Florida Today December 16, 2003
Senators were told Iraqi weapons could hit U.S.
Nelson said claim made during classified briefing
By John McCarthy
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Monday the Bush administration last year told him and other senators that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction, but they had the means to deliver them to East Coast cities.
Nelson, D-Tallahassee, said about 75 senators got that news during a classified briefing before last October's congressional vote authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Nelson voted in favor of using military force.
Nelson said he couldn't reveal who in the administration gave the briefing.
The White House directed questions about the matter to the Department of Defense. Defense officials had no comment on Nelson's claim.
Nelson said the senators were told Iraq had both biological and chemical weapons, notably anthrax, and it could deliver them to cities along the Eastern seaboard via unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.
"They have not found anything that resembles an UAV that has that capability," Nelson said.
Nelson delivered the news during a half-hour conference call with reporters Monday afternoon. The senator, who is on a seven-nation trade mission to South America, was calling from an airport in Santiago, Chile.
"That's news," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington, D.C.-area military and intelligence think tank. "I had not heard that that was the assessment of the intelligence community. I had not heard that the Congress had been briefed on this."
Since the late 1990s, there have been several reports that Iraq was converting a fleet of Czechoslovakian jet fighters into UAVs, as well as testing smaller drones. And in a speech in Cincinnati last October, Bush mentioned the vehicles. "We're concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States," the president said.
Nelson, though, said the administration told senators Iraq had gone beyond exploring and developed the means of hitting the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction.
Nelson wouldn't say what the original source of the intelligence was, but said it contradicted other intelligence reports senators had received. He said he wants to find out why there was so much disagreement about the weapons. "If that is an intelligence failure . . . we better find that out so we don't have an intelligence failure in the future."
Pike said any UAVs Iraq might have had would have had a range of only several hundred kilometers, enough to hit targets in the Middle East but not the United States. To hit targets on the East Coast, such drones would have to be launched from a ship in Atlantic. He said it wasn't out of the question for Iraq to have secretly acquired a tramp steamer from which such vehicles could have been launched.
"The notion that someone could launch a missile from a ship off our shores has been on Rummy's mind for years," Pike said, referring to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Sen. Bob Graham, who voted against using military force in Iraq, didn't return phone calls concerning the briefing. Spokespersons for Reps. Dave Weldon and Tom Feeney said neither congressman could say if they had received similar briefings since they don't comment on classified information.
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