Prewar Findings Worried Analysts

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By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

On Jan. 24, 2003, four days before President Bush delivered his State of the Union address presenting the case for war against Iraq, the National Security Council staff put out a call for new intelligence to bolster claims that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or programs.

The person receiving the request, Robert Walpole, then the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, would later tell investigators that "the NSC believed the nuclear case was weak," according to a 500-page report released last year by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

It has been clear since the September report of the Iraq Survey Group -- a CIA-sponsored weapons search in Iraq -- that the United States would not find the weapons of mass destruction cited by Bush as the rationale for going to war against Iraq. But as the Walpole episode suggests, it appears that even before the war many senior intelligence officials in the government had doubts about the case being trumpeted in public by the president and his senior advisers.

The question of prewar intelligence has been thrust back into the public eye with the disclosure of a secret British memo showing that, eight months before the March 2003 start of the war, a senior British intelligence official reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that U.S. intelligence was being shaped to support a policy of invading Iraq.

Moreover, a close reading of the recent 600-page report by the president's commission on intelligence, and the previous report by the Senate panel, shows that as war approached, many U.S. intelligence analysts were internally questioning almost every major piece of prewar intelligence about Hussein's alleged weapons programs.

These included claims that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium in Africa for its nuclear program, had mobile labs for producing biological weapons, ran an active chemical weapons program and possessed unmanned aircraft that could deliver weapons of mass destruction. All these claims were made by Bush or then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in public addresses even though, the reports made clear, they had yet to be verified by U.S. intelligence agencies.

For instance, Bush said in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address that Hussein was working to obtain "significant quantities" of uranium from Africa, a conclusion the president attributed to British intelligence and made a key part of his assertion that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program.

More than a year later, the White House retracted the statement after its veracity was questioned. But the Senate report makes it clear that even in January 2003, just before the president's speech, analysts at the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center were still investigating the reliability of the uranium information.

Similarly, the president's intelligence commission, chaired by former appellate judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), disclosed that senior intelligence officials had serious questions about "Curveball," the code name for an Iraqi informant who provided the key information on Hussein's alleged mobile biological facilities.

The CIA clandestine service's European division chief had met in 2002 with a German intelligence officer whose service was handling Curveball. The German said his service "was not sure whether Curveball was actually telling the truth," according to the commission report. When it appeared that Curveball's material would be in Bush's State of the Union speech, the CIA Berlin station chief was asked to get the Germans to allow him to question Curveball directly.

On the day before the president's speech, the Berlin station chief warned about using Curveball's information on the mobile biological units in Bush's speech. The station chief warned that the German intelligence service considered Curveball "problematical" and said its officers had been unable to confirm his assertions. The station chief recommended that CIA headquarters give "serious consideration" before using that unverified information, according to the commission report.

The next day, Bush told the world: "We know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile weapons labs . . . designed to produce germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors." He attributed that information to "three Iraqi defectors."


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