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
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 hear."
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 after 1991.
The veracity of defectors is a key part of the puzzle, but only one aspect of it.