WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's point man on nonproliferation has exaggerated the threat posed by Syria, Libya and Cuba in an effort to build the case that strong action is needed to prevent them from developing weapons of mass destruction, former intelligence officials and independent experts say.
Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton has long been one of the most controversial figures in the Bush administration -- a pugnacious neoconservative with a reputation for blunt talk and tough action. The allegations that he is inflating the evidence against regimes that Washington dislikes, come as the administration is defending itself against criticism that it misused intelligence to make the case for invading Iraq.
"Very often, the points he makes have some truth to them, but he simply goes beyond where the facts tell intelligent people they should go," said Carl W. Ford Jr., who retired in October as head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
In several conversations, Bolton categorically denied trying to shape intelligence for political purposes. He maintained that all of his statements about the weapons capabilities of various states were cleared in advance by all the major political and intelligence agencies -- and he brandished the interagency approval checklists to prove it.
"I have always used intelligence properly," Bolton said. "Of course, I sometimes go beyond previous statements, but in every case I do, it's been previously cleared. You bet I do -- we do it all the time."
Bolton then shot back at the intelligence community, arguing that some intelligence analysts' own political biases affect their judgments. "People can and should agree that policymakers should not politicize intelligence," said Bolton, who arrives at work at 6:30 each morning and devours a thick briefing book of cables and analyses that many other officials don't bother to read. "But I think we can also say that intelligence analysts should not politicize intelligence."
Bolton provokes such controversy that several of his critics -- flouting Washington convention -- agreed to be quoted by name.
"Undersecretary Bolton repeatedly goes beyond the current public intelligence estimates in his description of the proliferation threats," said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "He offers definitive judgments where there is, at best, only informed speculation about capabilities. In some cases, notably his claim that Cuba has biological weapons, he goes way beyond known capabilities.
"In others, like the claim that Iran has bioweapons or that Syria is developing nuclear weapons, he connects the dots to form a judgment that is not supported by solid evidence, but then presents it as established fact," Cirincione said. This, he said, undermines U.S. credibility and the ability of policymakers to craft balanced approaches to serious threats.
Retorted Bolton: "People tend to resort to ad hominem attacks when they feel their substantive arguments are weak."
Bolton, who has close ties to Vice President Dick Cheney, is the reigning bete noire of Washington's foreign policy liberals -- and a hero to neoconservatives. He's been called "highly principled" and "human scum"; a "delightful colleague" and "the most hated man in the State Department"; an effective public servant and a loose cannon who has "sabotaged" U.S. foreign policy.
Bolton, who turns 55 this month, looks more like a tweedy academic than a top diplomat. He wears his mustache long and speaks his mind with an undiplomatic directness. And he suffers fools, rogues and reporters badly.
Years ago, colleagues in the Reagan administration presented him with a bronzed grenade fondly inscribed to "the truest Reaganaut." At the State Department, Bolton's brief is to prevent the development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, particularly by states that might transfer them to terrorists. The mandate took on new urgency after the Sept. 11 attacks.
He has made it his mission not only to warn Congress and the public of what he sees as threats to U.S. security, but also to confront suspected offenders with evidence of their misdeeds. He has traveled the globe to rally nations to back tougher action.
Some State Department officials say Bolton's abrasive style is disastrous for a diplomat. But the man himself appears unfazed by the fury of his critics.
"Should I be?" Bolton demanded of an interviewer. He waited an uncomfortably long minute as though expecting a student to answer. Then he shrugged. "I say what I believe and I sleep well at night."
Bolton isn't afraid to smash the diplomatic china when it suits his purposes.
Last summer in Seoul, he attacked North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the object of a fervent state-sponsored personality cult, by name 17 times in a speech delivered just as Washington was trying to lure the reluctant Pyongyang regime into talks about abandoning its nuclear program.