In its fall 2002 campaign to win congressional support for a war against Iraq, President Bush and his top advisers ignored many of the caveats and qualifiers included in the classified report on Saddam Hussein's weapons that CIA Director George J. Tenet defended Thursday.
In fact, they made some of their most unequivocal assertions about unconventional weapons before the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was completed.
Iraq "is a grave and gathering danger," Bush told the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002. At the White House two weeks later -- after referring to a British government report that Iraq could launch "a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order" is given -- he went on to say, "Each passing day could be the one on which the Iraqi regime gives anthrax or VX -- nerve gas -- or someday a nuclear weapon to a terrorist ally."
Three weeks later, on the day the NIE was delivered to Congress, Bush told lawmakers in the White House Rose Garden that Iraq's current course was "a threat of unique urgency."
On Thursday, summarizing the NIE's conclusions, Tenet said: "They never said Iraq was an imminent threat."
The administration's prewar comments -- and the more cautious, qualified phrasings of intelligence analysts -- are at the heart of the debate over whether the faulty prewar claims resulted from bad intelligence or exaggeration by top White House officials -- or both.
Former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay told senators last week that caveats often fall by the wayside "the higher you go up" the bureaucratic chain. At the top, he said, "you read the headlines, you read the summary, you're busy, you've got other things to do."
Administration supporters say Bush, Vice President Cheney and others were simply extrapolating from the comprehensive intelligence provided by Tenet's intelligence community. Critics say Bush and his Cabinet had already decided to go to war, regardless of what the intelligence efforts found.
The controversy, arising during the Democratic presidential primary campaign, has taken on a partisan hue. Some Democrats, however, say they perceived GOP partisanship earlier, when Republicans advocated an invasion of Iraq before the 2002 congressional elections. Bush said on Sept.13, 2002, that he did not think he could explain to voters the position of some Democrats who said Congress should wait for the United Nations to authorize the use of force before giving the president the authority he wanted.
Now that extended efforts to find weapons of mass destruction have proved futile, some are asking why Bush, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld used unequivocal rhetoric to describe the threat from Iraq when the intelligence on the subject was much more nuanced and subjective.
For example, when Bush on Sept. 24, 2002, repeated the British claim that Iraq's chemical weapons could be activated within 45 minutes, he ignored the fact that U.S. intelligence mistrusted the source and that the claim never appeared in the October 2002 U.S. estimate.
On Aug. 26, 2002, Cheney said: "Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." The estimate, several weeks later, would say it would take as many as five years, unless Baghdad immediately obtained weapons-grade materials.
In the same speech, Cheney raised the specter that Hussein would give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists, a prospect invoked often in the weeks to come. "Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network, or a murderous dictator, or the two working together, constitute as grave a threat as can be imagined," Cheney said.
It would be more than a month later that a declassified portion of the NIE would show that U.S. intelligence analysts had forecast that Hussein would give such weapons to terrorists only if Iraq were invaded and he faced annihilation.
"The probability of him initiating an attack . . . in the foreseeable future . . . I think would be low," a senior CIA official told the Senate intelligence committee during a classified briefing on the estimate on Oct. 2, 2002. The CIA released a partial transcript five days later after committee Democrats complained that a published "white paper" on Iraq's weapons had not given the public a fair reading of what the classified NIE contained.
On Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney said of Hussein on NBC's "Meet the Press": "We do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon." Cheney was referring to the aluminum tubes that some analysts believed could be used for a centrifuge to help make nuclear materials; others believed they were for an antiaircraft rocket.
Such absolute certainty, however, did not appear in the estimate. Tenet said Thursday that the controversy has yet to be cleared up.
On Sept. 19, 2002, Rumsfeld, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: "No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people than the regime of Saddam Hussein and Iraq." The October estimate contained no similar language.
Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18, 2002, Rumsfeld described an immediate threat from biological weapons. Hussein, he said, could deploy "sleeper cells armed with biological weapons to attack us from within -- and then deny any knowledge or connection to the attacks."
While the intelligence community believed Hussein had biological agents such as anthrax, and that they could be quickly produced and weaponized for delivery by bombs, missiles or aerial sprayers, the October 2002 estimate said: "We had no specific information on the types or quantities of weapons, agents, or stockpiles at Baghdad's disposal."
Tenet's "provisional bottom line" on biological weapons, he said Thursday, is that research and development efforts were underway in Iraq "that would have permitted a rapid shift to agent production if seed stocks were available. But we do not know if production took place -- and just as clearly -- we have not yet found biological weapons."