C.I.A. Held Back Iraqi Arms Data, U.S. Officials Say

[ Apparently the CIA had been pushing the theory that the infamous aluminum tubes mentioned by Colin Powell before the UN Security Council were designed to be used in centrifuges for enriching uranium for bombs. While Colin Powell’s own team had told him the theory was rubbish, it may be that the CIA was a source of the more ideologically-driven view which found its way into his speech. –BL ]

July 6, 2004 | New York Times


WASHINGTON, July 5 — The Central Intelligence Agency was told by relatives of Iraqi scientists before the war that Baghdad’s programs to develop unconventional weapons had been abandoned, but the C.I.A. failed to give that information to President Bush, even as he publicly warned of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s illicit weapons, according to government officials.

The existence of a secret prewar C.I.A. operation to debrief relatives of Iraqi scientists — and the agency’s failure to give their statements to the president and other policymakers — has been uncovered by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The panel has been investigating the government’s handling of prewar intelligence on Iraq’s unconventional weapons and plans to release a wide-ranging report this week on the first phase of its inquiry. The report is expected to contain a scathing indictment of the C.I.A. and its leaders for failing to recognize that the evidence they had collected did not justify their assessment that Mr. Hussein had illicit weapons.

C.I.A. officials, saying that only a handful of relatives made claims that the weapons programs were dead, play down the significance of the information collected in the secret debriefing operation. That operation is one of a number of significant disclosures by the Senate investigation. The Senate report, intelligence officials say, concludes that the agency and the rest of the intelligence community did a poor job of collecting information about the status of Iraq’s weapons programs, and that analysts at the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies did an even worse job of writing reports that accurately reflected the information they had.

Among the many problems that contributed to the committee’s harsh assessment of the C.I.A.’s prewar performance were instances in which analysts may have misrepresented information, writing reports that distorted evidence in order to bolster their case that Iraq did have chemical, biological and nuclear programs, according to government officials. The Senate found, for example, that an Iraqi defector who supposedly provided evidence of the existence of a biological weapons program had actually said he did not know of any such program.

In another case concerning whether a shipment of aluminum tubes seized on its way to Iraq was evidence that Baghdad was trying to build a nuclear bomb, the Senate panel raised questions about whether the C.I.A. had become an advocate, rather than an objective observer, and selectively sought to prove that the tubes were for a nuclear weapons program.

While the Senate panel has concluded that C.I.A. analysts and other intelligence officials overstated the case that Iraq had illicit weapons, the committee has not found any evidence that the analysts changed their reports as a result of political pressure from the White House, according to officials familiar with the report.

The Senate report is expected to criticize both the director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, and his deputy, John McLaughlin, and other senior C.I.A. officials, for the way they managed the agency before the war. Mr. Tenet has announced his resignation, effective July 11, and Mr. McLaughlin will serve as acting director until a permanent director is appointed. The C.I.A. has scheduled a farewell ceremony for Mr. Tenet on Thursday, just as the reverberations from the Senate report are likely to be hitting the agency.

The possibility that Mr. Tenet personally overstated the evidence has been investigated by the Senate panel, officials said. He was interviewed privately by the panel recently, and was asked whether he told President Bush that the case for the existence of Iraq’s unconventional weapons was a “slam dunk.”

In his book about the Bush administration’s planning for the war in Iraq, “Plan of Attack,” Bob Woodward reported that Mr. Tenet reassured Mr. Bush about the evidence of the existence of Iraq’s illicit weapons after Mr. Bush had made clear he was unimpressed by the evidence presented to him in a December 2002 briefing by Mr. McLaughlin. “It’s a slam-dunk case!” Mr. Tenet is quoted as telling the president.

In his private interview with the Senate panel, Mr. Tenet refused to say whether he had used the “slam-dunk” phrase, arguing that his conversations with the president were privileged, officials said.

In hindsight, the Senate panel and many other intelligence officials now agree that there was little effort within the American intelligence community before the war to question the basic assumption that Mr. Hussein was still seeking to produce illicit weapons. Evidence that fit that assumption was embraced; evidence to the contrary was ignored or seen as part of a clever Iraqi disinformation campaign.

Yet there were some people inside the intelligence community who recognized the need for better evidence, according to intelligence officials. In 1998, the United Nations withdrew its weapons inspectors from Iraq, severely hampering the C.I.A.’s ability to monitor Iraqi weapons efforts. In response, Charlie Allen, the agency’s assistant director for collection, began searching for new sources of information, the intelligence officials said.

