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U.S./Iraq: Congress Increases Pressure On Bush Over Prewar Intelligence

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. officials are once again on the defensive about their prewar assessment of the threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. A former State Department intelligence official yesterday accused the U.S. administration of misleading the American people about Iraq's military capabilities. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared to backtrack on Washington's justification for waging war in Iraq, saying the decision was not based on any new evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Washington, 10 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With pressure mounting on the U.S. administration to justify its case for waging war in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yesterday appeared to alter his explanation of what led Anglo-American forces to invade Iraq.

"The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass murder. We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light, through the prism of our experience on 11 September," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld's statement, made before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, comes as the White House this week admitted that U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union address in January -- which claimed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was preparing to develop weapons of mass destruction -- was based on faulty intelligence.

The intelligence report in question alleged Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger in hopes of building nuclear weapons.

White House officials said the report was discounted only after the State of the Union speech. They have also suggested that it is entirely possible administration policymakers did not know lower-ranking intelligence officers had determined the report to be false.

But opposition Democrats in the U.S. Congress have rejected such arguments, and are calling for public hearings on the quality of the intelligence that led to the war in Iraq.

Doubts about the administration's case for war were intensified yesterday following remarks by a recently retired State Department intelligence official, who claimed prewar reports showed Baghdad posed no imminent threat.

Greg Thielman, who retired in September from a post in the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research, said he believed the Bush administration "did not provide an accurate picture to the American people of the military threat posed by Iraq."

Speaking at a press conference held by the U.S. Arms Control Association, he described Rumsfeld's statement as shocking and accused senior officials of having "misused the information they were provided."

"This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude," Thielman said. "It is top-down use of intelligence: 'We know the answers. Give us the intelligence to support those answers.'"

The question of whether the U.S. exaggerated its case for war has continued to dog Bush during his five-nation African tour. Speaking yesterday in Pretoria, South Africa, Bush said he was "absolutely confident" he had made the right decision to invade Iraq and that proof of Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs will still be found.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace, and there is no doubt in my mind the United States, along with allies and friends, did the right thing in removing him from power," Bush said.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair continued to take heat for his decision to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Yesterday Blair denied misleading British lawmakers about intelligence contained in a dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

During yesterday's public hearing of the Senate Armed Services committee -- at which Rumsfeld appeared with General Tommy Franks, who just retired after leading the war in Iraq -- the defense secretary said it was unrealistic to expect prewar intelligence to be 100 percent reliable. Most of the prewar intelligence on Iraq, he said, was valid.

"I don't think that the fact that there is an instance where something was inaccurate ought to, in any way, paint a broad brush on the intelligence," Rumsfeld said.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Rumsfeld if he could find out, on the committee's behalf, how it was possible that both the secretary and the president could make public statements about a piece of intelligence that was known, in the lower levels of the Central Intelligence Agency, to be counterfeit.

Levin spoke politely, but his words made it clear he was incredulous. "It seems to me absolutely startling, and I think we would all want to know how it could possibly have stayed there in the basement of the agency while policymakers in the upper floors were making these statements," he said.

That was not the only strained exchange between Levin and Rumsfeld. The senator expressed dissatisfaction with the idea that the United States and Britain have been handling the vast majority of the stabilization efforts in Iraq since they overthrew Hussein.

In the early days of the war, the U.S. administration stressed that it and Britain should be in charge of Iraqi reconstruction because they were the ones who took the responsibility to oust Hussein -- and it was their soldiers who were dying in the effort.

There has been some concern that other nations might be reluctant to join the United States and Britain in stabilizing postwar Iraq. But Levin said the presence of troops from many other nations would reduce the incidence of such attacks.

Levin said Iraqis responsible for the violence would see the stabilization effort as not a U.S. effort, but that of the broader international community. And he urged Washington and London to seek the help of the United Nations and NATO.

"I hope that we will seek NATO and United Nations support and endorsement that will facilitate the recruitment of their member nations to our effort in terms of providing troops, resources, expertise and international legitimacy. The whole world has a stake in the stability of Iraq. It is a mystery to me why, apparently, we have not reached out to NATO and to the United Nations as institutions," Levin said.

Rumsfeld replied that 19 nations already have contributed to the stabilization effort in Iraq and that 19 additional governments have made commitments to do the same. He said the United States and Britain are discussing further help for yet 11 more countries.

The defense secretary also said the coalition forces are training Iraqis to make up a new army as well as a new police force to maintain order and protect the country's civilian populace.

As for seeking NATO's help, Rumsfeld said: "We have reached out to NATO. NATO is assisting Poland, which has agreed to take a sector in force generation. In addition, there are discussions that have been taking place in NATO about the possibility of taking on an additional role. At the current time, as you know, they're planning to take over responsibility in Afghanistan this August. So they have a lot on their platter."

Both Rumsfeld and Franks also were asked about the violent resistance that U.S. and British forces have been facing since Bush declared an end to what he called "major combat" on 1 May.

Franks told the committee that he and his aides planned for some sort of resistance after Hussein's government was deposed, and that he believed the current deployment is adequate for the stabilization task. Rumsfeld said he believes that the coalition forces are dealing with the problem properly, just as they are in Afghanistan.

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