By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006
The Bush administration yesterday denounced a Washington Post report that questioned the handling of postwar intelligence on alleged Iraqi biological weapons labs. A White House spokesman acknowledged that President Bush's assertions about the suspected labs were in error but said this was caused by flawed intelligence work rather than an effort to mislead.
Bush press secretary Scott McClellan criticized the article as "reckless" for what he said was an "impression" that Bush had knowingly misled the American public about the two Iraqi trailers seized by U.S. and Kurdish fighters weeks after the Iraqi invasion began. On May 29, 2003, Bush described the trailers in a television interview as "biological laboratories" and said, "We have found the weapons of mass destruction."
The Post reported yesterday that a Pentagon-appointed team of technical experts had strongly rejected the weapons claim in a field report sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency on May 27, 2003. That report, and an authoritative, 122-page final report by the same team three weeks later, concluded that the trailers were not biological weapons labs. Both reports were classified and never released. The team's findings were ultimately supported by the Iraq Survey Group, which led the official search for banned weapons, in a report to Congress in September 2004, about 15 months later.
Whether White House officials were alerted to the technical team's finding is unclear, The Post article reported. In any case, senior administration and intelligence officials continued for months afterward to cite the trailers as evidence that Iraq had been producing weapons of mass destruction -- the chief claim used to justify the U.S.-led invasion.
McClellan dismissed the news article as "rehashing an old issue," saying Bush has repeatedly acknowledged "the intelligence was wrong." The spokesman said Bush's comments on the trailers reflected the intelligence community's dominant view at the time.
"The White House is not the intelligence-gathering agency," he said.
McClellan indicated he did not know when, or if, the White House was briefed on the technical team's report. And he declined to respond when asked if the technical team's report would be declassified and released.
Prominent Democrats demanded yesterday that the report be immediately released.
"Given that the president has been willing to declassify information for his own political purposes, he should declassify this report so the American people can know if they were misled," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in a statement. "Was this incompetence, meaning that he did not know something that he clearly should have known, or is this an instance of dishonesty where information was misused or withheld to support a political agenda?"
The White House sought to further rebut the Post article with a series of "Setting the Record Straight" statements e-mailed to reporters. In the statements, the White House does not deny the existence of the technical team's report but portrays it as a preliminary finding, contrasting that report with a public white paper put out by the CIA on May 28, 2003. The CIA paper described the trailers as the "strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program."
The White House provided a "link" to a CIA Web site where the white paper is still posted, nearly 18 months after its conclusions were refuted by the Iraq Survey Group.
The White House statement also cites the 2005 Robb-Silberman commission report on intelligence failures related to Iraqi weapons. That report criticizes the intelligence agencies for "bureaucratic resistance to admitting error" as evidence showed Iraqi weapons claims to be unfounded.