Advertisement

Pentagon Defends Role of Intelligence Unit on Iraq

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Weighing in on the growing debate over prewar assessments of illicit weapons programs in Iraq, Pentagon officials denied Wednesday that a controversial intelligence cell encroached on the CIA’s turf or improperly influenced the decision to go to war.

Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith insisted that the Pentagon unit -- which some critics say exaggerated the Iraqi threat -- was not responsible for assessing whether Baghdad still had chemical and biological arms.

“I asked for some people to review the existing intelligence on

Feith said he was responding to what he described as erroneous news reports that are “beginning to achieve the status of urban legends.”

Advertisement

Feith’s defense of a unit that he said was shut down almost a year ago underscored the extent to which the Bush administration is struggling to quell suspicions about how it assembled its case for war.

But even as the administration seeks to fend off congressional inquiries, there are indications that the White House is also looking for some answers of its own.

Several officials said that President Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board is investigating how bogus claims that Iraq was seeking to buy enriched uranium from Africa made their way into the president’s State of the Union address this year.

The claims were based on documents that purported to show proposed transactions between Baghdad and the African nation of Niger. But nuclear arms inspectors subsequently judged the documents to be crude forgeries, peddled to Italian intelligence officials who passed them on to British and U.S. spies.

The Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board is a panel of outside advisors -- mainly former national security officials and private industry experts -- headed by Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to President George H.W. Bush.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on whether the board is investigating the issue.

Advertisement

On Wednesday, the ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee clashed publicly over how aggressively the panel should pursue the weapons issue.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chairman of the committee, issued a statement saying the panel would “conduct a thorough review” of the prewar intelligence on Iraq but would not launch a formal investigation or hold public hearings.

Doing so would be “premature,” with new inspection teams arriving in Iraq to expand the hunt for banned weapons, Roberts said. “This crucial work should be allowed to proceed unimpeded.” He held out the possibility of hearings after the review was finished.

The statement drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the panel, who said that merely reviewing documents turned over by the CIA “falls short of the important oversight responsibilities entrusted to the members of this committee.”

Appearing before the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday, Undersecretary of State John Bolton disputed suggestions from Democrats that the administration had pressured the intelligence community to skew its analysis of the threat posed by Iraq.

Bolton said he had “never asked anybody in the intelligence community to change a single thing, and I am not aware of any other official in the administration who did.”

Advertisement

A growing number of intelligence officials now acknowledge that the prewar claims about Iraq were based on a mixture of extrapolations from what was known in the mid-1990s and suggestive -- but far from definitive -- intelligence collected during the buildup to war.

Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, described the intelligence from intercepts, satellite imagery and other sources before the war as too spotty and insufficient to prove that Iraq still had illicit arms.

“The analysts did the best they could with insufficient information,” Goss said. “But it made it sketchy. It made long bridges to connect dots. It made assumptions that weren’t as solidly based as everyone would like to have them based.”

In an interview with The Times, Goss stressed that he believes the Bush administration “operated in good faith.”

“I have not seen anything that slows me down or suggests bad faith or anything close to it,” Goss said. “It’s insane to say [administration officials] were going to put it all on the line based on something they know is not accurate. These guys were persuaded this is a real worry, a real concern.”

Swirling questions about the intelligence on Iraq have focused new attention on the work of the secretive Pentagon unit some in the intelligence community refer to, half-jokingly, as “the cabal.”

Advertisement

The unit, made up of Pentagon intelligence analysts, has played a mysterious role in the Iraq debate and has been shielded from traditional intelligence oversight.

Goss, for example, said that neither he nor his staff ever saw any of the team’s work on Iraq, Al Qaeda or other subjects. Nor will the team’s work be subject to the intelligence community review being performed at the CIA by a group of retired analysts tapped by CIA Director George J. Tenet.

Some in the intelligence community have said the unit appeared to have been created to provide analysis more in line with the foreign policy objectives of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other administration hard-liners.

Feith rejected such accusations Wednesday, saying his unit was assembled solely to examine existing intelligence on ties between foreign governments and terrorist networks. Much of the group’s work made the case that cooperation between secular governments and Islamist terrorist groups is probably far more extensive than U.S. intelligence had previously known.

One of the unit’s key assessments endorsed the likelihood of links between ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda -- another assertion in the Bush administration’s case for war that remains unproven.

Feith, joined by William J. Luti, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, said the conclusions were presented to a host of CIA officials during a briefing at agency headquarters last year and that Tenet “received it very well and found it useful.”

Advertisement

Feith sought to dispel what he described as misconceptions about another Pentagon unit, the Office of Special Plans. Feith said the ambiguously named office is separate from the intelligence cell, and is a policy-planning operation set up last year to map out war policy and reconstruction plans for Iraq.

“Calling it Iraq Planning Office,” Feith said, “might have undercut our diplomatic efforts with regard to Iraq and the U.N. and elsewhere.”

Advertisement