August 8, 2003
WASHINGTON -- On the defensive over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush administration officials increasingly argue that the U.S.-led war was justified because it toppled the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein and paved the way for a new era of peace and stability in the Middle East.
But the violence and strife roiling U.S.-occupied Iraq, including a vehicle bombing Thursday that killed at least 11 people in Baghdad, is emboldening critics who maintain the White House overstated its primary case for war: that Iraq posed a direct and immediate threat to the United States.
Four months after U.S. forces seized Baghdad, an in-depth look at that case shows that virtually all the administration's allegations regarding Iraq's destructive capabilities remain unproven or in dispute, according to outside experts, former intelligence analysts and a variety of foreign-policy think tanks.
There still is no clear-cut, concrete evidence that Hussein had ready-to-use chemical or biological weapons, a functioning nuclear weapons program, or direct ties to Al Qaeda, as President Bush and his lieutenants have said repeatedly since last summer.
The claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for a nuclear bomb in Africa turned out to be based on discredited evidence, and the Bush administration acknowledged that the allegation should not have been used in the president's State of the Union speech.
Among other challenged allegations: that the Hussein regime had acquired aluminum tubes intended for the production of nuclear weapons; that it had functioning mobile labs to make chemical or biological weapons; that it had developed unmanned aerial vehicles capable of threatening the United States with such weapons; that it had stockpiled thousands of warheads suitable for chemical warfare; that it had built long-range ballistic missiles, and that it had direct ties to Al Qaeda and a willingness to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.
"The misleading statement about African uranium is not an isolated issue," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recently. "There is a significant amount of troubling evidence that was part of a pattern of exaggeration and misleading statements."
After months of predicting that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction eventually would be found, Bush now speaks little about the issue. Like his aides, the president suggests that the American people have moved beyond the question of weapons and that they support the war as a victory for the Iraqi people and a boost for the worldwide campaign against terrorism.
In a news conference last week, Bush said, "The rise of a free and peaceful Iraq is critical to the stability of the Middle East, and a stable Middle East is critical to the security of the American people."
Bush made similar comments about Iraq's potential before the war. But the administration's case was based fundamentally on the threat that Hussein presented. And it was the immediacy of that threat, Bush and his aides argued, that made a swift invasion necessary.
The administration's case was laid out in four key speeches: Vice President Dick Cheney's address to the VFW on Aug. 26, 2002; Secretary of State Colin Powell's appearance before the UN Security Council on Feb. 5; and two presidential addresses.
Bush said in October that Iraq had 30,000 liters of anthrax and "other deadly biological agents," though based on accounts from UN inspectors, it could have "likely produced two to four times that amount."
Cheney added, "Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear fairly soon. Just how soon, we cannot really gauge." In March, he upped the ante, saying, "We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
As proof of Hussein's ambitions, administration officials cited the story of Hussein Kamel, a son-in-law of Hussein who defected in 1995 and said that evidence of Iraq's weapons programs was hidden on a chicken farm.
But the administration omitted a key chapter of Kamel's story, experts said.
Kamel, who was executed by Hussein upon his return to Iraq, told UN officials that Hussein had destroyed many of his chemical and biological weapons and elements of a nuclear weapons program after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. UN weapons inspectors had destroyed other elements of the programs, Kamel said.
What Hussein held on to was the documentation that would have allowed him to restart a weapons programs practically from scratch once the UN inspections ended, Kamel said.
In October, Bush described aluminum tubes that Iraq tried to purchase from another country as components of "gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons." In his State of the Union address nearly four months later, Bush attributed that evidence to "our intelligence sources."
But some U.S. intelligence agencies were disputing the president's claim even as he was making it.
The State and Energy departments said the tubes, given their size and specifications, could have been for Iraq's legal conventional weapons programs and were not proof of Hussein's nuclear ambitions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees nuclear weapons inspections for the UN, announced in January that Iraq had used similar tubes for missiles.
When Powell appeared before the UN Security Council, a week after Bush's State of the Union address, he was the first administration official to acknowledge that the information was in dispute. "We all know there are differences of opinion. There is controversy about what these tubes are for," Powell said.
But even if the purpose of the tubes was in dispute, Powell said, "We have no indication that Saddam Hussein has ever abandoned his nuclear weapons program."
