Frustrated at the failure to find Saddam Hussein’s suspected stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have launched a major effort to determine if they were victims of bogus Iraqi defectors who planted disinformation to mislead the West before the war.
The goal, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, “is to see if false information was put out there and got into legitimate channels and we were totally duped on it.” He added, “We’re reinterviewing all our sources of information on this. This is the entire intelligence community, not just the U.S.”
The far-reaching review was started after a political firestorm erupted this summer over revelations that President Bush’s claim in his State of the Union speech that Iraq had sought to import uranium from Niger was based on forged documents.
Although senior CIA officials insist that defectors were only partly responsible for the intelligence that triggered the decision to invade Iraq in March, other intelligence officials now fear that key portions of the prewar information may have been flawed. The issue raises fresh doubts as to whether illicit weapons will be found in Iraq.
As evidence, officials say former Iraqi operatives have confirmed since the war that Hussein’s regime sent “double agents” disguised as defectors to the West to plant fabricated intelligence. In other cases, Baghdad apparently tricked legitimate defectors into funneling phony tips about weapons production and storage sites.
“They were shown bits of information and led to believe there was an active weapons program, only to be turned loose to make their way to Western intelligence sources,” said the senior intelligence official. “Then, because they believe it, they pass polygraph tests
Critics had charged that the Bush administration exaggerated intelligence on Iraq to bolster support for the war. The broader question now is whether some of the actual intelligence was fabricated and U.S. officials failed to detect it.
One U.S. intelligence official said analysts may have been too eager to find evidence to support the White House’s claims. As a result, he said, defectors “were just telling us what we wanted to hear.”
Hussein’s motives for such a deliberate disinformation scheme may have been to bluff his enemies abroad, from Washington to Tehran, by sending false signals of his military might. Experts also say the dictator’s defiance of the West, and its fear of his purported weapons of mass destruction, boosted his prestige at home and was a critical part of his power base in the Arab world.
Hussein also may have gambled that the failure of United Nations weapons inspectors to find specific evidence identified by bogus defectors ultimately would force the Security Council to lift sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. officials now believe Hussein hoped to then covertly reconstitute his weapons programs.
“We’re looking at that and every other possibility,” the first intelligence official said. “You can’t rule anything out.... People are really second-guessing themselves now.”
The current focus on Iraqi defectors reflects a new skepticism within the Iraq Survey Group, the 1,400-member team responsible for finding any illicit arms. In interviews, several current and former members expressed growing disappointment over the inconclusive results of the search so far.
“We were prisoners of our own beliefs,” said a senior U.S. weapons expert who recently returned from a stint with the survey group. “We said Saddam Hussein was a master of denial and deception. Then when we couldn’t find anything, we said that proved it, instead of questioning our own assumptions.”
The survey group is jointly led by David Kay, a former U.N. nuclear inspector who was named a CIA special advisor in June, and Army Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, who headed the “human intelligence” service at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Kay has said he will issue a preliminary report next month.
Evidence collected over the last two months suggests that Hussein’s regime abandoned large-scale weapons development and production programs in favor of a much smaller “just in time” operation that could churn out poison gases or germ agents if they were suddenly needed, survey group members say. The transition supposedly took place between 1996 and 2000.
But survey group mobile collection teams are still unable to prove that any nerve gases or microbe weapons were produced during or after that period, the officials said. Indeed, the weapons hunters have yet to find proof that any chemical or bio-warfare agents were produced after 1991.
The veracity of defectors is a key part of the puzzle, but only one aspect of it.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell quoted several defector accounts in February, when he presented U.S. findings to the United Nations Security Council in an unsuccessful bid to win broad backing for military action in Iraq. But Powell also cited spy satellites, electronic intercepts of telephone and other communications, reports from U.N. inspectors and other intelligence sources.
Some defectors have come under fire previously. U.S. experts have long questioned the value of informants provided by pro-invasion Iraqi opposition groups in exile, saying they routinely padded their resumes or exaggerated their knowledge in exchange for asylum, visas or money.
The CIA and the State Department, in particular, distanced themselves from Iraqi defectors handed over by the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based umbrella group headed by Ahmad Chalabi. CIA and State Department officials repeatedly warned that the group’s intelligence network had proved unreliable in the past.
Senior Pentagon officials, however, supported the former Iraqi banker’s bid as a possible successor to Hussein. Chalabi, who now sits on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad, has said his group provided the Defense Intelligence Agency with three defectors who had personal knowledge of Hussein’s illicit weapons programs.
One, an Iraqi engineer, told the DIA in 2001 that he knew the location of biological weapons. However, no bioweapons have been found at the sites he named.
