WASHINGTON – Pentagon officials undercut the intelligence community in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq by insisting in briefings to the White House that there was a clear relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, the Defense Department's inspector general said Friday.
Acting Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the office headed by former Pentagon policy chief Douglas J. Feith took "inappropriate" actions in advancing conclusions on Al Qaeda connections not backed up by the nation's intelligence agencies.
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Gimble said that while the actions of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy "were not illegal or unauthorized," they "did not provide the most accurate analysis of intelligence to senior decision makers" at a time when the White House was moving toward war with Iraq.
"I can't think of a more devastating commentary," said Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
He cited Gimble's findings that Feith's office was, despite doubts expressed by the intelligence community, pushing conclusions that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before the attack, and that there were "multiple areas of cooperation" between Iraq and Al Qaeda, including shared pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
"That was the argument that was used to make the sale to the American people about the need to go to war," Levin said in an interview Thursday. He said the Pentagon's work, "which was wrong, which was distorted, which was inappropriate ... is something which is highly disturbing."
Republicans on the panel disagreed. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the "probing questions" raised by Feith's policy group improved the intelligence process.
"I'm trying to figure out why we are here," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., saying the office was doing its job of analyzing intelligence that had been gathered by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
Gimble responded that at issue was that the information supplied by Feith's office in briefings to the National Security Council and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney was "provided without caveats" that there were varying opinions on its reliability.
Gimble's report said Feith's office had made assertions "that were inconsistent with the consensus of the intelligence community."
At the White House, spokesman Dana Perino said President Bush has revamped the U.S. spy community to try avoiding a repeat of flawed intelligence affecting policy decisions by creating a director of national intelligence and making other changes.
"I think what he has said is that he took responsibility, and that the intel was wrong, and that we had to take measures to revamp the intel community to make sure that it never happened again," Perino told reporters.
Some Democrats also have contended that Feith misled Congress about the basis of the administration's assertions on the threat posed by Iraq, but the Pentagon investigation did not support that.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Levin said the IG report is "very damning" and shows a Pentagon policy shop trying to shape intelligence to prove a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam.
Levin in September 2005 had asked the inspector general to determine whether Feith's office's activities were appropriate, and if not, what remedies should be pursued.
The 2004 report from the Sept. 11 commission found no evidence of a collaborative relationship between Saddam and Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror organization before the U.S. invasion.
Asked to comment on the IG's findings, Feith said in a telephone interview that he had not seen the report but was pleased to hear that it concluded his office's activities were neither illegal nor unauthorized. He took strong issue, however, with the finding that some activities had been "inappropriate."
"The policy office has been smeared for years by allegations that its pre-Iraq-war work was somehow 'unlawful' or 'unauthorized' and that some information it gave to congressional committees was deceptive or misleading," Feith said.
Feith called "bizarre" the inspector general's conclusion that some intelligence activities by the Office of Special Plans, which was created while Feith served as the undersecretary of defense for policy — the top policy position under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld — were inappropriate but not unauthorized.
"Clearly, the inspector general's office was willing to challenge the policy office and even stretch some points to be able to criticize it," Feith said, adding that he felt this amounted to subjective "quibbling" by the IG.
Feith left his Pentagon post in August 2005 and now teaches at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He has maintained throughout the controversy over the role of the Office of Special Plans, as well as other small groups that were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that their intelligence activities were prudent, authorized and useful in challenging some of the intelligence analysis of the CIA.