Moran called Powell's WMD claims "a total intelligence failure at the CIA"

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

On ABC's Nightline, co-anchor Terry Moran characterized "the U.S. claim that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction" as "a total intelligence failure at the CIA." In fact, while much of the intelligence produced by the CIA before the Iraq war was indeed faulty, many of the Bush administration's most dramatic prewar claims had been called into question by the CIA or other intelligence agencies.

On the May 18 broadcast of ABC's Nightline, co-anchor Terry Moran characterized "the U.S. claim that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction" as "a total intelligence failure at the CIA." Moran specifically highlighted then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5, 2003, assertion to the United Nations Security Council that "[w]e know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction; he's determined to make more." But while much of the intelligence produced by the CIA before the Iraq war was indeed faulty, many of the Bush administration's most dramatic prewar claims -- including many of those cited by Powell in his U.N. speech -- had been called into question by the CIA or other intelligence agencies.

Media Matters for America has documented several such claims from Powell's speech.

From the May 18 broadcast of ABC's Nightline:

MORAN: So much has changed. Osama bin Laden got away. And then came Iraq and the U.S. claim that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction.

POWELL [video clip]: We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction; he's determined to make more.

MORAN: It was a total intelligence failure at the CIA.

Nuclear reconstitution

In his U.N. speech, Powell claimed: "We have no indication that Saddam Hussein has ever abandoned his nuclear weapons program. ... Since 1998, his efforts to reconstitute his nuclear program have been focused on acquiring the third and last component, sufficient fissile material to produce a nuclear explosion."

Similarly, Bush claimed in an October 7, 2002, speech, "Evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program." On the March 16, 2003, broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney said of Saddam: "And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." (Cheney later said he "misspoke" and had intended to say "weapons capability" rather than "weapons.")

Though Powell and the rest of the administration did not say so, the State Department's own Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) disputed the claim -- advanced by the majority of intelligence agencies in an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) -- that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program.

As Media Matters has noted, Tyler Drumheller -- a 26-year CIA veteran who served as chief of the agency's European operations during the lead-up to the Iraq war -- said on the April 23 broadcast of CBS' 60 Minutes that by the fall of 2002, the CIA had recruited an Iraqi official in the "inner circle of Saddam Hussein" to provide intelligence on Saddam's weapons programs. Drumheller said that the Bush administration "stopped being interested in the intelligence" when the CIA reported that the Iraqi official -- whom 60 Minutes identified as then-foreign minister Naji Sabri -- revealed that Iraq "had no active weapons of mass destruction program."

Drumheller's account is largely consistent with separate media accounts of what Sabri told the CIA before the war. In a March 23 article citing "former intelligence officials," The Washington Post reported that Sabri informed the CIA that Saddam "had ambitions for a nuclear program but that it was not active."

In its final report in September 2004 (also known as the Duelfer Report), the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) concluded that "Iraq did not possess a nuclear device, nor had it tried to reconstitute a capability to produce nuclear weapons after 1991."

Aluminum tubes

In his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, Bush claimed, "Our intelligence sources tell us that he [Saddam] has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."

In fact, while the majority of intelligence agencies agreed in the October 2002 NIE that the aluminum tubes were intended for uranium-enriching centrifuges, both INR and "technical experts" from the Department of Energy (DOE) argued that the tubes were "poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment." INR stated that the tubes were probably meant for a conventional weapons program, "most likely the production of artillery rockets."

National Journal investigative reporter Murray Waas reported on March 2 that in October 2002, Bush was informed in a one-page "President's Summary" of the NIE that INR and DOE believed the tubes were "intended for conventional weapons."

In October 2003, Greg Thielmann, who was in charge of assessing Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs for INR before the war, told CBS News that in 2001, he had "reported to Secretary Powell's office that they [INR] were confident the tubes were not for a nuclear program."

