Should they have known better? Well, yes and no.

Prewar intelligence draws growing scrutiny over accuracy and spin.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

Two months after the United States seized control of Iraq, it appears that the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was far less dire than portrayed in White House prewar estimates.

President Bush's now-retracted assertion that Saddam Hussein's regime had tried to buy African uranium for its nuclear program is just one of the claims that in hindsight appear dodgy, or exaggerated.

Among other allegations for which no evidence has been found are that Iraq had an active, ongoing production line of chemical and biological weapons; that the Hussein regime retained 20 ballistic missiles capable of reaching as far as Cyprus; and that Iraqi forces had some chemical and biological weapons that could be deployed within 45 minutes.

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It's important to remember that prior to the war many analysts around the world believed that Iraq had bad proliferation intentions. Evidence unearthed after the 1991 Gulf War proved as much.

The mistake of the Bush administration and its ally Britain may have been in shearing off the "perhaps" and "maybe" qualifiers from their statements, and in misrepresenting the certainty of the inherently ambiguous practice of intelligence analysis. "One key lesson of the Iraq war is ... that it is dangerous to over-politicize intelligence and to not provide a picture of the threat and reasons for warfighting that is not qualified to some extent," concludes a recent analysis by Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

As US forces continue to conduct a sweep of suspected WMD sites and search for key personnel thought to be involved in Mr. Hussein's weapons programs, more evidence is likely to surface. For that reason it is today virtually impossible to judge any of the administration's prewar statements completely wrong, or completely right, analysts say.

Take the retracted assertion of Hussein's attempt to buy uranium in Africa. The White House has said it now believes the intelligence behind this is false. But the British government - where the statement originated - continues to claim that it is true, saying there are other bits of intelligence on the matter to which the US is not privy.

That being said, the nuclear area in particular is one where rhetoric ran high before the war. Vice President Dick Cheney said at one point that Hussein "is absolutely devoted to nuclear weapons."

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said that aluminum tubes purchased by the Hussein regime "could only really be used for centrifuges" to enrich fissile material for weapons.

To date, US forces have uncovered scant evidence of an ongoing nuclear program in Iraq - unlike 12 years ago, when the world was shocked to discover how far Iraq had progressed in nuclear bomb design. Since the war it has also become clear that the usefulness of those tubes for nuclear work is a subject of much dispute - even within the US intelligence community. "Going down the list of administration ... distortions, one has to talk about first and foremost the nuclear threat being hyped," said Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst, at an Arms Control Association briefing last week.

On chemical and biological weapons, prewar rhetoric was similarly blunt. On March 17 in his address to the nation, Mr. Bush said, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraqi regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."

Officials talked of massive stockpiles of nerve gas, mustard gas, and anthrax. US, British, and Australian troops have now visited over 230 suspected biological or chemical sites and have found neither stockpiles nor production equipment. "They have not found any evidence of any prohibited activities at any of these sites," noted Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at the arms-control briefing.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his briefing to the United Nations, also talked about unmanned aerial vehicles that might have been intended for use as poison sprayers, and Scud missiles and warheads tipped with biological or chemical weapons being moved about Iraq.

"No sign of these missiles or warheads has been found," says Mr. Cirincione.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government published a dossier last year which charged that Hussein had chemical or biological weapons ready for deployment within 45 minutes of an order. That statement turned out to be based on a single intelligence source of doubtful reliability. "The claims made in the September dossier are unlikely to be dispelled unless more evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs comes to light," a cross-party Parliamentary committee recently concluded.

In their defense administration officials have been vehemently denying that they misled the public on purpose, while pointing out that their general thesis - that Hussein was a ruthless killer eager to obtain the worst weapons possible - was widely held in the West.

That's true, says an Australian intelligence analyst who resigned his post over what he felt was exaggerated prewar rhetoric. But officials never told the public about what a shadow-game intelligence analysis is, about how it is an informed guess, and the start, not the end, of policy debate. "We've seen that time and time again over many months in regard to Iraq," says Andrew Wilkie, a former senior analyst at the Australian Office of National Assessments.

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