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Analysis of Iraqi Weapons 'Wrong'

The predicted use of banned agents did not occur, a Marine commander says. The CIA chief defends his staff's assessments.

May 31, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The top Marine commander in Iraq said Friday that U.S. intelligence was "simply wrong" in its assessment that Saddam Hussein intended to unleash chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces during the war, but he stopped short of saying there was an overall intelligence failure.

Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, also said he had fully expected U.S. forces to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction after the war ended.

"It was a surprise to me then, it remains a surprise to me now, that we have not uncovered weapons," Conway said from Baghdad in a teleconference call with reporters in Washington.

"It's not for lack of trying," he said. "We've been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad, but they're simply not there."

The subject of the search for banned weapons is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable one for the Bush administration, with several influential lawmakers this week saying they believe the White House hyped the Iraq threat or was misled by the intelligence community. Other critics have alleged that the Pentagon pressured the intelligence community to skew its analyses.

Amid the mounting criticism, CIA Director George J. Tenet took the unusual step of issuing a statement Friday denying that the agency's assessments on Iraq were politicized.

"Our role is to call it like we see it -- to tell policymakers what we know, what we don't know, what we think, and what we base it on," Tenet said. "That is exactly what was done and continues to be done on intelligence issues related to Iraq."

He added that he was proud of the work done by the agency's analysts, saying, "The integrity of our process was maintained throughout."

Conway, the Marine commander, acknowledged that "intelligence failure" is "too strong a word to use at this point." But he said: "What the regime was intending to do in terms of its use of the weapons, we thought we understood -- or we certainly had our best guess, our most dangerous, our most likely courses of action that the intelligence folks were giving us. We were simply wrong.

"But whether or not we're wrong at the national level, I think, still very much remains to be seen."

Conway, who said he still believes it is possible that weapons of mass destruction will be found, spoke as the Pentagon disclosed details of its plans to send a new team of more than 1,000 experts to search for evidence of banned weapons. Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency's human intelligence service, will lead the effort.

In a separate news briefing Friday, Dayton suggested that it is possible that Iraq deliberately misled U.S. intelligence agencies, making them think that weapons were being produced and deployed even as they were secretly being destroyed.

"We may find out three months from now that there was an elaborate deception program and the stuff was destroyed," Dayton said. Asked whether he believes the new search teams would uncover evidence of illicit munitions, Dayton offered a cautious reply.

"Do I think we're going to find something? Yeah, I kind of do," he said, adding that he still believes Washington's sources of intelligence on Iraq before the war were credible.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was largely responsible for arguing the administration's case for the war on Iraq to a skeptical international community, told reporters Friday that all of the evidence he presented at a prewar U.N. Security Council meeting was solid.

"Everything I presented on the 5th of February, I can tell you, there was good sourcing for, was not politicized. It was solid information," Powell said. "Let people look into it, let people examine it."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also defended the administration's actions in the months before the Iraq campaign, saying in a radio interview Thursday, "This war was not waged under any false pretext."

And Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine, sought to minimize the importance of weapons of mass destruction in the administration's calculus for war.

"For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on," Wolfowitz said in comments released Wednesday.

Even as senior administration officials sought to deflect criticism, the issue appeared to gain momentum in Washington.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said she and others based their votes for supporting the war in Iraq on White House claims that Baghdad posed a direct and growing threat to the United States.

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