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Questions surround WMD hunt

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

Bush was asked during a recent White House meeting whether American credibility was on the line in the search for illicit weapons.
Bush was asked during a recent White House meeting whether American credibility was on the line in the search for illicit weapons.

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CNN's David Ensor examines claims that the Bush administration overstated the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (part 1).
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Ensor examines replies to claims the Bush administration overstated the Iraqi threat (part 2).
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Soldiers in the Middle East share their perspectives on the situation in Iraq.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush presented a strong case in the months leading up to the war with Iraq that Saddam Hussein had repeatedly refused to give up his weapons of mass destruction.

The weapons have not yet been found, and critics question whether the Bush administration overplayed the threat -- an allegation the White House has dismissed as baseless and politically motivated.

"Do they actually exist? The questions are mounting," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, an outspoken critic of Bush's war policies.

"How reliable were the claims of this president and key members of his administration that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction posed a clear and imminent threat to the United States?"

Critics point to Bush's State of the Union address in January in which he cited intelligence from one of the country's closest allies that he said indicated Iraq was seeking nuclear material.

"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he said in the January 28 speech.

The allegation was wrong. It was based on documents later exposed by U.N. weapons inspectors as sloppy forgeries -- with the wrong letterhead and wrong names -- designed to falsely implicate Niger in selling raw uranium, known as yellow cake, to Iraq.

"It's amazing to me that this could have happened," retired CIA analyst Ray Close told CNN on March 13.

"It perhaps is a measure of the kind of pressure that people are under now in Washington to produce information that adds to the dossier of evidence against the Iraqis," said Close, who has been strongly critical of the administration's decision to go to war based on the intelligence it said it had.

The White House should have known better, U.S. officials told CNN.

They said that almost a year before the president's speech the CIA gave the White House a report that cast serious doubt on the allegation.

The report cited a former ambassador sent to Niger to investigate and listed multiple reasons why the claim had to be false, the officials said.

Critics: Nuclear claims exaggerated

Some critics of administration say Vice President Dick Cheney exaggerated Saddam's nuclear threat in a March 16 television interview.

"We know he has been absolutely trying to acquire nuclear weapons and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons," Cheney told NBC's "Meet the Press."

U.S. intelligence officials said they have no evidence Iraq reconstituted its nuclear program after the 1991 Gulf War as Cheney suggested -- only that it may have tried to unsuccessfully.

Pressed for what intelligence was behind Cheney's assertion, administration officials provided evidence that Iraq had tried to acquire aluminum tubes that could be used to make gas centrifuges to enrich uranium.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency and other experts say the tubes would have been unsuitable.

"I think the administration is making a mistake by focusing on the aluminum tubes, because they're not a clear indicator of a nuclear weapons effort in Iraq," said David Albright, who was a U.N. nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq in the 1990s, in a January 30 interview.

Critics also questioned the Bush administration's assertions that the discovery in recent weeks of what U.S. officials said where mobile biological weapons laboratories proved that coalition intelligence was solid.

"We found the weapons of mass destruction, we found biological laboratories," Bush said in a May 29 interview with Polish television.

U.S. intelligence officials say they cannot find other potential uses for the trailers, which were filled with sophisticated equipment.

But U.S. forces have not found a single molecule of chemical or biological agents.

"The fact that no traces of agent have yet been found and that other chemicals that one would not expect in such a facility have been found do raise doubts about the conclusiveness of the analysis," said Jonathan Tucker, a U.N. bioweapons inspector in Iraq in the 1990s, in a May 28 interview.

Bush supporters: Critics playing politics

Bush's supporters say that U.N. weapons inspectors as well as intelligence agencies from the United States and its allies have been accumulating evidence on Iraq's WMD program for years.

They have accused critics who questioned the existence of chemical and biological weapons of playing politics with the issue.

"Saddam Hussein has openly admitted to the rest of the world that he had weapons of mass destruction. He used those weapons to kill his own people," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

Supporters also point out that U.N. weapons inspectors and even then-President Clinton have said Iraq's weapons could have been a threat.

"There are strong indications that Iraq produced more anthrax than it declared and that at least some of this was retained over the declared destruction date," chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said January 27.

In 1998, Clinton gave a more dire assessment: "Some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use that arsenal."

Bush supporters flatly deny claims that administration officials either exaggerated the threat or pressured intelligence analysts to produced findings that supported their policies.

"These are lies, there is not a word of truth in them," said Richard Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board, an independent group that advises Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Undersecretary of State John Bolton also disputed the charge in a June 4 hearing of the House International Relations Committee.

At the CIA, Director George Tenet issued a statement saying, "Our role is to call it like we see it." Concerning Iraq's weapons, Tenet said, "That is exactly what was done."

Supporters of the war said that if the United States had waited to act until it had absolute proof that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were a threat, it could have been too late.

"Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?" Bush asked in his State of the Union address.

Bush's supporters argue that the fact no weapons have been found raises questions about Saddam, not the president.

"What'll be most interesting and most astonishing is if four years from now we look back and say, 'There were no weapons of mass destruction,' and what we'll say then is that 'Saddam Hussein had to be the stupidest leader that ever existed,'" said Defense Policy Board member Ken Adelman.

The debate over the missing weapons -- the president's primary reason for war -- will likely intensify as Congress investigates and hearings are eventually held.

But it will end quickly, both sides agree, if weapons are found under 10 feet of sand in Iraq.

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