The Bush administration's point man on nonproliferation has exaggerated the threat posed by Syria, Libya and Cuba in an effort to build the case that strong action is needed to prevent them from developing weapons of mass destruction, former intelligence officials and independent experts say.
Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton has long been one of the most controversial figures in the Bush administration -- a pugnacious neoconservative with a reputation for blunt talk and tough action. The allegations that he is inflating the evidence against regimes that Washington dislikes, come as the administration is defending itself against criticism that it misused intelligence to make the case for invading Iraq.
"Very often, the points he makes have some truth to them, but he simply goes beyond where the facts tell intelligent people they should go," said Carl W. Ford Jr., who retired in October as head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
In several conversations, Bolton categorically denied trying to shape intelligence for political purposes. He maintained that all of his statements about the weapons capabilities of various states were cleared in advance by all the major political and intelligence agencies -- and he brandished the interagency approval checklists to prove it.
"I have always used intelligence properly," Bolton said. "Of course, I sometimes go beyond previous statements, but in every case I do, it's been previously cleared. You bet I do -- we do it all the time."
Bolton then shot back at the intelligence community, arguing that some intelligence analysts' own political biases affect their judgments. "People can and should agree that policymakers should not politicize intelligence," said Bolton, who arrives at work at 6:30 each morning and devours a thick briefing book of cables and analyses that many other officials don't bother to read. "But I think we can also say that intelligence analysts should not politicize intelligence."
Bolton provokes such controversy that several of his critics -- flouting Washington convention -- agreed to be quoted by name.
"Undersecretary Bolton repeatedly goes beyond the current public intelligence estimates in his description of the proliferation threats," said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "He offers definitive judgments where there is, at best, only informed speculation about capabilities. In some cases, notably his claim that Cuba has biological weapons, he goes way beyond known capabilities.
"In others, like the claim that Iran has bioweapons or that Syria is developing nuclear weapons, he connects the dots to form a judgment that is not supported by solid evidence, but then presents it as established fact," Cirincione said. This, he said, undermines U.S. credibility and the ability of policymakers to craft balanced approaches to serious threats.
Retorted Bolton: "People tend to resort to ad hominem attacks when they feel their substantive arguments are weak."
Bolton, who has close ties to Vice President Dick Cheney, is the reigning bete noire of Washington's foreign policy liberals -- and a hero to neoconservatives. He's been called "highly principled" and "human scum"; a "delightful colleague" and "the most hated man in the State Department"; an effective public servant and a loose cannon who has "sabotaged" U.S. foreign policy.
Bolton, who turns 55 this month, looks more like a tweedy academic than a top diplomat. He wears his mustache long and speaks his mind with an undiplomatic directness. And he suffers fools, rogues and reporters badly.
Years ago, colleagues in the Reagan administration presented him with a bronzed grenade fondly inscribed to "the truest Reaganaut." At the State Department, Bolton's brief is to prevent the development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, particularly by states that might transfer them to terrorists. The mandate took on new urgency after the Sept. 11 attacks.
He has made it his mission not only to warn Congress and the public of what he sees as threats to U.S. security, but also to confront suspected offenders with evidence of their misdeeds. He has traveled the globe to rally nations to back tougher action.
Some State Department officials say Bolton's abrasive style is disastrous for a diplomat. But the man himself appears unfazed by the fury of his critics.
"Should I be?" Bolton demanded of an interviewer. He waited an uncomfortably long minute as though expecting a student to answer. Then he shrugged. "I say what I believe and I sleep well at night."
Bolton isn't afraid to smash the diplomatic china when it suits his purposes.
Last summer in Seoul, he attacked North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the object of a fervent state-sponsored personality cult, by name 17 times in a speech delivered just as Washington was trying to lure the reluctant Pyongyang regime into talks about abandoning its nuclear program.
In Washington and Seoul, critics fumed that Bolton was deliberately trying to provoke Pyongyang into walking away from the negotiations.
North Korea responded with the "human scum" epithet -- but went to the six-party talks anyway.
Asked whether he regretted the speech, Bolton noted that it was cleared in advance and that his boss, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, had defended it as reflecting administration policy.
"Speaking the truth has its virtues," Bolton added.
After stints in the State and Justice departments of the Reagan and the first Bush administrations, Bolton spent the Clinton years at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where Cheney had served on the board and his wife, Lynne Cheney, is still a scholar.
While there, Bolton wrote a torrent of articles in which he fiercely opposed the International Criminal Court, expressed doubts about the value of international law and advocated a harder U.S. line against Iraq, Libya and North Korea.
After the 2000 presidential election, Bolton helped wage the legal battle over the recount for George W. Bush and succeeded in stopping the recount of Miami-Dade County ballots.
Bolton's supporters describe him as a razor-sharp, Yale-trained lawyer with a track record of winning.
"There is a clarity to John's world view that is compelling and important," said a House GOP official who has known Bolton for years. "It also makes him controversial.
"There are long knives out for him at State," he added.