Yet in his U.N. speech, Powell claimed: "Saddam Hussein is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb. He is so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 different countries, even after inspections resumed." He added, "Most U.S. experts think they [the tubes] are intended to serve as rotors in centrifuges used to enrich uranium." Powell acknowledged that "[o]ther experts, and the Iraqis themselves, argue that they are really to produce the rocket bodies for a conventional weapon, a multiple rocket launcher," but Powell did not reveal that this view was held by his own intelligence agency. Powell then cast doubt on INR's assessment, stating that "it strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets."

In its 2004 report, the ISG found that "Baghdad's interest in high-strength, high-specification aluminum tubes ... is best explained by its efforts to produce 81-mm rockets."

Unmanned aerial vehicles

In his U.N. speech, Powell explicitly linked Iraq's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) program to its supposed chemical and biological weapons, claiming: "The linkages over the past 10 years between Iraq's UAV program and biological and chemical warfare agents are of deep concern to us. Iraq could use these small UAVs, which have a wingspan of only a few meters, to deliver biological agents to its neighbors or if transported, to other countries, including the United States."

As Media Matters has noted, on February 6, 2003, Bush stated, "Iraq has developed spray devices that could be used on unmanned aerial vehicles with ranges far beyond what is permitted by the Security Council. A UAV launched from a vessel off the American coast could reach hundreds of miles inland."

It is true that in the October 2002 NIE, most intelligence agencies agreed that "Baghdad's UAV's could threaten Iraq's neighbors, US forces in the Persian Gulf, and if brought close to, or into the United States, the US Homeland." However, the Air Force -- which controls most American UAVs -- dissented from the majority view, arguing that Iraq was not "developing UAVs primarily intended to be delivery platforms for chemical and biological warfare (CBW) agents."

According to the Robb-Silberman Commission's final report to the president, a separate NIE, published in January 2003, dealt specifically with the suggestion -- later advanced by Powell and Bush -- that Iraq might use its UAVs to target the United States. The commission reported that in the NIE, the Air Force, Army, and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had stated that Iraq's acquisition of "mapping software" -- upon which the claim was initially based -- was "not necessarily indicative of an intent to target the US homeland."

Moreover, the commission found that just "days before the March 19 invasion of Iraq," the CIA "advised senior policymakers" that the CIA "[had] no definite indications that Baghdad [was] planning to use WMD-armed UAVs against the U.S. mainland."

In 2004, the ISG found that the "evidence available" indicates that Iraq's UAV programs that were active at the time of the invasion "were intended for reconnaissance and electronic warfare."

WMD training for Al Qaeda

In his U.N. Speech, Powell said that a "senior Al Qaeda terrorist" who had been "responsible for one of Al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan" but had since been detained told interrogators about "Iraq offering chemical or biological weapons training for two Al Qaeda associates beginning in December 2000." Bush apparently made reference to the same claim in his October 7, 2002, speech, asserting, "We've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases."

Media Matters has noted that according to a November 10, 2005, web-exclusive article by Newsweek investigative correspondents Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, "the principal basis" for these claims was a series of statements made to investigators by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured Al Qaeda commander.

In a November 6, 2005, article, Washington Post staff writer Walter Pincus noted that "in January 2004 al-Libi recanted his claims, and in February 2004 the CIA withdrew all intelligence reports based on his information." But Pincus reported that in February 2002 -- eight months before Bush reportedly referred to al-Libi's bogus claims and a year before Powell's U.N. speech -- the DIA produced a document in which it concluded that it was "likely" that al-Libi was "intentionally misleading" his interrogators.

Isikoff and Hosenball reported in their article that "[a] DIA official confirmed to NEWSWEEK" that a copy of the DIA report "would have been sent" to the Bush administration's National Security Council. Isikoff and Hosenball also reported that the CIA produced a document containing similar conclusions about al-Libi in January 2003. Isikoff and Hosenball noted that "[a] counter-terrorism official said that while CIA reports on al-Libi were distributed widely around U.S. intelligence agencies and policy-making offices, many such routine reports are not regularly read by senior policy-making officials."

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
ABC
Person
Terry Moran
Show/Publication
Nightline
Stories/Interests
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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