US Iraq expert 'pressured'

A US intelligence official has told Congress he was pressured to produce findings that supported the Bush administration's claims about banned Iraqi arms, it was reported today.

Christian Westermann, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, surprised lawmakers when he made the allegation at a closed hearing held last week.

He was the only official to speak up after the invited intelligence analysts were asked if they had felt political pressure while compiling their supposedly objective reports.

The House Intelligence Committee was probing the accuracy of prewar reports that Saddam Hussein had illegal arms and ties to al Qaida.

Mr Westermann said he had been pressed to tailor his analysis to conform with the Bush Administration's policy, but that this had not caused him to change any of his conclusions, officials who were at the hearing told the New York Times.

His most specific complaints related not to Iraq, but to intelligence on Cuba.

Mr Westermann claims John Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, had insufficient evidence to make public assertions last year that Fidel Castro had a biological weapons programme.

The report comes amid continued controversy over allegations that the Bush administration massaged intelligence to justify attacking Iraq.

The CIA has launched a probe to determine the accuracy of its prewar evidence about Saddam's banned weapons programme.

US forces have so far failed to uncover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday he remained confident that the American forces would "find weapons or evidence of weapons programmes that are conclusive."

He said that before the war "virtually everyone" had agreed that Saddam had illegal weapons, including past Democratic administrations, foreign intelligence agencies and even countries at the United Nations that opposed the war.

But Democratic Senator Robert Byrd claimed the Bush administration misled people in its prewar claims about the threat posed by Iraq.

He said: "There is a great difference between the hand-picked intelligence that was presented by the administration to Congress and the American people when compared against what we have actually discovered in Iraq."

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