Investigations into hyped intelligence on Iraq may well be about to heat up--and not just in Washington. Even as the Bush White House faces new questions about why it publicized dubious claims that Saddam sought to buy uranium in Africa, Tony Blair's British government is facing intensifying inquiries into allegations that British intelligence was pressured by Blair's entourage to "sex up" a dossier on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction by including a claim that Saddam's chemical and biological weapons could be readied for launch within 45 minutes.
Sources close to the British Broadcasting Corp. told NEWSWEEK the state-funded broadcasting network intends to aggressively demonstrate the truth of claims it made after the end of the war about the "sexing up" of published British intelligence reports about Iraqi WMD. The BBC has said that it will produce contemporaneous notes made by its reporters of allegations made to them by Dr. David Kelly, a top adviser on Iraqi WMD to both the British Defense Ministry and the Foreign Office who apparently committed suicide last week, about alleged efforts by the Blair government to hype negative intelligence about Saddam. The Guardian newspaper reported that the BBC even has a tape of conversations by one of its reporters with Kelly expressing serious concern about how Blair presented intelligence supporting the case for war to overthrow Saddam. The reporter who allegedly taped Kelly, Susan Watts, said on TV that her anonymous source, now known to be Kelly, told her that Blair's office was "desperate" for negative intelligence about Saddam and had exaggerated "out of all proportion" a claim that Iraq could launch chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes.
Some BBC officials believe that if they can convincingly demonstrate through hard evidence (like notes and tapes) that the late scientist strongly expressed dismay that Blair's government was hyping intelligence, then a senior judge appointed by the prime minister last week to investigate Kelly's suspected suicide will have to investigate the underlying truth of Kelly's alleged statements to the BBC in order to understand the scientist's state of mind before his death. This in turn could lead not just to uncomfortable questions about Britain's handling of intelligence on Saddam but also to questions about how Britain and the U.S. shared intelligence before the war and collaborated on the public release of dossiers and speeches by both the White House and 10 Downing Street (Blair's official office and residence) alleging Saddam had to be taken out as soon as possible. (If past experience is any guide, the British government will strongly resist any efforts by the judge to investigate intelligence contacts between Britain and the United States).
Until recently, both the Blair government and the Bush administration had been using their considerable political clout to try to curb the scope of public investigations into alleged hyping of intelligence relating to the threat posed by Saddam. In Washington, Bush's Republican Party controls both Houses of Congress; GOP leaders have agreed to an investigation of the administration's handling of Iraqi intelligence by the secretive House and Senate Intelligence Committees, but so far say that most if not all of the investigation will proceed in private (with a public report to be published eventually). In Britain, Parliamentary committees controlled by members of Blair's Labour Party held public hearings on BBC allegations about the sexing up of the September 2002 dossier, which included the 45-minute claim.
But Blair loyalists principally used the hearings to bash the BBC and pressure it to disclose its source for the claim. A few days before he took his life, Kelly, the government scientist, appeared before one committee to deny he was the BBC's source for the hyping allegation, but he admitted he had talked recently to some of the BBC journalists involved. Some BBC insiders speculate that Kelly may have killed himself because he was under pressure from his government masters to out himself as the BBC's source. But BBC critics in Blair's Labour Party are arguing that it was the BBC itself which sexed up less dramatic information given to them by the Kelly. Like congressional Republicans, Blair tried to limit a broader investigation into the handling of other intelligence on Iraq to Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, which works in secret and reports, at least initially, to Blair himself. After Kelly's death, Blair assigned Lord Hutton, the British equivalent of a U.S. Supreme Court judge, to conduct an informal investigation into the circumstances that drove the scientist to his suspected suicide. But while Blair dropped heavy hints that he expected the judge to limit his inquiry to this narrow question, Lord Hutton insisted he will alone decide how far his inquiry will have to dig to get at the truth.
Evidence has already surfaced in Britain as a result of the BBC controversy, and the scientist's death suggests that British intelligence on some occasions was more willing than the CIA to provide Blair and his aides with alarming intelligence about Saddam's WMD capabilities based on seemingly thin sourcing. For example, the principal object of the dispute between the BBC and the Blair government was the claim in the Blair government's September 2002 dossier that Saddam's chemical and biological weapons could be readied for launch within 45 minutes.
British government officials acknowledge that this allegation was based on intelligence from a single source in Iraq, and some British officials were known to be concerned that this source, who has not been identified publicly, may be "dodgy." The British allegation made it into at least one U.S. government presentation--a presidential radio address last September that quoted Britain as the source for information that Saddam "could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given." However, U.S. officials deny the CIA thoroughly vetted the claim before the president used it in his speech. Asked whether the CIA would have knocked down the 45-minute claim had it been presented to them for review, one agency official told NEWSWEEK, "I would hope so." (A White House official had no immediate comment).
