Doubt grows over prewar intelligence

Upcoming Kay report is already stoking skepticism of prewar claims, which are under fire in Congress.

Some seven months after the US invaded Iraq, criticism of the intelligence used to justify that attack is only intensifying.

House Intelligence Committee members recently wrote to the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, complaining of "inadequate information" to back administration claims of Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda, and possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, former UN weapons inspector David Kay has revisited Iraq in search of WMD, this time working for the CIA. He's expected to deliver an interim report this week saying he hasn't found much.

"It is clearer now than ever ... that the administration was exaggerating the extent of the [Iraqi] threat and using discredited and disputed information," says Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association.

Administration officials, for their part, have stressed the interim nature of Mr. Kay's upcoming report and said that he is still gathering information from the field.

"This will be the first progress report ... and we expect it will reach no firm conclusions," said CIA spokesman Bill Harlow last week.

Renewed debate about the nature of the threat the regime of Saddam Hussein posed to the world comes at an awkward time for the Bush administration.

Its request for $87 billion to help pay the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq has daunted many in Congress. Its plea at the UN for aid and troops from other nations has fallen on mostly deaf ears. Continued violence in Iraq itself shows no signs of abating. Indeed, many top US military commanders now seem resigned to the prospect of a long stay in a nation made dangerous by an organized insurgency.

As the postwar period turns ugly, splits in the administration itself have seemed more apparent than ever. According to press reports, the CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that the White House leaked to journalists the name of an undercover CIA operative.

The operative in question is married to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who has been a vocal critic of what he believes is the Bush team's mishandling of intelligence about Iraq.

Mr. Wilson has publicly accused presidential adviser Karl Rove of revealing his wife's identify. The motive, according to Wilson, was revenge for his own role in exposing as probably wrong the White House claim that Saddam Hussein sought yellowcake uranium from Niger.

In a broadcast interview on Sunday National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said she knew of no such covert White House effort, and that "it certainly would not be the way that the president would expect the White House to operate."

In regards to evidence of Iraqi WMD, the House Intelligence Committee sent Mr. Tenet a letter following its own staff inquiry into what the US knew, and when it knew it.

The end of the UN's most concerted period of inspection activity in Iraq in 1998 was a crucial dividing line, according to the letter. Prior to that the UN and the rest of the world had a good idea of the Hussein regime's intentions and capabilities. After 1998, the intelligence available "was fragmentary and sporadic," according to the letter. One of the letter's signees, committee chairman Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, is himself a former CIA employee and a respected voice on intelligence matters on Capitol Hill.

The intelligence problem was one of extrapolation, administration officials said over the weekend. Prior to 1998 it was clear that Saddam Hussein wanted to acquire WMD, and was even capable of using them - as he did against Kurdish rebels in 1988.

After the UN left in 1998, information may have become more difficult to acquire, but it was logical to assume that Hussein's quest continued, said Secretary of State Colin Powell in a broadcast interview on ABC.

"Now, if you want to believe that he suddenly gave up ... and had no further interest in those sorts of weapons, whether it be chemical, biological, or nuclear, then I think ... it's a bit naive to believe that," said Secretary Powell.

Critics retort that no serious person is arguing that Saddam Hussein decided on his own to give up such dangerous weapons after inspectors left.

It's still entirely possible that some leftover stocks of Iraqi chemical shells or other category of WMD will turn up after a concerted search through the country.

But the administration simply overlooked or underplayed how successful years of UN inspections were in degrading Iraq's WMD capability. The inspectors may have engaged in a shell game with Iraqi officials, who moved evidence away from their prying eyes, but it was a shell game that was exhausting and ultimately debilitating for Iraq itself.

Recent evidence "makes it all the clearer that the weapons inspections that the administration discarded were effective in denying Iraq militarily significant WMD," says Mr. Kimball of the Arms Control Association.

Yet prior to major combat operations in Iraq, US officials seemed sure that Baghdad had tons of weaponized chemicals, biological agents, proscribed Scud missiles, and a serious nuclear program.

In regards to weapons of mass destruction, "we know where they are," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in a March 30 broadcast interview.

Such statements simply created unrealistic expectations about WMD, say critics.

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