WASHINGTON - The Bush administration helped rally public and congressional support for a preemptive invasion of Iraq by publicizing the claims of an Iraqi defector months after he showed deception in a lie detector test and had been rejected as unreliable by U.S. intelligence agencies.
The defector, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al Haideri, claimed he'd worked at illegal chemical, biological and nuclear facilities around Baghdad. But when members of the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA-run effort to trace Saddam Hussein's illegal weapons, took Saeed back to Iraq earlier this year, he pointed out facilities known to be associated with the conventional Iraqi military. He couldn't identify a single site associated with illegal weapons, U.S. officials told Knight Ridder.
"The overall impression was that he was trying to pass information far beyond his area of expertise," said a senior U.S. official. He and another U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity because some details of the defector's case remain classified.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday that other defectors fed him and the CIA misleading information about Iraqi mobile biological weapons facilities before the war.
"It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases, deliberately misleading. And for that I am disappointed and I regret it," Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
The defectors and exile groups who provided false information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorism also assured administration officials and advisers that Iraqis would welcome American troops as liberators, that the Iraqi military would surrender en masse and that former exiles could quickly help form a new Iraqi government and revive the country's oil industry.
While no evidence has surfaced to indicate that administration officials knowingly fed dubious information to Congress, the public and the media, Saeed's case suggests that officials either were unaware that he'd done poorly on the polygraph exam or overlooked that fact when they publicized his claims.
The administration also publicized claims about Iraqi mobile biological weapons labs from a defector whom the Defense Intelligence Agency had labeled a fabricator and charges that Saddam had tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons in Africa even though the CIA had said it couldn't verify the charge.
The White House used Saeed's claims in a background paper nine months after CIA and DIA officers had dismissed him as unreliable.
An administration official, speaking for the White House and insisting that his name and position not be used, said he couldn't comment on intelligence matters and referred all questions to the CIA.
But a senior U.S. intelligence official, who also asked not to be named, said he was unaware that the paper, "A Decade of Deception and Defiance," "was vetted through the CIA" before it was released.
The White House paper gave prominent billing to Saeed's claims. It was released Sept. 12, 2002, in conjunction with a speech Bush delivered at the United Nations General Assembly.
The paper was the administration's first major compendium of "specific examples of how Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has systematically and continually violated 16 United Nations Security Council resolutions over the past decade."
It's still available on the White House and State Department Web sites.
A footnote in one version attributes Saeed's claims to a Dec. 20, 2001, front-page article in The New York Times that was based on an interview with the defector in Bangkok, Thailand.
In the article, Saeed described himself as a civil engineer who worked on renovating secret biological, chemical and nuclear weapons facilities in fake lead-lined water wells, private villas and beneath Baghdad's main hospital.
"Mr. Saeed's account gives new clues about the types and possible locations of illegal laboratories, facilities and storage sites that American officials and international inspectors have long suspected Iraq of trying to hide," the newspaper said.
The article was reprinted or cited by news media around the world.
The article appeared three days after CIA and DIA experts dismissed Saeed as unreliable - after he showed deception in the CIA-administered lie detector test, said the U.S. officials.
CIA experts conducted the polygraph at the request of DIA officials who'd spent some eight hours questioning Saeed in the Thai resort of Pataya prior to his interview with The New York Times, they said.
The polygraph "raised doubts" about Saeed's credibility, said one senior U.S. official. Said the second official: "The results were not good for him."
After the test, the CIA flew Saeed out of Thailand and resettled him in a country of his choice, said the senior U.S. official. He declined to identify the country but said it wasn't the United States and that Saeed wasn't admitted to a U.S. witness protection program.
The officials said they didn't know what happened to copies of contracts and other documents that Saeed provided to help substantiate his allegations.
Like the two other Iraqi defectors Powell cited on Sunday, Saeed was supplied by the Iraqi National Congress, a former exile group that lobbied the United States to oust Saddam. The group's leader, Ahmad Chalabi, is on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and is close to some Pentagon and White House officials and advisers.
INC spokesman Entifadh Qanbar and other INC officials denied that the group knowingly provided defectors of dubious credibility. They insisted that the INC did its utmost to check their identities and reliability before turning them over to U.S. officials.
An INC adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that an administration official whom he declined to identify had told him that "a large amount" of Saeed's information "did check out."
He said the INC learned of Saeed in mid-2001 after he was released from an Iraqi jail and went to Damascus, Syria. After learning that Iraqi intelligence agents were coming for him, the INC advised Saeed to leave the Syrian capital.
Saeed flew to Bangkok and met with two INC officials, who spent 10 days debriefing him, said the INC adviser. The adviser said INC officials were convinced that Saeed was genuine and alerted their contacts at the Pentagon.
Then U.S. officials debriefed Saeed, he said.
In a June 10, 2003, speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Chalabi said the INC had no further contact with Saeed after he was turned over to U.S. officials in Thailand on Dec. 17, 2001.
© 2004 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources.