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Debate Rages Over US Intelligence on Iraq - 2004-02-03

The failure to find any stockpiles of banned weapons in postwar Iraq has set off a political firestorm about the intelligence that the Bush administration used to justify the war. The former chief U.S. weapons inspector says assertions that Iraq possessed stockpiles of banned weapons of mass destruction were wrong, and President Bush has ordered a probe into the prewar intelligence. But, there is still plenty of debate about whether U.S. intelligence analysts were wrong - or wronged.

What a difference a year can make.

On Feburary 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the U.N. Security Council to make the Bush Administration's case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and should face military action. Mr. Powell said the U.S. case was based on solid intelligence.

A year later, former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay says there were no stockpiles, and he cites an intelligence failure in the lead up to the war. Mr. Powell now says he might not have recommended attacking Iraq had he known there were no weapons stockpiles. President Bush has agreed to set up what is being billed as a nine-member commission to investigate the matter.

Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the Administration overstated its case.

"As recently as 2002, of course, the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) was saying that there's no hard evidence of any stockpiles or any production capabilities," he said. "They went to pains to point that out. Colin Powell in his testimony goes and says exactly the opposite, exactly the opposite, where he says 'every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.'"

Mr. Powell says he remains convinced that the decision to attack Iraq was a correct one, given Iraq's capability and the intentions of Saddam Hussein. The only difference, he pointed out Tuesday, is over stockpiles.

"The only thing that is even being discussed right now is what stockpiles were out there," he said. "And that is one element that we will let the various communities and intelligence groups that are looking at this look at this. The various commissions will be examining this. But the bottom line is this: the president made the right decision."

Greg Thielmann, who until late 2002 was director of the Office of Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, says the blame game now begins.

"The administration is finally admitting it did not present an accurate picture. And so the real question is, who is to blame," he said. "That is the hot issue: how much blame the intelligence community bears on this. And of course there are a number of people and organizations trying very hard to make sure none of the blame rubs off on the White House."

Two schools of thought prevail. One is that the intelligence analyses reaching the president, Mr. Powell, and other top policymakers were deeply flawed. The analysts simply got it wrong, as Mr. Kay has put it. The other says the Bush administration selectively chose snippets of intelligence that bolstered their stand - dubbed "cherry picking" by intelligence professionals - to justify the war.

The Bush administration says the commission investigating the intelligence lapse will be credible and non-partisan. Two congressional committees are also delving into the issue.