Every week senior senators in the US Congress sit down to a policy-makers' lunch. It is usually a pretty ho-hum affair -- an occasion for political backslapping. But last Tuesday as the grand panjandrums of the Grand Old Party assembled, US Vice President Dick Cheney had pressing business on his mind. That business, unusually, was to reassure the assembled senators that the administration of US President George W. Bush was not, as some had alleged, lying about weapons of mass destruction. It was to tell them that it did have credible evidence before American soldiers were sent to war that Iraq retained those weapons. \nA day later it was the turn of Douglas Feith, the media-shy Pentagon's No. 3, to appear this time before the cameras to -- as he put it -- lay some "urban myths" to rest about the involvement of himself and his Office of Special Plans in allegedly manipulating intelligence on Iraq to give the impression that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was more dangerous than he really was. By Thursday it was the turn of Bush, speaking to US troops in Qatar, vowing to "reveal the truth" about what he has described as the former Iraqi leader's weapons of mass destruction. \nBut the most extraordinary performance was still to come -- that by the director of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, who would declare that, despite the leak of a September paper by his agency stating that it had no "reliable evidence"of Iraqi weapons facilities or even whether it could produce chemical or biological weapons, he still had no doubt that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. \nSuddenly the questions over the existence or not of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have become like a bushfire burning through the "coalition of the willing" that went to war against Iraq. \nIf the fire has been damped down for the time being in the UK, it has sprung up again in the US and Australia and threatens to flare up in Spain. \nWhere once Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar stood together, the three most prominent members of the coalition now stand alone in their political problems, assailed at every turn by those who question their account of the threat posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). \nThe way that the allegations have spread in the US is all the more extraordinary in that the Bush administration -- unlike the Blair government -- has not had to rely on the existence or not of weapons of mass destruction as a casus belli, committed as the US was to a policy of regime change in Iraq. \nBut the Democrats and Republicans leading the charge to investigate allegations that intelligence was fabricated have an agenda that goes beyond the issue of Iraq. \nWhat is driving them, as much as a desire to find out the truth, is a desire to limit the huge influence and power that has been accumulated by the Pentagon and the coterie of hawks gathered around Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, which many fear is now dominating America's relations with the rest of the world. \nAt the heart of the burgeoning controversy is whether those Pentagon hawks deliberately misused intelligence gathered by the CIA and DIA to make the case for war. \nAt the very center of the allegations is the special intelligence analysis group and a terrorism war planning group -- both intimately connected -- set up in the Pentagon by Rumsfeld after Sept. 11, 2001, called the Office of Special Plans and headed by Douglas Feith, the man forced on Tuesday to defend his actions before the media. \nDiscredited claims \nIt was these officials -- under Feith -- who dug out the now discredited claims of a meeting between Mohammed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots, and Iraqi intelligence in Prague (in fact Atta was in the US, as proved by evidence uncovered by the FBI). It was these officials too who cherry-picked the most alarmist claims made by Iraqi defectors supplied to the US by the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi, and whose debriefing program had been transferred from the State Department, which distrusted the INC, to the Pentagon's department of Humint (human intelligence). \nAnd what has emerged in the last week is how deeply their interpretation was at odds with that of America's intelligence professionals. \nDuring the lead-up to war, the US intelligence community advised continually on its reservations about the White House and Pentagon's claims over Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and connections to the al-Qaeda terrorist group. \nAnalysts at the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and State Department Intelligence Division said in different papers and at different times that they could find no evidence of a connection between Saddam and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, and were wary of claims being made over WMD. \nAnd it was more than simple wariness. One official told the New York Times: "As an employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency, I know this administration has lied to the public to get support for its attack on Iraq." \nIt is a view that is gaining increasing currency among the former US spooks who speak for the intelligence bureaucracies. But it is not only the suspicion that the intelligence has