In his State of the Union address, Bush said, "From three Iraqi defectors, we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs." Those labs, Powell told the UN, could "in a matter of months" produce "a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the  gulf war." Powell cited as his sources four Iraqis who said they had seen the mobile labs.
U.S. forces searching for weapons in Iraq did find two truck trailers that the administration said were mobile labs. However, three groups of experts have so far been unable to agree on the purpose of the trailers, and the State Department's intelligence analysts disagree with the CIA's conclusion that the trailers were mobile labs.
No evidence of biological or chemical agents was found in the truck trailers.
Bush said in his State of the Union address, "U.S. intelligence indicates that Saddam Hussein had upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents. Inspectors recently turned up 16 of them."
Actually, the inspectors had found 12 warheads Jan. 16. Iraq later handed over four more voluntarily.
Powell called the found warheads "the tip of a submerged iceberg."
Powell told the UN that the Iraqis had hidden warheads and launchers "in large groves of palm trees" and moved the equipment every one to four weeks to escape detection.
However, U.S. forces have found no other warheads since major fighting was ended May 1.
None of the warheads that have been found was filled with a chemical agent. The 29,984 other warheads remain unaccounted for.
The United Nations limited Iraq's ballistic missiles to a range of about 90 miles after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, a range considered adequate for Iraq to defend itself but short enough to prevent Hussein from posing a serious threat to neighbors in the Middle East.
But when Bush described Iraq's missile capability, he said Hussein "possesses ballistic missiles with a likely range of hundreds of miles--far enough to strike Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and other nations--in a region where more than 135,000 American civilians and service members live and work."
Powell, making his case to the UN, said that Iraq was building ballistic missiles that could fly 620 miles or more.
UN inspectors before the invasion did find Iraqi missiles that could have exceeded the UN's limit. But inspectors found no evidence of a missile that could fly 620 miles or more. U.S. forces have found no missiles with that extended range.
Another delivery system developed by Iraq, administration officials said, was unmanned aerial vehicles--drones equipped with sprayers that Powell said "are well-suited for dispensing chemical and biological weapons."
Bush first mentioned the drones in his national address last October.
"We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas," Bush said. "We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways to use these UAVs for missions targeting the United States."
But outside experts were quick to discount the use of drones for such a mission. The vehicles identified by the administration could not possibly reach the United States from Iraq. They would first have to be smuggled into the U.S. or a neighboring country to be used against a target in the U.S., experts said.
Perhaps the most hotly disputed administration claim, apart from the alleged uranium purchase, is Bush's insistence that Iraq had deep, longstanding ties to Al Qaeda, the terrorist network responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"We know that after Sept. 11, Saddam Hussein's regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America," Bush said last October. "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapons to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraq regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints."
A variety of experts in the United States and Europe have disputed that assertion, noting that Al Qaeda's militant religious underpinnings put it in conflict with Hussein's largely secular rule and that such an alliance was unlikely and unproven. Experts noted that no further evidence of such a connection has been found since the war.
Al Qaeda operatives are thought to have fled Afghanistan for a remote area in northwest [northeast] Iraq, but outside experts said Hussein exercised little or no control over that region. Moreover, while the Bush administration could point to individual terrorists who have passed through Baghdad, there is no definitive proof that Hussein was aware that they were there or had any direct contact with them, experts said.
"I believe the Bush administration did not provide an accurate picture to the American people of the military threat posed by Iraq," said Greg Thielmann, who until recently worked in the State Department's intelligence unit and reviewed the Iraqi intelligence.
"Some of the fault lies with the performance of the intelligence community," he said, "but most of it lies with the way senior officials misused the information they were provided."
A variety of outside experts said the Bush administration, while not intending to mislead the American public, overplayed the hand dealt it by its own intelligence analysts and in some instances may have coerced intelligence officials to focus on information that backed the case for war.
While intelligence analysts presented much of the information in qualified terms, Bush and his aides presented it as unambiguous fact. What intelligence agencies projected as worst-case scenarios were presented by Bush as the most likely outcomes.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States security and a threat to peace in the region," Bush said last week during a White House news conference.
"In order to placate the critics and the cynics about intentions of the United States, we need to produce evidence," he added. "And I fully understand that. And I'm confident that our search will yield that which I strongly believe, that Saddam Hussein had a weapons program."
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