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U.S.: Bush Administration, CIA Seen As Disagreeing On Iraqi Threat

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the administration of President George W. Bush are reportedly at odds over the degree of threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Some say the CIA won't emphasize alleged ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda because to do so would amount to an admission of years of faulty CIA analysis on Baghdad. But others say the Bush administration is overstating the case on Iraq for its own political purposes.

Washington, 29 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, reportedly at odds with the Central Intelligence Agency over the threat of Iraq and its alleged links to Al-Qaeda, is taking intelligence matters into its own hands.

Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld revealed at a briefing that the Pentagon has set up a new intelligence office dedicated to digging for links between the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and international terrorist groups, such as Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

The announcement followed months of reported disagreement over Iraq between the White House, which is keen on making the case against Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction, and the CIA, which is believed to favor containment over "regime change" in Baghdad.

Senior administration officials, including Rumsfeld, have repeatedly alleged links between Hussein and Al-Qaeda, though not in connection with last year's 11 September terrorist attacks. Yet the CIA, while acknowledging "credible reports" of ties between Al-Qaeda and Iraq, says it does not believe Iraq poses an imminent threat.

The U.S. media largely interpreted Rumsfeld's announcement as a sign that the Bush administration is unhappy with the CIA's reporting on Iraq and so is taking matters into its own hands.

Rumsfeld rejected that interpretation. Yet he tacitly acknowledged that intelligence analysis is a notoriously error-filled endeavor. "Why would I be unhappy? The intelligence is what intelligence is. It says their [the CIA's] best estimates," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld added that the new office is not gathering its own intelligence or making independent judgments. He said it's simply sifting through mountains of already gathered data in a bid to flesh out more facts about Iraq and supplement work by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

But as Bush seeks domestic and global support for his tough stand on Iraq, some analysts question his administration's motives.

Ivan Eland is director of defense studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. Echoing other analysts, Eland said the White House is keen on winning support for tough action on Iraq from both the American public and skeptical members of the United Nations Security Council.

Eland said that effort, including a U.S. bid to get the Security Council to pass a tough resolution against Baghdad, would be made much easier if Washington could show that Iraq has clear links to Al-Qaeda, the terrorist network blamed for 11 September. "I think that they're [the administration] not getting the intelligence outcome that they want from the CIA, that is, that the CIA is skeptical of ties between Al-Qaeda and Iraq -- justifiably so. The CIA [has] run around trying to corroborate this stuff, and it hasn't had too much luck. And the ties that they have claimed seem very thin and on closer inspection don't seem to go anywhere," Eland said.

The CIA has long maintained a moderate stance on Iraq. It argued in 1991 against overthrowing Hussein at the end of the Gulf War, saying it would undermine Middle East stability. And during the 1990s, it argued against supporting a domestic insurgency, even as it warned that Iraq was hiding missiles and amassing chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

Its apparent rift on Iraq with the administration made headlines earlier this month after CIA Director George Tenet sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee that made available previously classified CIA testimony to the committee about Iraq and its alleged ties to terrorism.

The first part of the letter quotes a senior CIA official as saying Hussein is not an imminent threat and is unlikely to attack the United States unless he is provoked. Many in the U.S. media took that as proof that the CIA disagrees with the perceived desire to wage war on Baghdad on the part of some in the Bush administration.

But at the same time, the second part of the letter cites "credible reports" -- gathered, for the most part, from Iraqi defectors -- that point to a decade of high-level contacts between Al-Qaeda and Iraq.

James Woolsey was CIA director from 1993 to 1995. He told RFE/RL that he doesn't understand why the U.S. media focused on the first part of Tenet's letter, while largely overlooking the second part about Al-Qaeda. "At the end of the letter, there are these rather important points that Al-Qaeda and Iraq have been in touch for a decade and that Iraq has given Al-Qaeda training in 'poisons and gases.' Now, presumably, that's not laughing gas, so it means weapons of mass destruction. It also says that as time goes on, it's going to get more likely that these will be used by terrorists," Woolsey said.

So does the letter contradict itself? Woolsey said, "The only way I can make sense out of the letter at all is if what they're doing is talking -- in the front half of the letter -- about attacks which Iraq directs and controls, and in the second half of the letter, they're talking about terrorist attacks which may be supported, with equipment, training, or bacteria, or gas, or whatever, in some fashion by Iraq, and which Iraq doesn't try to control exactly how and when it's used," Woolsey said.

U.S. media reports say that the CIA old guard, which has long viewed secular Hussein and Islamist Al-Qaeda as natural enemies, is reluctant to acknowledge that any ties between them have developed, as that would amount to admitting they're wrong.

Meanwhile, a new generation of CIA analysts appears to be more aggressively pursuing such links -- and is finding something, even if some critics call the evidence thin. The result is a turf war between the two sides, according to Jim Hoagland, a columnist for "The Washington Post."

Woolsey, who supports the Pentagon's new intelligence office, said it's always good to have as much data as possible. But he won't discuss the alleged rift between the CIA and the administration over Iraq. He said he has long supported toppling Hussein, but that option was not seriously considered by the administration of former President Bill Clinton when Woolsey was at the CIA.

U.S. critics of Bush's Iraq policy, however, remain unconvinced by its efforts to link Al-Qaeda and Baghdad. For example, Tenet's letter speaks of "credible reports" of contacts between them but says nothing of evidence.

Eland said: "There's probably some tangential link [between Al-Qaeda and Iraq]. But to me, they would have to demonstrate hard and fast evidence that Iraq had something do with the [11 September] attack, not just that they have some contacts with Al-Qaeda."

But Woolsey said that to speak of evidence and intelligence gathering in one breath is ridiculous. He said that spying rarely, if ever, yields anything that could be called legally acceptable evidence.

Administration officials make a similar argument. For example, Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, has said that if the United States waits for solid evidence of Hussein's nuclear-weapons program, it is likely to arrive in the form of a mushroom cloud -- following a nuclear explosion.