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Friday, June 30, 2006

House intelligence chief berates Negroponte on WMD

WASHINGTON, June 30 (Reuters) - The chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee accused U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte's office on Thursday of downplaying the significance of chemical weapons finds in Iraq.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, said in a letter to Negroponte that intelligence officials at a June 21 press briefing organized by his office misled journalists about the significance of 500 munitions containing mustard and sarin nerve agents discovered since May 2004.

Intelligence officials at the briefing told journalists the weapons predated the 1991 Gulf War, were too degraded to be used as originally intended and posed no threat to U.S. forces deployed in the region during the run-up to the 2003 invasion.

"I am very disappointed by the inaccurate, incomplete, and occasionally misleading comments made by the briefers," Hoekstra said in the letter, a copy of which was released by his office.

"Because this call was organized by your office, I assume that you authorized and were familiar with its content. I would appreciate an explanation and correction of these inaccurate and misleading assertions," he told the national intelligence director.

Negroponte's office was not immediately available for comment.

The 500 weapons, revealed in declassified excerpts of an April report by the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center, have been cited by Republicans including Hoekstra as examples of the weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration used to justify the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Democrats say Republicans are using the munitions to shore up voter support for vulnerable Republican incumbents during a midterm election year in which public opinion has soured on the Iraq war.

The White House asserted on the eve of the invasion that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD potent enough to threaten his neighbors and U.S. interests.

U.S. weapons inspectors have officially reported no such weapons have been found in Iraq and that Saddam ceased WMD production after the 1991 Gulf War.

Officials at the briefing included representatives from Negroponte's office and the Pentagon.

Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have described the munitions as "weapons of mass destruction," but say the gravest danger they pose would be to U.S. troops in Iraq and Iraqi nationals, if obtained by insurgents.

Hoekstra, who reviewed a transcript of the call-in briefing, said intelligence officers misled reporters by saying postwar weapons inspectors from the CIA were not interested in WMD produced before the first Gulf War. "This assertion is demonstrably false," he wrote.
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