A second defector from Chalabi’s group described what he said were mobile labs that could produce several hundred tons of biowarfare agents per year. The CIA has concluded that two trucks found in northern Iraq after the war were probably designed for biowarfare, but outside experts have sharply disputed those claims.
U.S. intelligence authorities dismissed the third defector, who claimed to be an expert in nuclear isotope separation, as a fraud.
The CIA launched its own internal review of intelligence in February before the war but did not re-interview defectors. The four-member panel, headed by Richard Kerr, former CIA deputy director, has only reviewed “finished” intelligence, not the “raw” reports that form their basis. The panel is awaiting the Iraq Survey Group report before judging whether CIA assessments were on target.
“So far, all they did was look at documents and see if they were well founded, and if the conclusions were justified based on the underlying intelligence,” said a CIA spokesman. “Now they’re waiting to see the outcome of what we find [in Iraq] so they can compare the two. It’s in limbo.”
With the Iraq Survey Group still at work, CIA and Pentagon officials declined to make Kay or Dayton, its leaders, available for interviews. But other survey group members, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security clearances they are required to sign, said the evidence reviewed so far -- including more than 30 million pages of documents -- still doesn’t support charges that Hussein secretly built chemical and biological weapons after U.N. inspectors were forced out of Iraq in 1998, as the Bush administration repeatedly warned.
“I haven’t heard anyone run into the SOG [Survey Operations Center] saying, ‘Eureka! We found the smoking gun,’ ” said a senior survey group member. “It’s all still murky as hell.”
The issue of timing is critical because a formal U.S. intelligence estimate sent to the White House and Congress in October starkly warned that Iraq had “begun renewed production” of mustard, sarin, cyclosarin and VX nerve gases and had 100 to 500 tons of chemical agents, “much of it added in the last year.” The report also said that “most of the key aspects” of Iraq’s bioweapons program “were more advanced” than before the 1991 war.
Evidence recently found by survey teams in Iraq includes detailed schedules, outlines and instruction sheets, among other documents, indicating covert plans to purchase and install “dual use” equipment in civilian laboratories and factories that could be quickly converted to military use if an order were suddenly issued.
“We’ve got a whole lot of documents that would substantiate a ‘just in time’ capability,” said one of the recently returned survey team members. “They set up dual-use facilities so they could cook up what they needed, when they needed it. But otherwise they would be making whiter-than-white washing detergent or something.”
In addition, some Iraqi scientists and technicians have claimed during interrogation that chemical and biological agents were produced under the “just in time” system as recently as 2002. But other Iraqis have said the system was never used or only produced small “test batches” in the mid- to late 1990s.
“We have some people who say, ‘Yes, we were doing it,’ or who say they exercised the production periodically,” said the former survey official. “But you try to pursue it and it’s not a clear picture. What they did with the material is unclear. If they did produce, what did they do with the results? If you just have a textbook or something on paper, that doesn’t mean you can actually make this stuff. It’s all still very fuzzy.”
Another former survey team member said the evidence of a “just in time” program justifies the prewar concerns, even if the program was never activated.
“To me, there’s no difference between finding a warehouse full of aerial bombs with nerve gas and a pencil-and-paper plan that will allow them to use their existing production capabilities to produce those same weapons in one week’s time,” he said.
U.N. weapons inspectors who scoured Iraq from 1991 to 1998 also theorized that Hussein sought to hide new weapons programs in civilian factories, hospitals and laboratories. Hussein had hidden much of his chemical and biological weapons production in pesticide plants, water-treatment facilities and other civilian infrastructure in the 1980s, but the U.N. teams found no newly built production operations in the 1990s.
Kay and Dayton briefed the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees behind closed doors in late July. They later told reporters that the survey group was making “solid progress” in unraveling Hussein’s illicit programs. That led to sharp criticism from some Democrats.
“I remain cautious about whether we’re going to find actual WMD,” said Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Not just a program, but the very extensive weapons -- ready for attack -- that we all were told existed.”
Rockefeller said he was “concerned” that the weapons hunters had not found “the 25,000 liters of anthrax, the 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin and the 500 tons of mustard, sarin and VX nerve gas” that Bush cited in his State of the Union speech in January.
Administration officials say they are still confident that weapons of mass destruction will be found. They note a sharp increase in the number of Iraqis providing useful information over the last month. One such tip last week led to a cache of shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles in northern Iraq, officials said.
In a television interview on Sunday, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited the discovery this month of about 30 Soviet-era high-speed fighters and reconnaissance aircraft that had been buried in desert sands near the Taqqadum airfield west of Baghdad. U.S. troops had been operating in the area for more than three months before a sandstorm exposed a tail fin.
“They went to extraordinary lengths to bury an aircraft,” Myers said.
“A 55-gallon drum with anthrax in it would be a lot more difficult to find and dig up. So it will work ... and we’ll find what we’re after.”