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June 30, 2003

Like in Iraq, CIA Also Exaggerated Soviet Nuclear Threat


by Jason Leopold

They say that history repeats itself. And so it does.

Two years ago, the Central Intelligence Agency released reams of intelligence documents on the former Soviet Union that had been classified for nearly 30 years. The findings were damning: the CIA for more than 10 years greatly exaggerated the nuclear threat the communist country posed to the world.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Raymond Garthoff, a longtime C.I.A. military analyst, admitted in 2001 "there were consistent overestimates of the threat every year from 1978 to 1985."

Fast forward to 2003 and the CIA finds itself in a similar pickle. This time it's intelligence on Iraq's alleged stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and the country's nuclear ambitions appear to be in doubt. Two months have passed since major combat in Iraq has ended and those weapons of mass destruction, the reasons the U.S. launched a preemptive strike against Iraq, are nowhere to be found.

Some lawmakers have suggested that the Bush administration may have exaggerated the CIA's intelligence reports on Iraq and the CIA is coming under fire for including erroneous information in its October 2002 report to show that Iraq was an imminent threat to the U.S.

Last October, the Los Angeles Times reported that senior Bush administration officials were pressuring CIA analysts to tailor their assessments of the Iraqi threat to help build a case against Saddam Hussein, intelligence and congressional sources told the paper.

The difference between the threat assessments in the Soviet intelligence reports that were declassified in 2001 and the reports the CIA supplied on Iraq is that the latter got us into a real war. But the CIA's erroneous information on the former Soviet Union helped influence U.S. military spending and Washington's defense and foreign policies, exactly what the agency's intelligence analysis did for Iraq.

If Congress discovers that the CIA supplied the White House with wrong intelligence information on the Iraqi threat it will surpass the agency's blunder on the so-called Soviet nuclear threat, which turned out to be one of the biggest embarrassments in the agency's history when those documents were released two years ago.

When the 19,000 of pages of documents titled "Intelligence Forecasts of Soviet Intercontinental Attack Forces: An Evaluation of the Record," were declassified in 2001 it raised questions about how well the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies ability to gather intelligence on newer threats, such as Iraq and North Korea, according to several former CIA officials.

In a March 9, 2001 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the declassified intelligence said: "during the Cold War, the Soviet Union's force of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarines, and long-range bombers was the U.S intelligence community's primary target. But today's spies must try to keep track of international terrorists, rogue nuclear-weapons programs and computer hackers, and also plumb the minds of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong Il, all of which is much harder than counting missile silos in Kazakstan or estimating the wheat crop in Ukraine.

Based on the intelligence gathered for the CIA's October 2002 report on the Iraqi threat, it appears that the agency suffered from an intelligence failure. Much of the information in that report has been hotly disputed.

For example, in October 2002, President Bush gave a speech in Cincinnati and spoke about the imminent Iraqi threat, the country's alleged ties with al-Qaeda and its endless supply of chemical and biological weapons, which was based on a CIA report released during the same month.

"We've discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas," Bush said. "We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVS for missions targeting the United States."

However, these claims have since been disputed. Moreover, the administration has never offered up any evidence to prove Iraq has ties with al-Qaeda.

Bush also said last September in a speech that attempts by Iraq to acquire the tubes point to a clandestine program to make enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. But experts contradicted Bush, saying that the evidence is ambiguous at best.

David Albright, a physicist who investigated Iraq's nuclear weapons program following the 1991 Persian Gulf War as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspection team, the Post reported, authored the report.

"By themselves, these attempted procurements are not evidence that Iraq is in possession of, or close to possessing, nuclear weapons," the report said, according to the Washington Post. "They do not provide evidence that Iraq has an operating centrifuge plant or when such a plant could be operational."

Melvin Goodman, a former senior CIA Soviet analyst, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in March 2001 that when the Soviet documents were declassified it would bolster criticism that intelligence assessments of the Soviet threat were deliberately inflated to justify increases in U.S. defense spending and nuclear forces.

"This is the first time that the CIA has gone on the record confirming the exaggeration of [Soviet] force modernization," Goodman, who teaches at the National War College in Washington, told the Inquirer.

In the case of Iraq, some argue that intelligence reports were inflated to justify a war..

"I am concerned about the politicization of intelligence," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who echoed complaints of other members that the administration has been selective in the intelligence it cites, overstating its case in many instances, told the Times.


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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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