Senior Bush administration officials are pressuring CIA analysts to tailor their assessments of the Iraqi threat to help build a case against Saddam Hussein, intelligence and congressional sources said.
In what sources described as an escalating “war,” top officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere have bombarded CIA analysts with criticism and calls for revisions on such key questions as whether Iraq has ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, sources said.
The sources stressed that CIA analysts--who are supposed to be impartial--are fighting to resist the pressure. But they said analysts are increasingly resentful of what they perceive as efforts to contaminate the intelligence process.
“Analysts feel more politicized and more pushed than many of them can ever remember,” said an intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The guys at the Pentagon shriek on issues such as the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. There has been a lot of pressure to write on this constantly, and to not let it drop.”
The pressure has intensified in the weeks leading up to this week’s debate in Congress on a resolution granting President Bush permission to pursue a military invasion of Iraq.
Evidence of the differences between the agency and the White House surfaced publicly this week when CIA Director George J. Tenet sent a letter to lawmakers saying the Iraqi president is unlikely to strike the United States unless provoked.
That was at odds with statements from Bush and others that Iraq poses an immediate threat. In a speech Monday in Cincinnati, Bush said the danger that Iraq poses to the United States “is already significant, and it only grows worse with time.”
Several lawmakers voiced frustration with the way intelligence is being used in the debate on Iraq.
“I am concerned about the politicization of intelligence,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who echoed complaints of other members that the administration has been selective in the intelligence it cites, overstating its case in many instances.
Classified material provided recently by the CIA on Iraq’s capabilities and intentions “does not track some of the public statements made by senior administration officials,” Feinstein said.
Outside experts say they too see growing cause for concern.
“The intelligence officials are responding to the political leadership, not the other way around, which is how it should be,” said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The politics are driving our intelligence assessments at this point.”
Tenet rejected assertions that the agency is being unduly influenced.
“The president of the United States would never tolerate anything other than our most honest judgment,” Tenet said in a statement late Thursday. “Our credibility and integrity are our most precious commodities. We will not let anyone tell us what conclusions to reach.
“Policymakers, members of Congress and others are free to push us to challenge our assertions and to ask tough, probing questions. This is healthy. But the notion that we would shape our assessments to please any one of our customers is abhorrent to the ethic by which we work and is simply untrue.”
But intelligence sources say the pressure on CIA analysts has been unrelenting in recent months, much of it coming from Iraq hawks including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his top deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz.
CIA officials who brief Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz on Iraq routinely return to the agency with a long list of complaints and demands for new analysis or shifts in emphasis, sources said.
“There is a lot of unhappiness with the analysis,” usually because it is seen as not hard-line enough, one intelligence official said.
Another government official said CIA briefers “are constantly sent back by the senior people at Defense and other places to get more, get more, get more to make their case.”
A senior Pentagon official rejected claims that Rumsfeld would improperly influence intelligence analysts and said they might be misinterpreting remarks meant to test their convictions. “He’s a guy who’s constantly challenging assertions and assumptions,” the official said.
But White House hawks have shown a tendency for stretching the case against Iraq. Wolfowitz and others have clung to claims that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, the Czech capital, last year even though the CIA has viewed the report with deep skepticism.
Rumsfeld’s recent remark that the United States has “bulletproof” evidence of links between Al Qaeda and Hussein struck many in the intelligence community as an exaggerated assessment of the available evidence.
Indeed, Tenet’s letter to lawmakers this week said the agency’s “understanding of the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda is evolving and is based on sources of varying reliability.”
Similarly, Bush said in his Cincinnati speech, “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases.”
But Tenet’s letter was more equivocal, saying only that there has been “reporting” that such training has taken place. Unlike other passages of the letter, he did not describe the reporting as “solid” or “credible.”
The sequence of events surrounding the release of the letter is seen by many on Capitol Hill as an example of how the political winds have whipped intelligence on Iraq.
Tenet released the letter only after being pushed to do so by lawmakers unhappy with an earlier CIA report on Iraq that hewed closely to the White House line.
When lawmakers seized on the letter in speeches against the White House case for war, Tenet quickly issued another statement asserting that “there is no inconsistency” between White House and agency views on Iraq danger. A day later, Tenet rejected another request from lawmakers to declassify additional material on Iraq.
Tenet “is in a bad position,” said one congressional aide. “He’s under fire from the [intelligence] committees. Then he’s under fire from the White House.”
Some agency critics note that the CIA’s public statements on Iraq have evolved over the last year, escalating their assessment of the risk posed by Hussein.
When Tenet testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 19, for example, the Iraqi threat was not singled out or described with particular urgency.
Hussein “may ... have retained the capability to deliver” biological or chemical weapons “using modified aircraft or other unmanned aerial vehicles,” Tenet said, for example.
Tenet also told the committee at the time that Baghdad has “had contacts” with Al Qaeda and that tactical cooperation is “possible.” His letter to lawmakers this week asserts “senior level contacts” going back a decade.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said some of the changes can be attributed to new information gained from interrogations of several Al Qaeda leaders captured in Pakistan and elsewhere since spring.
The official insisted that intelligence also supported Bush’s widely challenged charge that Iraq is “exploring ways” of using drone aircraft to disperse chemical or biological agents against targets in the United States.
U.N. reports confirm that Iraq has converted Czech-made L-29 trainer jets into unmanned aircraft and that it has sought to equip them with sprayers, but such planes are incapable of flying long distances.
During his speech Tuesday on Iraq, Bush repeated a claim that Baghdad has attempted to import high-strength aluminum tubes “for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.”
The claim, however, is widely disputed. A British government report last month, which reflects the judgments of British intelligence, notes that “no definitive intelligence” links the tubes to a nuclear program.
Accusations that the CIA has shaded its analysis of sensitive national security issues to support administration policies are not new.
Ronald Reagan and other Republicans charged that the CIA under President Carter underestimated the Soviet threat in the late 1970s, leading to creation of a separate “Blue Team” panel that produced a more dire analysis of the data.
During the Clinton administration, hawkish Republicans charged that the intelligence community was downplaying the threat of ballistic missiles.
A commission led by Rumsfeld argued that the threat was much more immediate and thus sharpened the political debate over national missile defense.