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Bush Administration Stands by Iraq War Intelligence - 2003-07-14

In his determination to go to war, did President Bush overstate the case against Iraq based on faulty intelligence? Critics say he did, while supporters respond that a president can take no chances with protecting the American people and must prepare for the worst. At a press briefing held by the Arms Control Association in Washington, Greg Thielman, a recently retired member of the U.S. State Department’s bureau of intelligence denied Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or ties to al-Qaeda terrorists, as the Bush Administration had insisted.

The CIA has taken the blame for the erroneous information that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger, but Mr. Thielman says the problem goes beyond that.

“I believe the Bush Administration did not provide an accurate picture to the American of the military threat posed by Iraq,” he says. “Some of the fault lies with the performance of the intelligence community, but most of it lies with the way senior officials misused the information they were provided. This administration has had a faith-based intelligence attitude. It’s top-down use of intelligence. We know the answers. Give us the intelligence to support these answers.”

All indications were that Iraq was in no condition to turn out weapons of mass destruction, says Mr. Thielman. It had been defeated in the first Gulf War, crippled by economic sanctions and carefully monitored for these weapons by U.N. inspectors.

They did a thorough job, says Joseph Cirincione at the arms control briefing. Director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Mr. Cirincione notes the U-N inspectors examined some 600 sites, found some items in violation and had them destroyed.

Even so, they were accused of not doing enough. “In light of the past three months of fruitless searches by U.S., British and Australian experts,” he says, “the Unmovic (U.N.) inspection process in Iraq now looks much better than critics at the time claimed. It appears that the inspection process was working, and if it had been given enough time and enough resources could have continued to work and effectively stymied and prevented any new Iraqi efforts on weapons of mass destruction.”

But the Bush Administration, says Mr. Cirincione, left no doubt in its pronouncements about the existence of such weaponry. Over the last few weeks, members of the Carnegie Endowment have been reviewing these statements.

“The public statements went far beyond the now unclassified and publicly available intelligence assessments,” he says. “All the ‘could-be’s’ and ‘may have’ and ‘possibly’ were dropped from the public statements and they became ‘is,’ ‘has’ and ‘definitely.’”

As an example of overstatement, Mr. Thielman cites President Bush’s comment before the war that intelligence leaves no doubt Iraq possesses and conceals the most lethal weapons ever devised.

“The most lethal weapons ever devised?” he says. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, nuclear weapons are the most lethal weapons ever devised, and Iraq had no nuclear weapons, and it had a program that was not being actively rejuvenated. I think you could even argue that a B-29 with incendiary bombs or a fleet of them is a much more lethal weapon than the biological and chemical weapons programs of Iraq.”

Let’s give credit where it’s due, says Gregory Treverton, a senior analyst at Rand, a leading research organization. Whatever its flaws before the war, intelligence was also needed during the war.

“The record of intelligence in the war against Iraq, I think, was quite an impressive one,” he says, “and it should not be lost in the current controversy we are having now. It was very impressive in making the battlefield transparent for American forces, reducing American casualties and making it easier to target opponents. The kinds of communications problems that we had in Desert Storm, both organizationally and in terms of band width, were much less in evidence. We were very good at getting information together and back to the war fighters.”

In responding to the critics, President Bush also urges a broader look at the use of intelligence. He said in time the facts will prove the truth of his assertions. “There are going to be a lot of attempts to rewrite history, but I’m absolutely confident in the decision I made.”

Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, shares that confidence. “His idea of overstatement is all the fuss made over the error in the President’s state of the union address about Iraq’s looking for uranium in Africa,” says Mr. May. “I would think the State of the Union address is an important document. Everything that goes into it should be very carefully vetted. If there was a lapse there, that should not happen. Somebody should be scolded. Maybe somebody should be fired. But that there was anything more than that strikes me as ludicrous and politically motivated or else it’s the media being manipulated.”

Mr. May echoes U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in saying the Nine-Eleven attacks on the United States abruptly changed perceptions. The United States could no longer afford to take chances. It had to anticipate attack, even if one subsequently did not occur.

“At a time like this, the American public would hope that the president would take very seriously any threat against innocent civilians,” he says. “And if he is going to err on one side or the other, it should be toward prudence. I think most people would rather the President take prudent measures if there is even a chance of dozens or hundreds or thousands of Americans or other innocents being killed.”

That is the dilemma of any president, says Ralph Peters, who writes on strategy and served in U.S. military intelligence. He says in the New York Post newspaper that every White House has an unfortunate tendency to select the intelligence that confirms its view of the world and neglect the rest. Dissenting opinion is put aside.

The Democrats under President Clinton were just as culpable as the Republicans in the Bush Administration, writes Mr. Peters. He recalls that his warnings, along with others, of impending terrorist attacks were ignored by the Clinton White House. The difference in his opinion is that President Clinton would underestimate the threats, while President Bush tends to overestimate them. “Republicans stretch the facts, while Democrats ignore the facts,” says Ralph Peters, and the U.S. military is left to clean up.

But Democrats and Republicans, Bush supporters and Bush critics appear to agree on one thing: U.S. intelligence needs a prompt overhaul.