INTELLIGENCE: WHO'S FUELING THE RUMORS THAT JUST WON'T DIE?

Critics of Bush Administration policy in Iraq have chastised the Pentagon for relying too heavily on questionable prewar intelligence from exile groups, particularly the Iraqi National Congress, about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's Qaeda links. But now a different exile group known for its close relationship with the CIA and Britain's M.I.6--no friends of the INC--is the source of recent news leaks hyping similar claims. A Washington, D.C., representative for Iyad Allawi, leader of the CIA/M.I.6- favored Iraqi National Accord, has confirmed that his group originated two fresh leaks about alleged prewar WMD deployments and evidence linking Saddam to 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta. (The spy agencies say the stories are uncorroborated.)

In one report, published by London's Sunday Telegraph, a former Iraqi air-defense officer named Lt. Col. al-Dabbagh claimed that crates containing WMD warheads were delivered to frontline Iraqi military units in 2002. The paper wrote that al-Dabbagh may have been the British government's principal source for a controversial prewar claim by Tony Blair that Saddam had WMD stockpiles that could be fired within 45 minutes. But British and U.S. intel sources denied that al-Dabbagh was the source for the claim, and U.S. officials say that no WMD shells of the type described by al-Dabbagh have been found. The INA leader's rep, Nick Theros, acknowledged that while al-Dabbagh was a member of the group, he never saw what was in the purported weapons crates, and that the claim now "looks like it could have been a crock of s--t." Theros also confirmed that the INA was the source of a purported secret document--again published by the Telegraph--claiming that Atta visited Baghdad, apparently in 2001, for a three-day training course with now deceased terrorist Abu Nidal. The same document also made a cryptic reference to Al Qaeda's involvement in an alleged shipment of an unidentified commodity to Iraq from Niger--an attempt to link Osama bin Laden to alleged efforts by Saddam to get nuclear material.

Con Coughlin, the journalist who broke the stories, conceded he had "no way of verifying [the document]. It's our job as journalists to air these things and see what happens." Theros told NEWSWEEK the INA merely passed the document to British intel and never vouched for its authenticity. Officials close to the CIA and M.I.6 say that while the agencies believe the INA's tales are unfounded, they still regard the group as a reliable ally.