On Jan. 24, 2003, four days before President Bush delivered his State of the Union address presenting the case for war against Iraq, the National Security Council staff put out a call for new intelligence to bolster claims that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or programs.
The person receiving the request, Robert Walpole, then the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, would later tell investigators that "the NSC believed the nuclear case was weak," according to a 500-page report released last year by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Doubts raised before war
It has been clear since the September report of the Iraq Survey Group — a CIA-sponsored weapons search in Iraq — that the United States would not find the weapons of mass destruction cited by Bush as the rationale for going to war against Iraq. But as the Walpole episode suggests, it appears that even before the war many senior intelligence officials in the government had doubts about the case being trumpeted in public by the president and his senior advisers.
The question of prewar intelligence has been thrust back into the public eye with the disclosure of a secret British memo showing that, eight months before the March 2003 start of the war, a senior British intelligence official reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that U.S. intelligence was being shaped to support a policy of invading Iraq.
Moreover, a close reading of the recent 600-page report by the president's commission on intelligence, and the previous report by the Senate panel, shows that as war approached, many U.S. intelligence analysts were internally questioning almost every major piece of prewar intelligence about Hussein's alleged weapons programs.
These included claims that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium in Africa for its nuclear program, had mobile labs for producing biological weapons, ran an active chemical weapons program and possessed unmanned aircraft that could deliver weapons of mass destruction. All these claims were made by Bush or then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in public addresses even though, the reports made clear, they had yet to be verified by U.S. intelligence agencies.
For instance, Bush said in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address that Hussein was working to obtain "significant quantities" of uranium from Africa, a conclusion the president attributed to British intelligence and made a key part of his assertion that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program.
More than a year later, the White House retracted the statement after its veracity was questioned. But the Senate report makes it clear that even in January 2003, just before the president's speech, analysts at the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center were still investigating the reliability of the uranium information.
Questions about Curveball
Similarly, the president's intelligence commission, chaired by former appellate judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), disclosed that senior intelligence officials had serious questions about "Curveball," the code name for an Iraqi informant who provided the key information on Hussein's alleged mobile biological facilities.
The CIA clandestine service's European division chief had met in 2002 with a German intelligence officer whose service was handling Curveball. The German said his service "was not sure whether Curveball was actually telling the truth," according to the commission report. When it appeared that Curveball's material would be in Bush's State of the Union speech, the CIA Berlin station chief was asked to get the Germans to allow him to question Curveball directly.
‘Eyewitness’ account dismissed
On the day before the president's speech, the Berlin station chief warned about using Curveball's information on the mobile biological units in Bush's speech. The station chief warned that the German intelligence service considered Curveball "problematical" and said its officers had been unable to confirm his assertions. The station chief recommended that CIA headquarters give "serious consideration" before using that unverified information, according to the commission report.
The next day, Bush told the world: "We know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile weapons labs . . . designed to produce germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors." He attributed that information to "three Iraqi defectors."
A week later, Powell said in an address to the United Nations that the information on mobile labs came from four defectors, and he described one as "an eyewitness . . . who supervised one of these facilities" and was at the site when an accident killed 12 technicians.
Within a year, doubts emerged about the truthfulness of all four, and the "eyewitness" turned out to be Curveball, the informant the CIA station chief had red-flagged as unreliable. Curveball was subsequently determined to be a fabricator who had been fired from the Iraqi facility years before the alleged accident, according to the commission and Senate reports.
Was U.S. at risk?
As Bush speeches were being drafted in the prewar period, serious questions were also being raised within the intelligence community about purported threats from biologically armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
In an Oct. 7, 2002, speech, Bush mentioned a potential threat to the U.S. mainland being explored by Iraq through unmanned aircraft "that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons." The basis for that analysis was a single report that an Iraqi general in late 2000 or early 2001 indicated interest in buying autopilots and gyroscopes for Hussein's UAV program. The manufacturer automatically included topographic mapping software of the United States in the package.
When the list was submitted in early 2002, the manufacturer's distributor determined that the U.S. mapping software would not be included in the autopilot package, and told the procurement agent in March 2002. By then, however, U.S. intelligence, which closely followed Iraqi procurement of such material, had already concluded as early as the summer of 2001 that this was the "first indication that the UAVs might be used to target the U.S."
When a foreign intelligence service questioned the procurement agent, he originally said he had never intended to purchase the U.S. mapping software, but he refused to submit to a thorough examination, according to the president's commission. "By fall 2002, the CIA was still uncertain whether the procurement agent was lying," the commission said. Nonetheless, a National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 said the attempted procurement "strongly suggested" Iraq was interested in targeting UAVs on the United States. Senior members of Congress were told in September 2002 that this was the "smoking gun" in a special briefing by Vice President Cheney and then-CIA Director George J. Tenet.
By January 2003, however, it became publicly known that the director of Air Force intelligence dissented from the view that UAVs were to be used for biological or chemical delivery, saying instead they were for reconnaissance. In addition, according to the president's commission, the CIA "increasingly believed that the attempted purchase of the mapping software . . . may have been inadvertent."
A path to war
In an intelligence estimate on threats to the U.S. homeland published in January 2003, Air Force, Defense Intelligence Agency and Army analysts agreed that the proposed purchase was "not necessarily indicative of an intent to target the U.S. homeland."
By late January 2003, the number of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf area was approaching 150,000, and the invasion of Iraq was all but guaranteed. Neither Bush nor Powell reflected in their speeches the many doubts that had surfaced at that time about Iraq's weapons programs.
Instead, Bush said, "With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East and create deadly havoc in that region." He added: "Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own."