CIA: Assessment of Syria's WMD exaggerated
- Posted on Tue, Jul. 15, 2003
CIA: Assessment of Syria's WMD exaggerated
By WARREN P. STROBEL and JONATHAN S. LANDAY
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON - In a new dispute over interpreting intelligence data, the CIA
and other agencies objected vigorously to a Bush administration assessment of
the threat of Syria's weapons of mass destruction that was to be presented
Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
After the objections, the planned testimony by Undersecretary of State
John R. Bolton, a leading administration hawk, was delayed until September.
U.S. officials told Knight Ridder that Bolton was prepared to tell members
of a House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee that Syria's
development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons had progressed to such a
point that they posed a threat to stability in the region.
The CIA and other intelligence agencies said that assessment was
Syria has come under increasing U.S. pressure during and after the Iraq
war for allegedly giving refuge to members of Saddam Hussein's regime, allowing
foreign fighters to cross into Iraq to attack U.S. troops and for backing
Palestinian militant groups that were conducting terrorist strikes on Israel.
After Saddam's government fell, some Bush aides hinted that the government of
Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus might be the next U.S. target.
The objections by the intelligence community come as the Bush
administration is defending itself over complaints that it embellished
intelligence secrets to justify the war against Iraq.
Bolton's planned remarks caused a "revolt" among intelligence experts who
thought they inflated the progress Syria has made in its weapons programs, said
a U.S. official who isn't from the CIA, but was involved in the dispute.
He and other officials who provided similar accounts spoke only on the
condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity and because they
aren't authorized government spokesmen.
The CIA's objections and comments alone ran to 35 to 40 pages, the
Officials declined to provide more details of the disputes over the
testimony, some of which was secret and scheduled to be delivered in closed
session. The House panel is considering a bill that would toughen trade and
diplomatic sanctions against Syria, which is on the U.S. list of
Officials provided conflicting explanations of why the hearing was
A Bolton aide said it was because of a scheduling conflict - Bolton was
called to a White House meeting Tuesday afternoon - and that the hearing had
been reset for September. Others said it was because the bitter dispute couldn't
be immediately resolved.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the issue.
But other officials in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill said the
White House Office of Management and Budget, which coordinates government
officials' public statements, wouldn't give final approval to the planned
The conflict appears to illustrate how battles over prewar intelligence on
Iraq have spread to other issues and have heightened sensitivity among Bush
aides about public descriptions of threats to the United States.
The White House acknowledged last week that it shouldn't have included in
President Bush's January State of the Union address a dramatic contention that
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium for nuclear weapons in
Africa. Other administration claims about Iraq's banned weapons program and
alleged ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network are now in question.
Several officials said another reason for the cancellation of Bolton's
testimony was that he might have been subjected to sharp questioning about Iraq
intelligence, a controversy the White House is trying to lay to rest.
There is more attention to "dotting I's and crossing T's," said a State
Department official, adding that Bolton's draft statement was the subject of
Bolton set off a controversy in May 2002 when he asserted in a speech that
Cuba has a biological warfare program. A State Department intelligence expert,
Christian Westermann, recently told a closed-door Senate Intelligence Committee
hearing that available intelligence data don't support that assertion, U.S.
officials have said.
The first U.S. official said that after months of complaining about
pressure to skew their analyses, rank-and-file intelligence officials "have
become emboldened" by the recent public debate over Iraq.
"People are fed up," he said.
Another official confirmed that the CIA had "a good deal of concern" over
the classified portion of Bolton's testimony.
In speeches and congressional testimony over the past year, Bolton has
identified Syria among a handful of countries whose alleged pursuit of
biological and chemical weapons makes them threats to international stability.
His assessments attached more gravity to the danger that Syria poses than did a
declassified U.S. intelligence assessment that covered the first six months of
In testimony in June before the House International Relations Committee,
Bolton said U.S. officials are "looking at Syria's nuclear program with growing
concern and continue to monitor it for any signs of nuclear weapons intent."
A CIA report submitted to Congress in April contained more cautionary
language. Noting that Syria and Russia have reached preliminary agreement on
civilian nuclear cooperation, the CIA report said only, "In principal, broader
access to Russian expertise provides opportunities for Syria to expand its
indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons."
In his June testimony, Bolton asserted that U.S. officials "know that
Syria is pursuing the development of biological weapons." The CIA report said
only that it's "highly probable that Syria is also continuing to develop an
offensive BW (biological weapons) capability."
Finally, Bolton told the congressional committee that "North Korean
entities have been involved in aiding Syria's ballistic missile development."
The CIA reported that Syria was trying to build Scud-C ballistic missiles
"probably with North Korean assistance."
CIA Director George Tenet, in an annual worldwide assessment of threats
against the United States that he presented to Congress in February, referred to
Syria by name only once, and that was in connection with its support for
Palestinian extremist groups.
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