WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House released excerpts from a classified October 2002 intelligence document on Friday to demonstrate how flawed intelligence on Iraq's nuclear-weapons ambitions wound up in President Bush's State of the Union address.
The document cites "compelling evidence" of such a program - but it also reflects prewar divisions within the U.S. intelligence community, including a State Department dismissal of reports that Saddam Hussein was shopping for uranium ore in Africa as "highly dubious."
"We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD (weapons of mass destruction) program," the CIA and other intelligence agencies concluded, according to the documents.
The Bush administration released the material - a sanitized version of the top-secret National Intelligence Estimate prepared for the president - as it sought to shield Bush from rising criticism that he misled the public in making his case for war with Iraq in his Jan. 28 speech.
Administration aides suggested that the eight pages of excerpts, out of 90 in the document, demonstrate that the notion that Saddam was trying to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program permeated the U.S. intelligence community - and was not just based on a suspect British intelligence report that relied in part on forged documents.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the documents show "the clear and compelling case we had for confronting the threat that Saddam Hussein posed."
But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, suggested the release of the declassified documents showed the opposite, especially given the strong State Department reservations. "It further undermines the White House case that the Iraqi nuclear program was active and that it posed an immediate threat," he said.
Bush in his State of the Union address asserted that, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
The excerpts include a conclusion that Baghdad "if left unchecked … probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade." The documents also cite unsubstantiated reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from three African countries: Niger, Somalia and possibly Congo.
"Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring," the intelligence assessment said. Most U.S. intelligence agencies, it continued, "assess that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that (U.N. weapons) inspectors departed - December 1998."
Yet a "footnote" in the document by the State Department appears to undermine a key element of that assessment, saying that "claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are … highly dubious."
The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research concluded: "The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing … an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons."
The overall findings served as the foundation for many of the general assertions made by Bush and other administration officials in the run-up to the war: that Saddam was making chemical and biological weapons, was rebuilding his nuclear-weapons program and had illegal long-range missiles that could reach as far as Israel.
None of those assertions have been validated by postwar finds in Iraq.
The material also reports a widely held belief among U.S. agencies that Saddam was attempting to acquire materials that could be used in building atomic bombs, including centrifuge parts, magnets and "high-speed balancing machines."
The document cites "high confidence" within the intelligence community that "Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material."
Under the category of "moderate confidence," the report states that "Iraq does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one but is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009."
It also expresses "low confidence" that Saddam would engage in attacks on the U.S. homeland or "in desperation" share chemical and biological weapons with al-Qaida terrorists.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood by the Africa claim during a visit to Washington on Thursday, although U.S. officials, including CIA Director George Tenet, have recently challenged it.
Tenet has taken responsibility, saying that he should have insisted the offending 16-word sentence be removed from a draft of Bush's speech sent to his agency for review.
Bush has only said that the speech was cleared by intelligence agencies. White House officials vowed to do a better job to prevent questionable material from winding up in his speeches.
Democrats and other administration critics have suggested that the Iraq-Africa assertion was an attempt to exaggerate the rationale for overthrowing the Saddam regime without broad international support.
The White House went to considerable lengths Friday to try to staunch the daily flow of questions and criticism, sending a senior official to defend its actions to reporters for over an hour and a half.
The official refused requests to put the briefing on the record and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The official insisted that Bush and his most senior aides had no idea there were problems with the intelligence underlying the uranium claim before the speech was delivered.
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