Al-Libi's Tall Tales

Date: 11-10-05

A CIA document obtained by NEWSWEEK provides further evidence that the U.S. intelligence community had serious doubts about information from a high-level Qaeda detainee before the Iraq war.


By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball

Nov. 10, 2005 - A CIA document shows the agency in January 2003 raised questions about an Al Qaeda detainee's claims that Saddam Hussein's government provided chemical and biological weapons training to terrorists?weeks before President George W. Bush and other top officials flatly used those same claims to make their case for war against Iraq.

The CIA document, recently provided to Congress and obtained by NEWSWEEK, fills in some of the blanks in the mysterious case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured Al Qaeda commander whose claims about poison-gas training for the Qaeda group by Saddam's government formed the basis for some of the most dramatic arguments used by senior administration officials in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.

As NEWSWEEK first reported last July, al-Libi has since recanted those claims. The new CIA document states the agency "recalled and reissued" all its intelligence reporting about al-Libi's "recanted" claims about chemical and biological warfare training by Saddam's regime in February 2004?an important retreat on pre-Iraq war intelligence that has never been publicly acknowledged by the White House. The withdrawal also was not mentioned in last year's public report by the presidential inquiry commission headed by Judge Laurence Silberman and former Sen. Charles Robb which reviewed alleged Iraq intelligence failures.

The declassified CIA document about al-Libi was recently provided to Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who has been pressing for a more aggressive investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee into the Bush Administration's handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq. It has not been officially released because of Senate Intelligence Committee rules restricting public disclosure of information it receives as part of its inquires?even if the data has been declassified.

Levin did, however, release other material last weekend that he received through his membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee. This included declassified portions of a four-page February 2002 DIA Defense Intelligence Terrorism Summary (DITSUM) that strongly questioned al-Libi's credibility. The report stated it was "likely" al-Libi was "intentionally misleading" his debriefers and might be describing scenarios "that he knows will retain their interest." A DIA official confirmed to NEWSWEEK that the DITSUM report?which also questioned whether the "intensely secular" Iraqi regime would provide such assistance to an Islamic fundamentalist regime "it cannot control"?was circulated at the time throughout the U.S. intelligence community and that a copy would have been sent to the National Security Council.

In addition to the new issues the latest al-Libi disclosure raises about the handling of pre-war Iraq intelligence, it also raises questions about the reliability of information gleaned from high-value Al Qaeda detainees who have been incarcerated in secret CIA facilities or "rendered" to foreign countries where they are believed to have been subjected to harsh and even brutal interrogation techniques.

Al-Libi, who was the "emir" of Al Qaeda's Khalden training camp in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, was originally captured by U.S. forces in the fall of 2001 and, for a while, was in FBI custody. But according to Jack Cloonan, a former FBI counter-terrorism agent who was involved in the handling of his case, al-Libi became the subject of a heated battle between the FBI and CIA over which agency should retain control of him.

In early 2002, Cloonan says, al-Libi was ordered turned over to the CIA and, with his mouth covered by duct tape, the shackled Al Qaeda operative was transferred in a box onto an airplane at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Cloonan says he was later told that al-Libi was flown to Egypt, which CIA officials believed was his country of origin. (In fact, the FBI believed that al-Libi, as his nom de guerre suggests, was actually from Libya.)

The CIA, as part of its standard policy relating to its handling of all Al Qaeda captives, has declined to comment on what interrogation methods were used, where al-Libi was taken or where he is now being held (although some reports suggest he has since been transferred to the U.S. military facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.)

What is known is that starting in the fall of 2002, al-Libi's statements to his interrogators became the principal basis for a series of alarming Bush administration assertions about training that Saddam's regime purportedly provided to Al Qaeda terrorists in the use of chemical and biological weapons. President Bush first referred to the claims in his Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati where he strongly emphasized Saddam's ties to international terror groups in general and Al Qaeda in particular. "We've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases," Bush said. (Ironically, this is the same speech that the White House, at the CIA's request, deleted references to Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium "yellowcake" from Africa because of questions about the reliability of the information.)

The claim about poison-gas training resurfaced four months later in greatly expanded form during a particularly dramatic portion of then Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the UN Security Council that refers exclusively to al-Libi?although he is not actually identified by name. Towards the end of his speech, just after a passage that talked about Al Qaeda's interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Powell said he wanted to "trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to Al Qaeda. Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story," said Powell. "I will relate to you now, as he himself, described it.