Both the Bush and Blair governments also made public references to now-notorious claims that Saddam had sought to obtain uranium from the African country of Niger. But the CIA now says that the claim, which it first learned about from a foreign intelligence service (believed to be Italian) was not well corroborated and should never have been mentioned in Bush's State of the Union speech last winter (which attributed the allegation to British intelligence). The U.S. government has acknowledged that documents it gave to United Nations inspectors to support the Niger claim later turned out to be forgeries. By contrast, Tony Blair has continued to insist that Britain had separate intelligence on the Niger uranium claim which it still believes is credible. However, sources close to British intelligence say that like the 45-minute claim, Britain's Niger intelligence comes from a single source--in this case an unnamed foreign intelligence service. While some British officials have hinted that this was an intelligence service in France or perhaps in an African country close to France, other British sources say they believe that the single source for Britain's intelligence about Niger was the same Italian agency whose information has now been publicly trashed by the CIA.
On some occasions, however, British intelligence was more cautious than its American counterparts when putting forward alarming reports about Saddam. At best, British intelligence officials and Blair and other British ministers offered lukewarm endorsements for assertions by Secretary of State Colin Powell in a U.N. speech last February about connections between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda. (In fact some British intelligence officials were questioning the terrorism section of Powell's U.N. presentation within minutes of its delivery). British intelligence also refused a request by Blair's office to include, in the same dossier that included the 45-minute claim, an assertion that Saddam had recently tried to buy thousands of aluminum tubes, which could be used to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs. With a strong endorsement from analysts at the CIA, that claim was publicly touted by several Bush administration officials even though analysts at the State Department and the Energy Department's nuclear-weapons labs argued that the tubes that the Iraqis were seeking probably were not intended for nuclear-weapons uses. U.N. atomic experts say they investigated the tubes controversy thoroughly and concluded that there was overwhelming evidence that the Iraqis were seeking to use the tubes to build conventional military rocket launchers, not uranium-enrichment equipment.
Even before the war ended and Saddam's evidence of Saddam's WMD programs proved elusive to find, the Blair government was facing considerable skepticism about its Iraqi policy from a British government and voting public much more antiwar than that in the United States. One problem was that last February, when British- and U.S.-government pro-war propaganda was building to a fever pitch, the British government released a dossier on Saddam's alleged efforts to conceal his WMD programs and intimidate U.N. weapons inspectors, which later turned out to have been heavily plagiarized from an academic paper that was available on the Internet. Blair's powerful communications director, a former tabloid journalist named Alastair Campbell, had to apologize to British intelligence chiefs for putting out what became known as the "dodgy dossier" without fully consulting intelligence agencies. One interesting revelation of one of the only parliamentary investigative reports to be published so far on the Iraq controversy is that Campbell actually chaired a meeting of intelligence officials last September that was involved in planning the white paper that included the notorious 45-minute claim. Even though it is controlled by loyal members of Blair's Labour Party, Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee concluded it was "wrong" for Campbell, a political adviser rather than intelligence official, "to have chaired a meeting on an intelligence matter, and we recommend that this practice cease."
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN INTO THE FIRE?
CIA Director George Tenet's problems are not quite over yet.
This week's discovery of two CIA memos--in which the agency warned the White House about the dubious Niger uranium claims--was a temporary godsend for the agency, getting Tenet somewhat off the hook in the Iraqi-uranium flap.
But the CIA is about to take another hit tomorrow when the long awaited 900-page congressional report on the September 11 terror attacks is finally released. While the FBI is expected to get the sharpest criticism for failing to aggressively investigate Al Qaeda inside the United States, sources say the CIA will hardly get off the hook.
Sources say the report slams the CIA hard for effectively having no spies inside Al Qaeda. Even though Tenet supposedly declared "war" on Osama bin Laden's terror network as early as 1999, "the CIA had no penetration of Al Qaeda's leadership," the report states.
The congressional investigators also fault the agency for failing to pass along critical intelligence that two of the future September 11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, were heading to the United States. As reported in a NEWSWEEK cover story in June 2002, the CIA, with the help of Malaysian intelligence, had monitored the two men at an Al Qaeda summit in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, in January 2000.
But despite the agency's loud protestations to the contrary, the investigators for the House and Senate intelligence committees could find no evidence that the CIA ever notified the FBI of what was arguably the most important pieces of intelligence that grew out of the meeting: that Almihdhar had a multientry visa that would allow him to enter the United States at any time and that Alhazmi actually flew into Los Angeles shortly after the terrorist confab.
As a result, the report finds, what may have been the U.S. government's best opportunity to uncover the 9-11 plot was lost. The FBI office in San Diego, it turns out, soon would have been uniquely positioned to monitor Almihdhar and Alhazmi: the two men soon rented a room from an FBI informant. Had the informant's contacts with the hijackers been capitalized on, the report concludes, "it would have given the San Diego field office perhaps the intelligence community's best chance to unravel the September 11 plot."