Feb. 1, 2003, 7:03PM
CIA says al-Qaida, Iraq link overstated
By JAMES RISEN and DAVID JOHNSTON
New York Times
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's efforts to build a case for war against Iraq using intelligence to link it to al-Qaida and the development of prohibited weapons has created friction within U.S. intelligence agencies, government officials said.
Some analysts at the CIA have complained that senior administration officials have exaggerated the significance of some intelligence reports about Iraq, particularly about its possible links to terrorism, in order to strengthen their political argument for war, government officials said.
At the FBI, some investigators said they were baffled by the Bush administration's insistence on a solid link between Iraq and Osama bin Laden's network.
"We've been looking at this hard for more than a year and you know what, we just don't think it's there," a government official said.
The tension within the intelligence agencies comes as Secretary of State Colin Powell is poised to go before the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to present evidence of Iraq's links to terrorism and its continuing efforts to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Interviews with administration officials revealed divisions between, on one side, the Pentagon and the National Security Council, which has become a clearinghouse for the evidence being prepared for Powell, and, on the other, the CIA and, to some degree, the State Department and agencies such as the FBI.
In the interviews, two officials, Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, and Stephen Hadley, deputy national security adviser, were cited as being most eager to interpret evidence deemed murky by intelligence officials to show a clearer picture of Iraq's involvement in illicit weapons programs and terrorism.
Their bosses, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, have also pressed a hard line, officials said.
A senior administration official said discussions in preparation for Powell's presentation were intense, but not rancorous, and said there was little dissension among President Bush's top advisers about the fundamental nature of Saddam Hussein's government.
"I haven't detected anyone who thinks this a not compelling case," the administration official said.
Bush asserted in his State of the Union address last week that Iraq was protecting and aiding al-Qaida operatives, but U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials said the evidence was fragmentary and inconclusive.
"It's more than just skepticism," said one official describing the feelings of some analysts in the intelligence agencies.
"I think there is also a sense of disappointment with the community's leadership that they are not standing up for them at a time when the intelligence is obviously being politicized."
Intelligence professionals have expressed fewer reservations about the administration's statements concerning Iraq's weapons programs.
There is broad agreement within intelligence agencies that Iraq has continued its efforts to develop chemical, biological, and probably nuclear weapons, and that it is still trying to hide its weapons programs from U.N. inspectors.
Officials said the United States had obtained communications intercepts that show Iraqi officials coaching scientists in how to avoid providing valuable information about Iraq's weapons programs to inspectors.