WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's point man on nonproliferation has exaggerated the threat posed by Syria, Libya, and Cuba in an effort to build the case that strong action is needed to prevent them from developing weapons of mass destruction, former intelligence officials and independent specialists say.
Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton has long been one of the most controversial figures in the Bush administration -- a pugnacious neoconservative with a reputation for blunt talk and tough action. The allegations that he is inflating the evidence against regimes that are at odds with Washington have been made as the administration is defending itself against criticism that it misused intelligence to make the case for invading Iraq. "Very often, the points he makes have some truth to them, but he simply goes beyond where the facts tell intelligent people they should go," said Carl W. Ford Jr., who retired in October as head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
In several conversations, Bolton denied trying to shape intelligence for political purposes. He said all of his statements about the weapons capabilities of various states were cleared in advance by all the major political and intelligence agencies, and he brandished interagency approval checklists to prove it.
"I have always used intelligence properly," Bolton said. "Of course, I sometimes go beyond previous statements, but in every case I do, it's been previously cleared. You bet I do -- we do it all the time."
Bolton then shot back at the intelligence community, saying that some intelligence analysts' political biases affect their judgments. "People can and should agree that policy makers should not politicize intelligence," said Bolton, who arrives at work at 6:30 each morning and devours a thick briefing book of cables and analysis that many other officials do not bother to read. "But I think we can also say that intelligence analysts should not politicize intelligence."
Bolton has provoked such controversy that several of his critics, flouting Washington convention, agreed to be quoted by name.
"Undersecretary Bolton repeatedly goes beyond the current public intelligence estimates in his description of the proliferation threats," said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "He offers definitive judgments where there is, at best, only informed speculation about capabilities. In some cases, notably his claim that Cuba has biological weapons, he goes way beyond known capabilities.
"In others, like the claim that Iran has bioweapons or that Syria is developing nuclear weapons, he `connects the dots' to form a judgment that is not supported by solid evidence, but then presents it as established fact," Cirincione said. The result, he said, is an undermining of US credibility and of the ability of policy makers to craft balanced approaches to serious threats.
Bolton replied, "People tend to resort to ad hominem attacks when they feel their substantive arguments are weak."
Bolton, who has close ties to Vice President Cheney, is the reigning "bete noire" of Washington's foreign policy liberals and a hero to neoconservatives. He has been called "highly principled" and "human scum," a "delightful colleague" and "the most hated man in the State Department," an effective public servant and a loose cannon who has "sabotaged" US foreign policy.
Bolton, who turns 55 this month, looks more like a tweedy academic than a top diplomat. He wears his mustache long and speaks his mind with an undiplomatic directness. And he suffers fools, rogues, and reporters badly.
Years ago colleagues in the Reagan administration, in which Bolton was an assistant attorney general, presented him with a bronzed grenade fondly inscribed to "the truest Reaganaut." At the State Department, Bolton's mandate is to prevent the development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, particularly by states that might transfer them to terrorists. The mandate took on new urgency after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.He has made it his mission not only to warn Congress and the public of what he sees as threats to US security, but also to confront suspected offenders with evidence of their misdeeds. He has traveled the globe to rally other nations to support tougher action.
Some State Department officials say Bolton's abrasive style is disastrous for a diplomat. But the man himself seems not the least bit fazed by the fury of his critics.
"Should I be?" Bolton demanded of an interviewer. He waited an uncomfortably long minute as though expecting a student to supply the correct answer. Then he shrugged. "I say what I believe, and I sleep well at night."
Bolton is not afraid to smash the diplomatic china when it suits his purposes.
Last summer in Seoul, he attacked North Korean leader Kim Jong Il by name 17 times in a speech delivered as Washington was trying to draw Pyongyang regime into talks about abandoning its nuclear program.
In Washington and Seoul, critics fumed that Bolton was trying to provoke Pyongyang into walking away from the negotiations.
North Korea responded with the "human scum" epithet but went to the six-party talks anyway.
Asked whether he regretted the speech, Bolton did not answer directly, saying only that it was cleared in advance and that his boss, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, had defended it as reflecting administration policy.
"Speaking the truth has its virtues," Bolton said.