Ex-Officials Say Bolton Inflated Syrian Danger

By DOUGLAS JEHL

New York Times

April 26, 2005

WASHINGTON, April 25 - John R. Bolton clashed repeatedly with American intelligence officials in 2002 and 2003 as he sought to deliver warnings about Syrian efforts to acquire unconventional weapons that the Central Intelligence Agency and other experts rejected as exaggerated, according to former intelligence officials.

Ultimately, the former intelligence officials said, most of what Mr. Bolton, then an under secretary of state, said publicly about Syria hewed to the limits on which the C.I.A. and other agencies had insisted. But they said that the prolonged and heated disputes over Mr. Bolton's proposed remarks were unusual within government, and that they reflected what one former senior official called a pattern in which Mr. Bolton sought to push his public assertions beyond the views endorsed by intelligence agencies.

The episodes involving Syria are being reviewed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of its inquiries related to Mr. Bolton's nomination to become ambassador to the United Nations. Some of the former intelligence officials said they had discussed the issue with the committee, while declassified e-mail messages from 2002 provided to the committee by the State Department allude to one previously unknown episode.

One newly declassified message, dated April 30, 2002, and sent by a senior State Department intelligence official, dismissed as "a stretch" language about a possible Syrian nuclear program that had been spelled out in a draft speech circulated by Mr. Bolton's aides for approval. In the speech itself, delivered five days later, Mr. Bolton made no reference to a Syrian nuclear program.

Until now, Senate Democrats leading the opposition to Mr. Bolton's nomination have focused mostly on a 2002 dispute related to Cuba, in which Mr. Bolton has acknowledged seeking the transfer of two intelligence officials with whom he had differed. But a top Democratic staff member on Monday described the clashes over Syria as "an example, perhaps the most serious one, not of Mr. Bolton's abusing people, but of trying to exaggerate the intelligence to fit his policy views."

In one Congressional appearance, in June 2003 before the House International Relations Committee, Mr. Bolton offered a considerably darker view of Syria's nuclear program than the C.I.A. had in a report to Congress two months earlier. Among other things, Mr. Bolton said American officials were "looking at Syria's nuclear program with growing concern and continue to monitor it for any signs of nuclear weapons intent." The C.I.A. report to Congress in April said only, "In principle, broader access to Russian expertise provides opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons."

In a third episode, in July 2003, the sharp objections raised by intelligence officials from several agencies to proposed Congressional testimony by Mr. Bolton on Syria included a 35-page memorandum from the Central Intelligence Agency. The incident became public at the time, and the government said the assertions spelled out in Mr. Bolton's prepared testimony went well beyond what the United States had previously said about Syria's weapons programs.

In particular, intelligence officials say, Mr. Bolton had planned to say in a classified portion of his testimony that Syria's development of chemical and biological weapons posed a threat to stability in the Middle East. In the face of the objections, Mr. Bolton postponed the testimony until September, though Mr. Bolton has said the main reason for the postponement of the speech is that he was summoned to a White House meeting.

"There were a lot of disagreements about the speech," Mr. Bolton said on April 11, when he was asked about the episode during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It was clear to me that more work needed to be done on it." But Mr. Bolton noted that the testimony he ultimately gave to the House committee in September 2003 had been fully cleared by American intelligence agencies.

Mr. Bolton's office declined to comment Monday, and a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, referred a reporter to Mr. Bolton's Congressional testimony.

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has asked the C.I.A. to provide the committee with a copy of its objections to Mr. Bolton's prepared testimony in 2003.

In the versions most recently supplied by the State Department to the Senate committee, the e-mail messages from 2002 included a subject line that said "Clearance Request: Speech by Under Secretary Bolton - New [ ] Language," with the word between the brackets deleted, as were the names of most senders and recipients. But earlier, unredacted copies of the message provided to Congress by the State Department had shown that the messages, including the response that criticized some language as a "stretch," referred to Syria, according to Congressional and intelligence officials.

In a letter to the Senate committee on April 22, Matthew A. Reynolds, the acting assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, said country names had been "inadvertently included" in the documents previously released to the committee, and he asked that the Senate disregard them.

The exchanges on Syria in 2002 were part of a broader debate on an address that Mr. Bolton ultimately delivered to the Heritage Foundation on May 5. Sharp differences over the assertions on Cuba that Mr. Bolton had sought to make led to a rift between the under secretary and the State Department's intelligence bureau. Mr. Bolton's supporters have said the exchanges were part of the customary back-and-forth in government in advance of such speeches, but his critics say they were unusual in scope and intensity, and reflected the degree to which Mr. Bolton sought in his remarks to go beyond previous intelligence assessments.

In the speech itself, Mr. Bolton pointed to Cuba, Syria and Libya as "rogue states intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction," a trio that extended "beyond the axis of evil" of Iran, Iraq and North Korea that President Bush had described in his State of the Union address several months earlier. On Syria, Mr. Bolton said in the 2002 speech that the government in Damascus "is pursuing the development of biological weapons and is able to produce at least small quantities of biological warfare agents."

In testimony to Congress in June 2003, Mr. Bolton said American officials "know that Syria is pursuing the development of biological weapons." But a report sent to Congress by the C.I.A. in April 2003 was more guarded in its assessment than Mr. Bolton had been. Using an abbreviation for biological warfare, it said only that it was "highly probable that Syria is also continuing to develop an offensive B. W. capability."