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Flaws Cited in Powell's U.N. Speech on Iraq

THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

State Department analysts saw errors in early drafts, prompting revisions, report says.

July 15, 2004|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Days before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was to present the case for war with Iraq to the United Nations, State Department analysts found dozens of factual problems in drafts of his speech, according to new documents contained in the Senate report on intelligence failures released last week.

Two memos included with the Senate report listed objections that State Department experts lodged as they reviewed successive drafts of the Powell speech. Although many of the claims considered inflated or unsupported were removed through painstaking debate by Powell and intelligence officials, the speech he ultimately presented contained material that was in dispute among State Department experts.

Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the U.N. Security Council was crafted by the CIA at the behest of the White House. Intended to be the Bush administration's most compelling case by one of its most credible spokesmen that a confrontation with Saddam Hussein was necessary, the speech has become a central moment in the lead-up to war.

The speech also has become a point of reference in the failure of U.S. intelligence. Although Powell has said he struggled to ensure that all of his arguments were sound and backed by intelligence from several sources, it nonetheless became a key example of how the administration advanced false claims to justify war.

Powell has expressed disappointment that, after working to remove dubious claims, the intelligence backing the remaining points of his U.N. speech has turned out to be flawed.

"It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong, and in some cases deliberately misleading, and for that I am disappointed and I regret it," Powell said in May. A State Department spokesman said late Wednesday, however, that the United States made the right decision "to go into Iraq, and the world today is safer because we did."

Offering the first detailed look at claims that were stripped from the case for war advanced by Powell, a Jan. 31, 2003, memo cataloged 38 claims to which State Department analysts objected. In response, 28 were either removed from the draft or altered, according to the Senate report, which was released Friday and included scathing criticism of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence services.

The analysts, describing many of the claims as "weak" and assigning grades to arguments on a 5-star scale, warned Powell against making an array of allegations they deemed implausible. They also warned against including Iraqi communications intercepts they deemed ambiguous and against speculating that terrorists might "come through Baghdad and pick-up biological weapons" as if they were stocked on store shelves.

The documents underscore the extent to which administration and intelligence officials were culling a vast collection of thinly sourced claims as they sought to assemble the case for war. But the origin and full scope of some errors remain unclear because Senate investigators were denied access to a number of relevant documents, according to aides involved in the probe.

The CIA rejected requests for initial versions of what became the Powell presentation on the grounds that they were internal working documents and not finished products. And the Republican-controlled committee did not seek access to a 40-plus-page document that was prepared by Vice President Dick Cheney's office and submitted to State Department speechwriters detailing the case the administration wanted Powell to make.

According to the Senate report, the idea for the speech originated in December 2002, when the National Security Council instructed the CIA to prepare a public response to Iraq's widely criticized 12,000-page declaration claiming that it had no banned weapons. It wasn't until late January 2003 that intelligence officials learned their work would form the basis for a speech Powell would give to the United Nations.

Powell and several of his aides then spent several days at CIA headquarters working on drafts of the speech, in what participants have described as sessions marked by heated arguments over what to include.

When Powell appeared before the U.N., he made a series of sweeping assertions that have crumbled under postwar scrutiny -- including claims that Iraq had chemical weapons stockpiles, was pursuing nuclear weapons and that "there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more."

But the documents in the Senate report show that earlier drafts of the speech contained dozens of additional, disputed claims; they provide the most detailed glimpse to date into the last-minute scramble to strike those claims from the text.

Several of the dubious statements in the early drafts had to do with alleged Iraqi efforts to thwart weapons inspections that had been restarted by the U.N.

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