WASHINGTON - The Bush administration distorted intelligence and presented conjecture as evidence to justify a U.S. invasion of Iraq, according to a retired intelligence official who served during the months before the war.
"What disturbs me deeply is what I think are the disingenuous statements made from the very top about what the intelligence did say," said Greg Thielmann, who retired last September. "The area of distortion was greatest in the nuclear field."
Thielmann was director of the strategic, proliferation and military issues office in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. His office was privy to classified intelligence gathered by the CIA and other agencies about Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear programs.
In Thielmann's view, Iraq could have presented an immediate threat to U.S. security in two areas: Either it was about to make a nuclear weapon, or it was forming close operational ties with al-Qaida terrorists.
Evidence was lacking for both, despite claims by President Bush and others, Thielmann said in an interview this week. Suspicions were presented as fact, contrary arguments ignored, he said.
The administration's prewar portrayal of Iraq's weapons capabilities has not been validated despite weeks of searching by military experts. Alleged stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons have not turned up, nor has significant evidence of a nuclear weapons program or links to the al-Qaida network.
Bush has said administration assertions on Iraq will be verified in time. The CIA and other agencies have vigorously defended their prewar performances.
CIA Director George Tenet, responding to similar criticism last week, said in a statement: "The integrity of our process was maintained throughout, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong." On Friday, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency acknowledged he had no hard evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons last fall but believed Iraq had a program in place to produce them.
Also Friday, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was not prepared to place blame for any intelligence shortcomings until all information is in.
"There are always times when a single sentence or a single report evokes a lot of concern and some doubt," Warner told reporters after a closed hearing of his committee. "But thus far, in my own personal assessment of this situation, the intelligence community has diligently and forthrightly and with integrity produced intelligence and submitted it to this administration and to the Congress of the United States."
Thielmann suggested mistakes may have been made at points all along the chain from when intelligence is gathered, analyzed, presented to the president and then provided to the public.
The evidence of a renewed nuclear program in Iraq was far more limited than the administration contended, he said.
"When the administration did talk about specific evidence - it was basically declassified, sensitive information - it did it in a way that was also not entirely honest," Thielmann said.
In his State of the Union address, Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The Africa claim rested on a purported letter or letters between officials in Iraq and Niger held by European intelligence agencies. The communications are now accepted as forged, and Thielmann said he believed the information on Africa was discounted months before Bush mentioned it.
"I was very surprised to hear that be announced to the United States and the entire world," he said.
Thielmann said he had presumed Iraq had supplies of chemical and probably biological weapons. He particularly expected U.S. forces to find caches of mustard agent or other chemical weapons left over from Saddam's old stockpiles.
"We appear to have been wrong," he said. "I've been genuinely surprised at that."
One example where officials took too far a leap from the facts, according to Thielmann: On Feb. 11, CIA Director Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iraq "retains in violation of U.N. resolutions a small number of Scud missiles that it produced before the Gulf War."
Intelligence analysts supposed Iraq may have had some missiles because they couldn't account for all the Scuds it had before the first Gulf War, Thielmann said. They could have been destroyed, dismantled, miscounted or still somewhere in Saddam's inventory.
Some critics have suggested that the White House and Pentagon policy-makers pressured the CIA and military intelligence to come up with conclusions favorable to an attack-Iraq policy. The CIA and military have denied such charges. Thielmann said that generally he felt no such pressure.
Although his office did not directly handle terrorism issues, Thielmann said he was similarly unconvinced of a strong link between al-Qaida and Saddam's government.
Yet, the implication from Bush on down was that Saddam supported Osama bin Laden's network. Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks frequently were mentioned in the same sentence, even though officials have no good evidence of any link between the two.
© 2003 The Associated Press