The top Marine commander in Iraq said Friday that U.S. intelligence was “simply wrong” in its assessment that Saddam Hussein intended to unleash chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces during the war, but he stopped short of saying there was an overall intelligence failure.
Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, also said he had fully expected U.S. forces to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction after the war ended.
“It was a surprise to me then, it remains a surprise to me now, that we have not uncovered weapons,” Conway said from Baghdad in a teleconference call with reporters in Washington.
“It’s not for lack of trying,” he said. “We’ve been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad, but they’re simply not there.”
The subject of the search for banned weapons is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable one for the Bush administration, with several influential lawmakers this week saying they believe the White House hyped the Iraq threat or was misled by the intelligence community. Other critics have alleged that the Pentagon pressured the intelligence community to skew its analyses.
Amid the mounting criticism, CIA Director George J. Tenet took the unusual step of issuing a statement Friday denying that the agency’s assessments on Iraq were politicized.
“Our role is to call it like we see it -- to tell policymakers what we know, what we don’t know, what we think, and what we base it on,” Tenet said. “That is exactly what was done and continues to be done on intelligence issues related to Iraq.”
He added that he was proud of the work done by the agency’s analysts, saying, “The integrity of our process was maintained throughout.”
Conway, the Marine commander, acknowledged that “intelligence failure” is “too strong a word to use at this point.” But he said: “What the regime was intending to do in terms of its use of the weapons, we thought we understood -- or we certainly had our best guess, our most dangerous, our most likely courses of action that the intelligence folks were giving us. We were simply wrong.
“But whether or not we’re wrong at the national level, I think, still very much remains to be seen.”
Conway, who said he still believes it is possible that weapons of mass destruction will be found, spoke as the Pentagon disclosed details of its plans to send a new team of more than 1,000 experts to search for evidence of banned weapons. Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s human intelligence service, will lead the effort.
In a separate news briefing Friday, Dayton suggested that it is possible that Iraq deliberately misled U.S. intelligence agencies, making them think that weapons were being produced and deployed even as they were secretly being destroyed.
“We may find out three months from now that there was an elaborate deception program and the stuff was destroyed,” Dayton said. Asked whether he believes the new search teams would uncover evidence of illicit munitions, Dayton offered a cautious reply.
“Do I think we’re going to find something? Yeah, I kind of do,” he said, adding that he still believes Washington’s sources of intelligence on Iraq before the war were credible.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was largely responsible for arguing the administration’s case for the war on Iraq to a skeptical international community, told reporters Friday that all of the evidence he presented at a prewar U.N. Security Council meeting was solid.
“Everything I presented on the 5th of February, I can tell you, there was good sourcing for, was not politicized. It was solid information,” Powell said. “Let people look into it, let people examine it.”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also defended the administration’s actions in the months before the Iraq campaign, saying in a radio interview Thursday, “This war was not waged under any false pretext.”
And Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine, sought to minimize the importance of weapons of mass destruction in the administration’s calculus for war.
“For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on,” Wolfowitz said in comments released Wednesday.
Even as senior administration officials sought to deflect criticism, the issue appeared to gain momentum in Washington.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said she and others based their votes for supporting the war in Iraq on White House claims that Baghdad posed a direct and growing threat to the United States.
“If it turns out that the intelligence was flawed, that will undercut the administration’s credibility in making its case for this war and any future war,” Harman said. Were the White House to press for confronting Iran or another country now, she said, “there would be a clamor against it until these questions [on Iraq] are answered.”
Harman stressed that she believes that Iraq possessed banned weapons in the 1990s but may have destroyed or moved them before the war. She and Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Tenet recently asking for a report by July 1 reconciling prewar intelligence with what has been found on the ground in Iraq.
The CIA has already launched an extensive review of its intelligence. The post-mortem, reported in The Times on April 19, was planned before the war and is described by agency officials as a “lessons learned” exercise.
The agency is also coming under some criticism from former analysts. A group of retirees, calling itself Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, recently sent a letter to the White House calling the assessments on Iraq an “intelligence fiasco of monumental proportions.” The letter was first reported in Friday’s New York Times.
A U.S. intelligence official brushed aside the criticism, saying that most of the members of the group “left the agency years ago and they simply are not in a position to comment knowledgeably on current analytic work.” The group could not be reached for comment.
Pentagon officials said Friday that U.S. teams had visited about 300 of the more than 900 suspected weapons sites identified before the war. So far, no chemical or biological agents, or even precursor materials, have been recovered.
The U.S. seized two vehicles in northern Iraq last month that the CIA believes were mobile biological weapons production facilities, although officials acknowledge there is no evidence the trailers were ever used to produce any illegal agents.
On Friday, President Bush told a reporter for Polish television that the trailers were evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
“We found biological laboratories.... They’re illegal. They’re against the United Nations resolutions, and we’ve so far discovered two. And we’ll find more weapons as time goes on,” said the president, who flew Friday to Poland, the first leg of a several-nation tour. “But for those who say we haven’t found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they’re wrong, we found them.”
The Pentagon is in the midst of a major overhaul of its weapons hunt. Dayton said there will be a “decreased emphasis on fixed sites” and a greater focus on combing captured documents and questioning Iraqis for information on weapons programs.
“We’re not going to mechanically go down the list and check off locations,” he said. He could not say how many of the remaining, unvisited sites had been secured by U.S. forces.
Dayton is scheduled to leave Monday for Baghdad to lead what is being called the Iraq Survey Group, a team of experts, analysts and other workers taking over the mission from existing Army units.
Only 200 to 300 members will be actively involved in the search for banned weapons on a day-to-day basis, Dayton said, a slight increase over the size of existing search teams. The group’s job will also include looking for evidence of links between Hussein and Al Qaeda -- another allegation the administration has so far been unable to prove -- as well as collecting evidence of war crimes.
Stephen A. Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said it has not been decided whether U.N. teams will be invited to participate in the search for chemical or biological arms, although he suggested it was possible.
Cambone also insisted that he remains convinced that prewar intelligence suggesting the presence of illicit arms was accurate.
“I do not believe the administration is backing away from that position,” he said. “Nothing that has happened over the last month has changed my view or, as far as I know, the view of others on the subject.”
Earlier in the day, the Marines’ Conway had discussed in some detail theater commanders’ expectations that they would probably encounter chemical weapons as they pushed rapidly toward Baghdad. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was responsible for a main thrust of the campaign along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Conway said U.S. commanders had anticipated four “triggers” that would prompt Iraq to fire chemical weapons, including crossings of the two rivers.
“There were times where everybody was sleeping with their boots on and with their gas masks pretty close,” he said. “We truly thought that [chemical weapons] were distributed” among Iraqi units.
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Krakow, Poland, contributed to this report.