February 1, 2004
Powell's Case, a Year Later: Gaps in Picture of Iraq Arms
ASHINGTON, Jan. 31 — A year ago this weekend, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell holed up in a conference room next to George J. Tenet's office at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters, applying a critical eye to the satellite photos, communications intercepts and reports that would form the basis for the Bush administration's most comprehensive — and carefully worded — public case about the urgent threat Iraq posed to the world.
After several lengthy sessions, he appeared in New York on Feb. 5, with Mr. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, seated behind him, to tell the United Nations Security Council that the evidence added up to "facts" and "not assertions" that Iraq had large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and that it was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program and building a fleet of advanced missiles.
Mr. Powell's testimony, delivered at a moment of high suspense as American forces gathered in the Persian Gulf region, was widely seen as the most powerful and persuasive presentation of the Bush administration's case that Iraq was bristling with horrific weapons. His reputation for caution and care gave it added credibility.
A year later, some of the statements made by Mr. Powell have been confirmed, but many of his gravest findings have been upended by David A. Kay, who until Jan. 23 was Washington's chief weapons inspector.
Doubts had surrounded much of the evidence ever since American inspectors arrived in Iraq. Yet in the days since Dr. Kay definitively declared that Iraq had no significant stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons when the invasion began in March, Washington has been seized by the question of how and why such an intelligence gap happened.
Even some Republican lawmakers are talking about a failure of egregious proportions — akin, some think, to the failure to grasp the forces pulling apart the Soviet Union in the late 1980's.
Some answers can be found in a dissection of the case that Mr. Powell presented, and an examination of some of the underlying intelligence information that formed its basis. Interviews with current and former senior intelligence officials, a handful of Iraqi engineers, Congressional officials involved in investigations of the C.I.A. and current and former administration officials, suggest that Mr. Powell's case was largely based on limited, fragmentary and mostly circumstantial evidence, with conclusions drawn on the basis of the little challenged assumption that Saddam Hussein would never dismantle old illicit weapons and would pursue new ones to the fullest extent possible.
Even one of the most compelling sections of Mr. Powell's presentation, satellite photographs of suspected chemical weapons sites, appears to have been misjudged. The suspicious-looking movement at several sites of what were believed to be decontamination vehicles and trucks covered with tarps more likely involved more benign commercial activity; inspectors found no evidence of weapons production.
"I'm not sure that they did a good enough job challenging conventional wisdom," said Representative Porter J. Goss, the Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. But more broadly, Mr. Goss said, despite the tone of certainty that infused Mr. Powell's presentations and other public pronouncements, the intelligence agencies were severely limited in their analysis by inadequate information about Iraq and what it intended.
Relying on Human Agents
According to the interviews conducted by The New York Times, the administration's argument that Iraq was producing biological weapons was based almost entirely on human intelligence of unknown reliability. When mobile trailers were found by American troops, the White House and C.I.A. rushed out a white paper reporting that the vehicles were used to make biological agents. But later, an overwhelming majority of intelligence analysts concluded the vehicles were used to manufacture hydrogen for weather balloons or possibly to produce rocket fuel — a view now shared by Dr. Kay. The original paper was still posted on the C.I.A.'s Web site on Saturday.
Nor did they find evidence of anything but the most rudimentary nuclear program: United Nations sanctions had choked off the project, and the few parts saved from efforts to enrich uranium in the 1980's remained buried under a rose garden. While Mr. Hussein put money into reviving the program, scientists found themselves struggling to reproduce basic experiments they had conducted two decades before.
The administration's evidence, according to the interviews, was much more accurate in the arena of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles: very active programs were under way for both. The missiles clearly violated range limits set by the United Nations, and Mr. Hussein was trying to buy better technology from North Korea. But the deal fell through, and he was left with missiles that his own scientists say were wildly inaccurate — though they were too scared to deliver that news to the dictator. The aerial vehicles appear to have been designed mainly for surveillance, not the spread of anthrax or other biological agents.
Mr. Powell declined to comment on the latest information assembled by The Times. A State Department official said the secretary preferred to wait "until all the facts are in," and that the secretary saw "no evidence of any political pressure" in any of the analysis of the intelligence.
Last week, Mr. Powell, on his way to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, told reporters, "Last year when I made my presentation, it was based on the best intelligence that we had at the time." He added, "Now, I think their best judgment was correct with respect to intention, with respect to capability to develop such weapons, with respect to programs."
