WASHINGTON - A growing number of U.S. national security professionals are accusing the Bush administration of slanting the facts and hijacking the $30 billion intelligence apparatus to justify its rush to war in Iraq.
A key target is a four-person Pentagon team that reviewed material gathered by other intelligence outfits for any missed bits that might have tied Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to banned weapons or terrorist groups.
This team, self-mockingly called the Cabal, "cherry-picked the intelligence stream" in a bid to portray Iraq as an imminent threat, said Patrick Lang, a former head of worldwide human intelligence gathering for the Defense Intelligence Agency, which coordinates military intelligence.
That agency was "exploited and abused and bypassed in the process of making the case for war in Iraq based on the presence of WMD," or weapons of mass destruction, he added in a phone interview. He said the CIA had "no guts at all" to resist the allegedly deliberate skewing of intelligence by a Pentagon that he said was now dominating U.S. foreign policy.
U.S. intelligence "simply wrong"
The New York Times reported that Secretary of State Colin Powell on Friday fiercely defended the intelligence used by the Bush administration to justify war against Iraq. Powell told the Times that he spent several late nights poring over the CIA's reports because he knew the credibility of the country and the president were at stake.
Vince Cannistraro, a former chief of CIA counterterrorist operations, said he knew of serving intelligence officers who blame the Pentagon for playing up "fraudulent" intelligence, "a lot of it sourced from the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi."
That group, which brought together groups opposed to Saddam, worked closely with the Pentagon to build a for the early use of force in Iraq.
"There are current intelligence officials who believe it is a scandal," he said in a telephone interview. They believe the administration, before going to war, had a "moral obligation to use the best information available, not just information that fits your preconceived ideas."
The top Marine Corps officer in Iraq, Lt. Gen. James Conway, said Friday U.S. intelligence was "simply wrong" in leading military commanders to fear troops were likely to be attacked with chemical weapons in the March invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam.
CIA head denies charges
Richard Perle, a Chalabi backer and member of the Defense Policy Board that advises Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, defended the four-person unit in a television interview.
"They established beyond any doubt that there were connections that had gone unnoticed in previous intelligence analysis," he said on the PBS NewsHour Thursday.
A Pentagon spokesman, Marine Lt. Col. David Lapan, said the team in question analyzed links among terrorist groups and alleged state sponsors and shared conclusions with the CIA.
"In one case, a briefing was presented to director of Central Intelligence Tenet. It dealt with the links between Iraq and al-Qaida," the group blamed for the Sept. 2001 attacks on the United States, he said.
George Tenet denied charges the intelligence community, on which the United States spends more than $30 billion a year, had skewed its analysis to fit a political agenda, a cardinal sin for professionals meant to tell the truth regardless of politics.
"I'm enormously proud of the work of our analysts," he said in a statement on Friday ahead of an internal review. "The integrity of our process has been maintained throughout and any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong."
Tenet sat conspicuously behind Colin Powell during a key Feb. 5 presentation to the U.N. Security Council arguing Iraq represented an ominous and urgent threat - as if to lend the CIA's credibility to the presentation, replete with satellite photos.
House to re-evaluate data
Powell told the Times on Friday that the accuracy of the pre-war assessments was proven by the discovery of two Iraqi trailers that the CIA and Pentagon have concluded were designed to produce deadly germs. Powell presented drawings of suspected mobile biological labs to the United Nations in February.
"You should have seen the smile on my face when one day the intelligence community came in and gave me a photo, and said 'look,' " Powell said on Friday. "And it was almost identical to the cartoon that I had put up in New York on the 5th of February."
But doubts about the accuracy of the prewar intelligence have spread in Congress. In a letter sent last week to Tenet, the House intelligence committee said it intends "to re-evaluate" U.S. intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs and links to terrorists.
Greg Thielmann, who retired in September after 25 years in the State Department, the last four in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research working on weapons, said it appeared to him that intelligence had been shaped "from the top down."
"The normal processing of establishing accurate intelligence was sidestepped" in the runup to invading Iraq, said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security and who deals with U.S. intelligence officers.
Anger among security professionals appears widespread. Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group that says it is made up mostly of CIA intelligence analysts, wrote to President Bush May 1 to hit what it called "a policy and intelligence fiasco of monumental proportions."
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd