Elected as a war critic, he was part of prewar errors
Of all the Democrats who rode a wave of public anger over Iraq to election victories this month, Chris Carney had the most unlikely credentials as a war critic.
Before winning the race for Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District, Carney was part of a controversial intelligence unit at the Pentagon that was responsible for some of the most alarming -- and, it turned out, unfounded -- prewar claims about Iraq.
Assigned to search for links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the unit reached a series of conclusions, including that a Sept. 11 hijacker had met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, Czech Republic, that have since been widely discredited. The Pentagon unit was created and run by one of the Iraq war’s principal architects, then-Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith.
Carney took part in briefings at the White House and the Pentagon that disparaged the CIA for underestimating the relationship between Baghdad and the terrorist network. Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials frequently touted the findings to bolster the case for war.
Despite his background, Carney campaigned as an antiwar Democrat and said he got a “very warm reception” when he arrived at Capitol Hill this week to take part in orientation activities for incoming members. Carney is a lifelong Democrat, according to his press secretary.
“They are intrigued,” Carney said of his fellow freshmen. “But I’m not sure all of them know about this.”
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton) said she was disturbed by the work that came out of Feith’s office, but doubted that members would hold that against Carney.
“I think that in retrospect that what happened there is deeply troubling and we’re paying a price for it,” Eshoo said. “But I don’t want to cast judgment on him.”
Carney, 47, is not apologetic about his work at the Pentagon.
“I certainly stand by the fact that I believe there was some sort of relationship,” he said in an interview. “On a scale from zero to 10, with zero being no relationship and 10 perfect operational coordination,” Carney said, the Iraq-Al Qaeda link was “somewhere in the 2.5 range.”
That appears to be a more qualified assessment than the so-called Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group presented to policymakers during a series of briefings in 2002. In one briefing slide, the group asserted that there were “more than a decade of numerous contacts” between Iraq and Al Qaeda and that there were “multiple areas of cooperation,” possibly including the Sept. 11 attacks.
Carney, a reserve officer in the Navy and political science professor at Penn State University, wasn’t expected to win his conservative-leaning district in eastern Pennsylvania. But his chances improved when the Republican incumbent, Don Sherwood, admitted he’d had a five-year extramarital affair and was forced to deny accusations that he had choked his mistress.
Carney said he initially was a supporter of the invasion of Iraq but has been dismayed by the handling of the postwar insurgency. His stance hardened, he said, when one of his college students returned from Iraq and complained of how ill-equipped U.S. fighting units were.
“They had to scrounge Iraqi scrap yards for junk metal to weld onto their trucks,” Carney said.
Carney ended up working for Feith after being called up for duty as an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Carney was detailed to Feith’s office in 2002 after the noted neoconservative asked the DIA to provide two analysts for a special project.
Carney and another DIA analyst, Christina Shelton, spent months poring over thousands of raw intelligence reports. They quickly concluded that the CIA, which had been skeptical of any serious relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, was getting it wrong.
“I found it kind of curious the way they were so equivocal in the analysis,” Carney said of the CIA reports. “It was frustrating to me and others with all the caveating that was going on.”
So the Feith team assembled a competing report called “Assessing the Relationship Between Iraq and Al Qaeda.” The document cited “fundamental problems” with the CIA’s analysis and offered conclusions without caveats. It said Baghdad was providing training to “non-Iraqi terrorists” and had “provided safe haven” for terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi. Under the heading “Known Iraq-Al Qaeda Contacts,” the document listed the alleged 2001 meeting of Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta with an Iraqi agent in Prague as if there were no doubt the meeting had occurred.
When the group’s findings were leaked to a conservative publication, Cheney described the report as the “best source” for understanding ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
Like much of the prewar intelligence on Iraq, the allegations of ties between Baghdad and Al Qaeda have crumbled under postwar scrutiny. A recent investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that Atta never met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, that Baghdad did not give safe haven to Zarqawi, and that Hussein was so wary of Al Qaeda he had issued an edict barring anyone in his government from having any dealings with the terrorist network.
Carney defends his work by saying that many of the postwar conclusions are based on information that wasn’t available to analysts in 2002.
Polls show a significant minority of Americans still believe Iraq was somehow involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, but Carney disputes that his work contributed to that misperception or pushed the U.S. into war.
“I was one voice among hundreds talking about this,” Carney said. “Ultimately, the decision to go to war rests with the president, and I am certain that the president had lots of information other than what I had.”
Carney said that much of his focus in Congress would be on domestic issues, including healthcare and job security. Still, he said that he believed U.S. intelligence agencies suffered from a lack of creative thinking, and that he had ideas about how to fix some of the community’s problems.
“There are a number of things I’m looking at as committee assignments, and the intelligence committee is certainly one of them,” he said. If selected, he added, “I think I would apply the same kind of rigor to those issues that we did in the Pentagon.”