U.S. intelligence believed that the risk that Saddam Hussein would link up with terrorists — a key rationale for the war — was greatest if the Iraqi president were under attack or desperate, a newspaper reports.
"Saddam, if sufficiently desperate, might decide that only an organization such as al Qaeda … 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," concluded a National Intelligence Estimate in October.
The White House released portions of the NIE on Friday to counter charges that it had ignored warnings from intelligence agencies over the president's claim that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.
Iraq's alleged illegal arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and his supposed pursuit of nuclear arms, were the most prominent justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Baghdad's reputed ties to terrorism were another. Bush administration officials have said the war was aimed at eliminating the potential "nexus" of terror groups and terror weapons within Iraq.
But according to The Washington Post, the estimate predicted that a U.S. attack could itself trigger such an alliance.
The NIE indicated that Saddam would join with al Qaeda in an attack on the United States if it "would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him" and only "if Baghdad feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regime were imminent or unavoidable."
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," the estimate reads.
The White House released the NIE after two weeks of controversy over a claim in the State of the Union that the administration now says shouldn't have been mentioned. President Bush said in the Jan. 28 speech that British intelligence had learned of an attempt by Iraq to buy uranium in Africa.
The claim, which referred to an alleged bid by Baghdad to Niger, became discredited when documents supporting the allegation were shown in February to be forgeries.
But the U.S. had sent two envoys to Niger in early 2002 to check the claim, and neither was able to find substantiation. The CIA tried to stop Britain from making the Africa claim in September and had it excised from a Bush speech in October.
Given those doubts, the CIA and White House officials have differed on how the claim got into the State of the Union, with CIA officials saying they warned the White House about the doubts.
The Post reported this weekend that neither Mr. Bush nor national security adviser Condoleezza Rice read the whole NIE. They may have skipped the footnotes that included a forceful State Department dissent from the consensus that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program.
Meanwhile, another claim made before the war — that Iraq could launch a biological or chemical attack within 45 minutes, was never vetted by the CIA, administration officials tell The Post.
That claim is at the heart of the controversy over prewar intelligence in Britain. The BBC reported in May that an aide to Tony Blair placed the "45 minutes" claim in a September dossier on weapons in order to make the case for war stronger, despite doubts about the intelligence.
A parliamentary committee has cleared the aide in question. But the controversy touched off a hunt for the story's source. The man named as the likely source, Dr. David Kelly, killed himself last week. The BBC subsequently said he had been the source. A judicial inquiry into the death is underway.
No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, despite weeks of searches. Two promising finds — two alleged mobile biological weapons factories and some centrifuges located in a scientist's backyard — hint at the existence of weapons programs, but not weapons themselves, and both finds have come into question. The State Department doubts the trailers are biolabs, and the scientist says there was no active plan to restart nuclear development.
The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Sunday that Mr. Bush could make the controversy over the State of the Union address go away by telling Americans whether the speech's justification for war was exaggerated.
"It's just a question of was it right, or was it wrong?" Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said.
Speaking up for the Bush administration, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said if the intelligence wasn't reliable, much of the blame falls on former President Clinton.
"You know, intelligence is not an exact science," said Hastert, R-Ill. Before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "we had a hard time just figuring out what was going, because our foreign intelligence was decimated. The human intelligence was decimated in 10 years before" by Mr. Clinton's proclivity not to use human rights violators and other shady individuals as intelligence operatives.