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CIA leak illustrates selective use of intelligence on Iraq


BY JONATHAN S. LANDAY
Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - The grand jury probe into the leak of a covert CIA officer's name has opened a new window into how the Bush administration used intelligence from dubious sources to make a case for a pre-emptive war and discarded information that undercut its rationale for attacking Iraq.

CIA officer Valerie Plame was outed in an apparent attempt to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, after he challenged President Bush's allegation in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons from the African nation of Niger.

A Knight Ridder review of the administration's arguments, its own reporting at the time and the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 report shows that the White House followed a pattern of using questionable intelligence, even documents that turned out to be forgeries, to support its case - often leaking classified information to receptive journalists - and dismissing information that undermined the case for war.

The State of the Union speech was one of a number of instances in which Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their aides ignored the qualms of intelligence professionals and instead relied on the claims of Iraqi defectors and other suspect sources or, in the case of Niger, the crudely forged documents.

Like the Niger allegation, almost all of the administration's claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had to be ousted before he could develop nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, use them against America or give them to al-Qaida terrorists have turned out to be false. No such weapons or programs have been found, and several official inquiries have concluded that there was no cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaida.

The indictments that may come in the CIA leak case this week aren't expected to delve into the administration's use of intelligence. The Senate Intelligence Committee agreed to examine the issue in 2004, when it reported on the spy agencies' errors, but it hasn't done so.

THE EARLY CASE FOR WAR

The White House launched its public campaign to build support for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in August 2002.

Top aides led by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and known as the White House Iraq Group directed the effort, according to current and former U.S. officials who requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

The group included I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, and Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, who are at the center of the Plame probe.

Other members were then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy and now successor, Stephen J. Hadley, White House communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin and James R. Wilkerson and legislative liaison Nicholas E. Calio.

The Iraqi National Congress, an exile opposition group whose leader, Ahmad Chalabi, was close to Cheney and others, had begun feeding Western reporters Iraqi defectors' tales that Saddam was training Islamic extremists to hit U.S. targets and hiding banned weapons shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The INC, which was deeply distrusted by the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA, piped the same information into Cheney's office and the Pentagon, according to a June 2002 letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee from the group's Washington spokesman.

In an Aug. 26, 2002, speech, Cheney highlighted the main themes of the administration's case for war.

Iraq, he charged, was "amassing" chemical and biological weapons, and "many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon" and could give them to terrorists.

There was no solid U.S. intelligence to support his assertions, and no such finding by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversaw the destruction of Saddam's pre-1991 Gulf War nuclear weapons program.

U.S. intelligence had no evidence of any alliance between Iraq and al-Qaida, and many analysts doubted that Saddam would give such weapons to Islamic extremists.

Those views were set out in intelligence analyses, according to a report on Iraq intelligence by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The White House, however, based its case on an analysis by a secretive Pentagon unit formed by then Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, a proponent of attacking Iraq. The Pentagon analysis concluded that Saddam and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden were working together. The Pentagon and the CIA later disowned the findings.

THE ALUMINUM TUBES

On Sept. 8, 2002, The New York Times quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying that Iraq had tried "to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes" believed to be intended for centrifuges, devices that enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

The story quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying that "nuclear weapons are his (Saddam's) hole card" and that delaying his overthrow would make him "harder ... to deal with."

The story reinforced the Bush administration's charge that the United States couldn't wait for proof that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons.

Its appearance in the nation's most influential paper also gave Cheney and Rice an opportunity to discuss the matter the same day on the Sunday television talk shows. They could discuss the article, but otherwise they wouldn't have been able to talk about classified intelligence in public.

"Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon," Bush said to the U.N. General Assembly five days later.

But U.S. intelligence experts disagreed over the tubes' purpose.

A majority of U.S. agencies, including several with no expertise on the subject, agreed that the tubes could be used for centrifuges.

But after consulting U.S. nuclear laboratories, the Department of Energy and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded that the tubes were most likely for ground-to-ground rockets, not for centrifuges.

The International Atomic Energy Agency later reached the same conclusion.

THE BACKGROUND PAPER

In conjunction with Bush's U.N. speech, the White House released a report, "A Decade of Deception and Defiance," which purported to lay out evidence that Iraq was violating a U.N. ban on possessing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

There's no evidence that the CIA or the DIA cleared the paper.

A number of the assertions it made were based on exaggerated and fabricated information from Iraqi defectors provided by the INC. One of them, Adnan Ihsan al Haideri, whose statements were also the basis of a Dec. 20, 2001, New York Times article, showed "deception" in a CIA-administered polygraph three days before the article appeared. When U.S. weapons inspectors took him back to Iraq, he couldn't identify a single illicit weapons facility.

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