US military intelligence warned the Bush administration as early as February 2002 that its key source on al-Qaeda's relationship with Iraq had provided "intentionally misleading" data, according to a declassified report made public last Sunday.
Nevertheless, eight months later, President George W. Bush went public with charges that the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein had trained members of Osama bin Laden's terror network in manufacturing deadly poisons and gases.
These same accusations had found their way into the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell, before the UN Security Council in February, 2003, in which he outlined the US rationale for military action against Iraq.
"This newly declassified information provides additional, dramatic evidence that the administration's pre-war statements were deceptive," said Democrat Carl Levin, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who pushed for partial declassification of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document. The report provides a critical analysis of information provided by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an Islamic radical and bin Laden associate, who served as senior military trainer at a key al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan before it was destroyed by US forces in late 2001.
In captivity, al-Libi initially told his DIA debriefers that al-Qaeda operatives had received training from Iraq in manufacturing poisons and deadly chemical agents.
But the DIA, according to its assessment, did not find the information credible.
US military intelligence officers concluded that al-Libi lacked "specific details on the Iraqis involved, the... materials associated with the assistance and the location where training occurred," the report said.
"It is possible," the document went on to say, "he does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers."
The DIA suggested al-Libi, who had been under interrogation for several weeks, "may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest."
Just the same, President Bush insisted during an October 2002 trip to Cincinnati, Ohio, that his administration had learned that "Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases."
He repeated the same charge in February 2003.
The administration's drumbeat over alleged Iraq-Qaeda ties reached a crescendo that same month when Powell went before the United Nations to accuse Iraq of hiding tonnes of chemical and biological weapons and nurturing nuclear ambitions.
His speech, according to congressional officials, even contained a direct reference to al-Libi's testimony, albeit not his name.
"I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al-Qaeda," insisted the secretary of state, who now says he regrets voicing many of the charges contained in that speech.
The unveiling of the documents came as Senate Democrats are stepping up pressure on their Republican colleagues, trying to force them to complete a second report on pre-war intelligence that would focus on whether members of the Bush administration had misused or intentionally misinterpreted intelligence findings.