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Ex-General Says Israel Inflated Iraqi Threat

Shlomo Brom asserts his nation's spy agencies helped U.S. and Britain make case for war.

December 05, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A former senior Israeli military intelligence official asserted Thursday that the nation's spy agencies were a "full partner" to the United States and Britain in producing flawed prewar assessments of Iraq's ability to mount attacks with weapons of mass destruction.

The sharply worded report by Shlomo Brom, a brigadier general in the army reserves, prompted one lawmaker to call for an independent inquiry into the performance of Israeli intelligence before the start of hostilities in Iraq.

Until now, the role of Israeli intelligence agencies in assessing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime -- and the subsequent failure so far by coalition investigators to find evidence of a chemical and biological weapons program that was an imminent threat -- has been the subject of little public debate here.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has been hounded by domestic critics who say prewar intelligence on Hussein's weapons program was either flawed or exaggerated -- or both -- in order to support President Bush's decision to go to war.

Bush also has faced criticism over the lack of proof that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, though the U.S. president has not been forced to expend nearly as much political capital as Blair in fending off contentions that the threat was deliberately distorted.

Brom, a senior researcher at one of Israel's leading think tanks, the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said intelligence produced by Israel played a significant role in augmenting the case for toppling Hussein.

"In the questioning of the picture painted by coalition intelligence, the third party in this intelligence failure -- Israel -- has remained in the shadows," he wrote. "And yet, Israeli intelligence was a full partner to the picture presented by American and British intelligence regarding Iraq's nonconventional capabilities."

The Israeli intelligence agencies, Brom said, "badly overestimated the Iraqi threat to Israel and reinforced the American and British belief that the weapons existed."

Brom attributed the failure to professional lapses and misreading of important data, coupled with what he called a "one-dimensional perception" of Hussein by Israel's intelligence-gathering agencies.

Brom also cited a culture of "excessive intelligence anxiety," dating back to Israel's failure, just before the Jewish state's 1973 war with Syria and Egypt, to act on clear signs of an imminent Arab attack, with near-calamitous results. "Israeli intelligence agencies have tended to overstate the threat the country faces ever since," he wrote.

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March, Israeli officials sent mixed signals to the public over the threat of a biological or chemical attack by Hussein's forces. They described the likelihood of Israel being targeted as slight, yet the country was placed on a war footing. Jet fighters patrolled the skies 24 hours a day. Israelis were told to prepare "sealed rooms" in which they could take shelter in the event of attack. Children were sent off to school carrying gas masks.

Many Israelis had vivid memories of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which Iraq lobbed 39 Scud missiles at Israel, none armed with a chemical or biological agent.

Brom said that even if Iraq had any Scud missiles left, it was difficult to understand how professional intelligence-gatherers would perceive them as a threat to Israel, particularly after 10 years of disuse.

Although Israeli military intelligence and the Mossad spy agency have suffered scandals and high-profile blunders in recent years, both are considered to be among the world's premier intelligence operations. In his report, however, Brom expressed concern that as a result of mistakes regarding Iraq, foreign services might stop trusting information provided by Israel, thus hampering cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Brom's article, which appeared in the Jaffee Center's quarterly publication Strategic Assessment, prompted lawmaker Yossi Sarid to call for a parliamentary inquiry on prewar intelligence-gathering.

Brom held senior positions in Israeli military intelligence for 25 years before retiring from the army in 1998.

Traditionally, intelligence officers of his stature retain access to a great deal of sensitive information even after leaving active service.

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