Still, he said, "what the open question is: how many stocks they had, if any? And if they had any, where did they go? And if they didn't have any, then why wasn't that known beforehand?"
In hindsight, both Dr. Kay and close allies of the White House say, too much weight was given to untested sources of human intelligence, and too little credence given to the possibility that satellite photographs and intercepted communications might have benign interpretations.
The C.I.A. declined to comment for the record for this article, but a senior intelligence official said Saturday that American intelligence agencies "continue to a believe that given the information available to us at the time, it is hard to see how analysts could reasonably have come to any other overall judgments than the ones they reached." The official described as "premature" any conclusion that the intelligence agencies' prewar judgments were "all wrong."
"There are still millions of documents that have yet to be examined, thousands of scientists and former government officials yet to be thoroughly debriefed, and countless possible hiding sites which have yet to be searched," the senior intelligence official said. "We find it puzzling that those who say the intelligence community reached its conclusions on limited evidence are reaching opposite conclusions on even less."
Dr. Kay rejected charges that policy makers pressured analysts to bend their assessments to fit the administration's need to justify the coming war. He said he had talked to a number of C.I.A. analysts involved in the prewar intelligence reports, and none ever told of pressure by the administration to shape reports.
Richard J. Kerr, a former deputy director of central intelligence who has been leading an internal review of the prewar intelligence, said in an interview on Friday that he believed that the C.I.A. reporting on Iraq was consistent from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration, and that there was no evidence in the finished reports of changes that were the result of White House pressure. Mr. Kerr added that C.I.A. analysts working on high-profile subjects were used to scrutiny and skepticism from policy makers.
Mr. Kerr said the second phase of his review of prewar intelligence, submitted recently to Mr. Tenet, concluded that the quality of the underlying evidence used in prewar reports was "a mixed bag," with some evidence good and some not.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Goss, the House intelligence committee chairman, said: "We simply didn't have enough dots. Our collectors had not given us that kind of close-in plans and intentions information that you've got to have."
Other officials, including some still serving in the administration, argue that Mr. Powell presented a case that paid too little attention to information that might have undermined the worst-case conclusions the administration was highlighting.
"They took every piece of information that proved their point and listed it," a former senior intelligence official who took part in the prewar debates said, referring to the senior C.I.A. officials whose analytical conclusions formed the basis of Mr. Powell's presentation. "They would disregard or make fun of any contrary evidence. They forgot they were making mere guesses, and even guesses have to be taken with caution. They didn't hedge or caveat. Instead they would say we're right and you're wrong and it's a matter of national security."
Mr. Powell's case at the United Nations was supposed to be bulletproof: he had thrown out President Bush's own assertions, since discredited, that Iraq sought uranium in Africa, and he tossed away pictures of Iraqi "nuclear mujahedeen" when he concluded that the C.I.A. could not identify them.
"There were a lot of cigars lit," Mr. Powell said last summer. "I didn't want any going off in my face or the president's face."
Chemical Arms: A Basic Flaw
"Our conservative estimate," Mr. Powell declared in his United Nations presentation, is that "Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent" or enough, as he put it, "to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets."
To make that case, Mr. Powell unveiled before the Security Council an array of previously classified evidence on a scale not seen in that room since Adlai Stevenson appeared during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, armed with photographs of Soviet missiles. ("This was my Adlai moment," Mr. Powell joked later.) But in retrospect, the satellite photographs and tape-recordings of intercepted communications that Mr. Powell played that day now seem to describe actions that are less fearsome than they first appeared.
Nearly all evidence revolved around what Mr. Powell described as suspicious activities at sites Iraq had used before the Persian Gulf war of 1991 to manufacture chemical weapons. There was little question that huge amounts of Iraqi chemical weapons remained unaccounted for — the United Nations inspectors listed their whereabouts as a mystery in a final report after leaving Iraq in 1998 — and the prospect that those chemicals could be unleashed was a major concern as the Pentagon made final plans for war.
Among the intercepts that Mr. Powell replayed were some from November 2002 and January 2003, in which voices identified as those of Iraqi officers expressed concern at the possible discovery by United Nations inspectors of a "modified vehicle" and "forbidden ammo."
But as senior intelligence officials acknowledged in October 2003, during an interview at the C.I.A.'s headquarters, the actual evidence that Iraq had resumed production of chemical weapons was limited. They said their prewar conclusion — that Iraq still possessed the chemicals — had been based on more than just the satellite photos of "decontamination vehicles" and tarp-covered trucks covered at the facilities. It also relied, they said, on human intelligence reports of what one called "abnormal activities" beginning in March 2002 at former chemical weapons sites.
