Spy Work in Iraq Riddled by Failures

Times Staff Writer

A pair of British-recruited spies in Iraq, whose alarming reports of Saddam Hussein’s illicit weapons were rushed to the White House shortly before the U.S.-led invasion last year, were never interviewed by the CIA and are now viewed as unreliable, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say.

The CIA’s reliance on the two Iraqis, who were recruited by Britain’s MI6 in late 2002 and thought to have access to Hussein’s inner circle, is the latest example to come to light of the failures in human intelligence gathering in Iraq. U.S. agencies were also beset by broader, more systemic problems that included failures in analyzing communications intercepts and spy satellite images, the officials interviewed by The Times said.

U.S. experts, for example, still have not been able to determine the meaning of three secretly taped conversations that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell played to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 in making the case for war. Investigators have been unable to identify who was speaking on the tapes or precisely what they were talking about.


U.S. analysts also erred in their analysis of high-altitude satellite photos, repeatedly confusing Scud missile storage places with the short, half-cylindrical sheds typically used to house poultry in Iraq. As a result, as the war neared, two teams of U.N. weapons experts acting on U.S. intelligence scrambled to search chicken coops for missiles that were not there.

“We inspected a lot of chicken farms,” said a former inspector who asked not to be identified because he now works with U.S. intelligence. His U.N. team printed “Ballistic Chicken Farm Inspection Team” on 20 gray T-shirts to mark the futile hunt.

The problems the U.S. experienced in gathering and analyzing intelligence mirrored difficulties experienced by other Western intelligence agencies. Investigations of intelligence agencies in at least four countries have found the misjudgments of Iraq’s weapons were founded on circumstantial evidence, unverified secondhand accounts, false assumptions, old intelligence and shoddy tradecraft.

Senate Report Due

In Washington, the Senate Intelligence Committee is poised to issue a verdict on what most experts describe as a sweeping intelligence failure by U.S. agencies.

Officials said the committee’s still-secret report, based on interviews with 200 intelligence analysts and officials, details major mistakes and misjudgments in collection and analysis by the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

Officials portray the 400-page report as an unparalleled effort to gauge how America’s $40-billion-a-year intelligence system performed against a critical target during the Clinton and Bush administrations, including the post-Hussein period.

“We can see what worked and what didn’t,” said a senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report remains classified. “Mostly, it didn’t.”

Officials said the report criticizes the Pentagon’s creation of an independent intelligence “cell” called the Office of Special Plans to review raw intelligence about Baghdad’s alleged ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and to funnel its analysis to the White House without going through normal channels.

It also reviews the CIA’s insistence before the war that Iraq’s attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes -- using websites and faxes -- was proof that Iraq was seeking to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Evidence found since the war confirms that, as Iraqi officials had insisted, the tubes were designed for conventional artillery rockets.

The CIA and the committee are negotiating how much of the report to release to the public.

But independent of the report, current and former intelligence officials, plus outside experts, have detailed extensive problems in accumulating and analyzing data.

Most important, they say, was the fact that the CIA was unable to recruit a spy in or close to Hussein’s inner circle before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The lack of access was especially glaring because U.S. intelligence had made Iraq a priority target since the 1980s.

“We had zilch in terms of direct sources,” said David Kay, who led the search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq last year as special advisor to CIA director George J. Tenet.

CIA leaders refused to accept Kay’s stark assessment when he returned from Iraq last December that most prewar assessments of Iraq’s weapons were wrong. Kay was assigned a tiny office far from the executive suites, without a working computer or secure telephone.

“I heard about meetings after the fact,” Kay recalled. “It was like a bad novel.”

After several weeks of isolation, Kay quit and went public with his concerns.

U.N. inspectors who scoured Iraq for four months before the war and U.S.-led teams who have investigated for the last 15 months have found no arsenals of poison gases or germ weapons and no resurgent nuclear program, contrary to CIA predictions.

The CIA’s record in Iraq was never strong. The agency not only failed to predict Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, but then could not evacuate its operatives from Baghdad. Poland’s spy service ultimately got them out under cover of a Polish industrial project in Iraq, officials said.

Discredited Claims

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the CIA and other Western spy services infiltrated U.N. teams sent to disarm Iraq, and used the cover to spy on the regime. MI6, in particular, recruited low-level informants from Iraq’s military, intelligence, security service and secret police.

