Carnegie study calls arms threat overstated
WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials exaggerated the threats from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and failed to uncover any links between President Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a private nonpartisan research organization concluded in a report released yesterday.
The study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace states that "administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq's WMD and ballistic missile program" by treating possibilities as fact and "misrepresenting inspectors' findings in ways that turned threats from minor to dire."
Responding to questions about the report, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he continues to believe that Hussein possessed dangerous weapons and had connections to terrorists who threaten the United States.
"I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection, but I do believe the connections existed," he said at a State Department news conference.
Of Hussein's alleged attempts to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, Powell said, "In terms of intention, he always had it."
The three Carnegie Endowment researchers who produced the report charged that US officials politicized intelligence to fit their arguments for a war to oust Hussein.
"We believe that in 2002, the intelligence process began to be politicized," Carnegie's president, Jessica T. Mathews, said in a telephone interview. "They were under intense pressure to produce something that buttresses policy makers' beliefs. This is an old story [in government]. This just happens to be an egregious case with extreme consequences, namely going to war."
The other two researchers are Joseph Cirincione, a director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment, and George Perkovich, vice president for studies at Carnegie who authored a book on India's nuclear bomb.
The Carnegie Endowment is one of the nation's oldest foreign affairs think tanks. The Non-Proliferation Project regularly issues reports on US efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction and has been critical of both Democratic and Republican administrations. Mathews and Perkovich served in the Clinton administration and opposed the Iraq war.
The Carnegie study, based on five months of interviews and research that compared statements by US officials with declassified documents, said that the Bush administration ignored experts who could have offered more accurate information and swept aside the assessments of the State and Energy departments, whose different findings were not made public until July, months after the invasion.
The report also cited Vice President Dick Cheney's "repeated visits" to CIA headquarters, the creation of a separate intelligence operation in the Department of Defense, and demands by administration officials for access to raw intelligence as evidence of "unusually intense" pressure on intelligence agencies to provide assessments of the Iraqi threat that were in line with the administration's policies.
Yesterday, analysts said that much of the information in the report was already available to the public, but that it created a new opportunity for public debate. The report, which recommended an end to the US doctrine of unilateral preemptive force and called for an independent commission to determine what intelligence agencies knew, had been downloaded more than a thousand times from the Carnegie Endowment's Web site by early yesterday afternoon.
"It's long overdue for a public discussion," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security who was involved in the UN inspection effort in Iraq in the 1990s. "The administration locked itself into a position in October of 2002, but it was clear by January or February that there weren't large stocks of WMD. What good is intelligence if you can't revise your policy based on new information?"
The Carnegie researchers said Hussein had attempted to build chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, but those efforts had been crippled by the 1991 Gulf War, subsequent UN weapons inspections, and sanctions.
Before October 2002, the government's intelligence assessments of Iraq's nuclear capabilities were fairly accurate, the report states, but after that they veered off base. The Carnegie researchers also faulted Democrats in Congress, the media, and think tanks for failing to closely examine the assertions made by officials in the months before the war.
Inaccurate intelligence provided by Iraqi exiles, particularly those from the Iraqi National Congress, was another of the many reasons cited for poor intelligence.
"A lot of the defector information . . . turned out to be providing information that is not accurate," Mathews said, adding that many were "unwitting double agents" who had been briefed with bad information from Hussein's government.
Also yesterday, a US Pentagon official confirmed that 400 of the 1,400-member team of US government weapons inspectors had left Iraq after eight months without uncovering evidence of weapons of mass destruction, as reported yesterday in The New York Times. The official said it was unclear whether lead inspector David Kay, who has been on vacation in the United States, would return to Iraq.
But Pentagon officials said the search for weapons of mass destruction is still in full force and that the administration has not given up hope of finding them.
The group that departed was a specialized team that had been scouring the battlefield for conventional munitions, and not an integral part of the Iraq Survey Group that had been set up to hunt for weapons of mass destruction, one Pentagon official said.
"This is not a signal that the administration is packing up its bags and going home," he said, adding that the Iraq Survey Group is continuing to add people and the team in charge of disabling weapons of mass destruction remain in Iraq. The weapons inspection team will continue, he said, "until it finds what it is looking for or is told to cease and desist."
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com.