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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WMD Claims Split Coalition's Spooks

WASHINGTON -- In the buildup to the Iraq war last fall, the intelligence agencies of Britain and the United States raised questions about each other's most dramatic claims concerning Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, according to newly released British documents and recent interviews with U.S. congressional and administration officials.

Documents published by British government investigators show that in September 2002, British intelligence played down as inconclusive evidence that Iraq's attempted purchases of specialized aluminum tubes signaled an intention to use them to produce nuclear weapons. The following month, the CIA strongly contended that the attempted purchases did reflect such an intent.

In turn, U.S. intelligence officials in September 2002 questioned the reliability of intelligence on Saddam Hussein's alleged effort to buy uranium in Africa and capability to deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes. The British emphasized those two points in an intelligence dossier published Sept. 24, 2002, and President George W. Bush repeated them as he made his case for war.

The aluminum tubes figured prominently in the U.S. case for going to war. Secretary of State Colin Powell cited the tubes when he presented evidence against Iraq to the United Nations last February. In 2002, the CIA emphasized Iraq's attempts to purchase the tubes, specifically mentioning the effort as a "key judgment" in declaring that Husssein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program.

However, from its early drafts, the British dossier was more subdued on the point, first including it only as Iraq's attempts to acquire "specialized aluminum which is subject to internal export controls because of its potential application to gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium."

Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of communications at the time, Alastair Campbell, played a coordinating role in production of the dossier and made suggestions to the intelligence officials. One newly released memo, dated Sept. 17, 2002, just before the final draft was finished, suggested that the number of aluminum tubes Iraq had sought, 60,000, be placed in the dossier's draft executive summary.

But intelligence experts at the British Foreign Office stepped in, according to a Sept. 19 memo from John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the senior British intelligence panel that included leaders of intelligence agencies and representatives from the Defense Ministry and Foreign Office.

Scarlett wrote to Campbell that he had removed the reference to the tubes from the executive summary and "toned down the reference to aluminum tubes ... [reflecting] some very recent exchanges on intelligence channels." There is no mention of what those exchanges were, but one addition to the final dossier's discussion of the 60,000 aluminum tubes was the phrase, "... there is no definitive intelligence that it is destined for a nuclear programme."

In the United States, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research had opposed the intelligence community's estimate that the tubes were for a nuclear centrifuge.

In their dossier, the British claimed that Hussein's "military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them." Bush publicly repeated the claim the day the dossier was made public and again in his weekly radio address without checking with the CIA on its accuracy.

MI6 director Sir Richard Billing Dearlove told a British investigative panel earlier this month that information for the 45-minute claim came in August 2002 from "a senior Iraqi military officer who was certainly in a position to know this information."

A report released Sept. 11 by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee disclosed that the information was the only piece of intelligence the British had with "definite times associated with the deployment or use" of such weapons. But the committee pointed out that MI6 "did not know what munitions the Iraqi officer was referring to or their status." In addition, there was no knowledge "from where and to where the munitions might be moved" in that time frame, nor whether they existed.

A senior U.S. official familiar with the intelligence said the CIA never included the 45-minute deployment in its intelligence assessments because it had "no separate reporting," although it found the statement "interesting and plausible." A senior congressional aide said Congress had been told that U.S. intelligence "had no confidence in the Iraqi officer" and that the information itself was "general."

The British government inquiries also disclosed new intelligence about Iraq's alleged attempts to purchase uranium in Africa, an important point for the Bush administration.

MI6 had two independent sources for reporting the uranium purchase attempts, the Intelligence and Security Committee report said. One source provided information in June 2002 and the other just as the dossier was being finalized that September.

In his Sept. 17 memo to Scarlett, Campbell asked, "Can we say he [Hussein] has secured uranium from Africa," underlining the word "secured." On Sept. 18, Scarlett wrote to Campbell that the intelligence underlying the allegation was in the possession not of the British, but of some unnamed foreign service. He told Campbell, "The agreed interpretation of the intelligence, brokered with some difficulty with the originators and owners of the reporting, allows us only to say that he has 'sought' uranium from Africa."

At the same time, the CIA was arguing with other officials in London that U.S. intelligence on that subject was too weak, saying the item should not be included in the British dossier.

MI6 did not obtain the documentary evidence of the uranium allegation until March 2003, when the International Atomic Energy Agency declared that documents it had received from Washington related to Iraq's alleged uranium purchases had been forged. Since then, MI6 has been attempting to "check the authenticity" of its documents, the parliamentary committee said.