WASHINGTON - A new CIA assessment undercuts the White House's claim that Saddam Hussein maintained ties to al-Qaida, saying there's no conclusive evidence that the regime harbored Osama bin Laden associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The CIA review, which U.S. officials said Monday was requested some months ago by Vice President Dick Cheney, is the latest assessment that calls into question one of President Bush's key justifications for last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The new assessment follows the independent Sept. 11 commission's finding that there was no "collaborative relationship" between the former Iraqi regime and bin Laden's terrorist network.
While intelligence officials cautioned that information about al-Zarqawi remains incomplete, Bush, Cheney and other top officials have publicly made al-Zarqawi the linchpin of their contention that Saddam's Iraq had ties to al-Qaida. Questions about whether the president and other officials overstated the intelligence about Iraq and omitted contradictory information and analysis are now at the center of the campaign debate over Iraq policy.
Since the Sept. 11 commission's judgment in June, Bush and Cheney have repeatedly said that al-Zarqawi was an associate of bin Laden and received safe haven from Saddam. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld backed away Monday from such claims, apparently as a result of the new CIA assessment.
Bush and Cheney have charged that Saddam's regime allowed al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian native, to travel to Baghdad and to set up cells of his Islamic terrorist network in the Iraqi capital. Al-Zarqawi is now a major figure who's directing part of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq. He has appeared in videos in which U.S. and other hostages are executed, often by beheading.
"Zarqawi's the best evidence of connection to al-Qaida affiliates and al-Qaida. He's the person who's still killing. He's the person, remember the e-mail exchange between al-Qaida leadership and he himself about how to disrupt the progress toward freedom," Bush said in the Rose Garden in June.
Al-Zarqawi "was in and out of Baghdad. He ordered the killing of an American citizen from Baghdad - (U.S. Agency for International Development official Laurence) Foley," Bush said Saturday in Ohio. "This is before ... we went in. Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction. I understood - I understand today that the connection between weapons of mass destruction and the terrorist network is the biggest threat we face."
According to a senior administration official and intelligence officials familiar with the review, at Cheney's request CIA analysts spent several months reviewing new material gathered since Baghdad fell last year and re-examining earlier intelligence.
A U.S. official familiar with the new CIA assessment said intelligence analysts were unable to determine conclusively the nature of the relationship between al-Zarqawi and Saddam.
"It's still being worked," he said. "It (the assessment) ... doesn't make clear-cut, bottom-line judgments" about whether Saddam's regime was aiding al-Zarqawi.
He said the report contained new details of al-Zarqawi 's prewar activities in Iraq, including the arrests in late 2002 or early 2003 of three of his "associates" by the regime.
"This was brought to Saddam's attention and he ordered one of them released," he said, providing no further details.
"What is indisputable is that Zarqawi was operating out of Baghdad and was involved in a lot of bad activities," he said, including ordering Foley's killing.
The report didn't conclude that Saddam's regime had provided "aid, comfort and succor" to al-Zarqawi, a senior administration official said.
He added that there are now questions about earlier administration assertions that al-Zarqawi received treatment at a Baghdad hospital in May 2002.
"The evidence is that Saddam never gave Zarqawi anything," another U.S. official said.
A congressional official said members of Congress had received an intelligence report in late August containing similar findings.
The officials who described the new assessment spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is classified and because, as one put it, "I don't want to get caught in the crossfire" between the White House and the CIA.
A CIA spokesman, Mark Mansfield, declined to comment on the subject or to confirm the existence of the new analysis.
The findings - delivered to Cheney last week - appear to put the Bush administration and the CIA on a collision course again over intelligence regarding Iraq.
They could provide an early test of whether new CIA Director Porter Goss, a former Republican congressman, will protect his analysts when they give conclusions that conflict with White House views or administration policy. In the past, some political appointees have been angered by intelligence assessments that they thought undercut administration policy.
Rumsfeld appeared to refer to the new assessment during a public appearance Monday at which he also backed away from the administration's broader claims that Saddam and al-Qaida were linked.
"To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two," Rumsfeld said during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington research center.
In September 2002, before the war, Rumsfeld had said the U.S. intelligence community had "bulletproof" evidence of such links.
Apparently referring to al-Zarqawi, the defense secretary said Monday: "I just read an intelligence report recently about one person who's connected to al-Qaida who was in and out of Iraq and there's the most tortured description of why he might have had a relationship and why he might not have had a relationship."
Officials said the highly classified document on al-Zarqawi was delivered to Bush, Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley.
There's no dispute that al-Zarqawi spent time in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, but virtually all that time was in a portion of northeastern Iraq that wasn't under Saddam's control.
Some officials believe that Saddam's secular regime kept an eye on al-Zarqawi, an Islamic extremist, but didn't actively assist him.
Al-Zarqawi 's ties to al-Qaida are in dispute. While he clearly shares much of al-Qaida's violent ideology and ran an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan, the Jordanian has his own organization, acts independently and hasn't sworn fealty to bin Laden.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his Feb. 5, 2003, presentation on Iraq to the U.N. Security Council, said al-Zarqawi went to Baghdad in May 2002 for medical treatment and stayed two months, during which time nearly two dozen extremists converged on the Iraqi capital and established a base there.
Al-Zarqawi originally was reported to have had a leg amputated, a claim that officials now acknowledge was incorrect.
Much of the prewar intelligence on al-Zarqawi is reported to have come from eavesdropping by Jordan's security services.
The Bush administration has clashed repeatedly with the CIA and other intelligence community agencies over Iraq and terrorism.
Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Pentagon civilians set up a small intelligence cell whose mission was to prove that there were links between al-Qaida and secular Arab regimes such as Saddam's.
The group's analysis was presented to then-CIA Director George Tenet and his analysts, who rejected it.
In recent weeks, administration partisans have sharply criticized the U.S. intelligence community for a new analysis that offers a pessimistic outlook on Iraq's future. They've attacked one of the report's authors, National Intelligence Council official Paul Pillar, by name and accused the CIA of trying to undermine the president.
Bush called the report, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, a "guess," but later amended his remarks to call it an "estimate."
© 2004 Knight-Ridder