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Spooks dig for secrets of Saddam (english)
by Peter Beaumont
02 Mar 2003
He is there at almost every official photo-opportunity with Saddam Hussein, a compact and wiry military officer, his khaki shirt rolled up to his elbows, a beret pulled across his brow. A heavy handlebar moustache hangs over a solid jaw, grey with a permanent five o'clock shadow.
The recent prominence of Abdul Tawab el-Mulla Howeish, Deputy Prime Minister and Military Industrialisation Minister of Iraq, has not gone unnoticed by independent analysts and intelligence officers.
Few things in Saddam's world, say experts, are without significance. In this case, they speculate his constant presence at the dictator's side may be a message to the Iraqi people and his own Baath Party cadres. It was the Military Industrialisation Commission which was responsible for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programmes in the Eighties. The assumption is that, as its present head, Howeish has primary responsibility in this field.
The meaning of the recent meetings between Howeish, the scientists under his command and Saddam, say Iraq watchers, is simple: it is a warning to the West, and an assurance to members of his regime, that over the past year Saddam has been accelerating his efforts to arm his military again with weapons of mass destruction. If true, it is part of an intelligence picture that is at best fragmented. But what Howeish and Saddam are up to is the biggest question. And the ability of intelligence agencies in Britain and Washington to find out what their intentions are is already in doubt in the wake of their failures before 11 September.
There are other ifs besides Howeish: about Iraq's capability to produce, stockpile and deploy weapons of mass destruction and its willingness to use them.
There are the persistent claims - taken seriously by intelligence agencies - that Howeish's organisation may have built as many as 300 new chemical and biological facilities, including a biological weapons plant codenamed 'Tahhaddy' - or 'The Challenge' - on the banks of the River Tigris. Most worrying is the claim that some weapons may already have been deployed.
Recently an Iraqi opposition leader gave US officials a paper - allegedly an assessment provided by Iranian intelligence - indicating that Saddam had authorised regional commanders to use chemical and biological weapons to put down any Shia Muslim resistance should the United States attack. Worrying as these claims are, they are still 'ifs'.
Next week, as Tony Blair issues his long-heralded dossier on Iraq's efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction, the credibility of the intelligence gathered on Iraq - including accounts delivered by defectors such as Adnan Saeed al-Haidari - will once again be under the spotlight. The challenge will be to turn those 'ifs' into hard facts.
While few expect that dossier to reveal much new, those familiar with the document say it provides the most thorough assessment of the available intelligence - gathered not only by MI6, but also by the CIA and other friendly foreign agencies. Among that intelligence is material on Iraq's nuclear procurement efforts that US officials promise will be 'declassified' in the next few weeks.
The German intelligence agency, the BND, has already made public its assessment. For all the opposition to war on Iraq by the German political classes, in February the BND said it had gathered hard evidence that Baghdad was stepping up its efforts to produce chemical weapons and had increased buying abroad of the material needed to make biological weapons.
The British dossier is certain to build on that case. Unlike the dossier produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies last week - based on 'open source' (ie publicly available) intelligence material - government sources promise it will be based on the 'real thing': secret intelligence.
But the question detractors will be asking is, how good is the intelligence on Iraq? And what does it mean?
SENIOR US OFFICIALS have warned sceptics not to expect either Bush or Blair to produce a 'smoking Iraqi gun'. Instead, Bush officials have said, the case against Iraq will be constructed from a 'mosaic' of new reports underscoring warnings about Iraq's military ambitions.
Sources familiar with the British dossier, compiled under the auspices of the Cabinet's Joint Intelligence Committee, stress that the dossier will not simply be a 'greatest hits compilation' of publicly available reports on Iraq.
They say that while the 'headlines' of the document may be familiar, describing Iraq's retention of hidden stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, while pursuing anew its efforts to acquire a nuclear bomb, it is the new detail produced by the intelligence community that will be persuasive. It is on this detail that the legitimacy of war against Iraq will be judged.
At present, say those familiar with the material, intelligence on Iraq can be broken down into a number of key categories. 'There is satellite intelligence which can be extremely useful in identifying suspect buildings. The truth is that you cannot see what is going on under the roof and Saddam is pretty wise to hiding this kind of stuff. Then there is signals intelligence which is extremely useful, but again Saddam is aware we are listening.'
Then there is Humint (human intelligence resources) - Iraqi spies reporting back to their Western masters. While little is known about the material derived from Humint and Sigint (signals intelligence) sources, commercially available satellite imaging of Iraqi facilities has allowed independent analysts to draw their own conclusions on Bush's claims that Iraq is rebuilding its nuclear weapons facilities.
Even officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna - quoted by Bush as raising concerns over the new building work - are uncertain what the images mean.
