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Digging for dirt
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - The administration of President George W Bush is finding itself increasingly beleaguered by growing charges by retired intelligence and foreign service officers that administration hawks exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in order to press Washington into war.

The White House was forced to admit earlier this week that Bush's assertion during his State of the Union address in late January regarding Saddam Hussein's alleged attempts to buy uranium in Africa for a supposed nuclear arms program was based on flawed intelligence and should have been omitted from the speech.

But a growing number of lawmakers and independent analysts are suggesting that the uranium report - which was actually based on crudely forged documents supposedly provided by an Italian intelligence agency - may be just the tip of the iceberg of an effort by neo-conservative and right-wing hawks centered primarily in the Pentagon and around Vice President Dick Cheney to skew the intelligence to make their case for war.

"The Bush administration did not provide an accurate picture of the military threat with respect to Iraq," according to Gregory Thielmann, who served as the director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), until last September.

Contrary to the repeated assertion by Bush and other top officials, he said, "As of March, 2003, Iraq posed no major military threat to the United States," Thielmann, a 25-year foreign service veteran, told a standing-room only press conference at the National Press Club.

He added that the administration's public statements about Iraq's biological and chemical weapons capabilities, stockpile of Scud missiles, and ties to al-Qaeda were also misleading and often based on distortions of what the intelligence community itself was saying.

His charges and the growing attention being paid to them come on the heels of similar charges by another retired foreign service officer, ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had been sent by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to Niger to check out the reports of Iraq's purchase of uranium "yellowcake".

In a television interview, Wilson, who was Washington's highest-ranking diplomat in Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1991, said that he was stunned when Bush referred to it in his State of the Union address and concluded that its mention was part of a broader effort to influence public opinion. "It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war," he told the Washington Post. "It begs the question, what else are they lying about?"

These questions - which have been echoed by other retired intelligence officers, such as the CIA's former top counter-terrorism analyst, Vincent Cannistraro - are clearly beginning to worry the administration, particularly because of growing doubts as well about the duration and dangers posed by the US occupation of Iraq.

After the administration's assurances that US troops would be greeted by Iraqis as liberators, armed resistance to their presence appears to be rising steadily, with the US Central Command reporting an average of 13 armed attacks against forces each day. Some 30 US soldiers have been killed since May 1, when Bush declared the war over, and officials are actively studying the possibility of adding to the 145,000 troops there.

According to a new survey of public opinion released on Wednesday, just 23 percent of Americans say that the military effort in Iraq is going very well, down from 61 percent in late April. Doubts about the occupation naturally feed into concerns about how the US got there.

"If the American people conclude that American soldiers have died because the administration has lied, it will be extremely serious," according to Joseph Cirincione, an arms control specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "American public opinion is clearly shifting on this issue." He said that he didn't see how the Republicans and the administration could avert a major investigation.

Bush, who had hoped that his "victory lap" around sub-Saharan Africa this week would highlight his "compassionate conservatism" for the folks back home, has been dogged by questions from reporters about his State of the Union allegations since he arrived at his first stop in Senegal.

At a joint press conference with South African President Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria, he deflected a question about it. "There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace and there is no doubt in my mind the United States along with our allies and friends did the right thing in removing him from power," he said, adding, "I'm confident that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."

As several Democratic lawmakers called for a full-scale Congressional investigation, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld was also asked at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee whether the administration exaggerated the threat. "The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit [of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD]," he said. "We acted because we saw the evidence in a dramatic new light - through the prism of our experience on 9-11 [September 11]."

But Rumsfeld's statement only raised new questions for analysts who have documented the administration's claims about Baghdad's WMD capabilities. Cirincione described Rumsfeld's latest assertion as "shocking". "Administration officials repeatedly said that they had new evidence [in the run-up to the war]."

Indeed, when he heard Bush's uranium reference, Thielmann said he "wondered what new evidence had come into the administration". But, when he realized that it was based on the already-discredited Niger report, he said he felt a "combination of surprise and disgust". "This administration has a faith-based attitude to intelligence," he said, which, simply stated, consisted of, "We know the answers. Give us the evidence the support those answers."

Thielmann was particularly dismissive of some Republican attempts to defend the administration. The Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, told reporters on Tuesday in response to the White House admission that the uranium story was false that it was "very easy to pick one little flaw here and one little flaw there". "A little flaw here, a little flaw there," said Thielmann, "and pretty soon you've fostered a fundamentally flawed view of reality".

Cirincione said that the administration's failure to find any evidence of WMD or Scud missiles despite scouring more than 200 priority sites over the past three months made it clear that the UN weapons inspectors, whose work was often mocked by administration officials, actually fulfilled their intended purpose quite well.

The administration, including even Secretary of State Colin Powell - who, according to Thielmann shielded INR from political influence - made increasingly specific claims about the intelligence it said it had about Iraq's WMD in the immediate approach to the war - in what Cirincione described as a "conscious effort to discredit the inspectors". "They had to eliminate the viable alternative to going to war," he said.

Thielmann said that in working-level discussions between analysts from different agencies, consensus about the intelligence would generally be achieved. But, as the analyses made their way to higher levels, the consensus would drop away, with the CIA and DIA tending to demur. "I can only assume this was in response to [political] pressure," he said.

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