U.S. Suspects It Received False Iraq Arms Tips
Intelligence officials are reexamining data used in justifying the
war. They say Hussein's regime may have sent bogus defectors.
By Bob Drogin
LA Times Staff Writer
August 28, 2003
WASHINGTON — Frustrated at the failure to find Saddam Hussein's
suspected stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, U.S. and
allied intelligence agencies have launched a major effort to determine
if they were victims of bogus Iraqi defectors who planted
disinformation to mislead the West before the war.
The goal, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, "is to
see if false information was put out there and got into legitimate
channels and we were totally duped on it." He added, "We're
reinterviewing all our sources of information on this. This is the
entire intelligence community, not just the U.S."
The far-reaching review was started after a political firestorm
erupted this summer over revelations that President Bush's claim in his
State of the Union speech that Iraq had sought to import uranium from
Niger was based on forged documents.
Although senior CIA officials insist that defectors were only
partly responsible for the intelligence that triggered the decision to
invade Iraq in March, other intelligence officials now fear that key
portions of the prewar information may have been flawed. The issue
raises fresh doubts as to whether illicit weapons will be found in Iraq.
As evidence, officials say former Iraqi operatives have confirmed
since the war that Hussein's regime sent "double agents" disguised as
defectors to the West to plant fabricated intelligence. In other cases,
Baghdad apparently tricked legitimate defectors into funneling phony
tips about weapons production and storage sites.
"They were shown bits of information and led to believe there was
an active weapons program, only to be turned loose to make their way to
Western intelligence sources," said the senior intelligence official.
"Then, because they believe it, they pass polygraph tests ... and the
planted information becomes true to the West, even if it was all made
up to deceive us."
Critics had charged that the Bush administration exaggerated
intelligence on Iraq to bolster support for the war. The broader
question now is whether some of the actual intelligence was fabricated
and U.S. officials failed to detect it.
One U.S. intelligence official said analysts may have been too
eager to find evidence to support the White House's claims. As a
result, he said, defectors "were just telling us what we wanted to
Hussein's motives for such a deliberate disinformation scheme may
have been to bluff his enemies abroad, from Washington to Tehran, by
sending false signals of his military might. Experts also say the
dictator's defiance of the West, and its fear of his purported weapons
of mass destruction, boosted his prestige at home and was a critical
part of his power base in the Arab world.
Hussein also may have gambled that the failure of United Nations
weapons inspectors to find specific evidence identified by bogus
defectors ultimately would force the Security Council to lift sanctions
imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. officials now believe
Hussein hoped to then covertly reconstitute his weapons programs.
"We're looking at that and every other possibility," the first
intelligence official said. "You can't rule anything out.... People are
really second-guessing themselves now."
The current focus on Iraqi defectors reflects a new skepticism
within the Iraq Survey Group, the 1,400-member team responsible for
finding any illicit arms. In interviews, several current and former
members expressed growing disappointment over the inconclusive results
of the search so far.
"We were prisoners of our own beliefs," said a senior U.S. weapons
expert who recently returned from a stint with the survey group. "We
said Saddam Hussein was a master of denial and deception. Then when we
couldn't find anything, we said that proved it, instead of questioning
our own assumptions."
The survey group is jointly led by David Kay, a former U.N.
nuclear inspector who was named a CIA special advisor in June, and Army
Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, who headed the "human intelligence" service at
the Defense Intelligence Agency. Kay has said he will issue a
preliminary report next month.
Evidence collected over the last two months suggests that
Hussein's regime abandoned large-scale weapons development and
production programs in favor of a much smaller "just in time" operation
that could churn out poison gases or germ agents if they were suddenly
needed, survey group members say. The transition supposedly took place
between 1996 and 2000.
But survey group mobile collection teams are still unable to prove
that any nerve gases or microbe weapons were produced during or after
that period, the officials said. Indeed, the weapons hunters have yet
to find proof that any chemical or bio-warfare agents were produced
The veracity of defectors is a key part of the puzzle, but only one
aspect of it.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell quoted several defector
accounts in February, when he presented U.S. findings to the United
Nations Security Council in an unsuccessful bid to win broad backing
for military action in Iraq. But Powell also cited spy satellites,
electronic intercepts of telephone and other communications, reports
from U.N. inspectors and other intelligence sources.
Some defectors have come under fire previously. U.S. experts have
long questioned the value of informants provided by pro-invasion Iraqi
opposition groups in exile, saying they routinely padded their resumes
or exaggerated their knowledge in exchange for asylum, visas or money.
The CIA and the State Department, in particular, distanced
themselves from Iraqi defectors handed over by the Iraqi National
Congress, a London-based umbrella group headed by Ahmad Chalabi. CIA
and State Department officials repeatedly warned that the group's
intelligence network had proved unreliable in the past.
Senior Pentagon officials, however, supported the former Iraqi
banker's bid as a possible successor to Hussein. Chalabi, who now sits
on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad, has said his
group provided the Defense Intelligence Agency with three defectors who
had personal knowledge of Hussein's illicit weapons programs.
One, an Iraqi engineer, told the DIA in 2001 that he knew the
location of biological weapons. However, no bioweapons have been found
at the sites he named.
