WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that at the time he made the case to the United Nations for the invasion of Iraq some US intelligence officials already knew many of the claims about weapons and terrorist ties were suspect, but they had not informed him or other senior policy makers about their doubts.
Powell has previously said that it later became clear some information cited in his February 2003 speech to the UN Security Council was ''not solid." He went further yesterday, indicating in testimony to Congress that intelligence officials, whom he did not identify, were aware of that beforehand.
''What . . . distressed me is that there were some in the intelligence community who had knowledge that the sourcing was suspect and that was not known to me," Powell told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. ''They knew at the time I was saying it that some of the sourcing was suspect."
Powell stated he has learned some intelligence reports produced before his UN speech included ''disclaimers" that were not circulated to top officials, including himself and President Bush. After more than a year of fruitless searching, Powell repeated his view that at this point it is ''unlikely we will find any stockpiles" of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Senators and former intelligence officials said the testimony raised new questions about why US spy agencies failed to correct what they knew were false statements and why senior officials planning the war, including Powell himself, failed to ask for more information. The comments also appeared to renew public debate over whether US intelligence was simply wrong about Iraqi weapons or whether doubts had been ignored by senior officials planning the war.
''It leads to about a dozen follow-up questions, which I'm going to have to wait for," said Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Members of Congress often submit written follow-up questions to official witnesses, particularly if classified information is involved.
Powell presented the US case against Iraq to the Security Council, where he provided a litany of what he referred to as facts -- such as the existence of mobile biological weapons labs, tons of chemical agents, evidence of a nuclear weapons program, and Hussein's harboring of an Al Qaeda operative. He said at the time that the evidence proved Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and had links to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda's leader. The United Nations did not support a resolution drafted by the United States and Britain to sanction the use of force to disarm the Iraqi regime.
Powell did not specify which pieces of information in his speech were based on suspect sourcing, and he did not say how he had learned that. He did say he had removed from his draft speech some claims about Al Qaeda that he said were uncorroborated. In the past Powell has said the information he relied on came directly from the CIA. The CIA's public affairs office yesterday declined to respond to Powell's comments.
Powell testified along with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on how proposed changes in the structure of intelligence agencies, such as the creation of a national intelligence director, would help avoid such a massive breakdown in the future. The secretary of state said he believes that a powerful intelligence czar to oversee all US spy agencies and give a full hearing to divergent views would place the United States in a ''better position" to avoid the same kind of mistakes made in his UN speech.
Former Iraq weapons inspectors and Powell's own intelligence advisers agree that the CIA did not include all the necessary caveats put forth by its own analysts and those from other agencies, including the State Department and the Department of Energy, when Powell met with CIA officials to review intelligence reports in the days before his UN address.
But some quickly criticized the secretary of state's testimony, noting that even his own intelligence advisers warned him that many of the claims in his speech were highly questionable.
''It's disingenuous for Powell not to mention the fact that even his own people were doing their best to warn him about categorical statements and warn him about exaggerating the threats, warning him about the reliability of some of the human intelligence reporting," said Greg Thielmann, formerly Powell's chief of intelligence on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
Thielmann said analysts at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research provided Powell with a report just two days before the speech calling into question many of the claims. Among them were disagreements that Iraq's acquisition of aluminum tubing was for use in a nuclear weapons program. Thielmann had left the administration a few weeks before the speech.
Powell and others in the Bush administration have acknowledged that many of the conclusions about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda reached before the war were wrong. But they have noted that other allied countries also erred in concluding Iraq had and was building more weapons of mass destruction. David Kay, the former CIA official who led the hunt for the weapons in Iraq after the invasion, said earlier this year that ''we were all wrong."
Yet Powell's comments to the Senate committee mark the first detailed acknowledgement by a senior Bush administration official that there were deep doubts in the intelligence community before the war. Congressional investigations into prewar intelligence have previously disclosed misgivings about the quality of the intelligence, but those concerns had been quiet or ignored during the debate leading up to the invasion.
Most of Powell's major assertions were based on faulty information. They included the claim about aluminum tubes; the existence of mobile bioweapons labs, which came from a discredited source; stockpiles of hundreds of tons of chemical agents such as VX and Sarin nerve gas; and hidden Scud missiles armed with germ warheads.
''It's hard to find any major statement in his speech that is true," said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons proliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He said ''the problems with the intelligence don't excuse Powell's suspension of his own disbelief to support this flimsy case."
Others, however, credited Powell for honesty in his testimony. ''You wonder if Powell heard the whole story," said David Albright, a former UN nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq. ''He is the only one who is trying to wrestle with 'what did i do, was I wrong, what does it mean?' It is tragic that it is Powell who is wrestling with this while others in the administration push it aside."