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Hussein may strike U.S. if attacked

The Iraqi leader might "exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him," the CIA director wrote.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 9, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Central Intelligence Agency has concluded Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "might decide" to help Islamic terrorists attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction if the U.S. invades his country.

If Hussein believes his ouster is likely, he might view a catastrophic attack against the United States as "his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him," CIA director George Tenet, summarizing a classified intelligence report, wrote in a letter to Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.

Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released Tenet's Oct. 7 letter Tuesday evening after sparring for several days with the CIA over how much of the information regarding the Iraqi threat to the homeland could be declassified.

Tenet's 21/2-page letter spoke in general terms of the threat, which intelligence officials have assessed as relatively low if the United States does not attack Iraq. More specific information is classified.

However, "Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions," the letter said, again quoting the intelligence report.

The assessment appears to be at odds with President Bush's stated rationale for ousting Hussein, which is that if the United States does not remove him now, he will eventually mount an attack so catastrophic that the world will later regret its inaction.

Instead, the CIA appears to have concluded that a U.S invasion makes a terror attack against the U.S. more likely, not less.

But in a statement issued later, Tenet said there was "no inconsistency" between his letter and Bush's policy.

"Although we think the chances of Saddam initiating a weapons of mass destruction attack at this moment are low -- in part because it would constitute an admission that he possesses weapons of mass destruction -- there is no question that the likelihood of Saddam using weapons of mass destruction against the United States or our allies in the region for blackmail, deterrence or otherwise, grows as his arsenal continues to build," the statement said.

Terrorism against U.S. citizens at home could be carried out with conventional means such as bombs, or with weapons designed to inflict mass casualties, such as chemical or biological weapons, the letter said.

Graham is the co-chairman of a joint House-Senate inquiry into pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures. In an interview Friday, he told the St. Petersburg Times he was pushing the CIA to declassify assessments of the threat against U.S. citizens so Americans could make a more informed decision about support for the Bush administration's plan to oust Hussein.

Graham opposes an attack on Iraq at this time, arguing the priority should be stamping out Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida and other anti-American terrorist networks. Bush has replied that removing Hussein from power is part of winning the war on terrorism.

The letter from Tenet also included declassified excerpts from a closed Oct. 2 hearing at which an unidentified "senior intelligence witness" answered questions from lawmakers.

In one exchange, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the witness what he thought was the likelihood Hussein would use chemical or biological weapons against the United States if attacked.

"Pretty high, in my view," the CIA witness said.

It was not clear whether the CIA witness in that exchange was commenting on the likelihood of unconventional attacks against U.S. forces abroad or U.S. citizens at home. Graham, however, has said the intelligence community believes attacks on U.S. soil are likely in the event of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The letter also said "the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida is evolving" and that there is "credible reporting" indicating that the bin Laden network's leaders have sought help from Iraq.

And it concluded that Iraq's "increasing support to extremist Palestinians" and its growing relationship with al-Qaida "suggest Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action."

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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