U.S. assertions go beyond its intelligence
By John Diamond, USA TODAY
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.
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
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.