On the eve of a possible war in Iraq, a question looms increasingly large: If U.S. intelligence is so good, why are United Nations experts still unable to confirm whether Saddam Hussein is actively concealing and producing illegal weapons?
That troubling issue erupted Friday when top U.N. weapons inspectors expressed frustration with the quality of intelligence they have been given.
"I would rather have twice the amount of high-quality information about sites to inspect than twice the number of expert inspectors to send," Hans Blix, who heads the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, told the Security Council.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, went further, charging that documents provided by unidentified states may have been faked to suggest that the African country of Niger sold uranium to Iraq between 1999 and 2001.
He said inspectors concluded that the documents were "not authentic" after scrutinizing "the form, format, contents and signatures ... of the alleged procurement-related documentation."
ElBaradei also rejected three other key claims that U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly cited to support charges that Iraq is secretly trying to build nuclear weapons.
Although investigations are continuing, ElBaradei said, nuclear experts have found "no indication" that Iraq has tried to import high-strength aluminum tubes or specialized ring magnets for centrifuge enrichment of uranium.
Inspectors also have found "no indication" of "nuclear-related prohibited activities" in newly erected buildings or other sites identified by satellite, ElBaradei said.
"After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq," ElBaradei said.
Bush administration officials insist that they are providing all relevant information to the U.N. teams. But some officials privately acknowledge that the quality and quantity of intelligence are thin.
"We have some information, not a lot," said one U.S. official familiar with the CIA's daily "packages" of material it delivers to a Canadian official at the U.N. who handles intelligence issues for Blix.
Although U.N. teams have conducted nearly 600 inspections of about 350 sites since November, only 44 were of new sites based on fresh tips.
The issue spilled into Congress this week when Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) accused the administration of deliberately withholding information on suspected Iraqi weapons facilities from Blix's teams.
Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the inspectors have been given "only a small fraction" of the sites that appear on classified lists circulated in the intelligence community.
He warned of a "nightmare scenario" if U.S. troops are attacked with weapons of mass destruction from sites that could have been inspected had the CIA shared information.
Levin also accused the White House of seeking to undermine the inspection process, saying the administration has withheld data in part "because they genuinely believe the inspections were useless and said so from the beginning."
But CIA officials rejected the charges. In a letter to key lawmakers released Thursday night, CIA Director George J. Tenet said the agency has "provided detailed information on all of the high-value and moderate sites" to the United Nations.
Tenet said the CIA has shared information on "all but a handful" of sites -- even those deemed of "lower interest" -- with the current weapons inspectors or those who worked in Iraq between 1991 and 1998. Blix's team has visited "far more than half of these 'lower interest sites,' " Tenet said.
He said the CIA shared its analysis of Iraq's 12,000-page Dec. 7 declaration to the United Nations of its weapons programs and inventory. Both U.S. and U.N. officials sharply criticized the document as untruthful and incomplete.
"We've briefed them on missiles, we've briefed them on the nuclear program, we've briefed them on chemical weapons, on biological weapons, on a whole range of subjects," Tenet added.
A U.S. intelligence official said some of the information the CIA has compiled is of such low value that it would not be useful to inspectors.
"You don't swamp the U.N. with everything we have ever heard," the official said. Asked whether the CIA would withhold important information, the official said, "The logic of that escapes me."
Other officials said that the CIA has shared its best data with inspectors, but that the information may not be enough. One congressional source said the intelligence community has identified "hundreds" of suspect sites, including dozens that are of "top" or "high" value.
But even in this category, the intelligence can be meager, the source said, and often the sites appear on the list more because the CIA wants to learn more about them than because of existing evidence the agency possesses.
Only one tip from U.S. intelligence is known to have produced results. In January, inspectors recovered a cache of documents at the home of an Iraqi nuclear scientist. Although the seizure made headlines, the documents concerned Iraq's long-abandoned efforts on laser enrichment of uranium and did not answer current questions about Iraqi weapons.
Other U.S. officials blamed Blix for failing to publicly announce new evidence that he revealed in his 173-page "working document" of unresolved disarmament issues. Officials were surprised to read that the inspectors recently found an Iraqi drone with a 24 1/2-foot wingspan, which may violate U.N. rules.
According to a copy of the document, inspectors are still trying to determine whether the drone can fly more than 93 miles, the limit set by U.N. regulations. But a senior U.S. official said it "could be used to distribute or disperse" chemical or biological agents and thus was a danger.
"It should have been in [Iraq's weapons] declaration, and it's surprising it was not in Blix's report" to the Security Council on Friday, the official said.
The role of U.S. spying was brought into high relief Feb. 5 when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented the council with a dramatic display of U.S. satellite images, bugged conversations, defector accounts and other intelligence to buttress his claims that Iraq is deliberately deceiving the U.N. teams.
But Blix subsequently challenged Powell's interpretation of at least one of the satellite images. And on Friday, Blix said inspectors cannot yet verify claims by "intelligence authorities" that Iraq is shifting illegal weapons by truck to avoid detection, that it is producing and storing weapons in underground bunkers, and that it has built mobile laboratories to produce germ warfare agents.
Inspectors have found "food testing mobile laboratories and mobile workshops ... as well as large containers with seed processing equipment," Blix said. "No evidence of proscribed activities has so far been found."
In response, Powell blamed Baghdad. "If Iraq genuinely wanted to disarm, we would not have to be worrying about setting up means of looking for mobile biological units -- they would be presented to us," he told the council.
"The inspectors should not have to look under every rock, go to every crossroads, peer into every cave for evidence, for proof," he added.
Powell did not repeat a charge he made this week that Iraq is secretly building Al-Samoud 2 missiles while it is destroying others under U.N. auspices.
The charge, which President Bush repeated in his news conference Thursday night, surprised Blix's staff.
An aide said U.S. officials had not provided information that inspectors can use to check -- and presumably stop -- such illegal activities.
Drogin reported from the United Nations and Miller from Washington. Times staff writer Robin Wright in New York contributed to this report.