WASHINGTON — A pair of British-recruited spies in Iraq, whose alarming reports of Saddam Hussein's illicit weapons were rushed to the White House shortly before the U.S.-led invasion last year, were never interviewed by the CIA and are now viewed as unreliable, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say.
The CIA's reliance on the two Iraqis, who were recruited by Britain's MI6 in late 2002 and thought to have access to Hussein's inner circle, is the latest example to come to light of the failures in human intelligence gathering in Iraq. U.S. agencies were also beset by broader, more systemic problems that included failures in analyzing communications intercepts and spy satellite images, the officials interviewed by The Times said.
U.S. experts, for example, still have not been able to determine the meaning of three secretly taped conversations that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell played to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 in making the case for war. Investigators have been unable to identify who was speaking on the tapes or precisely what they were talking about.
U.S. analysts also erred in their analysis of high-altitude satellite photos, repeatedly confusing Scud missile storage places with the short, half-cylindrical sheds typically used to house poultry in Iraq. As a result, as the war neared, two teams of U.N. weapons experts acting on U.S. intelligence scrambled to search chicken coops for missiles that were not there.
"We inspected a lot of chicken farms," said a former inspector who asked not to be identified because he now works with U.S. intelligence. His U.N. team printed "Ballistic Chicken Farm Inspection Team" on 20 gray T-shirts to mark the futile hunt.
The problems the U.S. experienced in gathering and analyzing intelligence mirrored difficulties experienced by other Western intelligence agencies. Investigations of intelligence agencies in at least four countries have found the misjudgments of Iraq's weapons were founded on circumstantial evidence, unverified secondhand accounts, false assumptions, old intelligence and shoddy tradecraft.
Senate Report Due
In Washington, the Senate Intelligence Committee is poised to issue a verdict on what most experts describe as a sweeping intelligence failure by U.S. agencies.
Officials said the committee's still-secret report, based on interviews with 200 intelligence analysts and officials, details major mistakes and misjudgments in collection and analysis by the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
Officials portray the 400-page report as an unparalleled effort to gauge how America's $40-billion-a-year intelligence system performed against a critical target during the Clinton and Bush administrations, including the post-Hussein period.
"We can see what worked and what didn't," said a senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report remains classified. "Mostly, it didn't."
Officials said the report criticizes the Pentagon's creation of an independent intelligence "cell" called the Office of Special Plans to review raw intelligence about Baghdad's alleged ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and to funnel its analysis to the White House without going through normal channels.
It also reviews the CIA's insistence before the war that Iraq's attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes -- using websites and faxes -- was proof that Iraq was seeking to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Evidence found since the war confirms that, as Iraqi officials had insisted, the tubes were designed for conventional artillery rockets.
The CIA and the committee are negotiating how much of the report to release to the public.
But independent of the report, current and former intelligence officials, plus outside experts, have detailed extensive problems in accumulating and analyzing data.
Most important, they say, was the fact that the CIA was unable to recruit a spy in or close to Hussein's inner circle before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The lack of access was especially glaring because U.S. intelligence had made Iraq a priority target since the 1980s.
"We had zilch in terms of direct sources," said David Kay, who led the search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq last year as special advisor to CIA director George J. Tenet.
CIA leaders refused to accept Kay's stark assessment when he returned from Iraq last December that most prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons were wrong. Kay was assigned a tiny office far from the executive suites, without a working computer or secure telephone.
"I heard about meetings after the fact," Kay recalled. "It was like a bad novel."
After several weeks of isolation, Kay quit and went public with his concerns.