They acknowledged that some American intelligence agencies had resisted the conclusion and had voiced "very legitimate objections," including the possibility that the suspicious movements involved something far more benign: commercial chlorine-manufacturing activity.
But a National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 had asserted with "high confidence" that the activity indicated that Iraq's chemical weapons program was once again alive. Later, from December 2002 to February 2003, the official said, "we began to see those materials, whatever they were, showing up in what we call a field ammunition storage area" as Iraq prepared "for the potentiality of war."
"For us to have concluded that he didn't have weapons and he wasn't prepared to use them would have required us to have essentially concluded that all these other pieces of activities had to be explained by other kinds of phenomena," one official said in the briefing.
After the war, however, American weapons inspectors visited the suspected chemical sites, including one known as Al Muthanna, west of Baghdad. Dr. Kay reports that they found no significant evidence of chemical weapons production or stockpiles, and he says he believes that any pre-existing chemical weapons had probably been gradually destroyed through the 1990's. Congressional officials involved in inquiries into the intelligence community findings say they believe that the suspicious activities were indeed legitimate, and they say that what Mr. Powell described as decontamination vehicles may have been nothing more than fire trucks.
One former senior government official cited the episode as an example of an underlying flaw in the administration's working assumptions. Across the board, he said, the prewar assessment was based on "an analysis of Saddam that if he didn't have something to hide, he wouldn't have been behaving the way he did."
"That's a dangerous assumption for any intelligence agency to make," he said, "but that's what we did."
Bioweapons and Mobile Labs
"There can be no doubt," Mr. Powell told the Security Council, "that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to produce more, many more." The 2002 intelligence estimate declared that Iraq's biological weapons program was active and larger than before the 1991 war.
But in their months of searching, the American teams have not uncovered any significant evidence of stockpiles of biological weapons or weaponized agents. In regard to chemical and biological weapons, Dr. Kay told the committee, "We have got evidence that they certainly could have produced small amounts, but we have not discovered evidence of the stockpiles."
He has reported finding evidence that Iraqi scientists were working until the eve of the invasion to produce weapons using the poison ricin and that Mr. Hussein maintained a "clandestine network of laboratories" that could conceivably have been used to produce lethal biological agents.
An interim report by Dr. Kay last October said that Iraq had continued "weapons of mass destruction program-related activities." President Bush used the same language in his State of the Union address earlier this month. Dr. Kay has also said that while maintaining an infrastructure to produce biological weapons, Iraq "didn't have large-scale production under way."
In his presentation, Mr. Powell made clear that his case was based mainly on human intelligence, in particular on reports from four human sources about the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological weapons. He called it "one of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq's biological weapons."
As evidence of a biological weapons program, Mr. Powell played an audiotape of what he described as intercepted communications from "just a few weeks ago" between commanders in Iraq's Second Republican Guard, at a time when United Nations inspectors were in Iraq. One officer painstakingly repeats to another instructions to remove the expression "nerve agents" from "the wireless instructions," which Mr. Powell said he interpreted to mean as "don't give any evidence that we have these horrible agents."
In the interview last October, the senior intelligence officials described the human intelligence as providing "brand new information" beginning in 2000 about mobile laboratories. They said an analysis based on the descriptions provided by the human sources suggested that the laboratories were capable of producing biological weapons at a high rate. At least one of the human sources had reported that Iraq "had actually done such production."
"We took that seriously as a biological weapon capability that exists," one of the intelligence officials said. "In our view what that means was we thought they had probably produced agent and weapons and had them sitting around. Did we know that? No."
Still, the official said: "What we had was, we thought, a rather competent judgment that they in fact had taken the program on and produced weapons and agent."
American spy satellites did not detect the mobile laboratories before the March invasion, according to intelligence officials. In April and in early May, American troops discovered trailers that intelligence officials said matched the descriptions provided by the human sources who said their purpose was to manufacture biological weapons, and in late May, the C.I.A., breaking with normal practice, produced an unclassified white paper saying that their most likely purpose of was to manufacture biological weapons. The C.I.A.'s conclusion was first reported in The Times on May 29, and the White House initially cited the C.I.A. report as evidence that illicit weapons had been found.
