Controversy Grows Surrounding Prewar Intel

By Kerr, Paul | Arms Control Today, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Controversy Grows Surrounding Prewar Intel


Kerr, Paul, Arms Control Today


FUELED BY A White House admission that discredited intelligence was used in President George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have come under increasingly intense scrutiny. As the search for proscribed weapons continues without any actual weapons being found, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Bush administration officials' unequivocal claims that Iraq possessed militarily significant quantities of weapons of mass destruction were likely flawed and, in some cases, did not accurately reflect the more ambiguous judgments of the intelligence community.

The dispute has gained political traction as U.S. casualties in Iraq continue. Members of Congress and the public have questioned both the veracity of U.S. claims about Iraq and the magnitude of the Iraqi threat at the time of the U.S.-led coalition forces' March 19 invasion. The controversy has harmed British Prime Minister Tony Blair's political standing (see page 20) and coincided with a decline in the U.S. public's confidence about operations in Iraq. Bush could face a new round of questions this fall, with the House and Senate intelligence committees continuing their investigations into intelligence matters when Congress returns from its summer recess.

The controversy has centered around two claims Bush made in the State of the Union speech about Iraq's suspected nuclear weapons program. The first was that "the British government has learned that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," a reference to a claim that appeared in a September 2002 British report about Iraqi weapons capabilities. The second was that Hussein "has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production" when used in centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

The claims were not limited to the State of the Union address. Bush asserted two days before the invasion that "[i]ntelligence...leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised," but recent revelations regarding U.S. intelligence on Iraq have raised doubts about that statement. Additionally, UN weapons inspectors-who had been working in Iraq since late November 2002-reported less than two weeks before the invasion that they had found no evidence Iraq had active programs to produce nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

Much of the supporting evidence for the claim about Iraq's attempts to procure uranium in Africa was known to be weak at the time of Bush's speech, and UN inspectors further undermined it shortly after, particularly when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in March that documents supporting the claim were forged. Additionally, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published in October 2002, which is said to be the basis for the claims in the speech, contains a dissent by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) that characterizes "claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa" as "highly dubious."

These facts have raised questions about the process for clearing the information in Bush's speech. Bush first tried to pin the blame on the CIA, claiming July 14 that the speech was "cleared by the CIA." Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet stated July 11 that his agency cleared the speech but should not have allowed the language to appear in the final draft.

Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, however, acknowledged July 22 that the CIA had previously warned him that the information might be inaccurate, and White House speechwriters subsequently removed the information from an October 7, 2002, presidential speech. Hadley said he should have removed it from the State of the Union address but that he had forgotten the CIA warnings.

Hadley also said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was informed about the CIA's warnings, but Rice claimed July 30 that she did not remember seeing them. …

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