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Claims of Iraq-Al Qaida Link Were Coerced, Prisoner Says

By Douglas Jehl
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

The Bush administration based a crucial prewar assertion about ties between Iraq and al-Qaida on detailed statements made by a prisoner while in Egyptian custody who later said he had fabricated them to escape harsh treatment, according to current and former government officials.

The officials said the captive, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, provided his most specific and elaborate accounts about ties between Iraq and al-Qaida only after he was secretly handed over to Egypt by the United States in January 2002, in a process known as rendition.

The new disclosure provides the first public evidence that bad intelligence on Iraq may have resulted partly from the administration’s heavy reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations of Qaida members and others detained as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The Bush administration used Libi’s accounts as the basis for its prewar claims, now discredited, that ties between Iraq and al-Qaida included training in explosives and chemical weapons.

The fact that Libi recanted after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and that intelligence based on his remarks was withdrawn by the CIA in March 2004 has been public for more than a year. But U.S. officials had not previously acknowledged either that Libi made the false statements in foreign custody or that Libi contended that his statements had been coerced.

A government official said that some intelligence provided by Libi about al-Qaida had been accurate, and that Libi’s claims that he had been treated harshly in Egyptian custody had not been corroborated.

A classified Defense Intelligence Agency report issued in February 2002 that expressed skepticism about Libi’s credibility on questions related to Iraq and al-Qaida was based in part on the knowledge that Libi was no longer in U.S. custody when he made the detailed statements, and that he might have been subjected to harsh treatment, the officials said. The officials said that the CIA’s decision to withdraw the intelligence based on Libi’s claims had been made because of his later assertions, beginning in January 2004, that he had fabricated them to obtain better treatment from his captors.

At the time of his capture in Pakistan in late 2001, Libi, a Libyan, was the highest-ranking Qaida leader in U.S. custody. A Nov. 6 report in The New York Times, citing a February 2002 DIA document, said he had made the assertions about ties between Iraq and al-Qaida involving illicit weapons while in U.S. custody.

Libi was indeed initially held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and was debriefed there by CIA officers, according to the new account provided by the current and former government officials. But despite his high rank, he was transferred to Egypt for further interrogation in January 2002 because the White House had not yet provided detailed authorization for the CIA to hold him.

While he made some statements about Iraq and al-Qaida when in U.S. custody, the officials said, it was not until after he was handed over to Egypt that he made the most specific assertions, which were later used by the Bush administration as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Qaida members to use biological and chemical weapons.