WASHINGTON — Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, a two-man intelligence team set up shop in a windowless, cipher-locked room at the Pentagon, searching for evidence of links between terrorist groups and host countries.
The men culled classified material, much of it uncorroborated data from the C.I.A. "We discovered tons of raw intelligence," said Michael Maloof, one of the pair. "We were stunned that we couldn't find any mention of it in the C.I.A.'s finished reports."
They recorded and annotated their evidence on butcher paper hung like a mural around their small office. By the end of the year, as the rubble was being cleared from the World Trade Center and United States forces were fighting in Afghanistan, the men had constructed a startling new picture of global terrorism.
Old ethnic, religious and political divides between terrorist groups were breaking down, the two men warned, posing an ominous new threat. They saw alliances among a wide range of Islamic terrorists, and theorized about a convergence of Sunni and Shiite extremist groups and secular Arab governments. Their conclusions, delivered to senior Bush administration officials, connected Iraq and Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
In doing so, the team also helped set off a controversy over the shaping of intelligence that continues today.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is investigating whether the unit — named the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group by its creator, Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy — exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq to justify the war.
The C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies found little evidence to support the Pentagon's view of an increasingly unified terrorist threat or links between Mr. Hussein and Mr. bin Laden, and still largely dismiss those ideas. Foreign Islamic fighters have sought haven in Iraq since the American-led invasion and some Sunnis and Shiites have banded together against the occupiers, but the agencies say that is the result of anger and chaotic conditions, not proof of prewar alliances.
And with criticism mounting in recent weeks as the conflict has become more bloody, President Bush has found himself forced to defend once more how the war on terror led to Baghdad.
Some critics argue that some of the first steps were taken by Mr. Feith's little intelligence shop. Whether its findings influenced the thinking of policy makers or merely provided talking points that buttressed long-held views, the unit played a role in the administration's evolving effort to define the threat of Iraq — and sell it to the public.
Unable to reach a consensus on Iraq's terrorist ties because of the skepticism of the C.I.A. and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Bush administration turned its focus to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as the central rationale for war. Mr. Feith said his team was not involved in the analysis of those weapons.
But, he said in an interview, terrorism and Iraq's weapons became linked in the minds of top Bush administration officials. After Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks that followed it, he said, the administration "focused on the danger that Iraq could provide the fruits of its W.M.D. programs to terrorists."
The president, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, alluded to connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda in their public statements. Mr. Bush also frequently warned of the risks that Mr. Hussein would share his weapons with terrorists.
"The worst thing that could happen would be to allow a nation like Iraq, run by Saddam Hussein, to develop weapons of mass destruction and then team up with a terrorist organization so they can blackmail the world," Mr. Bush said in an interview in April 2002.
The failure to find such weapons in Iraq has prompted a series of investigations into prewar intelligence. The Senate committee plans to complete its review, including its examination of the Feith group, in the next few months. The unit has often been confused with another Feith operation, called the Office of Special Plans, which Pentagon officials say was involved in prewar planning but not intelligence analysis.
Some intelligence experts charge that the unit had a secret agenda to justify a war with Iraq and was staffed with people who were handpicked by conservative Pentagon policy makers to arrive at preordained conclusions about Iraq and Al Qaeda.
"I don't have any problem with them bringing in a couple of people to take another look at the intelligence and challenge the assessments," said Patrick Lang, a former Middle East analyst for the D.I.A. "But the problem is that they brought in people who were not intelligence professionals, people brought in because they thought like them. They knew what answers they were going to get."
Mr. Feith defends his analysts. "I would be happy to have anybody come in and examine the quality of the work, whether it is supported by the data, whether it is logical, whether it is well-reasoned," he said.
He added: "There are real policy issues in this town that are worth fighting and debating. Some of them involve peace and war."
Mr. Feith created his team a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks to study links between terrorist groups and potential state sponsors around the world. Mr. Maloof and his colleague, David Wurmser began work in October 2001 in a 15-by-15-foot space on the third floor of the Pentagon. The pair spent their days reading raw intelligence reports, many from the Central Intelligence Agency, in the Pentagon's classified computer system.
"We began to pull together a mosaic," Mr. Maloof said.
Mr. Feith said his group was not set up as a rival to the C.I.A. "This is what policy people do all the time, they read the existing intelligence," he said. "We were not bypassing, we were not being secretive, we were not cutting the intel community out of this."
Resistance From Within
But the effort immediately aroused suspicions at the C.I.A. and the D.I.A. Mr. Feith and his two analysts were closely linked to Richard N. Perle, then chairman of a Pentagon advisory group and a leading neoconservative who had long advocated toppling Mr. Hussein and was a vocal critic of the C.I.A.
"I think the people working on the Persian Gulf at the C.I.A. are pathetic," Mr. Perle said in an interview. "They have just made too many mistakes. They have a record over 30 years of being wrong." He added that the agency "became wedded to a theory," that did not leave room for the possibility that Iraq was working with Al Qaeda, and that "they went to battle stations every time someone pointed to contrary evidence."
When Mr. Perle was a top defense official in the Reagan administration, Mr. Maloof, a former journalist, worked as his investigator, assembling evidence that the Soviet Union was stealing Western technology. Mr. Wurmser, a Middle East expert who had written a book that attacked the Clinton administration and the C.I.A. for their handling of Iraq in the 1990's, had worked at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where Mr. Perle was a resident scholar. Mr. Feith had been Mr. Perle's deputy at the Pentagon. And while they were all out of government, Mr. Wurmser, Mr. Feith and Mr. Perle had signed a 1996 paper calling for the overthrow of Mr. Hussein to enhance Israel's security.
