Monday, February 9, 2004

U.S. intelligence agencies may have wrongly estimated Iraqi weapons stockpiles, but on other key assessments — such as Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions — the CIA was right, say current and former government officials.

Proponents of ousting the Iraqi dictator say the fact Saddam was actively seeking an atomic bomb and operating chemical and biological programs were sufficient reasons to go to war.

The main benchmark for judging the CIA is a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) completed in October 2002 and partially declassified by the White House in July.

The NIE — which is a consensus, but not a unanimous finding — by the CIA and other intelligence agencies, offered several main points: that Iraq possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons; that it was reconstituting its nuclear-bomb research and that Saddam still wanted atomic weapons; that it was producing missiles beyond the range allowed by United Nations resolutions; and that research continued into chemical and biological agents.

On the first point, David Kay, who resigned last month as chief CIA weapons inspector in Iraq, concluded the Bush administration was wrong. He said the group he ran, the Iraq Survey Group, found no evidence of stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons since the 1990s. (CIA Director George J. Tenet says inspections continue and that the jury is still out.)

But on the nuclear issue, Mr. Kay said the CIA was right on some important points. The NIE said: “If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year.”

Mr. Kay, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, said: “If they managed to acquire a sufficient amount of plutonium or high-enriched uranium from a place like the former Soviet Union stockpile, how long would it take to fashion that into a nuclear explosive device? And I think that estimate was actually fairly conservative.”

He added, “Fortunately, from my point of view, Operation Iraqi Freedom intervened, and we don’t know how or how fast that would have gone ahead.”

The NIE stated that “reconstruction is under way” of the Iraq nuclear program.

Mr. Kay seemed to side with this view. “It was in the early stages of renovating the program, building new buildings,” he said. “It was not a reconstituted, full-blown nuclear program.”

In addition to beginning the construction of sites to build atomic bombs, Iraq had brought together nuclear scientists who were already working together and conducting experiments.

In 1991, Iraqi officials since have acknowledged, Baghdad was perhaps less than a year away from producing sufficient fissile material to produce Saddam’s first nuclear bomb. The Desert Storm air war, and subsequent U.N. inspectors, foiled those plans.

“Given their history,” Mr. Kay said, “it was certainly an emerging program that I would not have looked forward to their continuing to pursue. It was not yet up as a full nuclear-production site again.”

The NIE also stated, “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to U.N. resolutions.”

On the missile issue, Mr. Kay found the NIE was correct.

“The missile program was actually moving ahead,” he testified. “I think you will have … pretty compelling evidence that Saddam had the intention of continuing the pursuit of [weapons of mass destruction] when the opportunity arose, and that the first start on that, the long pole in the tent, was this restart of the long-range missile program.”

Mr. Kay, while not finding stockpiles, found proof that Saddam had programs in place to restart production of chemical and biological weapons. For example, Mr. Kay discovered a program to find a substitute for a precursor for deadly VX nerve agent. And there was research into the deadly anthrax germ. “That’s WMD-related work,” he said.

All such work violated U.N. resolutions.

Daniel Gallington, an analyst at the conservative Potomac Institute and former counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Baghdad became skilled in the 1990s at counterintelligence that kept the CIA from developing spies.

“What’s ‘right’ is relative,” Mr. Gallington said. “We always have to go with the most dangerous possible scenario with these guys. The one that troubles me most is that Saddam did know we were going to invade and he sent [weapons material] to possibly Syria. So, if you can’t find it in country and you can’t figure out how or where he disposed of it, then we should be looking elsewhere. It is extremely dangerous that we can’t precisely account for any of it, at all. This is the point that all the commentators, in and out of government, seem to be missing.”

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