A second defector from Chalabi's group described what he said were
mobile labs that could produce several hundred tons of biowarfare
agents per year. The CIA has concluded that two trucks found in
northern Iraq after the war were probably designed for biowarfare, but
outside experts have sharply disputed those claims.
U.S. intelligence authorities dismissed the third defector, who
claimed to be an expert in nuclear isotope separation, as a fraud.
The CIA launched its own internal review of intelligence in
February before the war but did not re-interview defectors. The
four-member panel, headed by Richard Kerr, former CIA deputy director,
has only reviewed "finished" intelligence, not the "raw" reports that
form their basis. The panel is awaiting the Iraq Survey Group report
before judging whether CIA assessments were on target.
"So far, all they did was look at documents and see if they were
well founded, and if the conclusions were justified based on the
underlying intelligence," said a CIA spokesman. "Now they're waiting to
see the outcome of what we find [in Iraq] so they can compare the two.
It's in limbo."
With the Iraq Survey Group still at work, CIA and Pentagon
officials declined to make Kay or Dayton, its leaders, available for
interviews. But other survey group members, who spoke on condition of
anonymity because of security clearances they are required to sign,
said the evidence reviewed so far — including more than 30 million
pages of documents — still doesn't support charges that Hussein
secretly built chemical and biological weapons after U.N. inspectors
were forced out of Iraq in 1998, as the Bush administration repeatedly
"I haven't heard anyone run into the SOG [Survey Operations
Center] saying, 'Eureka! We found the smoking gun,' " said a senior
survey group member. "It's all still murky as hell."
The issue of timing is critical because a formal U.S. intelligence
estimate sent to the White House and Congress in October starkly warned
that Iraq had "begun renewed production" of mustard, sarin, cyclosarin
and VX nerve gases and had 100 to 500 tons of chemical agents, "much of
it added in the last year." The report also said that "most of the key
aspects" of Iraq's bioweapons program "were more advanced" than before
the 1991 war.
Evidence recently found by survey teams in Iraq includes detailed
schedules, outlines and instruction sheets, among other documents,
indicating covert plans to purchase and install "dual use" equipment in
civilian laboratories and factories that could be quickly converted to
military use if an order were suddenly issued.
"We've got a whole lot of documents that would substantiate a
'just in time' capability," said one of the recently returned survey
team members. "They set up dual-use facilities so they could cook up
what they needed, when they needed it. But otherwise they would be
making whiter-than-white washing detergent or something."
In addition, some Iraqi scientists and technicians have claimed
during interrogation that chemical and biological agents were produced
under the "just in time" system as recently as 2002. But other Iraqis
have said the system was never used or only produced small "test
batches" in the mid- to late 1990s.
"We have some people who say, 'Yes, we were doing it,' or who say
they exercised the production periodically," said the former survey
official. "But you try to pursue it and it's not a clear picture. What
they did with the material is unclear. If they did produce, what did
they do with the results? If you just have a textbook or something on
paper, that doesn't mean you can actually make this stuff. It's all
still very fuzzy."
Another former survey team member said the evidence of a "just in
time" program justifies the prewar concerns, even if the program was
"To me, there's no difference between finding a warehouse full of
aerial bombs with nerve gas and a pencil-and-paper plan that will allow
them to use their existing production capabilities to produce those
same weapons in one week's time," he said.
U.N. weapons inspectors who scoured Iraq from 1991 to 1998 also
theorized that Hussein sought to hide new weapons programs in civilian
factories, hospitals and laboratories. Hussein had hidden much of his
chemical and biological weapons production in pesticide plants,
water-treatment facilities and other civilian infrastructure in the
1980s, but the U.N. teams found no newly built production operations in
Kay and Dayton briefed the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services
committees behind closed doors in late July. They later told reporters
that the survey group was making "solid progress" in unraveling
Hussein's illicit programs. That led to sharp criticism from some
"I remain cautious about whether we're going to find actual WMD,"
said Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the
Senate Intelligence Committee. "Not just a program, but the very
extensive weapons — ready for attack — that we all were told existed."
Rockefeller said he was "concerned" that the weapons hunters had
not found "the 25,000 liters of anthrax, the 38,000 liters of botulinum
toxin and the 500 tons of mustard, sarin and VX nerve gas" that Bush
cited in his State of the Union speech in January.
Administration officials say they are still confident that weapons
of mass destruction will be found. They note a sharp increase in the
number of Iraqis providing useful information over the last month. One
such tip last week led to a cache of shoulder-held surface-to-air
missiles in northern Iraq, officials said.
In a television interview on Sunday, Air Force Gen. Richard B.
Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited the discovery this
month of about 30 Soviet-era high-speed fighters and reconnaissance
aircraft that had been buried in desert sands near the Taqqadum
airfield west of Baghdad. U.S. troops had been operating in the area
for more than three months before a sandstorm exposed a tail fin.
"They went to extraordinary lengths to bury an aircraft," Myers said.
"A 55-gallon drum with anthrax in it would be a lot more difficult
to find and dig up. So it will work ... and we'll find what we're