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June 12, 2003

White House Silenced Experts Who Questioned Iraq Intel Six Months Before War


by Jason Leopold

Six months before the United States was dead-set on invading Iraq to rid the country of its alleged weapons of mass destruction, experts in the field of nuclear science warned officials in the Bush administration that intelligence reports showing Iraq was stockpiling chemical and biological weapons was unreliable and that the country did not pose an imminent threat to its neighbors in the Middle East or the U.S.

But the dissenters were told to keep quiet by high-level administration officials in the White House because the Bush administration had already decided that military force would be used to overthrow the regime of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, interviews and documents have revealed.

The most vocal opponent to intelligence information supplied by the CIA to the hawks in the Bush administration about the so-called Iraqi threat to national security was David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector and the president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington, D.C. based group that gathers information for the public and the White House on nuclear weapons programs.

With the likelihood of finding WMD in Iraq becoming increasingly remote, new information, such as documents and interviews provided by Albright and other weapons experts, prove that the White House did not suffer so much from an intelligence failure on Iraq's WMD, but instead shows how the Bush administration embellished reams of intelligence and relied on murky intelligence in order to get Congress and the public to back the war. That may explain why it is becoming so difficult to find WMD: Because it's entirely likely that the weapons don't exist.

"A critical question is whether the Bush Administration has deliberately misled the public and other governments in playing a 'nuclear card' that it knew would strengthen public support for war," Albright said in a March 10 assessment of the CIA's intelligence, which is posted on the ISIS website.

John Dean, the former counsel to President Richard Nixon, wrote in a column this week that if President Bush mislead the public in building a case for war in Iraq, a case for impeachment could be made.

"Presidential statements, particularly on matters of national security, are held to an expectation of the highest standard of truthfulness," Dean wrote this week. "A president cannot stretch, twist or distort facts and get away with it. President Lyndon Johnson's distortions of the truth about Vietnam forced him to stand down from reelection. President Richard Nixon's false statements about Watergate forced his resignation."

In September, USA Today reported that "the Bush administration is expanding on and in some cases contradicting U.S. intelligence reports in making the case for an invasion of Iraq, interviews with administration and intelligence officials indicate."

"Administration officials accuse Iraq of having ties to al-Qaeda terrorists and of amassing weapons of mass destruction despite uncertain and sometimes contrary intelligence on these issues, according to officials," the paper reported. "In some cases, top administration officials disagree outright with what the CIA and other intelligence agencies report. For example, they repeat accounts of al-Qaeda members seeking refuge in Iraq and of terrorist operatives meeting with Iraqi intelligence officials, even though U.S. intelligence reports raise doubts about such links. On Iraqi weapons programs, administration officials draw the most pessimistic conclusions from ambiguous evidence."

In secret intelligence briefings last September on the Iraqi threat, House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said administration officials were presenting "embellishments" on information long known about Iraq.

A senior Bush administration official conceded privately that there are large gaps in U.S. knowledge about Iraqi weapons programs, USA Today reported.

The concerns jibe with warnings about the CIA's intelligence information which Albright first raised last September, when the agency zeroed in on high-strength aluminum tubes Iraq was trying to obtain as evidence of the country's active near-complete nuclear weapons program.

The case of the aluminum tubes is significant because President Bush identified it during a speech last year as evidence of Iraq's nuclear weapons program and used it to rally the public and several U.N. countries in supporting the war. But Albright said many officials in the intelligence community knew the tubes weren't meant to build a nuclear weapon.

"The CIA has concluded that these tubes were specifically manufactured for use in gas centrifuges to enrich uranium," Albright said. "Many in the expert community both inside and outside government, however, do not agree with this conclusion. The vast majority of gas centrifuge experts in this country and abroad who are knowledgeable about this case reject the CIA's case and do not believe that the tubes are specifically designed for gas centrifuges. In addition, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have consistently expressed skepticism that the tubes are for centrifuges."

"After months of investigation, the administration has failed to prove its claim that the tubes are intended for use in an Iraqi gas centrifuge program," Albright added. "Despite being presented with evidence countering this claim, the administration persists in making misleading comments about the significance of the tubes."

Albright said he tried to voice his concerns about the intelligence information to White House officials last year, but was rebuffed and told to keep quiet.

"I first learned of this case a year and a half ago when I was asked for information about past Iraqi procurements. My reaction at the time was that the disagreement reflected the typical in-fighting between US experts that often afflicts the intelligence community. I was frankly surprised when the administration latched onto one side of this debate in September 2002. I was told that this dispute had not been mediated by a competent, impartial technical committee, as it should have been, according to accepted practice," Albright said. "I became dismayed when a knowledgeable government scientist told me that the administration could say anything it wanted about the tubes while government scientists who disagreed were expected to remain quiet."

