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More evidence of doubts on Iraq emerges

WASHINGTON -- On Jan. 24, 2003, four days before President Bush delivered his State of the Union address presenting the case for war against Iraq, the National Security Council staff put out a call for new intelligence to bolster claims that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons or programs.

The person receiving the request, Robert Walpole, then the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, would later tell investigators that ''the NSC believed the nuclear case was weak," according to a 500-page report released last year by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

It has been clear since the September report of the Iraq Survey Group -- a CIA-sponsored weapons search in Iraq -- that the United States would not find the weapons of mass destruction cited by Bush as the rationale for going to war against Saddam Hussein.

But as the Walpole episode suggests, it now appears that even before the war many senior intelligence officials in the government had doubts about the case that was being trumpeted in public by the president and his senior advisers.

The question of prewar intelligence has been thrust back into the public eye with the disclosure of a secret British memo showing that eight months before the March 2003 start of the war, a senior British intelligence official reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that US intelligence was being shaped to support a policy of invading Iraq.

Moreover, a close reading of the recent 600-page report by the president's commission on intelligence, and the previous report by the Senate panel, shows that as the war approached many US intelligence analysts were internally questioning almost every major piece of prewar intelligence about Saddam's alleged weapons programs.

These included claims that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium in Africa for its nuclear program, had mobile labs for producing biological weapons, ran an active chemical weapons program and possessed unmanned aircraft that could deliver weapons of mass destruction.

All these claims were made by Bush or then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in public addresses even though, the reports made clear, they had yet to be verified by US intelligence agencies.

For instance, Bush claimed in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address that Saddam was working to obtain ''significant quantities" of uranium from Africa, a conclusion the president attributed to British intelligence and made a key part of his assertion that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program.

More than a year later, the White House retracted the statement after questions were raised about its veracity. But the Senate report makes it clear that even in January 2003, just before the president's speech, analysts at the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center were still investigating the reliability of the uranium information.

Similarly, the president's intelligence commission, chaired by former appellate judge Laurence Silberman and former senator Charles Robb, a Democrat from Virginia, disclosed that senior intelligence officials had serious questions about an Iraqi informant who provided the key information on Saddam's alleged mobile biological facilities.

The informant, whom the CIA station chief had reg-flagged as unreliable, was eventually determined to be a fabricator.

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