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'Very Good Intelligence' Paved the Path to War, U.S. Officials Say

Powell and Rice take issue with reported criticism of 'piecemeal' information amassed by spy agencies and used to make case to attack Iraq.

September 29, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Saying that the White House had sound data on Iraq's weapons program, Bush administration officials on Sunday disputed new charges that old and unreliable intelligence reports caused President Bush to exaggerate the ability of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to develop weapons of mass destruction.

"The president believes that he had very good intelligence going into the war," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said on "Fox News Sunday." "There was enrichment of the intelligence from 1998 over the period leading up to the war. And nothing pointed to a reversal of Saddam Hussein's very active efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction."

Rice was reacting to a news report that leaders of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence had criticized U.S. spy officials for using outdated and "fragmentary" information to determine that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorists.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that Reps. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), the committee's chairman, and Jane Harman (D-Venice), the panel's senior Democrat, had expressed those concerns in a letter to George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence.

They wrote that their review of classified intelligence data showed that U.S. intelligence agencies used "some new 'piecemeal' intelligence" to supplement data gained prior to 1998, the newspaper said.

The criticism comes as a key congressional panel prepares to decide whether to approve Bush's request for $87 billion to pay for military and reconstruction costs in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also comes as the administration intensifies its uphill push for greater international cooperation to help rebuild war-torn Iraq.

In advance of a scheduled House Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday on Bush's funding request, members of a 17-person congressional delegation urged that meeting Iraq's many needs be viewed as a long-term investment in regional stability.

Wrapping up a two-day visit to Iraq, Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) told reporters in Baghdad that the country had "tremendous potential." But, he added, "we need to be patient.... The American public needs to be patient," citing the "tremendous amount of damage done to this country and people ... by Saddam Hussein."

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) said that "it's going to take a bit more than $20 billion" -- the nonmilitary portion of the administration's request -- to rebuild Iraq's battered infrastructure.

"The rest of the world has an obligation too," he said, urging Iraq's foreign debt be forgiven. Iraq owes about $200 billion -- to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as reparations for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and to other nations, including France, Russia and Germany, for infrastructure loans over the last two decades.

Bush's speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, which sought greater international support for U.S. efforts in Iraq, failed to galvanize many national leaders or diplomats.

The muted reaction suggested that U.N. members who felt misled about the justification for invading Iraq now feel misused by the U.S. request for additional foreign troops and financial assistance to rebuild the country.

But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Sunday that the administration has since made progress in its effort to secure a U.N. resolution that would authorize a U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq and allow Iraqi citizens to help set a timetable for a return to self-government.

"We are working on a resolution [that] I think will gather support from most members of the Security Council," Powell said on ABC's "This Week." "And let's keep in mind that we're receiving a lot of support already -- 31 nations are in Iraq with us now, with troops."

Powell also echoed Rice's belief that the administration had strong intelligence on Iraq. He said the intentions of Hussein's regime, which had defied U.N. mandates and used lethal chemical agents against its own people in 1988, were clear.

"Now, if you want to believe that he suddenly gave up that weapon and had no further interest in those sorts of weapons, whether it be chemical, biological or nuclear, then I think you're -- it's a bit naive to believe that," Powell said.

Given that U.N. weapons inspectors had left Iraq in 1998 and did not return until late last year, "our intelligence community had to do the best they could. And I think they did a pretty good job," Powell said. To assume that Hussein's government had no such weapons "defies the logic of the situation over the years and what we know about this regime," Powell said.

The administration also received support from at least one key political rival.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he also continues to believe that Iraq had, or was capable of quickly producing, weapons of mass destruction.

"I didn't just take the president's word for this," he said. "I went out to the CIA three times. I talked to ... top people. I talked to people that had been in the Clinton administration.... And I became convinced, from that, all of that, that [Hussein] either had weapons of mass destruction or he had components of weapons or he had the ability to quickly make a lot of them and pass them to terrorists."

But Gephardt called for an investigation examining whether the intelligence data on Iraq were misleading or wrong.

"The American people have to understand and believe that the information they're getting from their government is credible," he said.

"And if there was a failure of intelligence, we've got to have more than just the intelligence committees look at it. We've got to have a blue-ribbon commission. We've got to get to the bottom of it."

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Times staff writer Laura King in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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