WASHINGTON – A top Senate Democrat is alleging that a Pentagon policy office ignored corrections requested by the CIA on information linking Iraq to Al Qaeda (search), renewing complaints about the Bush administration's handling of intelligence before the Iraq invasion.
Sen. Carl Levin (search) of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued in a report released Thursday that high-level Pentagon officials exaggerated the intelligence on the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection to support the Bush administration's goal of removing then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The White House, which declined to comment on the report, has denied in the past that intelligence was misused or manipulated. Republican senators noted the report was issued just before the Nov. 2 elections.
Levin and the committee's Democratic staff examined the intelligence role of a Pentagon policy-making operation, focusing on its involvement in the administration's case about the purported links between Hussein and Al Qaeda. The office is run by Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith (search).
Levin's report says Feith's work was not related to strategy or policy recommendations, as would be expected, but rather "selective reinterpretations of intelligence" on Saddam's ties to Al Qaeda.
The Pentagon has maintained that Feith's operation was not an intelligence outfit, but a policy shop, and that its work was appropriate.
In a statement Thursday, the Pentagon said bipartisan reports have noted relationships between Al Qaeda and Iraq before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The statement also said a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation this summer found "no evidence that administration officials tried to coerce, influence or pressure intelligence analysts to change their judgments about Iraq's WMD capabilities or links to terrorism."
Democrats, however, have challenged that finding of the Republican-led panel.
In his report, Levin said the CIA requested a number of corrections to a memo written by Feith and provided to some senators in 2003, before the memo could be distributed widely to the Senate armed services panel.
But, Levin's report says, crucial changes requested by CIA were not made, including adequate alterations to information about the credibility of a source who provided raw intelligence on the Iraq-Al Qaeda link. Levin suggests the changes would have weakened evidence of a link.
The CIA declined to comment.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called Levin's report "a partisan effort to influence the election." Levin said he issued the report now because congressional leaders are in final negotiations on legislation to overhaul the intelligence community.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., also took "strong exception" to Levin's conclusions, and said statements made by administration officials can't conclusively be linked to Feith's work.
While much information remains classified, Warner noted that Iraq has been on the State Department's list of terror sponsors since 1990 and has a history of support for terror groups that attack Israel. Warner also said that there is evidence of contacts between Saddam's regime and groups and individuals associated with Al Qaeda.
Levin's report is critical of public statements made by senior administration officials, including President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The report renews criticisms of how Cheney, in particular, repeated information about a possible meeting in 2001 between Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta (search) and Iraqi intelligence in Prague. In the spring of 2002, Levin said, the CIA cast doubt on whether the meeting occurred and, to this day, is skeptical about it.
In September 2003, Cheney said U.S. officials hadn't been able develop any more on the meeting, "either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it."