Powell Denies Intelligence Failure In Buildup To War, But Evidence Doesn’t Hold Up
The evidence, or lack thereof, speaks for itself. In the months leading up to the war in Iraq, the Bush administration produced hundreds of pages of intelligence for members of Congress and for the United Nations that showed how Iraqs President Saddam Hussein possessed tons of chemical and biological weapons and was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
The intelligence information, gathered by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, a Department of Defense agency that gathers foreign military intelligence for the Pentagon, was used by the Bush administration to convince the public that Iraq posed a threat to the world.
But the information in those reports, much of which has been declassified and is now available online, hasn’t panned out as U.S. military forces comb Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, it turns out that a bulk of the intelligence contained in the reports was just plain wrong, suggesting that either the intelligence was doctored to make a case for war or, even worse, that a massive intelligence failure is rampant inside the CIA and other US government agencies.
The Bush administration has come under fire from Republicans and Democrats alike over the past two weeks for failing to find any WMD in Iraq and for possibly manipulating intelligence reports to back the war. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice appeared on news programs and vehemently denied these claims, saying that the media has turned the issue of the absence of WMD into a scandal and that the public is not concerned.
Last week, U.S. News and World Report disclosed the existence of a DIA report that said no reliable evidence of Iraq’s WMD program could be found, but the agency said it believed that Iraq had some chemical weapons.
“There can be no question there were weapons before the war” in Iraq, Powell said. “They have had weapons throughout their history. They have used chemical weapons. They have admitted that they had biological weapons. And they never accounted for all that they had or what they might or might not have done with it.”
“I don’t think that the public is as upset about all this or as concerned about this as is the media, which has had a feeding frenzy for the last week,” Powell said in an interview with Fox News.
That’s not entirely accurate. Depending on how the question is asked, some people believe the Bush administration misled the public by using exaggerated evidence of WMD in making a case for war while other polls, conducted by outlets such as Fox News, say a majority of people still believe the war was justified even if WMD are never found.
Still, despite the denials by Rice and Powell, both of whom said they believe the intelligence information to be accurate, most, if not all, of the intelligence information publicly available has turned out to be false. And in its rush to war, it has become clear that the Bush administration overstated the urgency of the so-called Iraq threat.
For example, in a report produced by the CIA in October 2002, the agency said that Iraq had tried to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes “capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a couple of weapons per year.”
President Bush seized upon this intelligence last year as evidence that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear weapons program and urged the UN to back the U.S. in disarming Iraq by force if the country failed to do so voluntarily.
But aluminum tubes that Iraq was trying to obtain were to be used to build rockets rather than as centrifuges to enrich uranium, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“While the matter is still under investigation, and further verification is foreseen, the IAEA’s analysis to date indicates that the specifications of the aluminum tubes sought by Iraq in 2001 and 2002 appear to be consistent with reverse-engineering of rockets,” an IAEA report submitted in January to the UN Security Council said. “While it would be possible to modify such tubes for the manufacture of centrifuges, they are not directly suitable for it.”
The claim about Iraq trying to buy uranium oxide from Niger first emerged in British intelligence documents last September. The documents have since turned out to be forgeries, according to the IAEA.
The IAEA quickly realized that the documents handed over by the US were phony after one letter purportedly signed by a Nigerian minister who had been out of office for 10 years.
The CIA report contains more than three-dozen other instances of erroneous information, including the time frame for producing nuclear and biological weapons and alleged evidence of Iraq’s ballistic missile programs.
The IAEA report also said “to date, no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities has been detected.”
The CIA report identifies dozens of specific geographical locations where Iraq is alleged to have been developing its chemical and biological weapons program and goes even further in identifying the exact quantity of chemical and biological weapons, such as anthrax, VX, sarin and mustard gas Iraq already has, but a search of these sites after the war has turned up nothing.
Case in point: In 2001, an Iraqi defector, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, said he had visited twenty secret facilities for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Saeed, a civil engineer, supported his claims with stacks of Iraqi government contracts, complete with technical specifications. Saeed said Iraq used companies to purchase equipment with the blessing of the United Nations—and then secretly used the equipment for their weapons programs.
But the information never held up and turned out to be one of the single biggest intelligence failures for the Bush administration. Judith Miller first brought the existence of Saeed to light in a New York Times story in December 2001 and again in January. The White House, in September 2002, cited the information provided by Saeed, who told U.S. officials that chemical and biological weapons labs could be found in hospitals and presidential palaces, which turned out to be completely untrue, in a public report on the imminent threat Iraq presented to U.S. security. The White House report, “A Decade of Deception and Defiance,” can be found at here.
The argument within the Pentagon and the Bush administration is that Iraq, a country the size of California, has done an outstanding job of hiding its weapons. But the CIA in its report identified tons of chemical and biological weapons stockpiled throughout the country, yet not even a spec of anthrax has been found, which doesn’t make sense if Iraq did in fact have such a large quantity of chemical and biological weapons agents.
Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, said last week in his final report to the U.N. Security Council that during the relatively short time UN inspectors searched Iraq for WMD “the commission has not at any time during the inspections in Iraq found evidence of the continuation or resumption of programs of weapons of mass destruction or significant quantities of proscribed items— whether from pre-1991 or later.”
“This does not necessarily mean that such items could not exist,” Blix said. “They might— there remain long lists of items unaccounted for—but it is not justified to jump to the conclusion that something exists just because it is unaccounted for.”
Jason Leopold, a freelance journalist based in California, has written for The Nation, Salon and Dow Jones Newswires (for which he worked for two years as Los Angeles bureau chief). He is writing a book on the California energy crisis. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story was published on July 12, 2003.