Weapons Of Mass Disappearance

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LYNSEY ADDARIO/CORBIS FOR TIME

Soldiers of the 25th Infantry rummage through a bombed-out house in Mosel looking for weapons

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Two Bush aides in particular, Rumsfeld and his Pentagon deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, have a long record of questioning the assumptions, methods and conclusions of the CIA. Wolfowitz was a member of the famous B Team, created in the mid-'70s by the CIA, then headed by Bush's father, to double-check the work of the CIA's line analysts about the military strength of the Soviet Union. Filled with many hard-liners who now work in the younger Bush's Administration, the B Team was spoiling back then for bigger defense budgets and a more aggressive foreign policy. It found many of the CIA's conclusions about the Soviet Union softheaded and naive. Its final report helped launch the Reagan-era defense buildup of the 1980s. Rumsfeld also chaired a bipartisan commission in 1998 set up by Congress to assess the pace of rogue states' missile efforts, which concluded that the CIA wouldn't be able to gather intelligence quickly enough to meet the unseen threats posed by Iran, Iraq and North Korea. That dire prediction — reinforced by a North Korean missile launch a month later — turbocharged the nation's push to build a $100 billion missile shield, now under construction.

The hard-liners' staunch beliefs were powerfully bolstered after 9/11; they quickly concluded that the CIA failed to anticipate the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. And they were not reassured by the CIA's performance after 9/11 either. By last fall, Rumsfeld had grown so impatient with the CIA's equivocal explanations of the Iraq problem that he set up his own mini-CIA at the Pentagon called the Office of Special Plans. It was hatched and designed, as a former U.S. official puts it, to get "the intelligence he wanted."

Several current and former military officers who saw all the relevant data through this spring charge that the Pentagon took the raw data from the CIA and consistently overinterpreted the threat posed by Iraq's stockpiles. "There was a predisposition in this Administration to assume the worst about Saddam," a senior military officer told TIME. This official, recently retired, was deeply involved in planning the war with Iraq but left the service after concluding that the U.S. was going to war based on bum intelligence. "They were inclined to see and interpret evidence a particular way to support a very deeply held conviction," the officer says. "I just think they felt there needed to be some sort of rallying point for the American people. I think they said it sincerely, but I also think that at the end of the day, we'll find out their interpretations of the intelligence were wrong." Another official, an Army intelligence officer, singled out Rumsfeld for massaging the facts. "Rumsfeld was deeply, almost pathologically distorting the intelligence," says the officer. Rumsfeld told a radio audience last week that the "war was not waged under any false pretense." And an aide flat-out rejects the idea that intelligence was hyped to support the invasion. "We'd disagree very strongly with that," said Victoria Clarke, the chief Pentagon spokeswoman.

Over the past two weeks, TIME has interviewed several dozen current and former intelligence officials and experts at the Pentagon and CIA and on Capitol Hill to try to understand how the public version of the intelligence got so far ahead of the evidence. The reporting suggests that from the start the process was more deductive than empirical. According to these officials, three factors were at work:

--TREATING THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO AS FACT. One official said the process often went this way: the agency would send to the Pentagon three ways to interpret one piece of information, such as a new satellite photo or telephone intercept, and the Pentagon would always opt for the most dire explanation. This inclination accounts in part for the controversial conclusion by the Defense Department that Iraq's aluminum tubes were for the production of uranium for nuclear weapons. Seasoned experts at the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California disagreed, but their view — the most expert government interpretation available — was either ignored or overruled. "They made a decision to turn a blind eye to other explanations," says David Albright, a former International Atomic Energy Agency arms inspector who now heads the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "If the Pentagon said the worst-case assessment is that within a short period of time Iraq could build nuclear weapons, we'd agree with that. But we have trouble when they start portraying the worst-case scenario as fact. And I think that's the case here."

--GLOSSING OVER AMBIGUITIES. Before the war, one of the little-stated but central realities of U.S. intelligence gathering in Iraq was that it was never great in the first place. It often depended on defectors with personal agendas and tall tales that some U.S. officials were eager to believe. Saddam went to extreme lengths to hide and deceive, and while those habits can help make an argument for invasion, they made for poor intelligence on all kinds of weapons programs. That was one reason it took the U.S. so long to unveil its data in the first place: it was fuzzy and subjective. A civilian intelligence official who continues to see all the intelligence said, "It was always, on its face, ambiguous. There were lots of indications of WMD and some signs of deceptions and efforts to hide. But when you probed and asked tough questions, the body language and attitude of the analysts was always, 'We're not sure. We think, but we're not sure.' Now if you want to conclude that Saddam is a big problem, then you don't necessarily probe and ask all the tough questions."

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