Fury over Pentagon cell that briefed White House on Iraq’s ‘imaginary’ al-Qaeda links
11 July 2004 | The Telegraph [London]
by Julian Coman in Washington
A Senior Pentagon policy maker created an unofficial “Iraqi intelligence cell” in the summer of 2002 to circumvent the CIA and secretly brief the White House on links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa’eda, according to the Senate intelligence committee.
The allegations about Douglas Feith, the number three at the Department of Defence, are made in a supplementary annexe of the committee’s review of the intelligence leading to war in Iraq, released on Friday.
According to dramatic testimony contained in the annexe, Mr Feith’s cell undermined the credibility of CIA judgments on Iraq’s alleged al-Qa’eda links within the highest levels of the Bush administration.
The cell appears to have been set up by Mr Feith as an adjunct to the Office of Special Plans, a Pentagon intelligence-gathering operation established in the wake of 9/11 with the authority of Paul Wolfowitz. Its focus quickly became the al-Qa’eda-Saddam link.
On occasion, without informing the then head of the CIA, George Tenet, the group gave counter-briefings in the White House. Sen Jay Rockefeller, the most senior Democrat on the committee, said that Mr Feith’s cell may even have undertaken “unlawful” intelligence-gathering initiatives.
The claims will lead to calls by Democrats for the resignation of Mr Feith, the third-ranking civilian at the Department of Defence and a leading “neo-con” hawk. “Tenet fell on his sword,” said one Democrat official, “even though it’s clear that he was placed under tremendous pressure to come up with the ‘right’ intelligence product for the administration on Iraq.
“The testimony to the committee on Feith and other Pentagon officials shows just what kind of pressure was being exerted. And when that didn’t work, the Pentagon was just coming up with its own answers and feeding them to the White House. And on al-Qa’eda they got it all wrong.”
Last night a senior Pentagon adviser confirmed that Mr Feith was being targeted by senators unhappy that the administration has so far escaped censure for its use of intelligence.
“There are senators who are clearly gunning for Douglas Feith now. This is turning into a classic conspiracy investigation. They want to get Feith and see if, through Feith, they can go up the ladder to even bigger fish.”
Mr Feith’s role is to be examined further in the second phase of the Senate committee’s investigations, which will deal with the Bush administration’s use of the intelligence it received. The report by the Republican-dominated committee lambasted the CIA for intelligence failures while concluding that there was no evidence that the Bush administration tried to coerce officials to adapt their findings.
Yet the annexe – written by three leading Democratic senators – contains the strongest evidence yet that Pentagon hardliners sought to sideline the CIA during a drive to talk up a connection between Saddam and Osama bin Laden.
After the September 11 attacks, tension had grown between Pentagon officials and CIA agents, who suspected the Department of Defence of relying too heavily on dubious testimony from Iraqi defectors in order to justify a war against Iraq.
The CIA’s investigation of links between Iraq and al-Qa’eda was almost the only aspect of the agency’s intelligence-gathering to escape severe censure in the 511-page report. Sen Rockefeller, the senator for West Virginia, said: “Our report found that the intelligence community’s judgments were right on Iraq’s ties to terrorists. There was no evidence of the formal relationship, however you want to describe it, between Iraq and al-Qa’eda, and no evidence that existed of Iraq’s complicity or assistance in al-Qa’eda’s terrorist attacks.”
Pentagon officials who appeared before the Senate committee testified that Mr Feith and others believed that the CIA was not sufficiently aggressive in its investigation of links between Saddam and al-Qa’eda. During the summer of 2002, administration hardliners believed that evidence of a connection between Iraq and the terrorist organisation would provide a clinching argument for war.
After the publication in June 2002 of a cautious report by the CIA entitled Iraq and al-Qa’eda: A Murky Relationship, Mr Feith passed on a written verdict to the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, that the report should be read “for content only – and CIA’s interpretation should be ignored”.
In August 2002, Mr Feith’s cell gave a briefing to Mr Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, which included a stinging condemnation of the CIA’s intelligence assessment techniques.
In sharp contrast to the Senate intelligence committee’s criticisms of “over-reaching” and “exaggeration” by CIA agents, the Pentagon briefing criticised the agency for requiring “juridical evidence” for its findings and for the “consistent underestimation” of the possibility that Iraq and al-Qa’eda were attempting to conceal their collaboration.
In another incident, Mr Feith’s Pentagon cell postponed the publication of a CIA assessment of Iraq’s links to terrorism after a visit to CIA headquarters at which “numerous objections” were made to a final draft.
In particular, Pentagon officials insisted that more should be made of an alleged meeting between the September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi official in Prague in April 2001. The CIA judged reports of the meeting not to be credible, a verdict vindicated on Friday by the Senate committee report.
Most remarkably, on September 16, 2002, two days before the CIA was to produce its postponed assessment, Mr Feith’s cell went directly to the White House and gave an alternative briefing to Vice-President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, and to the National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s deputy.
The briefing contained the section alleging “fundamental problems” with CIA intelligence-gathering. It also gave a detailed breakdown of the alleged meeting between Atta and an Iraqi agent.
The following week, senior Bush officials made confident statements on the existence of a link between Saddam and al-Qa’eda. Mr Tenet would learn of the secret briefing only in March 2004.