CIA deliberately misled UN arms inspectors, says senator

The row over Iraq's missing weapons intensified in Washington yesterday as a leading Senate Democrat accused the CIA of deliberately misleading United Nations inspectors to help clear the decks for an invasion of Iraq.

The charge by Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, comes as Congress gears up for its own hearings into whether the Bush administration misinterpreted or manipulated pre-war intelligence on the scale of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Mr Levin is not the first Democrat to question the CIA's role. But his allegations are the most precise yet, and seem bound to increase pressure for a fuller, more public investigation than the Republican majority on Capitol Hill has been willing to concede thus far.

Mr Levin says that when the UN team under Hans Blix returned to Iraq last autumn, the CIA - contrary to what it claimed at the time - did not pass on its full list of 150 high or medium priority suspected weapons sites. This, in turn, enabled the US government to shut down the inspections quickly, opening the path for military action.

"Why did the CIA say that they had provided detailed information to the UN inspectors on all of the high and medium suspect sites, when they had not?" Mr Levin asked. "Did the CIA act in this way in order not to undermine administration policy?"

Had it been known that there were still outstanding sites, he suggested, there would have been "greater public demand that the inspection process continue".

President George Bush yesterday dismissed critics who doubt his pre-war claims about the Iraqi threat. He called them "revisionist historians". These days, however, he seems more careful to refer to the existence of Iraqi "weapons programmes," not the weapons themselves.

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