WASHINGTON -- A year ago Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell stood before the United Nations and said: "Al Qaeda continues to have a deep interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. . . . I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to Al Qaeda. Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story. I will relate it to you now as he himself described it."
Powell's story came to mind after President Bush's agreement yesterday to reexamine intelligence on prewar Iraq, suggesting that intelligence failures alone were responsible for misperceptions of the Iraqi threat. Powell's address to the UN last February was one of the rare instances in which an administration official offered a look at the raw intelligence used to make the case for war.
These were the details Powell provided: "This senior Al Qaeda terrorist was responsible for one of Al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan. His information comes firsthand from his personal involvement at senior levels of Al Qaeda. He says [Osama] bin Laden and his top deputy in Afghanistan, deceased Al Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef, did not believe that Al Qaeda labs in Afghanistan were capable enough to manufacture these chemical or biological agents. They needed to go somewhere else. They had to look outside of Afghanistan for help. Where did they go? Where did they look? They went to Iraq.
"The support that [the captured operative] describes included Iraq offering chemical or biological weapons training for two Al Qaeda associates, beginning in December 2000. He says that a militant known as Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi had been sent to Iraq several times between 1997 and 2000 for help in acquiring poisons and gases. Abdullah al-Iraqi characterized the relationship he forged with Iraqi officials as `successful.' "
Even putting aside the plaintiff's-lawyer posturing ("Where did they look? They went to Iraq"), which seeks to make up in emphatic language for what is not established in fact, this story would not pass muster in any mainstream newspaper.
First off, it is really not a "firsthand" account. Powell's carefully vetted wording does not say the source heard anything directly from bin Laden or Atef, only from "personal involvement at senior levels of Al Qaeda" -- quite possibly, he heard some scuttlebutt. He heard that Iraq offered help in chemical "or" biological weapons. Shouldn't the "or" have been a clue that this operative did not have specific information at all?
Nonetheless, Powell declares that the operative "describes Iraq offering" training but says nothing about whether any training took place, almost certainly because the operative does not know. Then he tells of a single emissary trying to get Iraqi "help" in acquiring poisons and gases. And he quotes the same captured operative as having heard (from whom?) that the emissary characterized "the relationship he forged with Iraqi officials" as "successful."
So, did Iraq actually train Al Qaeda in biological or chemical weapons? There is no clear indication from Powell's story.
Did Iraq offer to provide "poisons and gases" to Al Qaeda? Powell knows only that a captured operative heard (somewhere) that an emissary described his relationship with Iraqi officials as "successful." And, of course, it is not clear what a "successful" relationship would mean in this context. They got along well and agreed to talk further?
Nonetheless, a day after Powell's presentation, Bush flatly declared, "Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training."
Last week, Bush's chief weapons inspector, David Kay, said that almost everything the United States presented to the UN was wrong, but that Bush, Powell, and the rest of the administration bore no responsibility for this: The failures were exclusively among the intelligence agencies and analysts. This week Bush endorsed Kay's call for an independent inquiry into the intelligence failures.
But the mistaken perception that Iraq provided biological and chemical weapons training to Al Qaeda was hardly an intelligence failure. A US intelligence agent debriefed a captured operative and obtained the sketchy information that Powell related to the UN. But Powell and Bush provided the extrapolations -- and they included leaps of logic so big that any high-schooler could spot them.
When Powell delivered his case, some UN weapons inspectors shook their heads in disbelief. But most Americans believed him. They trusted him not because the evidence was so persuasive, but because he was secretary of state, making emphatic statements that were echoed by the president.
Three weeks ago, Powell conceded, "I have not seen smoking-gun concrete evidence about the connection" between Iraq and Al Qaeda, "but I do believe the connection existed."
Now, leaders of the administration are pushing the idea that everyone was misled about Iraq because of failures in the intelligence agencies.
But any student of history -- or of John le Carre novels -- knows that intelligence is always less than perfect. The extent to which leaders will extrapolate from intelligence to build a case for a war they believe in may be this administration's contribution to history.
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