Albright said the Department of Energy, which analyzed the intelligence information on the aluminum tubes and rejected the CIA's intelligence analysis, is the only government agency in the U.S. that can provide expert opinions on gas centrifuges (what the CIA alleged the tubes were being used for) and nuclear weapons programs.

"For over a year and a half, an analyst at the CIA has been pushing the aluminum tube story, despite consistent disagreement by a wide range of experts in the United States and abroad," Albright said. "His opinion, however, obtained traction in the summer of 2002 with senior members of the Bush Administration, including the President. The administration was forced to admit publicly that dissenters exist, particularly at the Department of Energy and its national laboratories."

But Albright said the White House launched an attack against experts who spoke critically of the intelligence.

"Administration officials try to minimize the number and significance of the dissenters or unfairly attack them," Albright said. "For example, when Secretary Powell mentioned the dissent in his Security Council speech, he said: "Other experts, and the Iraqis themselves, argue that they are really to produce the rocket bodies for a conventional weapon, a multiple rocket launcher." Not surprisingly, an effort by those at the Energy Department to change Powell's comments before his appearance was rebuffed by the administration."

Moreover, former scientists who worked on Iraq's nuclear weapons program and escaped the country also disputed the CIA's intelligence of the country's existing nuclear weapons program, saying it ended in 1991 after the first Gulf War. However, some Iraq scientists who supplied the Pentagon with information claim that Iraq's nuclear weapons program continues, but none of these Iraqis have any direct knowledge of any current banned nuclear programs. They appear to all carry political baggage and biases about going to war or overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and these biases seem to drive their judgments about nuclear issues, rendering their statements about current Iraqi nuclear activities suspect, according to Albright, who said he was privy to much of the information being supplied to the Bush administration and the CIA.

Another example of disputed intelligence used by the Bush administration to build its case for war is Iraq's attempts to obtain uranium from Niger as evidence of another secret nuclear weapons program. Bush, in his State of the Union Speech in January, used this information as an example of a "smoking gun" and the imminent threat Iraq posed to the U.S. But the information has since been widely discounted.

"One person who heard a classified briefing on Iraq in late 2002 said that there was laughter in the room when the uranium evidence was presented," Albright said. "One of (the) most dramatic findings, revealed on March 7, was that the documents which form the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Niger and Iraq are not authentic."

Iraq's attempts to acquire a magnet production plant are likewise ambiguous. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003 that this plant would produce magnets with a mass of 20 to 30 grams. He added: "That's the same weight as the magnets used in Iraq's gas centrifuge program before the Gulf War." One US official said that because the pieces are so small, many end uses are possible, making it impossible to link the attempted acquisition to an Iraqi centrifuge program."

One piece of intelligence information that seemed to go unnoticed by the media was satellite photographs released by the White House last October of a facility in Iraq called Al Furat to support Bush's assertion that Iraq was making nuclear weapons there.

But Albright said that Iraq already admitted making such weapons at Al Furat before the Gulf War and that the site had long been dismantled.

In addition to Albright, other military experts also were skeptical of the intelligence information gathered by the CIA.

"Basically, cooked information is working its way into high-level pronouncements and there's a lot of unhappiness about it in intelligence, especially among analysts at the CIA," said Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA's former head of counter-intelligence, in an interview with London's Guardian newspaper last October.

Cannistraro told the Guardian that hawks at the Pentagon had deliberately skewed the flow of intelligence to the top levels of the administration.

Last October, Bush said the Iraqi regime was developing unmanned aerial vehicles, which "could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas."

"We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States," Bush said.

U.S. military experts had confirmed that Iraq had been converting eastern European trainer jets into UAV's, but with a maximum range of a few hundred miles they were no threat to targets in the U.S.

"It doesn't make any sense to me if he meant United States territory," said Stephen Baker, a retired US navy rear admiral who assesses Iraqi military capabilities at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, also in an interview with the Guardian last October.

In true Bush fashion, however, the administration had long believed it was better to strike first and ask questions later.

When Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who sits on the intelligence committee, sent Bush a letter Sept. 17, 2002 requesting he urge the CIA to produce a National Intelligence Estimate, a report that would have showed exactly how much of a threat Iraq posed, Condoleeza Rice, the National Security Adviser, said in the post 9-11 world the U.S. cannot wait for intelligence because the Iraq is too much of a threat to the U.S.

"We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," Rice said.


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  • Jason Leopold is the former Los Angeles bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswires. He spent two years covering the Enron bankruptcy and the California energy crisis. He just finished writing a book on the energy crisis, due out in December through Rowman & Littlefield.

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