"This senior Al Qaeda terrorist was responsible for one of Al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan," he continued. "His information comes first hand from his personal involvement at senior levels of Al Qaeda." Powell then said that Osama bin Laden and one of his deputies?the since deceased Mohammed Atef?did not believe Al Qaeda had the capability to make chemical or biological weapons in Afghanistan on their own. "They needed to go somewhere else. They had to look outside of Afghanistan for help. Where did they go? Where did they look? They went to Iraq."

Powell then continued, citing the unidentified operative's story (from al-Libi) that Iraq offered chemical or biological weapons training to two Al Qaeda associates starting in December 2000. A militant identified as Abu Adula al-Iraqi had also been sent to Iraq several times between 1997 and 2000 for help in acquiring poisons and gases and that the relationship forged with Iraq officials was characterized by al-Iraqi as "successful," according to Powell's remarks. (Although it is not entirely clear from Powell's speech, two U.S. counter-terrorism officials told NEWSWEEK they believe the information about al-Iraqi came exclusively from al-Libi.)

Powell concluded this portion of the speech by saying that "the nexus of poisons and gases is new" and the combination of the two "is lethal." In light of "this track record," Powell said this about Iraqi denials of support for terrorism: "It is all a web of lies."

The administration's drumbeat citing the claims from al-Libi continued the next day when President Bush gave a brief talk at the Roosevelt Room in the White House with Powell by his side. "One of the greatest dangers we face is that weapons of mass destruction might be passed to terrorists who would not hesitate to use those weapons," Bush said. "Iraq has bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training."

But according to the newly declassified DIA and CIA documents provided to Levin, the credibility of those statements by Bush and Powell were already in doubt within the U.S. intelligence community. While the DIA was the first to raise red flags in its February 2002 report, the CIA itself in January 2003 produced an updated version of a classified internal report called "Iraqi Support for Terrorism." The previous version of this CIA report in September 2002 had simply included al-Libi's claims, according to the newly declassified agency document provided to Levin in response to his inquiries about al-Libi. But the updated January 2003 version, while including al-Libi's claims that Al Qaeda sent operatives to Iraq to acquire chemical and biological weapons and training, added an important new caveat: It "noted that the detainee was not in a position to know if any training had taken place," according to the copy of the document obtained by NEWSWEEK. It was not until January 2004?nine months after the war was launched?that al-Libi recanted "a number of the claims he made while in detention for the previous two years, including the claim that Al Qaeda sent operatives to Iraq to obtain chemical and biological weapons and related training," the CIA document says.

Michele Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said that President Bush's remarks were "based on what was put forward to him as the views of the intelligence community" and that those views came from "an aggregation" of sources. She added, however, that it was impossible at this point to determine whether the dissent from the DIA and questions raised by the CIA were seen by officials at the White House prior to the president's remarks. A counter-terrorism official said that while CIA reports on al-Libi were distributed widely around U.S. intelligence agencies and policy-making offices, many such routine reports are not regularly read by senior policy-making officials.

For their part, Levin and Sen. Jay Rockefeller want the Senate Intelligence Committee, as part of its reinvigorated Phase II investigation into the handling of Iraq pre-war intelligence, to answer key questions about al-Libi: What happened to the February 2002 DIA report questioning al-Libi's credibility? Were the CIA's caveats circulated to the White House before President Bush made his assertions? And why did the intelligence community declassify the substance of al-Libi's original claims so they could be used in Powell's speech in February 2003?but fail to publicly acknowledge that he had recanted until NEWSWEEK reported on it more than a year later?

The new documents also raise the possibility that caveats raised by intelligence analysts about al-Libi's claims were withheld from Powell when he was preparing his Security Council speech. Larry Wilkerson, who served as Powell's chief of staff and oversaw the vetting of Powell's speech, responded to an e-mail from NEWSWEEK Wednesday stating that he was unaware of the DIA doubts about al-Libi at the time the speech was being prepared. "We never got any dissent with respect to those lines you cite ? indeed the entire section that now we know came from [al-Libi]," Wilkerson wrote.

2005 Newsweek, Inc.



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