“All were given code names starting with ‘black,’ as in ‘Black Star’ and ‘Black Horse,’ ” recalled Scott Ritter, who served as the U.N. inspectors’ liaison to intelligence agencies. “They were very good. We could send questions in. They had real access.”

Some of the MI6 informants came from the Iraqi National Accord, a London-based exile group run by Iyad Allawi, now Iraq’s interim prime minister. In 1995, the CIA station chief in London took over the INA account from British intelligence. And in June 1996, the CIA backed an attempted INA coup in Baghdad that ended in mass arrests and executions.

Most remaining Western spying networks and collection efforts were crippled in December 1998, when U.N. teams were ordered out of Iraq. At that point, the CIA and other groups increasingly turned to defectors presented by Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, another London-based exile group that was working to overthrow the Baghdad regime.

A stream of defectors were debriefed at safe houses outside London, a German castle east of Berlin, a Thai resort south of Bangkok, a Dutch government office in The Hague and elsewhere.

The Times first reported in March that an INC defector code-named “Curveball,” who defected to Germany after 1998, was the chief source of now-discredited claims by the Bush administration that Iraq had modified trucks and railway cars to produce lethal germ agents.

Classified CIA reports after 2000 similarly cited details about Iraq’s supposed germ weapons factories from another defector, codenamed “Red River.” His account, which previously has not been disclosed, is also now viewed as inaccurate and possibly fabricated, intelligence officials said.

Information from other defectors turned out to be equally inaccurate.

Gary Dillion, who headed the Iraq action team at the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1997 to 1999, interviewed about six Iraqi defectors who had been vetted by U.S., British or other intelligence authorities. All insisted that Iraq was secretly rebuilding a nuclear weapons program.

“In no instance did we get anything that was credible,” Dillion said. “There were some very wild stories. One gentleman told me that Saddam was hiding thin sheets of plutonium under ... the roof of a mosque.”

Political ‘Hangers-On’

Help seemed to arrive in late 2002, as the Bush administration prepared for war, when MI6 recruited two Iraqi spies in Baghdad and gave them specially encrypted satellite phones to protect secret communications, officials said. In a Feb. 5 speech at Georgetown University defending the CIA’s prewar performance, Tenet paid tribute to the two spies, who he said had been “characterized by our foreign partners as established and reliable.”

The first source, Tenet said, had “direct access to Saddam and his inner circle.” According to Tenet, the source said that the Baghdad regime “was aggressively and covertly developing” a nuclear weapon and “stockpiling chemical weapons,” and that equipment to produce pesticides “had been diverted to chemical weapons production.”

The second source, Tenet said, had “access to senior Iraqi officials” and “believed” that Iraq was producing chemical and biological weapons and had “an elaborate plan” to deceive U.N. weapons inspectors. “Now, did this information make any difference in my thinking? You bet it did,” Tenet said.

The reports “solidified and reinforced” the CIA’s earlier judgments about the growing danger from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, he said. “I conveyed this view to our nation’s leaders,” he added.

Tenet, however, did not disclose in the Georgetown speech that both spies are now viewed as highly suspect and that no evidence has been found to support their major claims.

“It’s all fallen apart,” said a former CIA official, who asked not to be identified because the case remains classified. “Neither one had direct knowledge. They were describing what they had heard. They claimed to have knowledge, but they didn’t. They were hangers-on in the corridors of power, not insiders.”

A senior CIA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it is “unresolved at this point as to whether their information was true.”

The CIA official said the two spies may have “believed things that might well not have been true. The question” is whether other Iraqi officials were attempting to deceive the spies, or to mislead Washington in hopes of deterring a U.S. attack.

The official confirmed that the CIA never interviewed either spy, although agency operatives were listening when one was debriefed outside Iraq.

“We knew for a fact that’s what he was saying,” said a senior U.S. official. “The other guy was reported to us by a reliable foreign service. We had to take their word for it.”

High-Tech Intelligence

America’s high-tech collection of communications intelligence and imagery from satellites and sensors is also under fire.

Experts say the NSA’s powerful eavesdropping equipment netted hints of illicit activities in intercepted e-mails, telephone calls and military messages. In many cases, however, intelligence analysts were unable to identify who was talking to whom, or even about what, according to officials.

