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Contaiment Was Working CIA: Seven Months Before 9/11, the Agency Said Iraq Posed No Threat to the US

CIA

by JASON LEOPOLD


Seven months before two-dozen or so al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes and flew three of the aircrafts directly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, killing 3,000 innocent civilians, CIA Director George Tenet, testified before Congress that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the United States or to other countries in the Middle East.

But immediately after the terrorist attacks on 9-11, which the Bush administration claims Iraq is partially responsible for, the President and his advisers were already making a case for war against Iraq without so much as providing a shred of evidence to back up the allegations that Iraq and its former President, Saddam Hussein, was aware of the attacks or helped the al-Qaida hijackers plan the catastrophe.

It was then, after the 9-11 attacks, that intelligence reports from the CIA radically changed from previous months, which said Iraq posed no immediate threat to the U.S., to now show Iraq had a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and was in hot pursuit of a nuclear bomb. The Bush administration seized upon the reports to build public support for the war and used the information to eventually justify a preemptive strike against the country in March even though much of the information in the CIA report has since been disputed.

In just seven short months, beginning as early as February 2001, Bush administration officials said Iraq went from being a threat only to its own people to posing an imminent threat to the world. Indeed, in a Feb. 12, 2001 interview with the Fox News Channel Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said: "Iraq is probably not a nuclear threat at the present time."

But Rumsfeld testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Sept. 18, 2002 that Iraq is close to acquiring the materials needed to build a nuclear bomb.

"Some have argued that the nuclear threat from Iraq is not imminent — that Saddam is at least 5-7 years away from having nuclear weapons," Rumsfeld testified before the committee.

"I would not be so certain… He has, at this moment, stockpiles chemical and biological weapons, and is pursuing nuclear weapons."

Rumsfeld never offered any evidence to support his claims, but his dire warnings of a nuclear catastrophe caused by Saddam Hussein was enough to convince most lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, that Saddam’s Iraq was doomed. Shortly after his remarks before the House Armed Services Committee, Congress passed a resolution authorizing President Bush to use "all appropriate means" to remove Saddam from power.

Two months have passed since the U.S. invaded Iraq and not a spec of anthrax nor any other deadly chemical or biological weapon has been found. U.S. military forces have searched more than 300 sites but have turned up nothing substantial. Lawmakers are now questioning whether the intelligence information gathered by the CIA was accurate or whether the Bush administration manipulated and or exaggerated the intelligence to make a case for war.

However, intelligence reports released by the CIA and more than 100 interviews top officials in the Bush administration, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, gave to various Senate and Congressional committees and media outlets prior to 9-11 show that the U.S. never believed Saddam Hussein to be an imminent threat other than to his own people. Moreover, the CIA reported in February 2001 that Iraq was "probably" pursuing chemical and biological weapons programs but that it had no direct evidence that Iraq actually had actually obtained such weapons.

"We do not have any direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since (Operation) Desert Fox to reconstitute its WMD programs, although given its past behavior, this type of activity must be regarded as likely," CIA director Tenet said in an agency report to Congress on Feb 7, 2001 .

"We assess that since the suspension of (United Nations) inspections in December of 1998, Baghdad has had the capability to reinitiate both its (chemical and biological weapons) programs… without an inspection monitoring program, however, it is more difficult to determine if Iraq has done so."

"Moreover, the automated video monitoring systems installed by the UN at known and suspect WMD facilities in Iraq are still not operating," according to the 2001 CIA report. "Having lost this on-the-ground access, it is more difficult for the UN or the US to accurately assess the current state of Iraq’s WMD programs."

Ironically, in the February 2001 report, Tenet said Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network remain the single greatest threat to U.S. interests here and abroad. Tenet eerily describes in the report a scenario that six months later would become a reality.

"Terrorists are also becoming more operationally adept and more technically sophisticated in order to defeat counter-terrorism measures. For example, as we have increased security around government and military facilities, terrorists are seeking out "softer" targets that provide opportunities for mass casualties. Employing increasingly advanced devices and using strategies such as simultaneous attacks, the number of people killed … Usama bin Ladin and his global network of lieutenants and associates remain the most immediate and serious threat. Since 1998, Bin Ladin has declared all U.S. citizens legitimate targets of attack. As shown by the bombing of our embassies in Africa in 1998 and his Millennium plots last year, he is capable of planning multiple attacks with little or no warning," Tenet said.

However, Tenet only briefly discussed the al-Qaida threat and devoted the bulk of his testimony on how to deal with the threat of rogue countries such as North Korea, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Six months later, Bin Laden was identified as the mastermind behind 9-11.

Between 1998 and early 2002, the CIA’s reports on the so-called terror threat offered no details on what types of chemical and biological weapons that Iraq obtained.

But that changed dramatically in October 2002 when the CIA issued another report that this time included details of Iraq’s alleged vast chemical and biological weapons.

The October 2002 CIA report into Iraq’s WMD identifies sarin, mustard gas, VX and numerous other chemical weapons that the CIA claims Iraq had been stockpiling over the years, in stark contrast to earlier reports by Tenet that said the agency had no evidence to support such claims. And unlike testimony Tenet gave a year earlier, in which he said the CIA had no direct evidence of Iraq’s WMD programs, the intelligence information in the 2002 report, Tenet said, is rock solid.

"This information is based on a solid foundation of intelligence," Tenet said during a CIA briefing in February.

"It comes to us from credible and reliable sources. Much of it is corroborated by multiple sources."

The CIA would not comment on the differing reports between 2001 and 2002 or how the agency was able to obtain such intelligence information and corroborate it so quickly.

Still, in early 2001, while hardliners in the Bush administration were privately discussing ways to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Secretary of State Powell said the U.S. successfully "contained" Iraq in the years since the first Gulf War and that because of economic sanctions placed on the country Iraq was unable to obtain WMD.

"We have been able to keep weapons from going into Iraq," Powell said during a Feb 11, 2001 interview with "Face the Nation. "We have been able to keep the sanctions in place to the extent that items that might support weapons of mass destruction development have had some controls on them… it’s been quite a success for ten years…"

Moreover, during a meeting with Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, in February 2001 on how to deal with Iraq, Powell said the U.N., the U.S. and its allies "have succeeded in containing Saddam Hussein and his ambitions."

Saddam’s "forces are about one-third their original size. They don’t really possess the capability to attack their neighbors the way they did ten years ago," Powell said during the meeting with Fischer.

"Containment has been a successful policy, and I think we should make sure that we continue it until such time as Saddam Hussein comes into compliance with the agreements he made at the end of the (Gulf) war."

Powell added that Iraq is "not threatening America," but in a separate interview with ABC’s Sam Donaldson on Feb. 1, 2001, Powell said the U.S. could attack Iraq if "something occurred to us," which would suggest that the 9-11 terrorist attacks made Iraq a legitimate target.