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James Woolsey was director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1993 to 1995. He has been a leading neoconservative promoting the war in Iraq. Last week, the U.S. Senate released a highly critical report on pre-war Iraq intelligence. On July 14, the Butler Commission will issue a similarly critical report on British intelligence leading up to the Iraq war.

NATHAN GARDELS: Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, has said the faulty pre-war intelligence on Iraq amounted to a "global intelligence failure," something likely to be confirmed when Lord Butler's report also comes out in Great Britain this week.

The Senate report said U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was false, "overstated and not supported by underlying intelligence," and there were no links to Al Qaeda.

What does this mean for the case to go to war in the first place?

JAMES WOOLSEY: These intelligence critiques don't substantially affect the case for going to war. The case for preemption was always that a country that possesses the means to make WMD of any sort-especially a regime with the hostile history of Iraq-might provide them to terrorist groups. The error of the CIA was to refer to "weapons" instead of chemical or biological agents that could rapidly be made into weapons.

The CIA never said Iraq had nuclear weapons, but in fact projected it could have them within five to seven years if it tried to reconstitute its program closed down after the Gulf War.

You don't need stockpiles of weapons loaded up in bombs and shells to give anthrax or sarin to terrorist groups. U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix himself said there were 8,500 liters of anthrax Saddam admitted to making whose destruction he could not demonstrate. Similarly there was a ton of sarin. Even the Russians and the French agreed these chemical and biological agents were unaccounted for.

That seems huge, but that amount of agent would all fit in half a tractor trailer. And it would take only a few days, a week or two at most, to weaponize those agents in a microbrewry-type facility attached to a restaurant.

In fact, the Senate report documents that Iraq was working on powderizing "simulants"-materials like anthrax in every way except toxicity. They could then turn that technique and equipment to work on anthrax. In powder form, anthrax would be very lethal. This means Iraq could have been days or weeks away from preparing agent to give to a terrorist group.

To prepare sarin involves only minor modifications to a pesticide plant. In other words, the CIA was wrong in thinking there might be massive stockpiles of weapons and leading people to expect that. But, given Saddam's hostile stance to the United States and his history of having used chemical weapons twice, the possibility he might weaponize chemical and biological agents for terrorists who might hit us was very real. And that was enough case, in my view, for a preventive war because the time it might take to weaponize agents was far less than the time it would take to build up an invasion force and prepare for war. This is the heart of the matter.

GARDELS: The Senate report also said there were no formal links between Al Qaeda and Saddam. Do you agree with that?

WOOLSEY: Saddam had plenty of ties with terrorist groups from Abu Nidal to Hamas. Chapter 12 of the supporting study to the Senate report says that there were a dozen or more credible reports of training by Iraq of Al Qaeda in chemical and bacteriological weapons use. The CIA also had plenty of reports of training in conventional explosives.

The Senate report says the CIA could find no "formal" relationship between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Well, there are no "formal" relationships in this kind of activity. There are no diplomats in striped suits signing pieces of parchment here. You don't put stuff like this in writing.

Look, the CIA has hundreds of relationships around the world with other intelligence agencies. Of all those, I can think of only two or three where there is any degree of formality, with signed documents and so on. The same is true of other intelligence services.

Al Qaeda and Iraq were not going to sign some piece of paper to formalize any links. That is nonsense. So, to say there was no "formal" relationship is really saying nothing.

This idea of looking for formal links comes from a mindset that developed during the 1970-80s when state-sponsored terrorism was most prominent. Hezobllah is not rich, so it relies on Iran to pay the bills and the mullahs in Tehran give orders.

Al Qaeda is rich on its own. The two countries where it was substantially present-Sudan and Afghanistan-were more terrorist-sponsored states than the other way around.

So I would agree that Al Qaeda was in no way sponsored or ordered around by Iraq. But I would also agree with the Senate report that Al Qaeda and Iraq seemed to have overcome their mutual antipathy because Al Qaeda needed assistance from Iraq-particularly in use of chemicals and bacteriologicals-and Iraq was pleased to see the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

That does not mean that Iraq helped Al Qaeda commit 9/11 or the earlier World Trade Center bombing. It only means they were happy to do what they could clandestinely to menace the United States.

GARDELS: Would better human intelligence on the ground in Iraq have helped the United States and Britain get a better handle on the real story?

WOOLSEY: Let me put it this way. David Kay, the Bush-appointed head of the Iraq Survey Group who resigned without finding any weapons in the wake of the U.S. invasion, said "all" the captured battlefield generals from the Iraqi army said "my unit didn't have chemical weapons, but the ones to my right and left did." And they said that when they were kept in isolation from each other during interrogation.

If the CIA had had six or eight of its best case officers -- under foreign cover, fluent in Arabic and versed in history -- and they had each recruited two Iraqi generals, what would they have discovered and reported? They would have reported that each general said, "Yes, Iraq has chemical weapons!" That is an intelligence failure, but of a different kind. It is not blind stupidity; it is the failure to penetrate a deception.

GARDELS: In one sense, the intelligence failure was not global. Hans Blix has told me: "The United States took the view that things that were unaccounted For -- whether 8,500 liters of anthrax or several thousand liters of this or that -- still existed. Well, this was a worst-case scenario, and we did not exclude that. But the difference was that they said 'yes, it does exist.' We warned against this attitude several times. But they used it regardless because they wanted to persuade the Security Council and influence public opinion. They said that there were actual WMD, and this was taking it too far. "In the end, we demonstrated that professional, independent inspections can be made very effectively, and that we came closer to the truth than the national intelligence agencies did."

Doesn't one have to admit, now, that this is true?

WOOLSEY: He may prove to be right with respect to the actual existence of weapons stockpiles per se. But, again, you couldn't ignore hidden stashes of chemical or bacteriological agents or the extant infrastructure behind them that could produce weapons in weeks. Iraq had the equipment and the know-how, and it had used these weapons before.

GARDELS: Rolf Ekeus, the first U.N. chief inspector for Iraq, has made a similar point: Ninety percent of Iraq weapons stockpiles, he has said, had been destroyed by 1998 by U.N. inspectors. What remained was the "software" of scientists and dual-use facilities to start things up again.

WOOLSEY: Ekeus has a huge amount of credibility on this. He is right. The irony is that Hans Blix lacked that credibility because, as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency before becoming chief U.N. inspector, he had missed all of Saddam's nuclear enrichment programs revealed after the first Gulf War. As a result, everyone from Jacques Chirac to the Russians believed Saddam must be hiding weapons again because he had done it before! The inspectors had been so wrong before the first Gulf War, it was somewhat natural to overcompensate and believe the worst.

GARDELS: It has been said that intelligence is the Achilles' heel of the preemptive, or preventive, war strategy because intelligence is more often than not inadequate and rarely compelling enough to clearly justify a preemptive invasion. Do you agree with that?

WOOLSEY: It depends on your standards. Intelligence and the decision to wage preemptive war are interactions among the nature of the regime, the nature of its ties to terrorist groups and its historical record.

Iraq met those requirements in spades, even if it had destroyed all its anthrax and sarin and only had its just-in-time production capacity. If the Bush administration had made that argument honestly, most people would have gone along with the war on those grounds.

If people are waiting for the smoking pot of anthrax to be found before they are willing to wage preventive war, then this argument is right. But concerning a regime with a history like Saddam's, you have to make a judgment. There is no automatic formula here. But when you put the factors together, you can objectively make the case for preemption.

However, after all we've been through with Iraq, it will be harder, in political terms, to make the case again.

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 7/12/04)