been deliberately manipulated by Pentagon hawks that has emerged in the last week. \nOthers have claimed that huge pressure was put on the intelligence agencies, by the same Cheney who was reassuring Republican senators on Tuesday, to come up with the goods required to start a war and who, sources claimed last week, made repeated visits to the CIA creating a culture of fear within the organization. \nThe difficulties of the coalition's leaders have not been made any easier by the parting shots of Hans Blix, the retiring head of UNMOVIC, the body charged by the UN Security Council with finding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before the outbreak of war. And what Blix had to say last week was the intelligence he had been given by the US and the UK was fundamentally useless in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. \nThree snippets of British intelligence did lead the inspectors to a cache of conventional ammunition hidden in a farm house, some hidden documents relating to Iraq's nuclear programme and some missile warheads -- but no WMD. \nThe best Blix \ncan get \nIn hard-hitting comments to the BBC, he said he was disappointed with the tip-offs provided by US and British intelligence, saying: "Only in three of those cases did we find anything at all, and in none of these cases were there any weapons of mass destruction, and that shook me a bit, I must say." \nHe said UN inspectors had been promised the best information available. "I thought -- my God, if this is the best intelligence they have and we find nothing, what about the rest?" \nBlix's puzzlement is shared by many politicians in the coalition countries as well as their media, many of whom were faithfully promised that, when they went into Iraq after the country's "liberation," post facto legitimacy for the war would be instantly supplied by the WMD sites that they would be shown. \nWith the lack of hard evidence, intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic have been told to make a case for WMD in a more subtle form. \nBritish counter-intelligence, MI6, say sources, has been instructed to compile a composite picture of Iraq's missing WMD in the form of a new dossier that so far has managed to establish that Saddam possessed banned missiles but little else palpably concrete. \nThe change in emphasis amid the raging controversies has already seen one member of the coalition carefully disassociate his government from the intelligence that he was shown. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he had followed intelligence advice from the US and Britain, and did not doctor it. \n"There was no doctoring of intelligence advice by the government I lead," Howard said. "The advice was... carefully based on the information that properly flowed to the Australian intelligence agency by virtue of the very close intelligence links we have with the United States and the United Kingdom." \nAs the row over intelligence flared up in the US, in Britain this weekend Downing Street was determinedly mending bridges with its intelligence services and its own members of parliament (MPs) over allegations that it had spun intelligence to harden it up. \nSenior sources said that Number 10 intends to be candid and open in its dealings with the Intelligence and Security Committee in its investigations into the charges. "We decided to give them everything,"said a Number 10 figure. "That way there can be no allegations that we tried to cover stuff up." \nThe committee will be given the original Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) report on Iraqi weapons. Downing Street insists that, although the JIC assessment was "reordered"and some sections "slightly rewritten", every fact that appeared in the JIC document also appeared in the first Number 10 dossier on Saddam's WMD. \n"Some of the structure might have been changed, some of the writing, but every single fact that appears in the dossier is taken direct from the JIC assessment," the official said. "There were no substantive changes." \nBut Number 10 also knows that it will have to give ground on two key issues. Firstly, when Blair is called to give evidence before the committee he will admit that the second intelligence report, the so-called "dodgy dossier" based in large part on a doctoral thesis by a Californian student, was flawed. \nHe will also admit that there are "serious questions" to be answered about the claim in the first dossier that Saddam was attempting to procure nuclear material from Niger. The International Atomic Energy Authority later disclosed that such claims were based on "crudely forged"documents. \nBut Downing Street believes that by making the initial concessions the committee will then be able to concentrate on the substance of the issue -- namely, was the intelligence actually any good? \nA growing number of British government figures are becoming convinced that the UK's security services have been involved in an elegant pincer movement against the Cabinet in an attempt to cover-up their own intelligence failures. Spy chiefs briefed journalists first that the politicians had tried to overplay what they were telling them. \n"That is wholly wrong and you have to ask why they [the intelligence services] are trying to get that story up," said another Whitehall official.
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