Powell played three such tapes to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003. He said all were recent electronic intercepts of officers or commanders of Iraq’s elite Republican Guard. Citing U.S. intelligence analysis, he argued that they proved Iraq’s army was hiding banned weapons.

“We tried to figure those out and never got anywhere,” Kay, the former head of U.S. weapons hunters in Iraq, said of the tapes. “We really had no idea who it was, or the location. All we knew is someone was hiding something somewhere and saying, ‘Don’t talk about it.’ ”

Corruption under Hussein’s rule added to the challenge of unraveling Iraqi subterfuge. The regime’s efforts to circumvent U.N. trade sanctions spawned such rampant smuggling and corruption that normal commercial transactions and government dealings often were conducted under a cloak of secrecy and suspicion.

Other frustrating intelligence came from the constellation of U.S. spy satellites and other high-altitude surveillance systems.

Between March and May 2002, for example, senior CIA officials paid close attention to a stream of photos of heavily guarded truck convoys in Iraq’s western desert, officials said. Similar trucks had hauled chemical weapons in the 1980s. But the orbiting satellites couldn’t track the convoys, and their cargo and destination were never identified.

Other pictures, from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, also caused concern. Before the war, U.S. photo analysts repeatedly spotted what they thought were “Samarra” trucks, Japanese-built vehicles used to decontaminate people or equipment from chemical exposure. They said the trucks were a clear “signature” that chemical weapons were produced or stored nearby.

But U.N. and, later, U.S. weapons hunters who searched the suspect sites never found a Samarra truck. They instead found water tankers and other fire suppression vehicles.

“It’s scandalous,” said Sharon Squassoni, an intelligence expert at the Congressional Research Service. “The satellite analysts couldn’t tell the trucks were red.”

Foreign Complications

The CIA’s reliance on foreign spy services was problematic on several fronts. In recent months, parliamentary inquiries in Britain, Australia, Denmark and Israel have publicly identified problems similar to those that beset the CIA.

The reports show the spy services all relied on sketchy, speculative evidence and, in some cases, exaggerated or misrepresented their findings. They thus reinforced collective misjudgments.

In Israel, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee concluded in March that the Mossad intelligence agency and Israeli military intelligence “magnified” the Iraqi threat as the war approached. Over a period of months, official estimates of the number of Iraqi ballistic missiles able to hit Israel inexplicably surged “from several to tens” and finally to between 50 and 100.

The Knesset committee blamed, in part, Israel’s exchange of secrets with other spy services, “particularly with those of the U.S., with whom the cooperation very much tightened as the war approached.”

The result “was a vicious cycle of sorts, in the form of reciprocal feedback that at times was more damaging than beneficial,” the committee found. In some cases, unconfirmed data were passed to Washington, then relayed back in another form, creating the impression of “validation by a reliable source.”

Layers of secrecy within the CIA compounded the problem.

“We have found cases in which a single source has different source descriptions, increasing the potential for an analyst to believe [there was] a corroborating source,” Jami A. Miscik, deputy director of intelligence, said in a speech to CIA analysts in February.

In other cases, analysts weren’t told that information came from secondary sources “about whom we know little,” Miscik said.

Several mysteries remain concerning the prewar intelligence.

Still unexplained is Britain’s claim, cited by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union speech, that Baghdad recently had sought to buy uranium from the West African nation of Niger. Some experts speculate that British intelligence misinterpreted or misrepresented Iraq’s rejection of an unsolicited and perhaps bogus offer. U.S. officials said a document found in the basement of Iraq’s intelligence headquarters, for example, showed Baghdad had received a similar offer for uranium, cobalt and other minerals from a Congolese businessman in Nairobi, Kenya. A note attached to the document shows that an Iraqi official declined the deal.

David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector, said Iraqi officials told him they received numerous such offers in the late 1990s.

“They said not a week goes by when they don’t get an offer for nuclear weapons, uranium, red mercury, or something,” he said. “Everything was sent back to Baghdad, where the general policy was to turn it down. It could be fundamentalists, it could be a scam, it could be an intelligence dangle. They didn’t turn everything down. But their general reaction was, ‘Forget it.’ ”