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CASE FOR WAR | REBUILDING IRAQ

Intelligence analyst defends weapons program findings

WASHINGTON -- A top US intelligence analyst who supervised the production of the US government's key prewar findings on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs says he believes those conclusions were sound, even though many have not been validated.

Stuart A. Cohen, the vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, a body of senior intelligence analysts that advises CIA director George J. Tenet, said in an article published yesterday that with all the evidence the US government possessed, "no reasonable person could have . . . reached any conclusions or alternative views that were profoundly different from those that we reached."

Cohen was the acting chairman of the council when he oversaw the production of a National Intelligence Estimate summarizing US evidence on Iraq's alleged weapons programs.

Distributed in October 2002, it said that Iraq possessed prohibited biological and chemical weapons and missiles and was producing more. It also concluded that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program but did not have a finished weapon, while noting the State Department's intelligence branch dissented from that view.

"We have reexamined every phrase, line, sentence, judgment, and alternative view in this 90-page document and have traced their genesis completely," Cohen wrote on the op-ed page of The Washington Post. "I believed at the time the estimate was approved for publication, and still believe now, that we were on solid ground in how we reached the judgments we made," he said.

A longer version of Cohen's defense was posted on the CIA's website yesterday afternoon.

Only a small portion of the classified National Intelligence Estimate was made public, in July. Last year, as the estimate was circulated within the government, the CIA released an unclassified paper that summarized its key points.

The estimate's findings served as a foundation for the Bush administration's case for war.

In his article, Cohen stayed away from discussing any division between the US intelligence community's judgments on Iraq and the way President Bush and his administration characterized these conclusions to the public. Some Democrats have said the administration exaggerated what the intelligence community knew, ignoring uncertainties as it tried to persuade the world to support the war.

Cohen did acknowledge some uncertainties, but did not speak to the politics of the issue.

"There is a reason that the October 2002 review of Iraq's WMD programs is called a National Intelligence ESTIMATE and not a National Intelligence FACTBOOK," he said. "On almost any issue of the day that we face, hard evidence will only take intelligence professionals so far. Our job is to fill in the gaps with informed analysis."

Cohen also set out to correct what he describes as myths that have emerged about the intelligence estimate on Iraq. The estimate made no recommendation on whether to go to war, he said. It relied on intelligence reports not from a single source, but many.

The article also argued that there is little substantive difference between the capability to quickly produce weapons and possessing actual weapons.

So far, weapons hunters in Iraq have found no finished chemical or biological weapons, but what they interpret as possible signs of a program to ramp up production of biological weapons on short notice.

They also describe an Iraqi intention to acquire prohibited long-range missiles.

Cohen said solid evidence of Iraq's weapons programs may yet be found.

Still, Cohen acknowledged the possibility that the prewar judgments on Iraq were inaccurate. "If we eventually are proven wrong -- that is, that there were no weapons of mass destruction and the WMD programs were dormant or abandoned -- the American people will be told the truth; we would have it no other way," he said.

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