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The Intelligence War

What the New York Times left out of its latest assault on the Bush administration.

8:25 AM, Nov 6, 2005 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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LAST TUESDAY, Senate Democrats fired the opening shot in the coming battle over prewar intelligence on Iraq when Minority Leader Harry Reid took the Senate into a closed session. The offensive began in earnest this weekend with a New York Times article:

A high Qaeda official in American custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Al Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons, according to newly declassified portions of a Defense Intelligence Agency document.

The document, an intelligence report from February 2002, said it was probable that the prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, "was intentionally misleading the debriefers" in making claims about Iraqi support for Al Qaeda's work with illicit weapons.

The document provides the earliest and strongest indication of doubts voiced by American intelligence agencies about Mr. Libi's credibility. Without mentioning him by name, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state, and other administration officials repeatedly cited Mr. Libi's information as "credible" evidence that Iraq was training Al Qaeda members in the use of explosives and illicit weapons.

The article, based on declassified excerpts of the DIA report provided by Michigan Senator Carl Levin, goes on to strongly suggest that Bush administration officials simply ignored this warning to scare the public into supporting war in Iraq.

The truth, as it so often is these days, is considerably more complicated.

The Times article cites a claim George W. Bush made in a speech he gave in Cincinnati in October 2002. Bush said: "we've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases."

Why would Bush make such a claim when a DIA report had raised the possibility that al Libi was lying? One possibility: The CIA was saying that al Libi was credible.

On February 11, 2003--a year after the DIA report--CIA Director George Tenet testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said: "Iraq has in the past provided training in document forgery and bomb-making to al Qaeda. It has also provided training in poisons and gases to two al Qaeda associates. One of these associates characterized the relationship he forged with Iraqi officials as successful."

In July 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee released "Phase I" of its evaluation of prewar intelligence on Iraq. The 511-page document focused on the collection and analysis of intelligence by the U.S. intelligence community. Senate Democrats are pushing now for the completion of "Phase II." They hope to use that report to demonstrate that the Bush administration, in the words of Levin, "went way beyond the intelligence, particularly as it relates to any relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda."

The Phase I report criticized Tenet for his failure to note that the intelligence on Iraqi training of al Qaeda had come from sources of "varying reliability." It may be a reasonable criticism. But if Levin and his colleagues want to show that statements from senior Bush administration officials went "way beyond the intelligence," this seems like an odd way to do it. The head of the U.S. intelligence community made the same claim Bush did--using almost exactly the same words--some four months after Bush's speech.

The Times article also provides Levin a platform to criticize the inclusion of al Libi's claims in Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003. From the article:

Mr. Powell relied heavily on accounts provided by Mr. Libi for his speech to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, saying that he was tracing "the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to Al Qaeda."

At the time of Mr. Powell's speech, an unclassified statement by the C.I.A. described the reporting, now known to have been from Mr. Libi, as "credible." But Mr. Levin said he had learned that a classified C.I.A. assessment at the time went on to state that "the source was not in a position to know if any training had taken place."

Why, then, did Carl Levin endorse Phase I of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report? On pages 366-370, the committee evaluated the terrorism portion of Powell's presentation and offered its conclusions.

Conclusion 103. The information provided by the Central Intelligence Agency for the terrorism portion of Secretary Powell's speech was carefully vetted by both terrorism and regional analysts.