'We can't draw any conclusions from a new building or a new road,' said Mark Gwozdecky, a spokesman at the agency's Vienna headquarters, a view echoed by independent analyst John Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org, who believes the images from Iraq do not provide 'a smoking gun image that clearly. . . shows they're working on atomic bombs'.
Which leaves the Iraqi defectors, the source of some of the most valuable intelligence. And it is on the issue of defectors, says one expert, that intelligence practitioners face their greatest conundrum. For if these defectors have provided some of the most eye-catching revelations about life in Saddam's 'Republic of Fear', they have also produced some of the most questionable.
These are the defectors who have told US intelligence officials that building a nuclear bomb is Saddam's 'top priority again', and how his efforts to acquire chemical weapons have been equal in vigour. They provide the routine stories of torture, murder, rape and mutilation.
Undoubtedly, some of the accounts are true. Equally, some of the stories will have been fabricated. 'There is a problem with defectors that they tend to tell those debriefing them what they want to know,' said a source. 'It is also the case that defectors have a pretty short shelf-life. After a certain amount of time they have very little new or interesting to add and there is a temptation to embroider.'
These are criticisms levelled against defectors brought forward by the Iraqi National Congress, which some intelligence agents accuse of 'coaching' defectors to improve their stories to support their agenda of persuading the international community to remove Saddam.
But there is no doubt that some of the defectors have been of the highest quality as intelligence assets, not least in revealing the degree to which Saddam had hidden some programmes from inspectors after the Gulf war.
Iraq's biological weapons facilities were so well hidden that UN officials discovered them only in 1995 - four years after the start of inspections - and then only after the defection of the pro gramme's chief, Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, who disclosed that secret laboratories were producing lethal bacteria by the tonne. Regarded as the 'star' defector, Kamal was murdered after being persuaded to return to Iraq.
Now America's Defence Intelligence Agency has a new 'star' defector - al-Haidari, a civil engineer who escaped from Iraq last year and has told his handlers he was asked to build secure dust-free 'clean rooms' in the laboratories for Iraq's new weapons programme.
After fleeing Iraq last December, al-Haidari claimed 300 secret weapons facilities had been 'reactivated' since the withdrawal of UN inspectors.
'In some areas, houses or a small factory would get converted into labs,' he is reported to have told interrogators. He also described a visit to an underground biological lab in the grounds of one of Saddam's Baghdad palaces. His account is similar to reports of the Tahhaddy biological site offered by the Iraqi National Congress. A document provided to the Washington Post by the group gives directions to the lab, lists its senior officers and describes a layout.
But even if al-Haidari's claims turn out to be true, he is still a problematic figure, having made clear what he hopes to gain out of his revelations. Journalists with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, who interviewed him in Bangkok in December before he was spirited away by US intelligence officers, have said he told them he believed his account would help him secure a visa to join family members in Australia.
If none of the intelligence sources mentioned is likely to be convincing, argue those familiar with the sources, that does not mean that, combined, they fail to make a compelling case. Instead, the long history of Iraqi evasion combined with what is known, means it is impossible to leave Saddam to his own devices.
SIGNIFICANTLY, THEY ARGUE , Saddam's past use of chemical weapons means he is likely to do the same again. This is the last and most controversial area of intelligence work: analysis of the available facts. And it is here that intelligence is in danger of becoming overtly politicised.
'The classical military distinction,' said one retired British intelligence official, 'is between capability and intention. At the moment everyone is focusing on the issue of capability which you could argue is somewhat ambiguous in Iraq's case - especially if it is true, as claimed, that he has only a dozen missiles. But the real issue is about intention. In that respect, making that assessment cannot purely be about intelligence. There has to be all sorts of input, including political input - and that includes guesswork.'
The number of people in Whitehall who really make it their business to understand what Saddam may be thinking has got to be anybody's guess. 'In that respect the kind of analysis that is going on is no different to the Kremli nology of the Cold War. What it does is put so much emphasis on having some kind of professional objectivity,' the former intelligence official said.
But it is in the area of professional objectivity, say some, that the intelligence community, particularly in the US, is being undermined by figures of the Bush administration.
Among those who have been most critical of the way America's intelligence has been handled are two of those officials most hawkish over Iraq, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz.
Wolfowitz has argued that the senior analyst of any intelligence material should not be the intelligence professional but the elected official. Rumsfeld, as chair of the Rumsfeld Commission in 1998, proposed an even more worrying doctrinal shift for US intelligence gathering, insisting that 'absence of evidence' should not be regarded as 'evidence of absence' in issues such as Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
It is this approach that is likely to contribute to the greatest scepticism about any intelligence assessment over Iraq. 'The acquisition of good intelligence has become critical to the challenges we are facing,' said one US practitioner last week. 'And intelligence gathering has improved in the last year.' But how much? And how much can we trust it?