by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
administration of President George W. Bush "systematically misrepresented" the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), three non-proliferation experts from a prominent think tank charged Jan. 8.
In a 107-page report, Jessica Mathews, Joseph Cirincione and George Perkovich of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) called for the creation of an independent commission to fully investigate what the U.S. intelligence community knew, or believed it knew, about Iraq's WMD program from 1991 to 2003.
The probe should also determine whether intelligence analyses were tainted by foreign intelligence agencies or political pressure, they added.
"It is very likely that intelligence officials were pressured by senior administration officials to conform their threat assessments to pre-existing policies," Cirincione told reporters.
The Carnegie analysts also found "no solid evidence" of a co-operative relationship between the government of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorist group, nor any evidence to support the claim that Iraq would have transferred WMD to al-Qaeda under any circumstances.
"The notion that any government would give its principal security assets to people it could not control in order to achieve its own political aims is highly dubious," they wrote.
In addition the report, 'WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications', concluded that the United Nations inspection process, which was aborted when the agency withdrew its inspectors on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last March, "appears to have been much more successful than recognized before the war."
The report, the most comprehensive public analysis so far of the administration's WMD claims and what has been found in Iraq, will certainly heat up the simmering controversy over whether Bush and his top aides might have deliberately misled Congress and the public into going to war.
While that controversy has cooled since last month's capture of Saddam and a palpable rise in the military's confidence that it can subdue the bloody insurgency against the occupation, two congressional committees are only now resuming their own probes of U.S. pre-war intelligence on WMD, which were interrupted by the long Christmas recess.
The report also comes amid new indications that the administration itself has decided that its pre-war claims about Iraq's WMD were wrong.
The 'New York Times' reported Thursday that a 400-member military team has been quietly withdrawn from the 1,400-member Iraq Survey Group (ISG) that has spent months scouring Iraq at a cost of nearly one billion dollars for any evidence of such weapons.
That report followed another in mid-December that said ISG head David Kay had told his superiors at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) he planned to leave as early as the end of January.
Kay, a former UN inspector who had long charged Saddam with holding vast supplies of WMD, submitted an interim report last October that no weapons had been found.
"I think it's pretty clear by now that they don't expect to find anything at all," said one administration official.
The Carnegie report also comes on the heels of the publication Wednesday of an extraordinarily lengthy article by the 'Washington Post' that concluded that Iraq's WMD programmes were effectively abandoned after the 1991 Gulf War.
The article, which confirmed that Iraq was developing new missile technology, was based on interviews with the country's top weapons scientists and mostly unnamed U.S. and British investigators who went to Iraq after the war.
The new report is likely to be taken as the most serious blow yet to the administration's credibility. Carnegie is the publisher of 'Foreign Policy' journal, and, while its general political orientation is slightly left of center, it has long been studiously non-partisan, and also houses right-wing figures, such as neo-conservative writer Robert Kagan.
Carnegie President Mathews travelled to Iraq last September as part of a bi-partisan group of highly respected national-security analysts invited by the Pentagon to assess the situation there.
The report, which is based on declassified documents about Iraq from UN weapons inspectors and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reaches a similar conclusion regarding both WMD and the missiles, but is much broader in scope.
It concedes that Iraq's WMD programmes could have resumed and might have posed a long-term threat that could not be ignored. But, the authors wrote, "they did not pose an immediate threat to the United States, to the region or to global security."
Despite Vice President Dick Cheney's insistence early last year that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, the Carnegie report concludes there was "no convincing evidence" that it had done so, and that this should have been known to U.S. intelligence.
Similarly, with respect to Baghdad's chemical weapons, U.S. intelligence should have known that all facilities for producing them had been effectively destroyed and that existing stockpiles had lost their potency already by 1991.
Uncertainties regarding Iraq's biological weapons program were greater, the report concludes. Dual-use equipment and facilities, however, made it theoretically possible for some limited production of both chemical and biological weapons to occur.
As of the beginning of 2002, according to the report, the intelligence community appears to have overestimated the chemical and biological weapons in Iraq, but had a generally accurate picture of both the nuclear and missile programs.
But in 2002 the community appears to have made a "dramatic shift" in its analyses.
The fact that this change coincided with the creation of the Office of Special Plans (OSP) in the Pentagon -- a still-mysterious group of intelligence analysts and consultants hired by prominent hawks to assess the community's reporting -- "suggests that the intelligence community began to be unduly influenced by policymakers' views some time in 2002," the report states.
But beyond the failures of the intelligence community, "administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq's WMD and ballistic missile programmes" in several ways, it adds.
They treated the three different kinds of WMD as a single threat when they represented very different threats; insisted without evidence that Saddam would give whatever WMD he had to terrorists; and routinely omitted "caveats, probabilities, and expressions of uncertainty present in intelligence assessments from (their) public statements."
In addition, the administration misrepresented findings by UN inspectors "in ways that turned threats from minor to dire."
The report goes on to rebut a number of other administration claims, arguing, for example, that the notion that Saddam was not "deterrable" does not stand up to the historical record, given his past reaction to international pressure.
The strategic implications of the failure of U.S. intelligence to provide accurate information on Iraq, when there was no imminent threat, should call into question the administration's new national security doctrine of pre-emptive military action, say the authors.
As applied in Iraq, the "doctrine is actually a loose standard for preventive war under the cloak of legitimate pre-emption," they wrote, and should be rescinded.
In a brief reaction, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he remained "confident" of the claims he presented to the UN Security Council last February.
At the same time, he stressed that they represented the views of the intelligence community. "I was representing them," he said. "It was information they had presented publicly, and they stand behind it."
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