By June, though, both the State Department's intelligence branch and senior analysts within the Defense Intelligence Agency had privately challenged the view that the trailers were meant to produce biological weapons, saying that their more likely purpose was to manufacture hydrogen for use in military weather balloons, military and Bush administration officials said later last summer. In a review that the administration has not made public, only one of 15 intelligence analysts assembled from three agencies to discuss the issue in June endorsed the white paper conclusion, a former senior intelligence official said in an interview this week.
In his Congressional testimony on Wednesday, Dr. Kay said the "consensus opinion" within American intelligence agencies about the suspicious trailers was now that "their actual intended use was not for the production of biological weapons."
Dr. Kay has not discussed the intercepted communication referring to nerve agents, but he has said he concluded from interviews in Iraq that the Iraqi authorities may have been conducting a disinformation campaign meant to convince internal foes and even their own forces that the government did indeed possess arsenals of banned weapons.
Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who is now a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, has said that at least some of that information about the trailers came from an Iraqi defector his organization introduced to American intelligence officers. But classified reviews conducted in 2003 by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Intelligence Council have cast significant doubt on the credibility of defectors provided by Mr. Chalabi's organization, senior government officials said.
A Depleted Nuclear Program
It was the sketchiness of the evidence about Iraq's efforts to reconstitute its nuclear program, and the absence of much new evidence after inspectors left in 1998, that made Mr. Powell the most nervous before his presentation, according to aides who sat in on the sessions in Mr. Tenet's conference room.
Indeed, Dr. Kay and the Senate Intelligence Committee have concluded that while Mr. Hussein had ordered spending at scattered nuclear research operations in recent years, the sanctions had taken an enormous toll. Inspectors found a program that existed mostly on paper, save for a few blueprints and centrifuge parts that Mahdi Obeidi, an Iraqi scientist, dug up from his garden. Dr. Obeidi, who has been moved to the United States, reported that the parts had been buried for 12 years and that sanctions had made it virtually impossible to breathe new life into a once sophisticated program.
Dr. Kay told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the program he found was far less advanced than parallel projects in Iran, Libya and North Korea — where United States intelligence underestimated progress.
In retrospect, the unreliable nuclear evidence was literally on the table of the conference room at the C.I.A., where Mr. Powell, Mr. Tenet, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and other officials rolled an aluminum tube to each other as they prepared Mr. Powell's presentation. It was one of dozens of tubes seized in Jordan, on their way to Iraq.
The tubes, Mr. Powell would tell the Security Council, were probably intended "to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium," a reliable way to make the fissile material needed to manufacture a bomb. The discovery of the tubes was first reported in The Times on Sept. 8, 2002, and officials argued then that they fit the dimensions of the European-designed rotors.
But that proved false, and Mr. Powell knew that the intelligence community was deeply divided about whether Mr. Hussein's nuclear program had been reconstituted, and whether the tubes had anything to do with it. The State Department's intelligence arm concluded that it had no evidence that Iraq had "an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons," according to a declassified version of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.
State Department experts concluded that the tubes were almost certainly designed to be the bodies of artillery rockets. "All you have to do is hold them in your hand," said one I.A.E.A. expert, who has spent his life working with centrifuges, "and you see it doesn't work." Experts at the Energy Department and the International Atomic Energy Agency supported the State Department experts.
Mr. Powell still believed the tubes could be used for centrifuges, but he knew he had to hedge his bets. "Saddam Hussein is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb," he said at the opening of his presentation. But when he turned to the tubes — putting a picture of them on a large screen — he acknowledged the technical debate.
"As an old Army trooper" he said, he was no expert, but it struck him as strange that the Iraqis would spend so much on tubes manufactured to fine tolerances, only to watch them blow up as shrapnel. But he declined suggestions from his staff that he hold up one of the tubes during the presentation.
"Why hold up the most controversial thing in the pitch?" he said later, with a smile. In fact, intelligence officials now say there was precious little other evidence to support findings that Mr. Hussein would have a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade. In 1994, one senior official said, analysts concluded that within five to seven years Iraq would probably be able to "make enough fissile material for a weapon." But Dr. Kay's team found no evidence of any such progress.
The 2002 finding that Iraq was reconstituting its program — a claim repeated by Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney — was largely based on one human source who reported that money was being put into a physics building, according to a Congressional investigator.
Dr. Kay told the Senate that by 2000, the Iraqis "decided that their nuclear establishment had deteriorated to such a point that it was totally useless." So they started over and might have eventually made progress, he said.
