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Iraq: Questions Arise On Quality Of U.S. Intelligence On Iraqi Arms

  • Andrew Tully

Both U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have cited American intelligence in accusing Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction. But so far, no significant number of these arms have turned up, RFE/RL reports from Washington.

Washington, 23 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A month after war began in Iraq, Americans have yet to turn up a significant cache of chemical or biological weapons. This raises questions about the quality of the intelligence that led Washington to accuse Saddam Hussein of having them, and to launch its military campaign.

In his annual State of the Union address on 28 January, U.S. President George W. Bush cited information gathered by both American intelligence agencies and the United Nations to specify quantities of deadly biological and nerve agents.

"Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent. In such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands. He's not accounted for these materials. He has given no evidence that he has destroyed them," Bush said.

Shortly afterward, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a similar message to the UN Security Council. But neither offered specifics, citing the need to protect what are commonly known as "sources and methods" of intelligence agencies.

The Bush administration has said repeatedly that it has been too busy in Iraq fighting a war and stabilizing the country to focus its efforts on finding weapons of mass destruction. But news reports are beginning to emerge that U.S. officials have given up hope of quickly finding significant stockpiles of weapons. In fact, they say Washington is resigned to conducting a long, painstaking search unless Iraqi scientists come forward with specific information about hidden supplies.

Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, has questioned the quality of U.S. and British intelligence on Iraq. "I think it's been one of the disturbing elements -- that so much of the intelligence on which the capitals built their case seemed to have been shaky," Blix said yesterday in an interview with the BBC.

Blix also cited a document -- that was quickly determined counterfeit -- indicating that Iraq had imported tons of raw uranium from Nigeria. But he stressed that he did not believe U.S. or British intelligence was responsible for the hoax. And he had only the highest praise for Powell, who has been among the most outspoken members of the Bush administration in accusing Hussein of having illicit weapons.

"I do not at all doubt his sincerity. I think very highly of Colin Powell. I admire him. He's excellent at expressing himself. And he had gone through a lot of the material, so he was certainly convinced. But, you know, if you sit at the top, you get material -- you cannot check everything," Blix said.

An intelligence analyst interviewed by RFE/RL agrees with Blix that Powell's integrity is unassailable. Simon Serfaty, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private Washington-based policy research center, said Powell's presentation before the UN Security Council in February convinced him that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, even if the secretary could not, for security reasons, be explicit in supporting his conclusions.

"What convinces me is the secretary's position. Secretary Powell has been so adamant that the case he presented at the United Nations was based on compelling evidence that he had seen, not just hearsay. Thus I have to assume that he, like others -- but especially he, Powell -- would have been very careful about presenting that evidence and standing by it," Serfaty said.

It was one thing, Serfaty said, for the United States to hold up before the Security Council enlarged photographs of the weapons, as it did in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Such a demonstration would not be appropriate with Iraq, he said, because it is easier to transport and hide chemical and biological weapons than ballistic missiles.

According to Serfaty, the intelligence about Iraq -- solid, empirical evidence -- had been available to U.S. officials for months or even years, but took on a new urgency after the terrorist attacks in the United States of 11 September 2001.

Serfaty said that before the attacks, the U.S. government was satisfied with containment as a way to keep Saddam Hussein from using his unconventional weapons. After the attacks, however, it realized that containment was not enough.

"The arithmetic of risk-taking changes once you get hit, so that what was not convincing before September 11 becomes convincing after September 11. And it may well be, therefore, that there was a body of evidence, [and] that this body of evidence was probably reinforced between September 11 and early February 2003," Serfaty said.

Anthony Cordesman, a prominent military and weapons analyst at CSIS, expressed less confidence in the U.S. and British intelligence about Hussein's weapons programs. According to Cordesman, the intelligence that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons is far short of solid or empirical. He said it is more of a mix, with some elements that are reliable and others that are questionable at best.

"In the real world, it's a case-by-case issue. You often get very clear intelligence, and sometimes it's extremely reliable. In other cases you only get a pattern of imports, and you can't be sure where they've gone or how well developed they are. You mix UN data with U.S. data; you get a mosaic of intelligence," Cordesman said.

In fact, Cordesman added that for all the specifics in Bush's address about tons of sarin or liters of botulinum, these quantities were possibly based on nothing more than extrapolations from previous reports by UN weapons inspectors on what they had found during the 1990s.

"In this specific case, I think that [President Bush] basically took statements of what were not accounted for and often was a bit careless, semantically, in confusing what wasn't accounted for with our knowledge of what was actually there. I'm not sure this had much to do with intelligence. It may have had a great deal to do with speech writing," he said.

Cordesman said that a president -- and his speech writers -- should be extremely precise in making such accusations publicly, given the stakes of war and peace. He suggested Bush's writers may not have properly understood the importance of what they were putting in the president's State of the Union speech.

Ultimately, Cordesman believes that U.S. intelligence operatives probably understand only slightly more of the details about Iraq's arsenal than Bush's speech writers. Because their information is so spotty, he said, their conclusions are likely to be only speculative.