Before the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein was chased from power, Bush administration intelligence experts had decided an unthreatened Saddam was probably less dangerous to the United States than he would be if he were facing death or capture by American troops.
That's according to a partially declassified intelligence report made public by the Bush administration as it tries to defang criticism it manipulated information to help build public support for the war with Iraq.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, in Lawrence Monday for events surrounding dedication of the Dole Institute of Politics, added his voice to those calling for an investigation of how the intelligence was used.
"There is a big intelligence spat now, and I think it ought to be investigated," Dole said at an afternoon news conference. "We ought to know the facts, we ought to know the truth."
Last fall, the Bush administration repeatedly warned that an unprovoked Saddam might give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists.
"Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist or individual terrorists," Bush said Oct. 7 in Cincinnati. "Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints."
But declassified portions of a still-secret National Intelligence Estimate released by the White House show that at the time of the president's speech, the U.S. intelligence community judged that possibility to be unlikely. In fact, the estimate, completed Oct. 2, showed the intelligence services were much more worried Saddam might give weapons to al-Qaida terrorists if he were facing death or capture and his regime collapsing after a military attack by the United States.
"Saddam, if sufficiently desperate, might decide that only an organization such as al-Qaida ... already engaged in a life-or-death struggle against the United States, could perpetrate the type of terrorist attack that he would hope to conduct," said one key judgment of the estimate. It went on to say Saddam might decide to take the "extreme step" of assisting al-Qaida in a terrorist attack against the United States if it "would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."
The declassified sections of the estimate were offered by the White House to rebut allegations the administration twisted prewar intelligence on Iraq's nuclear weapons program. The result, however, could be to raise more questions about whether the administration misrepresented the judgments of the intelligence services on another basis for going to war: the threat posed by Saddam as a source of weapons for terrorists.
The findings also raise concern about the continuing dangers posed by Saddam, who is in hiding, and the failure to find any of his alleged stocks of chemical and biological weapons. If such stocks exist -- a hotly debated proposition -- this is precisely the kind of danger the CIA and other intelligence services warned about last fall, administration officials said. A senior administration official said Monday the U.S. intelligence community did not know "the extent to which Saddam Hussein has access or control" over the various groups that are attacking U.S. forces or the location of any possible hidden chemical or biological agents or weapons.
Asked whether the former Iraqi leader would today use any chemical or biological weapons if he controlled them, the senior official said, "We would not put that past him to do whatever makes our lives miserable."
The official said the judgment of last fall's intelligence estimate, that a desperate Saddam, in hiding and with U.S. troops searching for him in Iraq, could turn to al-Qaida, "had not been supplanted."
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in an interview that despite what Bush has said, the war is not over until Saddam is captured or killed.
"He could come back like Napoleon if we don't watch out," said Markey, who added that the former Iraqi leader remained a threat since he, if anybody, knew where any chemical or biological weapons might be.
Last fall, as Congress began debating a resolution giving Bush authority to go to war against Iraq, CIA Director George Tenet ordered six intelligence services to develop during a 10-day period a common assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs and the threat they posed. On Oct. 5, at the request of members of Congress who wanted material they could use in public debate, the administration released a 25-page declassified summary of the 90-page classified report.
Two days later, in response to pressure from Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., then-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Tenet released three pages of additional information from the NIE and a classified hearing which for the first time showed that Saddam might only use chemical or biological weapons when under threat of attack.
Declassified material from the estimate gave a much more complete picture of the intelligence in the form of all the key judgments of the intelligence community.
One of the judgments was that Saddam "appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or (chemical or biological weapons) against the United States fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington a stronger case for making war."
Another judgment was that Iraq would "probably" attempt a clandestine attack against the United States, as mentioned by Bush, not on "any given day" as the president said Oct. 7, but only "if Baghdad feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regime were imminent or unavoidable."