He pushed for several new collection programs, including one that called for approaching members of the families of Iraqi scientists believed to be involved in secret weapons programs, the officials said. At the time, the C.I.A. had no direct access to important Iraqi scientists, and using family members as intermediaries seemed like the next best thing.

Beginning in 2000, the C.I.A. contacted the relatives and asked them what they knew or could learn about the work being conducted by the scientists. Officials would not say how or where the relatives were contacted.

The relatives told the agency that the scientists had said that they were no longer working on illicit weapons, and that those programs were dead. Yet the statements from the relatives were never included in C.I.A. intelligence reports on Iraq that were distributed throughout the government. C.I.A. analysts monitoring Iraq apparently ignored the statements from the family members and continued to issue assessments that Mr. Hussein was still developing unconventional weapons, Senate investigators have found.

At the time, C.I.A. analysts were deeply cynical about statements from Iraqis suggesting that Mr. Hussein had no illicit weapons, and assumed that such talk was simply part of an Iraqi denial and deception program, several intelligence officials said.

In response, a C.I.A. spokesman said, the families’ statements were “not at all convincing.”

“There was nothing definitive about it,” the spokesman said. “No useful information was collected from the family members, and that’s why it wouldn’t have been disseminated.”

The agency’s handling of intelligence on biological weapons has also drawn Congressional criticism. In fact, the C.I.A. relied heavily on four Iraqi defectors to reach its conclusion that Iraq had developed mobile biological weapons laboratories.

But one defector, an Iraqi scientist, said he had been working on a technical program known as a “protein slurry,” and that his work was unrelated to biological weapons. He said he did not know of any other biological weapons activity under way in Iraq. Senate investigators did not discover that his statements contradicted the view that Iraq had an active biological program until they read the original reports of his debriefings from before the war, officials said. A C.I.A. official said the agency still had good reasons to use the defector’s information, and has been trying to explain that to the Senate committee. The official would not elaborate.

There were problems with the handling of the other defectors used to buttress the biological weapons case. Information from one was used even though the Defense Intelligence Agency had warned in the spring of 2002 that he had fabricated information. The C.I.A. took statements that another defector had given to German intelligence without knowing his identity or learning that he had ties to the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi. Mr. Chalabi, until recently a close ally of the Pentagon, fell into disfavor with the Bush administration after it became clear that his organization had provided disinformation to the United States and had exaggerated the threat posed by Mr. Hussein.

One of the most sensitive elements of the Senate investigation relates to the C.I.A.’s handling of intelligence about the shipment of aluminum tubes seized by the United States in 2001 on its way into Iraq.

Senior C.I.A. analysts became convinced that the shipment was strong evidence that Mr. Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program. The agency concluded that the aluminum tubes were to be used as spinning rotors in a centrifuge that could enrich uranium for bombs.

But other government experts, particularly at the national laboratories and in the State Department, were skeptical. They argued that the tubes seemed designed for use in conventional military rockets.

The technical debate reached a peak in 2002, just as the intelligence community was preparing a comprehensive National Intelligence Estimate, an interagency assessment of the status of Iraq’s unconventional weapons.

Seeking to prove its case, the C.I.A. hired outside experts to conduct technical tests, spinning the tubes at high speeds to determine whether they could withstand the stress of a centrifuge.

But the Senate panel investigated the way in which the C.I.A. selectively sought to prove its case with the outside experts in the face of the skepticism from analysts at other agencies. For example, in the National Intelligence Estimate, the C.I.A. disclosed the initial — and successful — test results to support its assertion that the tubes could be used to help produce nuclear weapons. Only later did the C.I.A. report results that showed that the tubes ultimately failed in testing.

C.I.A. officials said in response that only the initial test results were reported in the intelligence assessment because those were the only results available at the time. When later results were available in January 2003, they were reported to the rest of the intelligence community, the officials said. The C.I.A. officials added that nearly all of the subsequent test failures were a result of failures of testing equipment, and that the few failures of tubes were at speeds that exceeded those required for centrifuges. The agency had asked the outside experts to push the tubes to their limits in the stress tests, and so their failure did not mean that the tubes could not be used in a centrifuge, the C.I.A. officials say.

The C.I.A.’s views on the tubes ultimately prevailed inside the Bush administration. Although the State Department’s own analysts issued a dissent in the National Intelligence Estimate, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell went with the C.I.A. In his presentation to the United Nations in February 2003 laying out the administration’s case against Iraq, he relied on the aluminum tubes to show that Mr. Hussein was rebuilding his nuclear weapons program.

Leave a comment