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U.S.: Did Intelligence Blunders Leave The Country More Vulnerable To Attack?

U.S. President Bush (file photo) In a report issued on 9 July, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed what many had long suspected -- that the analysis provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) vastly overstated Saddam Hussein's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. For many, this raises the question of whether the United States diverted resources to address a limited threat from Iraq that would have been better used against Al-Qaeda, which is blamed for the attacks of 11 September 2001. RFE/RL asked two security analysts whether poor intelligence has left the United States more vulnerable to another attack.

Washington, 13 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Addressing atomic energy workers in the southeastern state of Tennessee on 12 July, U.S. President George W. Bush acknowledged the failures of America's intelligence community.

"Our nation needs more intelligence agents -- what is called human intelligence -- to cover the globe. We must have the best cutting-edge technology to listen and look for dangers," Bush said. "We must have better coordination among intelligence services. I need -- the Congress needs -- the best possible intelligence in order to protect the American people."

But he went on to say that, despite the exaggerated intelligence reports he received about Iraq's nuclear-, chemical-, and biological-weapons capabilities, deposing Hussein was the right thing to do to protect the American people.

Jack Spencer is an international affairs and defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a private-policy research center in Washington.

Despite the Senate report, Spencer said he believes that, based on Hussein's past history, the former Iraqi leader was capable of mounting an unconventional attack against the United States, or helping a terrorist group to do so.

"It's not clear to me that Saddam Hussein -- given his history of international terrorism, given his history of using [weapons of mass destruction] and developing WMD, given his history of overt antagonism and aggressive behavior toward the United States and its friends and allies -- that he wouldn't have done something like [try to launch an unconventional attack]," Spencer said.

Spencer disputed assertions that the Iraq war has diverted resources from the effort to defeat Al-Qaeda, whose leader -- Osama bin Laden -- has so far eluded capture. In fact, Spencer argued -- just as Bush does -- that Iraq is now the focus of the international war on terrorism.

He said the U.S. troops in Iraq are not necessarily the same ones that would be used to fight terrorism elsewhere.

"We have something less than 20,000 [troops] deployed in the greater war on terrorism,” Spencer said. “We have something along the lines of 135,000 to 150,000 [troops] in Iraq. That's not to say if we weren't in Iraq we would have 150,000 troops elsewhere in the war on terrorism. It's not an either-or at all."

This view is not shared by Jonathan Clarke, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute -- another Washington think tank -- and co-author of the new book, "America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order." The book explores the political roots of what Clarke and Stefan Halper call Bush's unilateralist foreign policy.

Speaking from London, Clarke told RFE/RL that what Spencer dismisses is actually the very crux of the problem -- that by shifting its focus to Iraq, the Bush administration squandered an important opportunity to capture Osama bin Laden.

"It seems to me that the effort and resources and manpower we've expended in one direction -- namely, Iraq -- contribute very little to this goal, and in fact may go in the opposite direction," Clarke said. "[11 September 2001] was caused by a particular group of people, and that group of people is essentially still at large."

Clarke said it is important to understand that the decision to go to war in Iraq did not result from flawed intelligence but preceded it. He said the Bush administration had decided to depose Hussein in the first days after taking office, long before the events of 11 September 2001.

"I don't think that the CIA came in one day, out of the blue, and put a piece of paper down on the president's desk, and the president said, 'Well, that means we have to attack Iraq,'" Clarke said. "I think the sequence was much more the other way around -- [that is,] the political decision that they wanted to attack Iraq had already formed."

The second part of the Senate's investigation will examine whether the Bush administration exaggerated the intelligence it received in an effort to convince the U.S. public that war was justified. That report is not due to be released until after the presidential election on 2 November, however.