Administration officials have settled on a standard answer to questions about their pre-war claims of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq:  “much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong.”  Both  President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used this excuse in remarks on Sunday, December 18.  This explanation ignores the central role senior officials had in creating, shaping and selecting the intelligence.

For example, on the eve of war the president said Iraq “has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al Qaeda. The danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country, or any other.

The intelligence agencies, however, never said the Iraqi regime had trained and harbored al Qaeda, and explicitly said it was unlikely that Saddam would transfer weapons to terrorists.  The training claim came from a man tortured in Egypt.  U.S. agents brought a suspected terrorist, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, to Egypt to be interrogated in January 2002. Under torture, he claimed that Iraq had provided training in explosives and chemical weapons to al Qaeda.  U.S. intelligence officials doubted the credibility of his statements, including a detailed February 2002 DIA report conclusion: "it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers.”   Still, the president and the vice-president repeatedly used these statements as “credible evidence” of an Iraq-al Qaeda link, never noting the agency doubts.   In January 2004 al-Libi recanted all his claims and they have been withdrawn by the administration.  

Nor did the agencies say Iraq would give weapons to al Qaeda.  The October 2002 NIE was wrong on most every finding but one:  it correctly noted that it was highly unlikely that Saddam would give weapons to terrorists.  This, too, was primarily a claim made by senior officials without intelligence agency support.  As the Senate Intelligence Committee found, the CIA had concluded that Saddam would most likely use his own operatives to stage any attacks; that there was no formal relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda; that Saddam was not providing safehaven to al Qaeda operatives; that there was no evidence of Iraqi assistance in al Qaeda attacks; and that these assessments were widely disseminated throughout the executive branch.  (see Senate report conclusions, 92-98)

Similarly on December 18, Tim Russert on Meet the Press asked Secretary Rice “Do you have any regrets that you may have misled the American people by talking about aluminum tubes that could have been used for nuclear development, which our own State Department and the Department of Energy said was not the case or talking about a mushroom cloud when, in fact, there is no evidence that Saddam had a nuclear program underway?”

Secretary Rice replied:” Tim, we talked about the uncertainties associated with nuclear weapons programs, and I believe that we gave the American people, at the time, our best estimate -- and, by the way, the best estimate of the intelligence community -- of what his activity started.”

This is not correct.  In September 2002 Dr. Rice said that U.S. experts unanimously agreed that aluminum tubes imported by Iraq are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.” As The New York Times reported on October 3, 2004, “Before Ms. Rice made those remarks, though, she was aware that the government's foremost nuclear experts had concluded that the tubes were most likely not for nuclear weapons at allMonths before, her staff had been told that these experts, at the Energy Department, believed the tubes were probably intended for small artillery rockets.

Secretary Rice told Tim Russert:  “You know what you know at the time, and the president, at the time, was relying on the best intelligence that we and others had.”   But the Times concluded, “Senior administration officials repeatedly failed to fully disclose the contrary views of America's leading nuclear scientistsThey sometimes overstated even the most dire intelligence assessments of the tubes, yet minimized or rejected the strong doubts of their own experts. They worried privately that the nuclear case was weak, but expressed sober certitude in public.

The evidence that the tubes were most likely for artillery rockets was also in the public domain.  An October 2002 report by the Institute for Science and International Security thorough examined the issue and noted:  “U.S. intelligence and nuclear analysts, however, have challenged the conclusion that the tubes could only be intended for a gas centrifuge program. These analysts have concluded that the tubes are "dual-use" items that could have been intended for non-nuclear uses.”

IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei also reported to the UN Security Council in January and March 2003 that the tubes were not suitable for centrifuge use.  He definitively countered other claims, noting that there was no evidence that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapon program and considerable evidence that it had not. 

In short, before the war began there was ample evidence available publicly, privately, domestically and internationally that the specific claims of US officials were wrong.  This is clearly a problem that went far beyond faulty intelligence reports. 





Related Links:


Intelligence on Iraq Page, Carnegie's Proliferation News and Resources Website

Updated Tables on Iraq's , Nuclear, Biological, Chemical, and Missile Programs, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Carnegie Endowment, July 2005

"Two Terrifying Reports: The US Senate and the 9/11 Commission on Intelligence Failures Before September 11 and the Iraq War," Joseph Cirincione, Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue 78, July/August 2004