By JIM ABRAMS, Associated Press WriterFri Sep 8, 7:48 PM ET
Saddam Hussein regarded al-Qaida as a threat rather than a possible ally, a Senate report says, contradicting assertions President Bush has used to build support for the war in Iraq.
Released Friday, the report discloses for the first time an October 2005 CIA assessment that before the war, Saddam's government "did not have a relationship, harbor or turn a blind eye toward" al-Qaida operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or his associates.
Saddam told U.S. officials after his capture that he had not cooperated with Osama bin Laden even though he acknowledged that officials in his government had met with the al-Qaida leader, according to FBI summaries cited in the Senate report. "Saddam only expressed negative sentiments about bin Laden," Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi leader's top aide, told the FBI.
The report also faults intelligence gathering in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion.
As recently as an Aug. 21 news conference, Bush said people should "imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein" with the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction and "who had relations with Zarqawi."
Democrats contended that the administration continues to use faulty intelligence, including assertions of a link between Saddam's government and the recently killed al-Zarqawi, to justify the war in Iraq. They also said, in remarks attached to Friday's Senate Intelligence Committee document, that former CIA Director George Tenet had modified his position on the terrorist link at the request of administration policymakers.
Republicans said the document, which compares prewar intelligence with post-invasion findings on Iraq's weapons and on terrorist groups, broke little new ground. And they said Democrats were distorting it for political purposes.
A previous report in 2004 made clear the intelligence agencies' "massive failures," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a member of the committee. "Yet to make a giant leap in logic to claim that the Bush administration intentionally misled the nation or manipulated intelligence is simply not warranted."
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the report was "nothing new."
A second part of the report concluded that false information from the Iraqi National Congress, an anti-Saddam group led by then-exile Ahmed Chalabi, was used to support key U.S. intelligence assessments on Iraq. It said U.S. intelligence agents put out numerous red flags about the reliability of INC sources but the intelligence community made a "serious error" and used one source who concocted a story that Iraq was building mobile biological weapons laboratories.
The report also said that in 2002 the National Security Council directed that funding for the INC should continue "despite warnings from both the CIA, which terminated its relationship with the INC in December 1996, and the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), that the INC was penetrated by hostile intelligence services, including the Iranians."
According to the report, postwar findings indicate that Saddam "was distrustful of al-Qaida and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime." It said al-Zarqawi was in Baghdad from May until late November 2002. But "postwar information indicates that Saddam Hussein attempted, unsuccessfully, to locate and capture al-Zarqawi and that the regime did not have a relationship with, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi."
In June 2004, Bush defended Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that Saddam had "long-established ties" with al-Qaida. "Zarqawi is the best evidence of connection to al-Qaida affiliates and al-Qaida," the president said.
The report concludes that postwar findings do not support a 2002 intelligence report that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, possessed biological weapons or had ever developed mobile facilities for producing biological warfare agents. "The report is a devastating indictment of the Bush-Cheney administration's unrelenting, misleading and deceptive attempts to convince the American people that Saddam Hussein was linked with al-Qaida," said Sen. Carl Levin (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich., a member of the committee.
Levin and Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the panel, said Tenet told the committee last July that in 2002 he had complied with an administration request "to say something about not being inconsistent with what the president had said" about the Saddam-terrorist link.
They said that on Oct. 7, 2002, the same day Bush gave a speech speaking of such a link, the CIA had sent a declassified letter to the committee saying it would be an "extreme step" for Saddam to assist Islamist terrorists in attacking the United States.
They said Tenet acknowledged to the committee that subsequently issuing a statement that there was no inconsistency between the president's speech and the CIA viewpoint was "the wrong thing to do."
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the mistakes of prewar intelligence have long been known and "the additional views of the committee's Democrats are little more than a rehashing of the same unfounded allegations they've used for over three years."
The panel report is Phase II of an analysis of prewar intelligence on Iraq. The first phase, issued in July 2004, focused on the CIA's failings in its estimates of Iraq's weapons program.
The second phase had been delayed as Republicans and Democrats fought over what information should be declassified and how far the committee should delve into the question of whether policymakers may have manipulated intelligence to make the case for war.
Committee member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he planned to ask for an investigation into the amount of information remaining classified. He said, "I am particularly concerned it appears that information may have been classified to shield individuals from accountability."
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