Terror Watch: Bad Sourcing

Broadening an internal review of prewar intelligence on Iraq, the CIA is reexamining the credibility of four Iraq defectors whose claims were cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell last year as crucial evidence that Saddam Hussein had developed a system of mobile laboratories and factories to produce biological-warfare agents, NEWSWEEK has learned.

The four defectors were mentioned by Powell in his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the United Nations Security Council, which made the case for war against Iraq. The defectors also were cited by the CIA as sources in a paper the agency published in May claiming that three large tractor-trailers found in Iraq after the war were proof of the mobile bio-warfare facilities' existence--a claim now much in dispute.

But the CIA now has questions about whether any of the informants were reliable--and has acknowledged that one of the defectors had been previously branded a "fabricator" by another U.S. intelligence agency, sources tell NEWSWEEK. In addition, the sources say, some intelligence officers now fear that two major Iraqi-exile groups that provided U.S. agencies with informants may have been infiltrated by Iraqi intelligence and were feeding U.S. agencies with disinformation.

The review of the credibility of the four informants is part of larger investigations by the Bush administration and Congress into prewar assessments of Saddam's unconventional weapons. In the wake of the recent declaration by former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay that Iraq apparently had no chemical or biological weapons, CIA officials acknowledged for the first time last week that at least two of the sources cited by Powell in his speech as witnesses to Saddam's mobile germ-warfare projects may have had credibility problems.

In fact, NEWSWEEK has learned, questions are being raised about the other two sources cited by Powell, as well, including an informant described by the secretary as an "Iraqi chemical engineer." In his Security Council speech, Powell called this person "an eyewitness" who "supervised" one of the facilities and "actually was present during biological-agent production runs." But now, sources say, intelligence officers have questions about whether he actually was present for the events he claimed to have witnessed. One knowledgeable source said there was some reason to believe "the chemical engineer" may have been coached by an Iraqi exile group.

Though the CIA and other U.S. agencies have been reluctant to give out any further information about the chemical engineer's bona fides, one knowledgeable U.S. intelligence source said that the engineer was introduced to American intelligence by a foreign intelligence service in Europe. Only last week, the CIA was still standing by the credibility of the chemical engineer.

Questions about the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community's informants on Iraqi weapons programs are part of a still-secret 300-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee--a document that one staffer describes as a "stinging indictment" of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. In the report, says the source, the committee staff compares claims about Iraqi weapons programs that were contained in an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate with the sources relied on by the CIA to reach its conclusions. In many cases, the staffer said, there appears to be only limited support for the conclusions.

In his otherwise vigorous defense of the agency's performance at Georgetown University last week, CIA director George Tenet first alluded to the fact that were serious credibility problems with one Iraqi defector who made claims about the purported mobile weapons labs. Tenet said that the CIA had "recently discovered that relevant analysts in the community missed a notice that identified a source we had cited as providing information that, in some cases was unreliable, and in other cases was fabricated."

U.S. officials say Tenet was referring to the source identified in Powell's speech as an "Iraqi major who defected." Powell said the defector had "confirmed that Iraq has mobile biological-research laboratories." According to several U.S. intelligence officials, the "major" was introduced to U.S. intelligence by the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group with close ties to Pentagon civilians and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. After initial debriefing by the Defense Intelligence Agency in the winter of 2002, officials say, two intelligence reports recounting the "major's" allegations regarding Iraqi mobile labs were entered into computer databases maintained by the CIA and DIA.

Within a few months, however, DIA had further checked out the "major" and concluded that his stories and credentials were so dubious that the agency felt obliged to issue a governmentwide notice branding the defector as a "fabricator" whose information should be avoided. The "fabricator notice," issued in May 2002, reported that the defector had apparently been "coached by the Iraqi National Congress" on what to tell U.S. interrogators, according to a source who read the document, which remains classified. Despite the fabricator notice, however, the "major's" information was subsequently cited in a critical October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Saddam's WMD sent to policymakers, in Powell's U.N. speech and in the CIA's May 2003 paper announcing that suspect mobile labs had been found.

Officials say intelligence analysts continued to cite the defectors' information in official statements and papers even though a warning about him had been widely distributed because the fabricator notice was not cross-referenced in intelligence-agency computers with the two intelligence reports that told the defector's story. Intelligence officials say the mistake was only discovered in the past few weeks: sources close to the CIA say that the problem was discovered by the agency itself during an internal review, though Capitol Hill sources say the agency did not know of the problem until congressional investigators pointed it out.

Officials familiar with the intelligence community's dossier on the "major" say that the paper trail indicates that the defector was first sent to the DIA as an "executive referral." An administration official says this meant that the defector was referred to the intelligence community by a high-ranking member of the Pentagon's civilian leadership. The official declined to identify precisely who in the Pentagon leadership made the referral. Before the war, the Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, established close ties to a number of prominent Pentagon civilians; the group's boosters are known to have included Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of Defense for planning.

The Pentagon had no immediate response to telephone and e-mail inquiries from NEWSWEEK about who in the Defense Department's civilian leadership might have referred the dubious defector to DIA.

Last week, some intelligence officials conceded that at least one other of the four sources cited by Powell for the mobile germ-lab claim was potentially dubious. And today, a senior official acknowledged that the credibility of all the sources cited by Powell is being reviewed by intelligence officials. Intelligence officials have acknowledged that the defectors played a major role in convincing intelligence analysts that Saddam had a mobile germ-lab program and that the tractor-trailers found after the war were proof that the program existed. Officials say that apart from the defectors' information, the other reason that CIA analysts could cite for their strong belief that the trailers found after the war were mobile labs was that they could see no other practical use for them.

However, in his Georgetown speech last week, Tenet acknowledged that there was "no consensus" inside the intelligence community over whether the trailers were really germ-warfare facilities. Kay, the weapons inspector, has said that he believes the trailers most probably were intended to produce hydrogen for Iraqi weather balloons, an alternative explanation that is gaining currency inside U.S. intelligence.

Kay says that his information now indicates that both the Iraqi National Congress and a rival exile group, the Iraqi National Accord, which is close to the CIA and M.I.6, the British intelligence service, were both infiltrated by Saddam's agents before the war. He says it is possible some of the sources cited in U.S. intelligence estimates about Saddam's WMD will turn out to have been double-agents planted by Saddam.

A senior official of the Iraqi National Congress said his group was unaware of any allegation that its defectors included double agents infiltrated into the group by Saddam's regime, noting that it did not make sense for Saddam to plant agents with stories hyping Saddam's WMD programs at the same time that Saddam was desperate to convince the world to leave him alone and that he had no unconventional weapons.

Kay told NEWSWEEK that U.S. investigators are still trying to figure out what was in Saddam's mind before the war. There are at least two theories, he and other U.S. officials say, as to why Saddam's intelligence service might have used double agents to plant stories with U.S. intelligence about WMD programs. One is that Saddam sent out agents with claims of continuing WMD programs to deter enemies at home and abroad, with whom he might have lost face if he conceded that WMD programs had been dismantled in response to international pressure.

The other theory is that Saddam sent out bogus defectors with deliberately lurid WMD claims in the expectation that such claims would reach the United States and eventually be passed on to U.N. inspectors. The theory is that Saddam then believed that when the investigators checked the claims out and found them to be bogus, the Bush administration and other parties who took the claims seriously would be shown to be crying wolf. If this is really what Saddam was thinking--and intelligence sources concede that at this point it is only one theory--then Saddam outsmarted himself, since it is only now, nearly a year after the war, that prewar claims by defectors are being serious questioned.