It's official: CIA admits mistake about Iraq arms

Chemical weapons report is part of belated series in bid to correct its record

February 01, 2005|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - In a formal acknowledgment of the obvious, the CIA has issued a classified report revising its prewar assessments on Iraq and concluding that Baghdad abandoned its chemical weapons programs in 1991, according to intelligence officials familiar with the report.

It marks the first time the CIA has officially disavowed its prewar judgments and is one in a "series" of updated assessments the agency is producing as part of a belated effort to correct its record on Iraq's alleged weapons programs, officials said.

For an agency that prides itself on providing the latest intelligence to policymakers, even the title of the new report reads like a year-old headline: "Iraq: No Large-Scale Chemical Warfare Efforts Since Early 1990s."

But the CIA's decision to distribute the document in classified channels underscores the awkwardness it faces as it continues to reconcile its prewar reporting with postwar realities in Iraq. Before the war, the CIA asserted that Iraq stockpiled biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

A U.S. intelligence official stressed that the document is "not a high-level report," meaning it was designed to supplant outdated assessments still on classified computer networks and was never meant to be called to the attention of President Bush or other senior government officials.

"It's basically updating the books," the official said, "so the information on the shelf is the most current." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that the report was the product of internal agency efforts to identify and correct mistakes made in the prewar analysis on Iraq.

Current and former intelligence officials described it as a highly unusual step for the CIA.

"It's stunning that they would actually put on paper a reversal," said one intelligence official who had not seen the report.

Richard Kerr, a former senior CIA official who was hired by the agency to conduct an internal review last year, said he could not recall the agency ever issuing such a revisionist report on any subject.

"But the situation is rather unique," Kerr said, noting that the postwar reality in Iraq has made the agency's failings painfully obvious. "Ordinarily, you're never proven wrong in a clean, neat way."

The new report was based largely on the findings by the Iraq Survey Group, a CIA-led team of weapons experts that scoured the country for more than a year without finding clear evidence of active illegal weapons programs.

U.S. intelligence officials have long acknowledged that the prewar assessments were flawed. David Kay, the former head of the search team, famously told Congress: "We were almost all wrong."

But other officials' statements have been more qualified. In a speech last February, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet said, "When the facts of Iraq are all in, we will neither be completely right nor completely wrong."

The new report from the CIA, dated Jan. 18, retreats from the agency's prewar assertions on chemical weapons on almost every front. In one of several key findings, it concludes that "Iraq probably did not pursue chemical warfare efforts after 1991."

The report notes that its new conclusions "vary significantly" from prewar judgments "largely because of subsequent events and direct access to Iraqi officials, scientists, facilities and documents." A note in the report describes it as the second in a "retrospective series that addresses our post Operation Iraqi Freedom understanding of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and delivery system programs."

A Jan. 4 report focused on Scud missiles and other delivery systems. Intelligence officials said future reports will revise the agency's prewar claims. Those allegations were a centerpiece of the Bush administration's case for war with Iraq.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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