Bolton's relationship with Powell is the subject of intense speculation. Bolton detractors say that Jesse Helms -- former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an arms-control skeptic -- foisted Bolton upon a reluctant Powell. They wonder aloud why Powell keeps him on.
"I would guess his relationship has to be better than some people say, or else he wouldn't be there," said Nicholas Eberstadt, a longtime Bolton fan and former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute. Powell continues to stand behind Bolton.
Bolton joined Powell's department in May 2001, already highly skeptical of the multilateral arrangements his predecessors had negotiated to try to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Before the end of the year, he had rejected at the last minute a draft protocol on enforcing the Biological Weapons Convention that the U.S. had been negotiating for more than six years.
"The administration argument is that they want to shame countries into compliance, and that nobody in the past has been willing to confront these countries," said Jonathan Tucker, a former U.N. bioweapons inspector. Tucker said the approach was counterproductive -- not least because, while suspected cheaters Syria and Iran were named, Israel, Russia and Egypt -- about whose activities the U.S. also had concerns -- were not.
"We named the ones we thought were the most direct threat to the United States," Bolton said. The argument against confronting rogue states "rests on the proposition that being quiet about the threat will induce countries to less provocative behavior" -- a notion he rejects.
"If someone's going to pursue nuclear weapons, it seems to me a much stronger argument to draw attention to it and raise the political cost to them of doing it than just to remain silent and let them think they're getting away with it," he said.
Bolton argues that the administration must pursue different approaches with different countries -- war in the case of Iraq, multinational diplomatic pressure in the case of North Korea, and "more robust techniques," such as interdiction or sanctions, where diplomacy fails.
Bolton has clashed most bitterly with colleagues over Cuba. Three current and former State Department officials say Bolton tried to bully the intelligence bureau into endorsing his view that Cuba has a bioweapons program.
"Bolton wanted to go far beyond what the intelligence community would support," said Greg Thielmann, who retired in September as head of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office in the State Department's intelligence bureau. His assertions about Cuba's bioweapons were "pure surmise as far as I know," Thielmann said.
"Thielmann knows nothing," Bolton said. "I wanted to state the best assessment the intelligence bureau had on Cuba's [bioweapons] program, and I believe I did."
As a policymaker, Bolton is entitled to have views that are not supported by the intelligence community. "A policymaker who accepts unquestioningly everything the intelligence community tells him is a fool," one former official said. But "Bolton wants to be able to [state] his personal view and then say, 'And that's supported by the intelligence.' And that's frequently not the case."
Bolton complained that such anonymous critics "are people who have lost bureaucratic battles and are sniping.... Their views were considered and rejected."
In a May 2002 speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank -- an address that was cleared by the intelligence community -- Bolton said the United States "believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states."
After Bolton's speech, Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, led a delegation of defense and security experts to Havana late last year to try to learn more about Cuba biotechnology.
Blair said his trip "confirmed the prevailing U.S. intelligence view that insufficient evidence exists to either accuse or exonerate Cuba. I do not believe that any reliable evidence, secret or public, exists to support Bolton's accusation that Cuba has a bioweapons program."
"He is either deceiving the public or himself, or both, and should be fired," Blair said.
Bolton and an intelligence official disputed the idea that his speech did not reflect the prevailing U.S. intelligence view. The intelligence official said new information that had arrived since last spring about Syria and Cuba has changed the views of some analysts who were skeptical about those countries' progress on developing weapons of mass destruction.
"One-quarter say he's wrong, a quarter back him, and the rest don't have an opinion," the official said. But the official, who asked not to be named because of his post, said it is untrue that Bolton makes selective use of the intelligence.
Bolton said Libya is "pursuing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and ballistic missile systems that would make it still a grave threat to its neighbors ... and indeed worldwide, possibly." Libya has stepped up procurement efforts since the United Nations suspended sanctions in 1999, he said.
Recently, Bolton has been warning of the dangers posed by Syria, which has outraged the U.S. by allegedly allowing fighters and weapons to flow across its borders into Iraq.
In a speech in London last week, Bolton warned that Syria has a nuclear research and development program that could be applied to a nuclear weapons program, that it has stockpiles of chemical weapons, and that the U.S. believes "Syria is continuing to develop an offensive biological weapons capability as well."
"Syria must immediately change course and change its behavior on all of these fronts, or face the consequences," he said.
The administration is attempting "to puff up Syria as the next nuclear threat," Cirincione said. "That's complete nonsense. They don't have any significant capability for developing a nuclear weapon. Do they have chemical weapons? Sure, they've had them for years. So does Egypt, so does Israel. These are problems, but not a major national security threat."
But Bolton argues that it is irresponsible to underestimate threats, saying that hostile dictatorships seek unconventional weapons precisely because they know they cannot compete with American military might. The Sept. 11 attacks prove that traditional deterrence does not work against such foes, he said.
"My tolerance level for risk to innocent American civilians from WMD is zero. There's not much of a margin for error."