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Pentagon Officials Take More Cautious Line on Assessing US Intelligence - 2004-02-11

A year ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed to have no doubts about the intelligence he was receiving on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Now he and other top Pentagon officials are taking what appears to be a more cautious line when it comes to assessing the accuracy of U.S. intelligence.

Speaking to reporters just before the war with Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld said without qualification that Saddam's forces had chemical and biological weapons. He also signaled that the whereabouts of those weapons was something that was being closely tracked. "[Saddam] claims to have no chemical or biological weapons, yet we know he continues to hide biological and chemical weapons, moving them to different locations as often as every 12 to 24 hours, and placing them in residential neighborhoods," he said.

Yet no such weapons have been found in Iraq in the months since U.S.-led coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein and began scouring suspected weapons storage sites. Former chief weapons inspector David Kay says he now believes it is unlikely there were any large stockpiles of chemical or biological arms.

Officials in the United States are investigating what might have gone wrong in the intelligence-gathering and reporting process. Some critics have charged the Bush administration may have manipulated the data it received from intelligence agencies to bolster its case for war, a charge senior officials have denied.

But at the Pentagon, top officials who once seemed so publicly certain of their information are beginning to reveal they had doubts, even Mr. Rumsfeld and the military's chief of staff, General Richard Myers. Mr. Rumsfeld said "I don't think there's a decision that Dick Myers or I have faced in the last three years that, where we have felt we had perfect information."

Mr. Rumsfeld stops short of expressing regret over what happened with the intelligence about Iraq. But he says he does not feel good about it. "The question was to the effect was am I satisfied or do I feel good about it or something like that? No, I haven't felt good about what I know most of my life. I always want to know more, and you always are hoping and praying that the, that you're going to be able to do that enormously difficult task of connecting those dots before something happens," he said.

For his part, General Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concedes the intelligence process is not perfect. "is not a perfect art, and it's certainly not a perfect science," he said.

But there does seem to be a new sense of caution at the Pentagon in the wake of the Iraq weapons intelligence controversy.

Although officials in Baghdad were quick this week to attribute to the al-Qaida terrorist group a seized document that outlined efforts to foment sectarian violence in Iraq, the Pentagon's leaders were quick to state their uncertainty about the document's authenticity.

Mr. Rumsfeld even told reporters he had not seen a translation of the document,a potentially important one that could buttress the administration's claim of al-Qaida involvement in Iraq. "I don't read all that. That's not what we're here to do. We've got jobs, real jobs. It's a big department. And we've got thousands, hundreds and hundreds of people who do that. That isn't what we do," he said.

His response raised questions about how much detail Mr. Rumsfeld sought about the pre-war intelligence he received on Iraq or whether he ever challenged its veracity.

Some intelligence officials have said their pre-war reports on Baghdad's weapons efforts included warnings and noted uncertainties.

But Mr. Rumsfeld still tells reporters the information was "broadly agreed and not contested."