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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

False Tips From Iraqi Defectors?

WASHINGTON -- Frustrated by the failure to find Saddam Hussein's suspected stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have launched a major effort to determine if they were victims of bogus Iraqi defectors who planted disinformation to mislead the West.

The goal, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, "is to see if false information was put out there and got into legitimate channels and we were totally duped on it." He added, "We're reinterviewing all our sources of information on this. This is the entire intelligence community, not just the U.S."

The far-reaching review was started after a political firestorm erupted this summer over revelations that U.S. President George W. Bush's claim in his State of the Union speech that Iraq had sought to import uranium from Niger was based on forged documents.

Officials say former Iraqi operatives have confirmed since the war that Hussein's regime sent "double agents" disguised as defectors to the West to plant fabricated intelligence. In other cases, Baghdad apparently tricked legitimate defectors into giving phony tips about weapons production and storage sites.

"They were shown bits of information and led to believe there was an active weapons program, only to be turned loose to make their way to Western intelligence sources," said the senior intelligence official. "Then, because they believe it, they pass polygraph tests ... and the planted information becomes true to the West, even if it was all made up to deceive us."

Critics had charged that the Bush administration exaggerated intelligence on Iraq to bolster support for the war. The broader question now is whether some of the actual intelligence was fabricated and U.S. officials failed to detect it.

One U.S. intelligence official said analysts were too eager to find evidence to support the White House's claims. As a result, he said, defectors "were just telling us what we wanted to hear."

Hussein's motives for such a deliberate disinformation scheme may have been to bluff his enemies abroad by sending false signals of military might. Experts also say the dictator's defiance of the West, and its fear of his purported weapons of mass destruction, boosted his prestige at home and was critical to his power base in the Arab world.

Hussein also may have gambled that the failure of United Nations weapons inspectors to find specific evidence identified by bogus defectors ultimately would force the Security Council to lift sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. officials now believe Hussein hoped to then covertly reconstitute his weapons programs.

The current focus on Iraqi defectors reflects a new skepticism within the Iraq Survey Group, the 1,400-member team responsible for finding any illicit arms.

"We were prisoners of our own beliefs," said a senior U.S. weapons expert who recently returned from a stint with the survey group. "We said Saddam Hussein was a master of denial and deception. Then when we couldn't find anything, we said that proved it, instead of questioning our own assumptions."

The U.S. administration has signaled for the first time that it may be willing to allow a multinational force in Iraq to operate under the sponsorship of the UN as long as it is commanded by an American, The New York Times reported. It represents a potential shift in course for the administration, which has until now insisted that all military, economic and political matters in Iraq remain under total U.S. control.