulf War found Iraq much closer to fielding a nuclear weapon than the CIA had estimated. Now the administration warns that the latest CIA estimates — that Iraq may be years away from building a nuclear weapon — could be based on incomplete intelligence and wishful thinking.

Administration officials cite two problems facing U.S. intelligence regarding Iraq:

  • Because of the absence of U.N. arms inspectors since 1998 and Saddam's ability to conceal his activities from technical intelligence assets such as U.S. spy satellites, the evidence against Iraq is, at best, dated and circumstantial.
  • Because of Saddam's insistence, on pain of death, on unwavering loyalty from his inner circle, little is known about whether he plans to use weapons of mass destruction or merely hold them to enhance his standing in a dangerous region.

Cheney and Rumsfeld question the CIA's insistence that it can find no link between al-Qaeda terrorists and Saddam's regime. They accept reports from Czech diplomats that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met in Prague, Czech Republic, with an Iraqi intelligence officer in April 2001. Administration officials speculate that the pair were discussing the Sept. 11 attacks, or possibly plotting to bomb the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty headquarters in Prague, which is regarded as one of the most likely terrorist targets in Europe.

Subsequent investigations, however, found that the Iraqi officer met regularly with a friend, a used car dealer, who closely resembles Atta. Inquiries also suggested that the source of the Czech information came from Prague restaurateurs trying to impugn a competitor whose establishment was used for the supposed meeting.

More recently, the CIA, under pressure from Cheney and Rumsfeld, could not confirm that al-Qaeda members are hiding in Iraq with Saddam's blessing. Nevertheless, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice have accepted these reports as accurate.