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Weapons Of Mass Deception?

In the run-up to war with Iraq, President Bush accused Saddam Hussein of "deception and denial" on his country's weapons programs. Saddam denied any such programs existed.

Now it appears possible both the United States and Saddam were duped. The U.S. might have been deceived by people who claimed Saddam was lying. And Saddam may have thought he was lying, but in fact told the truth.

Iraq's alleged arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and its suspected active pursuit of nuclear arms were the chief justification for the war.

No weapons have been reported found to date. An interim CIA report from chief weapons hunter David Kay expected this week, while preliminary in nature, will apparently include no evidence of the suspected weapons stockpiles.

A published report Monday suggested Iraq stopped all significant weapons of mass destruction research in the early 1990s, but may have obscured this fact for strategic reasons. Another report called into question the evidence provided to the United States by defectors.

Time magazine reports that several Iraq scientists it has interviewed tell the same story: that Iraq stopped pursuing weapons of mass destruction in the early 1990s and destroyed the relevant documents, but did not tell U.N. inspectors because Saddam wanted to conceal his real ambitions, which related to conventional air defenses, radar and missiles.

It is even possible, the magazine reports, that Saddam himself did not know that his WMD arsenal had ceased to exist. The Iraqis running Saddam's weapons program may have lied to Saddam, boasting of fake weapons programs simply to get more money.

One Iraqi who once worked for Saddam's weapons program, where the man purchased growth media for biological weapons, says he was told before the first Gulf war to destroy documents on his work. When U.N. inspectors began asking for those papers, there was nothing to give them.

Another former weapons researcher, engineering professor Nabil al-Rawi, told Time he was ordered last November to offer a seminar for other scientists on how to get research funding, because there was no more weapons work.

Some weapons experts doubt Saddam stopped all biological and chemical weapons research. They question why he would have eliminated his most lethal weapons, but kept no records — thereby eroding his defenses without reducing the possibility of invasion. There is also some evidence Iraq destroyed large caches of weapons but retained a few as seeds for further research.

But, the magazine reports, Saddam may have concealed his destruction of weapons to preserve a deterrent against invasion. When that deterrent failed in March, and the United States invaded, Iraq's front line troops lacked any WMD to use. "We wanted them but didn't have any," one Army captain told Time.

The New York Times, meanwhile, reports the Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that most of what Iraqi defectors revealed was useless, and the rest was largely untrue.

The defectors' data involved information about alleged weapons programs and the Iraqi government. The program involved more than six defectors who were debriefed late last year and early this year. Some of their claims were made public.

According to the Times, an internal DIA report found that only a third of the information provided by defectors was considered useful, and most of that data did not turn out to be true. The DIA found that some of defectors sponsored by Iraq National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi, faked or inflated their resumes.

Two Pentagon officials defended the program, noting the uneven reliability of human intelligence in general. Chalabi says two of the three people he brought forward provided helpful tips.

The Bush administration on Sunday disputed the assertions that the United States went to war in Iraq on the basis of outdated and vague intelligence.

The leaders of the House intelligence committee said in a letter last week to CIA Director George Tenet that the prewar claims resulted largely from fragmentary and circumstantial evidence filled with uncertainties.

The letter from the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, Porter Goss of Florida, and the ranking Democrat, Jane Harman of California, reportedly cited "significant deficiencies" in the intelligence agencies' ability to collect fresh intelligence on Iraq after U.N. weapons inspectors left in 1998.

Instead, the letter said, the agencies relied on "past assessments" and "some new 'piecemeal' intelligence" that went largely unchallenged.

But senior U.S. officials said that treating the information as obsolete would have assumed a dramatic change in behavior by Saddam — the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction since the departure of U.N. inspectors in 1998.

"I just don't think that was plausible," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said in a broadcast interview.

Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Saddam's use of poison gas against Kurdish civilians — 5,000 died — to put down unrest in 1988.

"Now, if you want to believe that he suddenly gave up that weapon and had no further interest in those sorts of weapons, whether it be chemical, biological, or nuclear, then I think you're — it's a bit naive to believe that," Powell said in a broadcast interview.

Also Sunday, White House aides said they would cooperate with a Justice Department review of allegations that administration officials violated federal law by naming a clandestine CIA agent whose husband raised doubts about the U.S. weapons claims.