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The World | THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

CIA Study on Iraq Weapons Is Off Course, Officials Say

The agency is trying to project what Hussein may have developed had the U.S. not invaded.

August 20, 2004|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Having failed to find banned weapons in Iraq, the CIA is preparing a final report on its search that will speculate on what the deposed regime's capabilities might have looked like years from now if left unchecked, according to congressional and intelligence officials.

The CIA plans for the report, due next month, to project as far as 2008 what Iraq might have achieved in its illegal weapons programs if the United States had not invaded the country last year, the officials said.

The new direction of the inquiry is seen by some officials as an attempt to obscure the fact that no banned weapons -- or even evidence of active programs -- have been found, and instead emphasize theories that Iraq may have been planning to revive its programs.

The change in focus has angered some intelligence officials and at least one key Democrat in Congress and has brought charges of political motivation.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) protested the decision in a sharply worded letter to acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin last week. Trying to forecast Iraq's weapons capabilities four years into the future would be, "by definition, highly speculative" and "inconsistent with the original mission of the Iraq Survey Group," Harman wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Times.

Such an effort would be a significant departure for a survey group whose primary mission when it was established last year was to locate and destroy stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons that the CIA and other agencies believed were hidden across Iraq.

David Kay, who led the group before resigning in January, said that speculating on Iraq's future capabilities was never part of the team's mission.

"Absolutely not," Kay said in a telephone interview Thursday. "We were to search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. No one ever suggested to me in any of the discussions before I took the job, afterward, or even when I left, that [assessing Iraq's future capabilities] was a thing that should have been done."

Kay and others also questioned how such an assessment would be possible given the disarray that characterized President Saddam Hussein's government in recent years and external events that had altered the flow of illicit weapons technologies around the world.

Kay reported in January that Iraq's programs were dormant before the war. The country was still subject to United Nations sanctions and was facing a new round of inspections. Since then, authorities have cracked down on global weapons markets, most notably by unraveling the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Kay was replaced in January by former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, who is overseeing the production of the survey group's final report. A CIA spokesman declined to say whether the report would attempt to forecast what Iraq's weapons programs might have looked like if there had not been a U.S. invasion.

"Charles Duelfer's mission is to search for the truth, and he made clear when he took the job that he was absolutely committed to following the evidence wherever it takes us," CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said. "That is what he's doing, and that is what will be reflected in his report."

The failure to find stockpiles of banned weapons has been a source of embarrassment to the CIA, as well as to the Bush administration, which made ridding Hussein of illicit arms the main rationale for a preemptive war against Iraq.

For that reason, some officials familiar with the CIA's plans for the final report said they thought it was politically motivated and designed to focus the public's attention on hypothetical future threats.

"The case made by the Bush White House was that [Iraq] was an imminent threat that must be dealt with today," said a senior congressional official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Coming out later and saying [Hussein] would have had the weapons in 2006 or 2008 ... is basically a way to justify preemption."

A U.S. intelligence official denied that political pressure was playing a role in shaping Duelfer's report. "That's nonsense," the official said.

The plan to have the report project the potential of Baghdad's weapons programs was disclosed during a classified briefing on Capitol Hill last month by Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, the former military commander of the weapons search group, according to congressional officials familiar with the briefing.

In her Aug. 13 letter, Harman said that Dayton had "told staff that the report will focus on what the state of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs would have been in 2006 or 2008 had the United States not gone to war with Iraq in 2003."

In a media briefing in May describing the formation of the survey group, Dayton said its mission was "the search for and elimination of weapons of mass destruction." Dayton has since moved to another assignment in the Army, and a spokesman said he did not wish to comment.

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