Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that his intelligence service had warned the Bush administration before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein's government was planning attacks against U.S. targets both inside and outside the country.
Putin, who opposed Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, did not go into detail about the information that was forwarded, and said Russia had no evidence that Hussein was involved in any attacks.
"After Sept. 11, 2001, and before the start of the military operation in Iraq, the Russian special services, the intelligence service, received information that officials from Saddam's regime were preparing terrorist attacks in the United States and outside it against the U.S. military and other interests," Putin said, according to RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency. "American President George Bush had an opportunity to personally thank the head of one of the Russian special services for this information, which he regarded as very important," the Russian president told an interviewer while in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said yesterday that Russia has provided helpful information in the war on terrorism, but that he was "not aware of any specific threat information we were told" about Iraqi activities before the March 2003 invasion.
Putin's statement came as Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials are defending their statements -- made before the war and as recently as this week -- that Hussein's government had a relationship with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization. Earlier this week, the staff of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said there were contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda, "but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship."
The question of Hussein's role in terrorism beyond Iraq's borders has become a sensitive issue for the Bush administration. The allegation that Hussein's Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons, and the concern that it would give them to al Qaeda, were among the chief justifications cited by the administration for attacking Iraq. At the White House yesterday, National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said he would not comment on Putin's statement because it involves intelligence matters.
In January and February 2003, as U.S. and coalition forces massed in Kuwait and the Persian Gulf area, the Bush administration asked countries including Russia to keep close surveillance on Iraq intelligence officers in their countries to make certain they were not preparing terrorist attacks against U.S. facilities. The warning was based on what had occurred in 1991, when Iraqi intelligence attempted attacks on U.S. embassies in Indonesia and elsewhere as the Persian Gulf War began.
Administration officials last year said their requests resulted in intelligence from countries across the Middle East and Europe, as well as in parts of Asia and Africa where Iraqis or anti-Western terrorist groups were believed to be active. The intelligence-gathering operation was not in response to specific threats but was based on U.S. estimates that Hussein might respond to a U.S. invasion by ordering attacks against U.S. targets in the United States or in other countries.
Also immediately before the war, the FBI searched for several thousand illegal Iraqi immigrants who had disappeared while visiting the United States, officials said. Although most Iraqi immigrants were viewed as being sympathetic to the United States, authorities feared some could have been Iraqi agents or allies of terrorist groups.
After the March 19, 2003, invasion, authorities in Yemen and Jordan broke up plots by Iraqis who were preparing to bomb Western targets in those nations, and U.S. intelligence warned 10 other countries that small groups of Iraqi intelligence agents were readying similar attacks against Americans and other Westerners, according to U.S. government officials.
In his interview yesterday, Putin said: "It is one thing to have information that Hussein's regime was preparing acts of terrorism -- we did have this information, and we handed it over. . . . But we did not have information that they were involved in any terrorist acts whatsoever and, after all, these are two different things."
Two years ago, in an interview with British documentary makers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Putin said he had personally warned Bush a day or two before the assaults that some kind of terrorist operation seemed to be in the works.
In that interview, as in his latest one, Putin did not specify where or when an attack was to have taken place. U.S. officials have said that the information provided by the Russians was not detailed enough for action to be taken.
Correspondent Peter Baker in Moscow contributed to this report.