Prewar Findings Worried Analysts
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005
On Jan. 24, 2003, four days before President Bush delivered his
State of the Union address presenting the case for war against Iraq,
the National Security Council staff put out a call for new
intelligence to bolster claims that Saddam Hussein possessed
nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or programs.
The person receiving the request, Robert Walpole, then the national
intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, would later
tell investigators that "the NSC believed the nuclear case was
weak," according to a 500-page report released last year by the
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
It has been clear since the September report of the Iraq Survey
Group -- a CIA-sponsored weapons search in Iraq -- that the United
States would not find the weapons of mass destruction cited by Bush
as the rationale for going to war against Iraq . But as the Walpole
episode suggests, it appears that even before the war many senior
intelligence officials in the government had doubts about the case
being trumpeted in public by the president and his senior advisers.
The question of prewar intelligence has been thrust back into the
public eye with the disclosure of a secret British memo showing
that, eight months before the March 2003 start of the war, a senior
British intelligence official reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair
that U.S. intelligence was being shaped to support a policy of
invading Iraq .
Moreover, a close reading of the recent 600-page report by the
president's commission on intelligence, and the previous report by
the Senate panel, shows that as war approached, many U.S.
intelligence analysts were internally questioning almost every major
piece of prewar intelligence about Hussein's alleged weapons
These included claims that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium in
Africa for its nuclear program, had mobile labs for producing
biological weapons, ran an active chemical weapons program and
possessed unmanned aircraft that could deliver weapons of mass
destruction. All these claims were made by Bush or then-Secretary of
State Colin L. Powell in public addresses even though, the reports
made clear, they had yet to be verified by U.S. intelligence
For instance, Bush said in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union
address that Hussein was working to obtain "significant quantities"
of uranium from Africa, a conclusion the president attributed to
British intelligence and made a key part of his assertion that Iraq
had an active nuclear weapons program.
More than a year later, the White House retracted the statement
after its veracity was questioned. But the Senate report makes it
clear that even in January 2003, just before the president's speech,
analysts at the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and
Arms Control Center were still investigating the reliability of the
Similarly, the president's intelligence commission, chaired by
former appellate judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator
Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), disclosed that senior intelligence
officials had serious questions about "Curveball," the code name for
an Iraqi informant who provided the key information on Hussein's
alleged mobile biological facilities.
The CIA clandestine service's European division chief had met in
2002 with a German intelligence officer whose service was handling
Curveball. The German said his service "was not sure whether
Curveball was actually telling the truth," according to the
commission report. When it appeared that Curveball's material would
be in Bush's State of the Union speech, the CIA Berlin station chief
was asked to get the Germans to allow him to question Curveball
On the day before the president's speech, the Berlin station chief
warned about using Curveball's information on the mobile biological
units in Bush's speech. The station chief warned that the German
intelligence service considered Curveball "problematical" and said
its officers had been unable to confirm his assertions. The station
chief recommended that CIA headquarters give "serious consideration"
before using that unverified information, according to the
The next day, Bush told the world: "We know that Iraq, in the late
1990s, had several mobile weapons labs . . . designed to produce
germ warfare agents and can be moved from place to a place to evade
inspectors." He attributed that information to "three Iraqi
A week later, Powell said in an address to the United Nations that
the information on mobile labs came from four defectors, and he
described one as "an eyewitness . . . who supervised one of these
facilities" and was at the site when an accident killed 12
Within a year, doubts emerged about the truthfulness of all four,
and the "eyewitness" turned out to be Curveball, the informant the
CIA station chief had red-flagged as unreliable. Curveball was
subsequently determined to be a fabricator who had been fired from
the Iraqi facility years before the alleged accident, according to
the commission and Senate reports.
As Bush speeches were being drafted in the prewar period, serious
questions were also being raised within the intelligence community
about purported threats from biologically armed unmanned aerial
In an Oct. 7, 2002, speech, Bush mentioned a potential threat to the
U.S. mainland being explored by Iraq through unmanned aircraft "that
could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons." The basis
for that analysis was a single report that an Iraqi general in late
2000 or early 2001 indicated interest in buying autopilots and
gyroscopes for Hussein's UAV program. The manufacturer automatically
included topographic mapping software of the United States in the
When the list was submitted in early 2002, the manufacturer's
distributor determined that the U.S. mapping software would not be
included in the autopilot package, and told the procurement agent in
March 2002. By then, however, U.S. intelligence, which closely
followed Iraqi procurement of such material, had already concluded
as early as the summer of 2001 that this was the "first indication
that the UAVs might be used to target the U.S."
When a foreign intelligence service questioned the procurement
agent, he originally said he had never intended to purchase the U.S.
mapping software, but he refused to submit to a thorough
examination, according to the president's commission. "By fall 2002,
the CIA was still uncertain whether the procurement agent was
lying," the commission said. Nonetheless, a National Intelligence
Estimate in October 2002 said the attempted procurement "strongly
suggested" Iraq was interested in targeting UAVs on the United
States. Senior members of Congress were told in September 2002 that
this was the "smoking gun" in a special briefing by Vice President
Cheney and then-CIA Director George J. Tenet.
By January 2003, however, it became publicly known that the director
of Air Force intelligence dissented from the view that UAVs were to
be used for biological or chemical delivery, saying instead they
were for reconnaissance. In addition, according to the president's
commission, the CIA "increasingly believed that the attempted
purchase of the mapping software . . . may have been inadvertent."
In an intelligence estimate on threats to the U.S. homeland
published in January 2003, Air Force, Defense Intelligence Agency
and Army analysts agreed that the proposed purchase was "not
necessarily indicative of an intent to target the U.S. homeland."
By late January 2003, the number of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf
area was approaching 150,000, and the invasion of Iraq was all but
guaranteed. Neither Bush nor Powell reflected in their speeches the
many doubts that had surfaced at that time about Iraq's weapons
Instead, Bush said, "With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical
and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of
conquest in the Middle East and create deadly havoc in that region."
He added: "Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one
of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own."