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Declassified Report Shows Thin Basis for Iraq War

by William M. Arkin

How Their Big Lie Came to Be
When the Bush administration, which puts a high premium on secrecy, starts declassifying top-secret documents, you've got to wonder what gives.

Clearly, advisors hoped that releasing excerpts of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on "Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction" would benefit President Bush. In the short term, their aim was to demonstrate that intelligence agencies believed that Iraq had tried to buy uranium ore from Niger to restart its nuclear weapons program, as Bush alleged in his State of the Union address Jan. 28. The document represents the consensus of the intelligence community at that time, before forgeries were known to be behind the allegation. And it includes a footnote on the State Department's doubts about the reported ore purchase, a footnote the administration hopes to use as evidence of its own internal debate.

On a grander scale, some presidential advisors must believe that declassifying portions of the report also shows that the administration had ample reason to launch a preemptive war against Iraq, with or without the uranium allegation. Does the intelligence estimate really show that?

A close reading of the released document suggests two things: First, the administration clearly believed that Iraq had large caches of biological and chemical weapons and an active program to produce more. But the report, along with sources familiar with it, also makes clear that the evidence to support this belief was shockingly thin. Neither the released portions nor the full report substantiate the administration's view that Iraq represented an immediate threat to the United States or the region.

Administration officials are now quick to downplay the weapons-of-mass-destruction justification. "I'm not concerned about weapons of mass destruction," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz recently told reporters traveling with him to Iraq. Earlier this year, he told Vanity Fair, "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on." For Wolfowitz and the other administration hawks, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was always the prize, regardless of the president's public rhetoric.

Yet, the National Intelligence Estimate provided all the ammunition the president needed. It clearly concluded that Hussein had actual weapons of mass destruction. Not only did the report assert that Iraq "probably has stocked at least 100 metric tons, and possibly as much as 500 metric tons" of chemical agents, much of it added in the last year, it also suggested that, if he was feeling sufficiently threatened, Hussein would not hesitate to launch "clandestine attacks" -- probably biological -- on U.S. soil.

The problem is that neither the released portion of the report nor, according to sources familiar with it, the full intelligence estimate gives credible backup for such allegations. There are no photographs of weapons sites, no substantiation of many allegations, no "proof" that would be of use to inspectors or targeters.

When you look at the administration's actions, doubts intensify. The only hot lead the U.S. could supply to UN inspectors was that Iraq had built a few dozen missiles that exceeded the legal range limit of 150 kilometers. But there was no list of confirmed weapons- of- mass- destruction targets prepared for the Air Force in advance of the war. We knew to the millimeter where communications facilities, oil wells, regime homes, barracks and factories were located, but we couldn't identify a single site that harbored the things we said justified war.

There is still a chance that the 1,300-person Iraq Survey Group, which is working to discover what happened to Hussein's alleged weapons, will find actual caches. "I think in six months from now we will have a considerable amount of evidence, and we'll be starting to reveal that evidence," the group's new overseer, David Kay, told NBC News two weeks ago. But officials close to Kay's work say that the evidence presented by the group may ultimately fall short of the dramatic smoking gun administration officials hope for.

As for the intelligence estimate's shortcomings, officials familiar with it said that it was produced quickly and under great pressure. "That is why it is so long," one source said. Another high-level Defense Department source also challenged the value of releasing excerpts of the report at this stage, saying that the question isn't so much what we thought we knew then as it is: "Do we have the goods or not?"

"We won't be proven wrong," President Bush said July 17. "I believe that we will find the truth. And the truth is, [Hussein] was developing a program for weapons of mass destruction."

But "developing a program for weapons of mass destruction" and possessing such weapons are two very different things. Short of a stash of buried weapons or documentation and testimony substantiating that such a stash was destroyed before coalition forces gained control of Iraq, it just doesn't appear that the administration will be able to put forth a convincing case that it had true intelligence that there was any kind of imminent threat.

The intelligence agencies admit in the National Intelligence Estimate that they "lack[ed] specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs." Bush insiders committed to toppling Hussein merely saw such reservations as testimony to the success of Iraqi deception.

The real revelation in the released document is that a preemptive war was justified on very weak evidence. The Bush administration decided Hussein had to go, but it hid behind flimsy intelligence to pretend that the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction was a justification for war.

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times

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Albion Monitor July 27, 2003 (

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