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White House 'Exaggerating Iraqi Threat'
Published on Wednesday, October 9, 2002 in the Guardian/UK
White House 'Exaggerating Iraqi Threat'
Bush's Televised Address Attacked by US Intelligence
by Julian Borger in Washington
 

President Bush's case against Saddam Hussein, outlined in a televised address to the nation on Monday night, relied on a slanted and sometimes entirely false reading of the available US intelligence, government officials and analysts claimed yesterday.

Officials in the CIA, FBI and energy department are being put under intense pressure to produce reports which back the administration's line, the Guardian has learned. In response, some are complying, some are resisting and some are choosing to remain silent.

"Basically, cooked information is working its way into high-level pronouncements and there's a lot of unhappiness about it in intelligence, especially among analysts at the CIA," said Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA's former head of counter-intelligence.

In his address, the president reassured Americans that military action was not "imminent or unavoidable", but he made the most detailed case to date for the use of force, should it become necessary.

But some of the key allegations against the Iraqi regime were not supported by intelligence currently available to the administration. Mr Bush repeated a claim already made by senior members of his administration that Iraq has attempted to import hardened aluminum tubes "for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons". The tubes were also mentioned by Tony Blair in his dossier of evidence presented to parliament last month.

However, US government experts on nuclear weapons and centrifuges have suggested that they were more likely to be used for making conventional weapons.

"I would just say there is not much support for that [nuclear] theory around here," said a department of energy specialist.

David Albright, a physicist and former UN weapons inspector who was consulted on the purpose of the aluminum tubes, said it was far from clear that the tubes were intended for a uranium centrifuge.

Mr Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington thinktank, said: "There's a catfight going on about this right now. On one side you have most of the experts on gas centrifuges. On the other you have one guy sitting in the CIA."

Mr Albright said skeptics at the energy department's Lawrence Livermore national laboratory in California had been ordered to keep their doubts to themselves. He quoted a colleague at the laboratory as saying: "The administration can say what it wants and we are expected to remain silent."

There is already considerable skepticism among US intelligence officials about Mr Bush's claims of links between Iraq and al-Qaida. In his speech on Monday, Mr Bush referred to a "very senior al-Qaida leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year".

An intelligence source said the man the president was referring to was Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was arrested in Jordan in 2001 for his part in the "millennium plot" to bomb tourist sites there. He was subsequently released and eventually made his way to Iraq in search of treatment. However, intercepted telephone calls did not mention any cooperation with the Iraqi government.

There is also profound skepticism among US intelligence experts about the president's claim that "Iraq has trained al-Qaida members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases".

Bob Baer, a former CIA agent who tracked al-Qaida's rise, said that there were contacts between Osama bin Laden and the Iraqi government in Sudan in the early 1990s and in 1998: "But there is no evidence that a strategic partnership came out of it. I'm unaware of any evidence of Saddam pursuing terrorism against the United States."

A source familiar with the September 11 investigation said: "The FBI has been pounded on to make this link."

In making his case on Monday, Mr Bush made a startling claim that the Iraqi regime was developing drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which "could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas".

"We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States," he warned.

US military experts confirmed that Iraq had been converting eastern European trainer jets, known as L-29s, into drones, but said that with a maximum range of a few hundred miles they were no threat to targets in the US.

"It doesn't make any sense to me if he meant United States territory," said Stephen Baker, a retired US navy rear admiral who assesses Iraqi military capabilities at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.

Mr Cannistraro said the flow of intelligence to the top levels of the administration had been deliberately skewed by hawks at the Pentagon.

"CIA assessments are being put aside by the Defense department in favor of intelligence they are getting from various Iraqi exiles," he said. "Machiavelli warned princes against listening to exiles. Well, that is what is happening now."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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