HUNT FOR WEAPONS
Bush aides discredit analysts' doubts on trailers
By Robert Schlesinger, Globe Staff, 6/27/2003
WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials scrambled yesterday to reaffirm a Central Intelligence Agency report saying that two trailers found in Iraq were mobile biological weapons laboratories, despite an analysis from the State Department's intelligence division that cast doubt on that conclusion.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher insisted that the CIA had adequately considered all the questions raised by the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and that Secretary of State Colin Powell had been satisfied with the CIA response. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer disputed the bureau's questions, saying that it was not as well-qualified to judge the evidence as the CIA.
"Our view, and the secretary's view, [the] US government view, is that these are mobile biological weapons laboratories," Boucher told reporters.
Nevertheless, intelligence analysts questioned whether the affair was not a case of political pressure distorting the intelligence process. At the same time, congressional Democrats for the first time called for an independent commission to investigate whether intelligence was misused prior to the Iraq war.
At issue is a white paper compiled by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, released May 28, concluding that the trailers discovered separately in late April and early May are "ingeniously simple" biological weapons plants. In an interview with Polish television May 30, President Bush cited the trailers as evidence that Iraq had harbored weapons of mass destruction.
But analysts at the State Department's intelligence division raised questions about that conclusion, Boucher confirmed yesterday, expressing their doubts in a classified memorandum to Powell on June 2. The existence of the document was first reported in yesterday's New York Times.
According to Boucher, Powell shared the memo with the CIA. "We've been assured by the CIA that those issues were considered, were looked at, and that they were confident and remain confident in their judgment that these are mobile biological laboratories," Boucher said. "So there's no question of [the Bureau of Intelligence and Research] contradicting the CIA conclusions."
The Bureau of Intelligence and Research is a relatively small unit that analyzes intelligence data for the State Department. It "basically looks at the same information everybody else does, but they also have their own angles, their own analysis," Boucher said.
As questions have grown about prewar intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons programs, the little-known bureau has emerged as one of the more skeptical voices in the intelligence community. Its analysts were among the first to question the authenticity of documents alleging Iraq had bought uranium from Niger -- documents later proved to be forgeries.
The Times reported Wednesday that a bureau official testifying before closed congressional hearings said that he had been pressed to tailor his analyses to fit the administration's views. Greg Thielmann, a staffer in the bureau who retired last September, has publicly said that the Bush administration ignored evidence that Iraq's program posed no imminent threat.
"DIA and CIA have had the most pressure put on them," said Mel Goodman, a former CIA analyst who teaches at the National War College in Washington and is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a liberal think tank. "It's hard to pressure I & R, it's a feisty little group. . . . stubborn about its independence."
Loren Thompson, a defense expert with the libertarian Lexington Institute, said that the reported split between the CIA and the State Department analysts raises troubling questions about the intelligence process.
"It's a little hard to understand how the president could be using this example in public speeches or public pronouncements to prove the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction when his own State Department doesn't buy that interpretation," Thompson said. "At the very least there is an interagency coordination issue here, but obviously there's a larger question about how intelligence is being done."
The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency did not circulate their report among other members of the intelligence community before releasing it, which Goodman said was unusual. "Probably they knew I & R had problems," he said.
But Fleischer and others argued that the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency properly compiled the report themselves because they had the expertise.
"In this instance, the people with the most authority and the most knowledge and the best ability to be on the ground and to learn the facts, and therefore to be the strongest sources, have spoken," Fleischer told reporters.
Robert Schlesinger can be reached at email@example.com
This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 6/27/2003.
c Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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