Did the Bush administration ignore the bulk of the analysis by the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies and exaggerate the Iraqi threat in order to sell Americans on going to war with Baghdad? And did it expose a CIA agent to punish a key critic of the Iraq war? Those questions are at the heart of an intense political debate -- and criminal probe -- in Washington.
Washington, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Are the CIA and the White House at odds with one another?
That seems to be the larger question behind two key issues weighing heavily on the credibility of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. One is whether it exaggerated the threat of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction to justify its war with Baghdad. The other is whether it exposed a Central Intelligence Agency agent in order to punish her husband, a vocal critic of the war.
Claims that the Bush administration exaggerated the Iraqi threat grew louder last week after the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq reported that weapons of mass destruction -- Bush's main reason for going to war -- have yet to be found.
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a Democrat running for president, summed up the rising chorus of criticism on 3 October: "The president allowed us to think that Al-Qaeda and Saddam [Hussein] were one and the same, that Saddam had something to do with 9/11. Last week he admitted that wasn't true. This time, in the State of the Union [speech], the president said Iraq was purchasing uranium from Africa. That turned out not to be true. The secretary of defense said he knew exactly where the weapons of mass destruction were: right around Tikrit and Baghdad. That turned out not to be true."
Last week, a new twist was added to the weapons mystery. The Justice Department, at the CIA's urging, launched a criminal investigation into whether the Bush administration attempted to punish a critic of the war by exposing the identity of a CIA agent -- a crime punishable with up to 10 years in prison.
The critic was Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. envoy to Iraq and Gabon, who last year led an investigation for the CIA into claims that Baghdad had bought uranium from Africa. Last July, Wilson went public with his findings, writing in "The New York Times" that Iraq had not purchased uranium in Niger.
It was an embarrassment for the White House because the uranium claim, which was said to be based on British intelligence, had made it into U.S. President George W. Bush's most important address of the year, his State of the Union speech in January.
A week later, a nationally syndicated columnist, citing senior Bush administration officials, exposed Wilson's wife as a CIA operative. The leak seemed intended to smear Wilson's credibility as an investigator, suggesting he had been hired for the probe only because of his wife's CIA connection.
But behind the story of the leak and the lack of weapons in Iraq, analysts say there is a deeper saga. It is the struggle between the main U.S. spy agencies and senior administration officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who strongly pushed for war with Iraq.
Early this year, Cheney said on national television that he was certain that Iraq "had reconstituted its nuclear weapons." Last September, Rumsfeld said he had "bullet-proof" evidence that Saddam Hussein was tied to Al-Qaeda.
Challenged at a Pentagon briefing last week, Rumsfeld said the nature of intelligence is necessarily imperfect.
"I've never seen anything that was perfect; it just doesn't happen that way. It is a community-wide assessment that is done. People have a chance in that assessment, openly, to critique [the intelligence] and comment on it and take a footnote on it and say, 'I don't agree with that.'"
But, according to Phyllis Bennis of Washington's Institute for Policy Studies, a private research group, the CIA and other key U.S. spy agencies never took seriously such specific claims by the Bush administration.
"What we know is that the information coming from the intelligence analysts was far more uncertain, far more nuanced, than anyone in the administration was admitting," she said. "What we were told was: there is an imminent threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction that could be launched within 45 minutes. There was no nuance; it was immediate."
Former senior CIA officials quoted in the U.S. media and interviewed by RFE/RL say Cheney and other senior officials put pressure on analysts to conform the conclusions of their intelligence reports to the White House's agenda -- to support a war in Iraq.
David MacMichael is a former senior official with the CIA's National Intelligence Council. MacMichael tells RFE/RL that he and other former and current CIA analysts became concerned last fall that the administration was forcing the agency to draft intelligence conclusions for what he called an "already-made" policy decision.
"Ray McGovern, who used to be the daily intelligence briefer for [former U.S. President] George Bush, was astonished to find that people from the Department of Defense and the vice-president's office were coming very, very frequently into the building to express their views to the analysts working on the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, seeking to press for making the strongest possible case [for war against Iraq]."
In the struggle between the CIA and the administration, CIA Director George Tenet appeared caught in the middle. After downplaying Iraq's nuclear threat and alleged ties to Al-Qaeda early last year, analysts say Tenet gradually grew publicly more supportive of the administration's assessment.
Questions arose in some quarters about Tenet's debts to Bush, who had kept him on as director despite a chorus of calls for his dismissal after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, discontent was brewing inside the intelligence agencies. Greg Thielmann, who resigned last winter as a senior official with the State Department's intelligence wing tracking Iraq's arms programs, told "Newsweek" magazine in June: "There is a lot of sorrow and anger at the way the intelligence was misused."
That anger apparently boiled over in July when Wilson's wife was exposed as a CIA agent. Bennis says, "You had a scenario where a CIA operative had been undermined, as far as we know, by someone in the White House. And the director of the CIA, for a week after the expose, did nothing about it. So it was pressure apparently from a number of operation-level CIA agents who pressured George Tenet, the CIA director, to demand an investigation from the Justice Department."
Bush administration supporters, however, reject the notion that intelligence was in any way exaggerated to help sell the war.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA analyst, is now with the American Enterprise Institute, a private research group in Washington. In an interview with RFE/RL, Gerecht strongly defended the administration's case for war and argued that Hussein does, indeed, have ties to Al-Qaeda. He also said the African uranium story may well be true because British intelligence independently backs the claim, albeit without providing any evidence.
But Gerecht says the main issue in the battle between the CIA and "hawks" in the administration was not over individual intelligence claims but over the very notion of war with Iraq. He accuses the U.S. intelligence establishment of harboring a deep ideological bias against overthrowing Hussein, which affected its threat assessment.
"For the State Department and the [CIA] it was undoubtedly ideological," Gerecht says. "It was driven by the belief that the war would be destabilizing in the Middle East and would cause disturbance to the status quo. And that is something that the State Department dislikes intensely because it's very much a status quo institution, where its relationships overseas as they exist are what matters."
Gerecht says that Wilson, who was America's last senior diplomat in Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War, embodied that antiwar position.
He called that stance dangerous to U.S. security, since the United Nations sanctions regime on Iraq was heading toward an eventual collapse that would have left Hussein free to pursue weapons of mass destruction that he had already used in the past, including in chemical attacks against Kurdish Iraqis.
Some Republicans accuse Wilson, a Democrat, of trying to use the leak to wreak political damage on Bush, whose ratings are falling in the polls amid high joblessness and the cost and difficulties of postwar Iraq.
Wilson told national television on 5 October that since his wife's identity was revealed they have both feared for her safety.