Of all the claims U.S. intelligence made about Iraq's arsenal in the fall and winter of 2002, it was a handful of new charges that seemed the most significant: secret purchases of uranium from Africa, biological weapons being made in mobile laboratories, and pilotless planes that could disperse anthrax or sarin gas into the air above U.S. cities.
By the time President Bush ordered U.S. troops to disarm Saddam Hussein of the deadly weapons he was allegedly trying to build, every piece of fresh evidence had been tested -- and disproved -- by U.N. inspectors, according to a report commissioned by the president and released Thursday.
"We offered eyes and ears," Hans Blix says of his U.N. team's work.
The work of the inspectors -- who had extraordinary access during their three months in Iraq between November 2002 and March 2003 -- was routinely dismissed by the Bush administration and the intelligence community in the run-up to the war, according to the commission led by former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and retired appellate court judge Laurence H. Silberman.
But the commission's findings, including a key judgment that U.S. intelligence knows "disturbingly little" about nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, are leading to calls for greater reliance on U.N. inspectors to test intelligence where the United States has little or no access.
"U.N. inspectors are boots on the ground," said David Albright, a nuclear specialist who accompanied the International Atomic Energy Agency to Iraq in the mid-1990s. Albright and others think the IAEA should be given greater access in Iran, and returned to North Korea. It would be up to the agency's board, which includes the United States, to authorize increased powers.
The Bush administration tussled with inspectors before the Iraq war and maintains a hostile relationship with the IAEA, whose director, Mohamed ElBaradei, the United States is trying to replace this year. The administration also wants to shut down a U.N. inspection regime led by Hans Blix that was set up to investigate biological, chemical and missile programs in Iraq.
During more than two years of investigations in Iran, the IAEA has "been critical in uncovering their secret activities so we know the scope and the status of the nuclear programs and the problems," said Albright, who has exposed unknown nuclear sites in Iran and has followed the IAEA's work there. "There is a tremendous amount of detail that the intelligence community didn't have prior to the IAEA going in and intensifying the investigation."
The White House has not publicly presented intelligence to support its assertion that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, as it did with Iraq. Instead, it routinely points to the IAEA investigation, Iran's large oil reserves and the secrecy that surrounded Iran's nuclear program for nearly two decades.
The IAEA has not found evidence that Iran is using its nuclear energy program as a cover for bomb building, as the administration claims. But those findings have been dismissed by some members of the administration.
John R. Bolton, nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has called the findings "simply impossible to believe."
Jonathan Tucker, who was a bioweapons inspector for the United Nations in Iraq during the 1990s, said inspectors have limited access and rely heavily on intelligence that can be provided by powerful countries such as the United States.
"What they can provide is ground truth and legitimacy. If you hope to persuade countries to impose sanctions or other measures on proliferators, the word of inspectors is valuable."
North Korea kicked out IAEA inspectors in December 2002, a move that deprived the intelligence community of a key avenue of information about the closed country. The lack of access to North Korea, which has been judged to have the capacity to build six to eight nuclear weapons, has been a source of frustration for the international agency.
But at the time of the IAEA's departure from Pyongyang, attention in Washington and in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, was largely focused on Iraq.