Missile Program Uncovered
One part of Mr. Powell's presentation holds up well: his assertion that Mr. Hussein was desperately trying to build missiles able to reach beyond the 90-mile limit set by the United Nations after the 1991 war.
When inspectors re-entered Iraq in November 2002, they reported "a surge of activity" since their last inspections more than four years earlier. Dr. Kay reported that detained scientists talked of efforts to build missiles with ranges upwards of 600 miles, enough to hit Israel and American troops in the region. There was discussion of missiles that could carry chemical weapons.
Brig. Mumtaz Abu Sakhar, an engineer with the Military Industries Commission and a consultant on the missile project, said recently in an interview in Baghdad that progress was not as great as it appeared. Denied sophisticated tools, Brigadier Sakhar said, Iraqi engineers were barely able to develop a missile that could stay within the maximum range allowed under the United Nations sanctions. While they sent a glowing report to Mr. Hussein announcing this, he said, the scientists did not mention that the missiles were wildly inaccurate. "If you wanted to hit a target," he said, "the missile would sometimes fly off in the other direction. It was of no use."
No one dared explain this to the volatile Mr. Hussein, he said. He said Mr. Hussein, unaware that the progress reports were deceptive, awarded the scientists handsomely, with at least one of them receiving permission to travel abroad to broker a shipment of weapons parts.
The biggest surprise to American officials was a deal which the I.A.E.A. inspectors discovered before the invasion began and that the intelligence agencies had missed entirely: a contract with North Korea to supply Iraq with technology that could correct the missile problems. The North Koreans took $10 million from Iraqi front companies, say American and European officials who have reviewed documents seized in Baghdad. But the Koreans told the Iraqis early in 2003 that there was too much scrutiny, and too many American surveillance operations around, to risk moving material into Iraq. They never returned the money.
Dr. Kay also discovered an active program to build unmanned aerial vehicles, called U.A.V.'s. President Bush, in a speech detailing the Iraqi threat, in October 2002, spoke of Iraq's "growing fleet" of such aircraft, which "could be used to disperse chemical and biological weapons across broad areas."
"We are concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these U.A.V.'s for missions targeting the United States," Mr. Bush warned.
Dr. Kay concluded that there was "a very large U.A.V. program," much of it discovered only recently. But he said "it was not at fruition," and while it might have theoretically been possible that "you could have snuck one of those on a ship off the East Coast" there was no evidence of any capability to deploy the vehicles. The vehicles appear to have been designed largely for surveillance, though he said there was also one "sprayer application."
System Defies Easy Fixes
Dr. Kay's successor, Charles A. Duelfer, is only now taking over as head of the Iraq Survey Group, but he has said its hunt will be more for explanations than for banned weapons.
Already, the overestimation of Iraq's abilities has raised a fundamental question in Congress and among America's allies: how can a nation threaten to act pre-emptively against another government if the evidence of what kind of a threat it poses — and how imminent the threat may be — is so far off the mark? That question has been the subtext of Dr. Kay's comments, and the explicit issue that Mr. Bush's Democratic challengers have raised.
"Intelligence played a critical role in the judgments in this case, more so than in a lot of previous problems, where it was just one of several factors impacting on policy," said Mr. Kerr, the former C.I.A. official heading the internal review.
"Maybe that's the lesson, maybe intelligence has to be looked at with a different eye," he said. "Maybe we are going to have to admit that there are some problems that are intractable in terms of knowing answers to problems. I think you need some realistic balance."
Mr. Kerr contends that there were plenty of caveats placed on intelligence reports on Iraq by analysts who recognized the limitations of the evidence. But often their warnings were relegated to footnotes or buried in lengthy reports.
The political debate in coming months will focus on whether the administration knowingly dismissed those caveats, and whether it cherry-picked the evidence. The White House denies that happened, and officials speaking on background say there was no way to know that much of Mr. Hussein's arsenal was a mirage. Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, has argued that in a post-Sept. 11 world, no president has the luxury to tolerate a growing threat, especially if a government could pass its weapons to terrorists.
But many nations, experts say, pose that potential threat. So far, Mr. Bush has been reluctant to begin a major study of the intelligence assessments about Iraq, a study that adherents say would make sure that similar misjudgments are not made regarding other nations that could, in the long or short term, threaten American security.
Reporting for this article was contributed by Dexter Filkins in Baghdad, and James Risen, Richard W. Stevenson and Steven R. Weisman in Washington.