Liberal Grace

Analysts Discount Attack by Iraq

by Jason Priest - Washington Post, Oct. 9, 2002

Unprovoked by a U.S. military campaign, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is unlikely to initiate a chemical or biological attack against the United States, intelligence agencies concluded in a classified report given to select senators last week.

However, the report added, ``should Saddam conclude that a US-led attack could no longer be deterred,'' he might launch a chemical-biological counterattack. Hussein might ``decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.''

The assessment was first made in a classified National Intelligence Estimate, which includes the analysis and opinions of all relevant U.S. intelligence agencies, that was given to the Senate intelligence committee last week. A declassified ``white paper'' on Iraq was released days later. At the urging of the committee, which is controlled by Democrats, additional portions of the intelligence report were declassified by the CIA Monday and released last night.

With lawmakers poised to vote this week on a resolution giving President Bush authority to attack Iraq, the new intelligence report offers grist both for supporters and critics of the administration's policy. The CIA assessment appears to suggest that an attack on Iraq could provoke the very thing the President has said he is trying to forestall: the use of chemical or biological weapons by Hussein.

But the CIA also declassified other elements of analysis that seem to back up the President's assertion that Iraq has active ties to al Qaeda--a growing feature of the administration's case for considering military action.

Among the intelligence assessments linking Iraq with al Qaeda is ``credible reporting'' that the group's ``leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities,'' according to a letter to senators from CIA Director George T. Tenet.

Tenet added: ``Iraq's increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship'' with al Qaeda, ``suggest Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action.''

In his speech to the nation Monday night, Bush said: ``Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.''

The letter's release shed light on a behind-the-scenes battle over Iraq-related intelligence. The CIA's detailed, unvarnished view of the threat posed by Iraq is central, say many lawmakers, to how they will vote on the matter. Yet an increasing number of intelligence officials, including former and current intelligence agency employees, are concerned the agency is tailoring its public stance to fit the administration's views.

The CIA works for the president, but its role is to provide him with information untainted by political agendas.

Caught in the tug of war over intelligence, say former intelligence officials familiar with current CIA intelligence and analysis on Iraq, have been the CIA's rank and file and, to some extent, Tenet.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure on the CIA to substantiate positions that have already been adopted by the administration,'' said Vincent M. Cannistraro, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA.

Tenet last night released a statement meant to dispel assertions that the letter contained new information that would undercut the case Bush made Monday night.

``There is no inconsistency between our view of Saddam's growing threat and the view as expressed by the President in his speech,'' the statement read. ``Although we think the chances of Saddam initiating a WMD attack at this moment are low--in part because it would constitute an admission that he possesses WMD--there is no question that the likelihood of Saddam using WMD against the United States or our allies in the region for blackmail, deterrence, or otherwise grows as his arsenal continues to build.''

In explaining why the items in the letter were not also released before, Tenet said he did not want to provide ``Saddam a blueprint of our intelligence capabilities and shortcomings, or with insight into our expectations of how he will and will not act.''

Still, he noted, the agency could nevertheless declassify further information not previously disclosed. Included in his letter were snippets of an Oct. 2 closed-door session.

Included in that was questioning by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), in which he asked an unnamed intelligence official whether it ``is likely that [Hussein] would initiate an attack using a weapon of mass destruction?''

The official answered: ``... in the foreseeable future, given the conditions we understand now, the likelihood I think would be low.''

Levin asked: ``If we initiate an attack and he thought he was in extremis ... what's the likelihood in response to our attack that he would use chemical or biological weapons?''

The answer came: ``Pretty high, in my view.''

In his letter, Tenet responded to senators' questions about Iraq's connections to al Qaeda. ``We have solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda going back a decade,'' Tenet wrote. ``Credible information'' also indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda ``have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression.''

This article was read into the Congressional Record

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