Bush expresses confidence in spy agencies

Former top U.S. inspector has faulted intelligence on Iraqi arms programs

January 28, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush expressed "great confidence" in the American intelligence community yesterday despite fresh assertions by the outgoing chief U.S. investigator in Iraq that the spy agencies were wrong about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.

With his comments, Bush weighed in on a bruising election-year debate prompted by the absence, despite a 10-month search, of any of the stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, or evidence of an active nuclear program, that the administration cited last year as its prime reason for invading Iraq.

Bush spoke a day after the White House, echoing an earlier statement by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, backed away from the president's predictions that weapons of mass destruction would eventually be found in Iraq.

Asked if he remains confident that such weapons would be found, Bush said: "I think it's very important for us to let the Iraq Survey Group do its work so we can find out the facts and compare the facts to what was thought." The survey group has conducted the weapons search since last summer.

Bush, in an exchange with reporters, also rejected the suggestion that he had been ill-served by the intelligence agencies.

"I've got great confidence in our intelligence community. These are unbelievably hard-working, dedicated people who are doing a great job for America," Bush said.

As for his decision to go to war, he said, "There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a grave and gathering threat to America and the world. ... And I say that based upon intelligence that I saw prior to the decision to go into Iraq, and I say that based upon what I know today."

Bush's expression of confidence in the intelligence community rebutted assertions made over the weekend and yesterday by David Kay, who stepped down last week as the chief weapons hunter in Iraq.

Kay, in print and broadcast interviews since Friday, has faulted the U.S. intelligence community for what he calls an inaccurate prewar assessment of Hussein's weapons programs.

Kay has concluded that chemical and biological weapons stockpiles do not exist in Iraq, and that Hussein's regime never rebuilt its production capacity after it was degraded by a combination of United Nations inspections, economic sanctions and airstrikes conducted in the 1990s by the Clinton administration. Iraq had resumed only a rudimentary nuclear program, he said.

Kay's successor, Charles Duelfer, also has been skeptical that weapons stockpiles will be found, though he refrained from making any predictions after his appointment last week.

Kay said yesterday that not only did U.S. intelligence agencies mistakenly believe that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but so did the British, French, Germans and the United Nations.

"Not discovering them tells us we've got a more fundamental problem," he said in an interview yesterday on NBC's Today program. The problem, he said, is not limited to judging the extent of weapons in Iraq, but includes intelligence on arms programs in Iran and Libya.

"We clearly need a renovation of our ability to collect intelligence," Kay said.

Kay insists that it's not fair to accuse Bush of exaggerating the threat and misleading the American public into supporting the war. "I think, in fact, the president, as all of us were, [was] reacting on the basis of an intelligence product that painted a picture of Iraq that turned out not to be accurate once we got on the ground," he said.

But many Democrats and some independent specialists disagree, charging that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Powell and others seized on intelligence reports that were based on incomplete information and then inflated them, stripping away the cautionary qualifiers used by intelligence analysts, to depict Iraq as a serious and looming danger to the United States.

Speaking in Cincinnati in October 2002, Bush said of Iraq: "It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism, and practices terror against its own people."

The growing debate has serious implications for Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive military action to prevent enemies from eventually being able to harm the United States, for the United Nations and for international arms-control efforts.

In a draft report issued this week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative-leaning think tank, said the faulty intelligence "seriously undermines U.S. and British credibility in dealing with future cases of proliferation."

The controversy is unlikely to die down soon. Not only are several Democratic presidential hopefuls accusing Bush of misleading the public, but the prewar intelligence is drawing intense scrutiny from congressional committees, which are examining whether it was sufficient to draw the conclusions reached about Hussein's weapons.

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