President Bush's administration distorted intelligence and presented conjecture as evidence to justify a U.S. invasion of Iraq, according to a retired intelligence official who served during the months before the war.
"What disturbs me deeply is what I think are the disingenuous statements made from the very top about what the intelligence did say," said Greg Thielmann, who retired last September. "The area of distortion was greatest in the nuclear field."
Separately, the chief of the Pentagon's intelligence agency said it had no hard evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons last fall but believed Iraq had a program in place to produce them. The assessment suggests a higher degree of uncertainty about the immediacy of an Iraqi threat, which was the main justification for war.
Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, discussed the matter at a Capitol Hill news conference Friday as the administration scrambled to respond to news reports about excerpts from a September 2002 DIA report on facilities and other pieces of Iraq's arms-building infrastructure.
And the New York Times reports in its Saturday editions that American and British intelligence analysts with direct access to the evidence are disputing claims that mysterious trailers found in Iraq were for making deadly germs. In interviews with the Times over the last week, they said the mobile units were more likely intended for other purposes and charged that the evaluation process had been damaged by a rush to judgment.
"Everyone has wanted to find the 'smoking gun' so much that they may have wanted to have reached this conclusion," said one intelligence expert who has seen the trailers and, like some others, spoke to the newspaper on condition that he not be identified. He added, "I am very upset with the process."
Thielmann was director of the strategic, proliferation and military issues office in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. His office was privy to classified intelligence gathered by the CIA and other agencies about Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear programs.
In Thielmann's view, Iraq could have presented an immediate threat to U.S. security in two areas: Either it was about to make a nuclear weapon, or it was forming close operational ties with al Qaeda terrorists.
Evidence was lacking for both, despite claims by Mr. Bush and others, Thielmann said in an Associated Press interview this week. Suspicions were presented as fact, and contrary arguments ignored, he said.
The administration's prewar portrayal of Iraq's weapons capabilities has not been validated despite weeks of searching by military experts. Alleged stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons have not turned up, nor has significant evidence of a nuclear weapons program or links to the al Qaeda network.
Mr. Bush has said administration assertions on Iraq will be verified in time. The CIA and other agencies have vigorously defended their prewar performances.
Thielmann suggested mistakes may have been made at points all along the chain from when intelligence is gathered, analyzed, presented to the president and then provided to the public.
The evidence of a renewed nuclear program in Iraq was far more limited than the administration contended, he said.
"When the administration did talk about specific evidence - it was basically declassified, sensitive information - it did it in a way that was also not entirely honest," Thielmann said.
Thielmann said he had presumed Iraq had supplies of chemical and probably biological weapons. He particularly expected U.S. forces to find caches of mustard agent or other chemical weapons left over from Saddam's old stockpiles.
"We appear to have been wrong," he said. "I've been genuinely surprised at that."
Some critics have suggested that the White House and Pentagon policy-makers pressured the CIA and military intelligence to come up with conclusions favorable to an attack-Iraq policy. The CIA and military have denied such charges. Thielmann said that generally he felt no such pressure.
Although his office did not directly handle terrorism issues, Thielmann said he was similarly unconvinced of a strong link between al Qaeda and Saddam's government.
Yet, the implication from Mr. Bush on down was that Saddam supported Osama bin Laden's network. Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks frequently were mentioned in the same sentence, even though officials have no good evidence of any link between the two.
Jacoby said his agency concurred in an intelligence community consensus last fall that Iraq had a program for weapons of mass destruction. But the DIA was unable to pinpoint any locations.
"We could not specifically pin down individual facilities operating as part of the weapons of mass destruction program, specifically the chemical warfare portion," Jacoby said at a joint news conference with Sen. John Warner and Stephen Cambone, the Pentagon's intelligence chief.
They spoke after the Senate Armed Services Committee met privately with Jacoby, Cambone and an unidentified CIA representative to discuss prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs.
For his part Warner, chairman of the armed services panel, said he was not prepared to place blame for any intelligence shortcomings until all information is in.
"There are always times when a single sentence or a single report evokes a lot of concern and some doubt," Warner told reporters after a closed hearing of his committee. "But thus far, in my own personal assessment of this situation, the intelligence community has diligently and forthrightly and with integrity produced intelligence and submitted it to this administration and to the Congress of the United States."
In his description of the still-classified DIA report, Jacoby drew a distinction between the level of certainty about Iraq's pursuit of weapons and the existence of actual chemical weapons.
"As of 2002, in September, we could not reliably pin down - for somebody who was doing contingency planning - specific facilities, locations or production that was under way at a specific location at that point in time," he said.
The report "is not in any way intended to portray the fact that we had any doubts that such a program existed," he said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently raised the possibility that Iraq destroyed such weapons before the war started March 20. He also has said he believes some remain and will be discovered when U.S. search teams find knowledgeable Iraqis who are willing to disclose the locations.
In making its case for invading Iraq, the administration also argued that Iraq was seeking to develop nuclear weapons and that it might provide mass-killing weapons to terrorists.
On Friday, a small team of United Nations nuclear experts arrived in Baghdad to begin a damage assessment at Iraq's largest nuclear facility, known as Tuwaitha. It was left unguarded by American and allied troops during the early days of the war and was pillaged by villagers.
The arrival of the team - whose members are not weapons inspectors - marked the first time since the Iraq war began that representatives from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency returned to the country. The agency had long monitored Iraq's nuclear program.
The DIA's analysis is just one piece of an intelligence mosaic that Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials could consider in making their own assessment of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons capability. Congress is reviewing the prewar intelligence to determine whether the administration overplayed the weapons threat in order to justify toppling the Iraqi government.
In Britain, Parliament is investigating the government's use of intelligence material on Iraqi weapons amid reports that Prime Minister Tony Blair's office redrafted an intelligence dossier, published in September, to emphasize a single-source report about the threat of chemical and biological weapons.
As for the trailers, which allied forces found in Iraq in April and May, the Bush administration has cited them as evidence that Saddam Hussein was hiding a program for biological warfare. In a white paper last week, it publicly detailed its case, even while conceding discrepancies in the evidence and a lack of hard proof.
Now, says the Times, intelligence analysts stationed in the Middle East, as well as in the United States and Britain, are disclosing serious doubts about the administration's conclusions in what appears to be "a bitter debate" within the intelligence community. Skeptics told the Times their initial judgments of a weapon application for the trailers had faltered as new evidence came to light.
Bill Harlow, a spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency, said to the Times that the dissenters "are entitled to their opinion, of course, but we stand behind the assertions in the white paper."