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Pentagon Agency Lacked Proof of Iraqi Chemical Arms

June 07, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A Pentagon intelligence agency warned last fall that it had no reliable evidence that Iraq possessed chemical weapons, even though the Bush administration alleged publicly at the time that Saddam Hussein was hiding such agents.

Administration officials said Friday that the agency's report has been quoted out of context and that they would push to declassify the document. The full report, they said, will dispel any appearance of a contradiction and show that officials believed then -- as they do now -- that Hussein possessed chemical and other weapons of mass destruction.

The existence of the September 2002 classified report was made public this week. In it, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency said "there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has -- or will -- establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities," according to two defense officials with access to the document.

The report, a summary of which was first disclosed by the Bloomberg news service, said Iraq probably had stockpiles of banned chemical warfare agents, but not necessarily in weaponized form.

The White House's prewar assertions that Iraq's alleged stocks of biological and chemical arms posed an imminent threat to the United States were at the core of the administration's case for war.

"We do know that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18. "His regime has amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons -- including VX, sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gas."

No such weapons have been found since Hussein was ousted in April, and the administration has found itself facing mounting questions from Capitol Hill about prewar intelligence and the way the administration interpreted it.

The controversy has spilled over into political debate among Democrats seeking their party's 2004 presidential nomination. In Britain, it has galvanized those who opposed Prime Minister Tony Blair's push for an invasion to oust Hussein's regime.

Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, insisted Friday that the full report is consistent with the administration's public statements.

Although the agency was unable last fall to determine the location of any chemical weapons facilities in Iraq, Jacoby said, there was no doubt about the existence of programs to produce chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

The report, he said, "talks about the fact that at the time, in September 2002, we could not specifically pin down individual facilities operating as part of the weapons of mass destruction programs, specifically, the chemical warfare portion."

The report did not suggest "that we had doubts that such a program existed, that such a program was active, or such a program was part of the Iraqi WMD infrastructure," he told reporters after a closed-door session with the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mike Anton, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said the quote leaked from the report "really gives a misleading characterization of what the report said."

"I have read it and I can tell you, the rest of it is very much consistent with what the president was saying in September and with what other intelligence services were saying and with the exhaustive record going back years on Iraq's WMD programs," Anton said.

The statement on chemical weapons goes to the heart of the controversy over whether intelligence agencies were pressured to doctor their reports to provide support for policy decisions being made at the White House. President Bush and Rumsfeld have said repeatedly that they believe U.S. forces will find the illicit weapons.

Last week, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner (R-Va.), said his panel will investigate the failure to find evidence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq.

Warner said then, and repeated Friday at Jacoby's side, that he does not believe there was any deception on the issue by the administration. He said his committee will take broad testimony and consider a wide range of evidence in reaching its conclusion.

"I make the appeal to the American people to continue to repose trust in this administration as we go forward to search out these answers," Warner said.

Rumsfeld recently raised the possibility that Iraq destroyed the weapons before the war began in March. He also has said he believes some remain and will be found by U.S. search teams, working in conjunction with Iraqis.

A Pentagon team composed of about 1,400 analysts, interpreters and document experts will arrive in Baghdad on Monday to expand the search for weapons of mass destruction. The team, led by Army Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, will examine facilities, documents and chemical stockpiles that may be related to weapons programs, said Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Pentagon officials have said repeatedly that soldiers were too busy fighting the war and helping stabilize the country to conduct an adequate search. They have said that the Pentagon would be able to focus on the task only when the team arrived.

On Friday, a small team of United Nations nuclear experts arrived in Baghdad to begin a damage assessment at Iraq's largest nuclear facility, known as Tuwaitha. It was left unguarded by American and allied troops during the early days of the war and was pillaged by villagers.

The arrival of the team -- whose members are not weapons inspectors -- marked the first time since the Iraq war began that representatives from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency returned to the country. The organization had long monitored Iraq's nuclear program.

The existence of the DIA report was disclosed by U.S. News & World Report magazine, and a summary was reported by Bloomberg News on Thursday.

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