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Sunday, February 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:52 A.M.
Misfires of a 'smoking gun' in Iraq debate
By Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus
WASHINGTON The information was so startling that CIA Director George Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney trooped up to Capitol Hill to brief the four top Senate and House leaders the day after Labor Day, 2002.
The administration was gearing up to present its case against Iraq at the United Nations, and lawmakers were eager for any evidence that would prove Saddam Hussein was a grave threat.
In the briefing, Tenet and Cheney presented what one participant described as a "smoking gun": New intelligence showed Iraq had developed unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs) that could deliver chemical or biological agents.
In addition, they said, Iraq had sought mapping software that would allow it to produce sophisticated views of the eastern U.S. cities. President Bush hinted at the evidence in a speech on Oct. 7, 2002.
And one year ago, when Secretary of State Colin Powell made a lengthy presentation before the U.N. Security Council, he echoed the concern: "Iraq could use these small UAVs, which have a wingspan of only a few meters, to deliver biological agents to its neighbors or if transported, to other countries, including the United States."
Since Powell's speech, however, investigations by U.S. weapons inspectors have determined that the UAVs, or drones, were not designed to spread deadly toxins, but to fly unarmed reconnaissance missions.
The story of the UAVs just one part of the vast array of claims made by the Bush administration about Iraq's alleged weapons programs is emblematic of how U.S. intelligence on Iraq often was wrong, even when officials made efforts to cull the strongest material from a torrent of information.
Grilling CIA analysts
But in the end, much of that effort appeared to be for naught. David Kay, the chief inspector who recently resigned, has spent the last week telling reporters and Congress that there appear to be no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Only fragments of Powell's presentation have been confirmed despite months of searching.
"It looks terrible," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "None of his core assertions about Saddam's growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be true."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it is too early to draw such conclusions. "Certainly some of the elements we know are subject to debate, disagreement," he said. "But until we know what the real, full extent of the program was, it's hard. You don't have anything to compare what the intelligence was at the time to what the final answers are."
But many experts say the UAV question has long been settled. The drone aircraft uncovered in Iraq has glass viewing ports, with a bracket for mounting some type of camera. As first reported by The Associated Press last August, there was little room to carry the chemical- and biological- spraying devices described by Powell to the Security Council.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told Kay last week that he voted for a resolution authorizing force against Iraq precisely because of the administration's UAV evidence.
"I was told not only that (Saddam had weapons of mass destruction) and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard," Nelson said.
Kay responded that the UAV program was active, but the Iraqis did not have "the existing deployment capability at that point for any sort of systematic military attack."
In preparing for the presentation to the U.N., Powell had issued clear guidance to his aides, who were spending long hours at CIA headquarters: He wanted 10 to 15 "absolutely solid" pieces of evidence, Powell said, according to aides. "I want it airtight, or I'm not going to use it."
White House revisions
The CIA originally drafted a speech for a U.N. presentation, which then went to the White House. But what ultimately emerged from Cheney's office was much different from the CIA draft.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, deputy national-security adviser Stephen Hadley and other National Security Council (NSC) staffers had produced draft language for Powell including 45 pages on weapons of mass destruction.
But when Powell's staff and intelligence analysts gathered at CIA headquarters to go through the material, controversy immediately erupted over some of the charges, officials said. Because the White House had changed so much from the CIA draft, they had to go over it "page by page," one official said.
The UAVs were a major source of controversy, officials said. For many senior officials, this was some of the best evidence they had. "The UAV program, to me, that was more serious because that was a direct threat to our military," a high-ranking national-security official said later. "Those UAVs could get up and spread chemical or, worse, biological weapons."
Indeed, the proposed narrative for Powell went something like this, according to an official involved in the preparation for Powell's speech: Saddam had his procurement agents, who are virtually all over the world, attempt to acquire software that would give him very sophisticated mapping of the eastern United States, allowing him to program a missile with a high degree of accuracy.
But the whole scenario "fell apart like a toothpick house" once Powell and his aides asked for the sourcing on the information, the official said. Upon closer inspection, several officials said, it turned out that Iraq had not sought the software, but that an Australian firm had offered it. The software, meanwhile, apparently produced maps not much better than those sold at gasoline stations.
"The vendor, in the interest of making further sales, suggested this to the Iraqis, and there was no confirmation that we could find that the Iraqis had actually purchased the software," the official said. "We were getting ready to put in the secretary's statement that they were getting ready to bomb the eastern United States!"
An October report
Within one day, officials said, Powell's task force had largely abandoned the 45-page document on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction produced by Cheney's office and the NSC, using instead a classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assembled by the CIA in October.
The NIE, according to declassified portions made public last year, firmly stated that "Baghdad's UAV could threaten Iraq's neighbors, U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and if brought close to, or into, the United States, the U.S. homeland."
But the NIE included a dissent to this conclusion that, after the war, would be considered correct: The Air Force intelligence arm, the expert on UAVs in the U.S. government, strongly argued that the primary role of these aircraft was reconnaissance, "although CBW (chemical and biological weapons) delivery is an inherent capability."
Air Force officials have said this last phrase was added during negotiations in crafting the NIE, though they viewed the possibility as highly unlikely because the drones would be inefficient delivery vehicles.
Powell and his team stuck with the consensus position of the other intelligence agencies because a decision had been made that his speech should reflect the best judgment of the intelligence community.
The Air Force dissent was "perfectly logical," one State Department official said. "Some of the drones may have been reconnaissance, maybe all of them. But the weight of the intelligence community was that these were delivery vehicles. Given the history of Iraq's interest in UAV development, we couldn't discount it."
"There was a very strong dominant view on UAVs," another official said, "and that's what we went with."
Washington Post Staff writer Barton Gellman contributed to this report.
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