Intelligence on Iraq was wrong, top Marine says

May 31, 2003, 12:30AM
By GREG MILLER
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The top U.S. Marine commander in Iraq said Friday that U.S. intelligence was “simply wrong” in its assessment that Saddam Hussein intended to unleash chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces during the war, but he stopped short of saying there was an overall intelligence failure.

“It was a surprise to me then, it remains a surprise to me now, that we have not uncovered weapons,” Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said from Baghdad in a teleconference with reporters in Washington.

“It’s not for lack of trying,” he continued. “We’ve been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad, but they’re simply not there.”

Conway said he still believes it is possible that weapons of mass destruction will be found. But his comments are likely to feed concern in Washington that the prewar intelligence on Iraq was flawed.

Amid the mounting criticism, CIA Director George Tenet took the unusual step of issuing a statement Friday denying that the agency’s assessments on Iraq were politicized.

“Our role is to call it like we see it — to tell policy-makers what we know, what we don’t know, what we think, and what we base it on,” Tenet said. “That is exactly what was done and continues to be done on intelligence issues related to Iraq.”

Conway, the Marine commander, acknowledged that “intelligence failure” is “too strong a word to use at this point.” But he said, “What the regime was intending to do in terms of its use of the weapons, we thought we understood — or we certainly had our best guess, our most dangerous, our most likely courses of action that the intelligence folks were giving us. We were simply wrong. But whether or not we’re wrong at the national level, I think, still very much remains to be seen.”

Conway’s remarks came as the Pentagon disclosed details of its plans to send a new team of more than 1,000 experts to search for evidence of proscribed weapons. Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s human intelligence service, will lead the effort.

In a separate press briefing Friday, Dayton appeared to acknowledge that it is possible that Iraq deliberately misled U.S. intelligence agencies, making them think that weapons were being produced and deployed even as they were secretly being destroyed.

“We may find out three months from now that there was an elaborate deception program and the stuff was destroyed,” Dayton said. “Do I think we’re going to find something? Yeah, I kind of do,” he said, adding that he still believes the United States’ sources of intelligence on Iraq before the war were credible.

The subject of the search for banned weapons is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable one for the Bush administration, with several influential lawmakers this week saying they believe the White House hyped the Iraq threat or was misled by the intelligence community.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was largely responsible for arguing the administration’s case for the war on Iraq to a skeptical international community, told reporters Friday that all of the evidence he presented at a prewar Security Council meeting was solid.

And Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in an interview with Vanity Fair, sought to minimize the importance of weapons of mass destruction in the administration’s calculus for war.

“For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on,” Wolfowitz said in comments released Wednesday.

 

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