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U.S.: Bush, Aides Go On Offensive To Counter Suspicions Of Iraq Intelligence Failures

  • Andrew Tully --> For the past two weeks, former UN and U.S. weapons inspector David Kay has been causing many people to reassess not only the quality of U.S. intelligence gathering but also the validity of President George W. Bush's reasons for going to war in Iraq. Now, the Bush administration is mounting a vigorous response.

Washington, 6 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- First came Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. On 4 February, he explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee why he believes U.S. agents in Iraq still have not found weapons of mass destruction.

"Think -- it took us 10 months to find Saddam Hussein," he said. "The reality is that the hole he was found hiding in was large enough to hold enough biological weapons to kill thousands of human beings."

"If, in fact, intelligence was as incomplete as Tenet is suggesting, it raises more questions about the quality of the policy decisions that were made concerning Iraq than it does about the quality of intelligence."
Then came George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In a speech yesterday at Georgetown University, Tenet gave a passionate defense of his agency. He said the situation in Iraq demonstrates one of the universal hazards of intelligence gathering.

"The question being asked about Iraq, in the starkest terms, is, 'Were we right or were we wrong?' In the intelligence business, you are almost never completely wrong or completely right. That applies, in full, to the question of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction," Tenet said.

And just hours later, Bush himself spoke out on the matter in Charleston, South Carolina. The president essentially said it does not matter whether U.S. inspectors ever find banned weapons in Iraq or whether prewar intelligence was accurate. Overthrowing Hussein, he said, was the right thing to do. "Knowing what I knew then and knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq," he said.

Bush's comment could be seen as a rebuke to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told "The Washington Post" this week that he is not sure he would have supported the war in Iraq if he had known the country did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

Leon Fuerth served as national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore during the presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He is questioning how the intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction was presented to and received by Bush and the senior administration officials who decided to invade Iraq.

Fuerth told RFE/RL that it is fine for Tenet to say that all intelligence is by nature incomplete -- especially intelligence from an enemy that works hard to hide its activities and intensions. But he wonders whether the Iraqi intelligence reports sent to the White House were presented with that caveat. "One would have to look at what Tenet said, in briefings, or what was sent up by his agency, to find out whether the sense of uncertainty and incompleteness that he conveyed just now [in his speech at Georgetown] was a reflection of what someone participating in a briefing or receiving a paper from the agency would have reasonably concluded," Fuerth said.

Fuerth also wonders how the White House could be so certain about its decision to go to war in Iraq if it knew the intelligence it was receiving was so porous. "If, in fact, intelligence was as incomplete as Tenet is suggesting, it raises more questions about the quality of the policy decisions that were made concerning Iraq than it does about the quality of intelligence," he said.

To Fuerth, these uncertainties go directly to the heart of Bush's responsibilities as president -- whether he interpreted such intelligence open-mindedly or used it simply to bolster a predetermined policy for war in Iraq.

John Hulsman studies foreign affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, a private policy-research center in Washington. Hulsman told RFE/RL that Bush faced much criticism before the war because he gave so many reasons for overthrowing Hussein -- his arsenal of banned weapons, his atrocious human rights record, the devastating war with Iran. Meanwhile, he says, America's chief ally in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was praised for focusing exclusively on Hussein's alleged weapons stockpiles.

Hulsman says Bush's many reasons for going to war have now become an asset. "The thing that the Bush administration did, which I was very critical of personally before the war, is now their great strength," he said. "They gave numerous reasons and rationales for taking down Saddam Hussein. But that which was a weakness in presentation before the war is now a strength. You [now] have human rights reasons, you have geostrategic reasons that remain the same -- [weapons] is merely one of a series of reasons."

Hulsman says the Bush administration's public-relations offensive is also showing the public a more realistic view of intelligence gathering. Until now, he says, there has been only partisan debate on the issue, characterized by oversimplifications -- Bush's detractors portraying him as a scheming warmonger and his defenders portraying him as viewing the situation in Iraq with crystal clarity.

Now, Hulsman says, both Kay and particularly Tenet are revealing the true nuances of the situation. "I think Tenet's speech says, 'Look, intelligence gathering is an art and not a science.' So now I think we're getting down to shades of gray, which is probably where the truth will end [up]," he said.