Despite their access to the Pentagon leadership, Mr. Maloof and Mr. Wurmser faced resistance from the C.I.A. and D.I.A.
They were initially denied access, for example, to the most highly classified documents in the Pentagon computer system. So Mr. Maloof returned regularly to his previous office in the Department of Defense, where he still could get the material. "We scoured what we could get up to the secret level, but we kept getting blocked when we tried to get more sensitive materials," Mr. Maloof said. "I would go back to my office, do a pull and bring it in."
Sometimes, they said, they were met with open hostility. In the Pentagon one day, a senior D.I.A. official told them, "You are not needed and not welcome," Mr. Maloof recalled.
Each week, they would brief Stephen A. Cambone, then Mr. Feith's principal deputy. By November 2001, as the Bush administration began war planning for Iraq, the unit had produced a slide presentation that they were told would be used by Mr. Rumsfeld in a NATO meeting.
The team's conclusions were alarming: old barriers that divided the major Islamic terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, were coming down, and these groups were forging ties with one another and with secular Arab governments in an emerging terrorist war against the West.
Their analysis covered plenty of controversial ground. The two men identified members of the Saudi royal family who they said had aided Al Qaeda over the years. They warned that Al Qaeda had operatives in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, where they were establishing ties with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. They suspected Abu Nidal, an aging Palestinian terrorist leader living in Baghdad, of being an indirect link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, even though many other analysts believed that he was essentially retired and that his once-fearsome organization had been shattered. Mr. Nidal died under mysterious circumstances in Baghdad in 2002.
The Pentagon conclusions were at odds with years of C.I.A. analysis. The agency was skeptical that governments as diverse as those in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iran could be linked to anything like a cohesive terrorist network. The C.I.A. and the D.I.A. believed that Feith's team had greatly exaggerated the significance of reported contacts among extremist groups and Arab states. The C.I.A. saw little evidence, for example, that the Sunni-dominated Qaeda and the Shiite-dominated Hezbollah had worked together on terrorist attacks.
And there was little proof that Mr. Hussein was working on terror plots with Mr. bin Laden, a religious extremist who viewed the Baghdad regime as a corrupt, secular enemy. "The divides do matter," a senior C.I.A. official said. "But if you work hard enough in this nasty world, you can link just about anybody to anybody else."
Another agency official summed up the Feith team's work by saying, "Leave no dot unconnected."
Mr. Maloof defends their analysis. "We had to justify every single connection we made," he said. "But the intelligence community had preconceived notions, and if the information didn't fit into those notions, then they simply ignored it."
At the end of 2001, Mr. Maloof and Mr. Wurmser briefed top Pentagon officials as well as John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security and a veteran of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Maloof also met with Mr. Perle at his suburban Washington home. As chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory group, he had security clearance.
That session was interrupted by a call from Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group. At Mr. Maloof's request, Mr. Perle asked Mr. Chalabi, now a member of the interim government of Iraq, to have his staff provide Mr. Maloof information gleaned from defectors and others. The request was unusual, because Mr. Feith's analysts were supposed to review intelligence, not collect it. And Mr. Chalabi at that time had a lucrative contract to provide information on Iraq exclusively to the State Department, which would send it along to the intelligence agencies.
Mr. Maloof later met with member of the Iraqi National Congress's staff. As it turned out, Mr. Chalabi was a risky source: some of the information his group provided was incorrect or fabricated, intelligence officials now believe.
Sharing Their Findings
A high point for the team was a 45-minute briefing for Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, in November 2001. "Wolfowitz said, `How come I'm not hearing this from anybody else?' " Mr. Maloof said. "We said, because no one else has done the analysis." Mr. Wolfowitz did not respond to several requests for comment.
By early 2002, the team had completed a 150-page briefing and slide presentation for Mr. Feith.
"There was intelligence about contacts among these different players — the organizations, the state sponsors, the nonstate sponsors," Mr. Feith said. "There was intelligence about contacts among them that crossed ideological lines to a greater extent than perhaps some people had appreciated before."
"The connections could be tight or loose," he added. "I don't mean to suggest that all international terrorists are really operating from a single organization. They're not. We use the term `network' advisedly."
Soon after finishing the report, Mr. Wurmser moved to the State Department, and then joined Mr. Cheney's staff. He declined to be interviewed.
Mr. Maloof's Pentagon career was damaged in December 2001, when his security clearances were revoked. He was accused of having unauthorized contact with a foreign national, a woman he had met while traveling in the Republic of Georgia and eventually married. Mr. Maloof said he complied with all requirements to disclose the relationship. Several intelligence professionals say he came under scrutiny because of suspicions that he had leaked classified information in the past to the news media, a charge that Mr. Maloof denies. His lawyer, Sam Abady says that Mr. Maloof was a target because of his controversial intelligence work and political ties to conservative Pentagon leaders.
An appeals board reinstated his clearances after Mr. Feith and Mr. Perle wrote letters to the D.I.A. But the intervention angered some intelligence officials, and a second panel reversed course in April 2003. Mr. Maloof is now on paid leave.
Mr. Feith, meanwhile, was eager to continue the work and turned it over to two D.I.A. analysts detailed to him. In the spring and summer of 2002, Christina Shelton, another agency analyst assigned to him, was reviewing old intelligence reports on Al Qaeda when she saw patterns suggesting connections between the Baghdad regime and the group. She became infuriated when one agency official told her that pursuing such leads "would only help Wolfowitz," a Pentagon official recalled.
She began to fight back. That summer, officials say, the C.I.A. issued a classified report entitled "Iraq-Al Qaeda — a murky relationship." After reading it, Ms. Shelton wrote a critical cover memo urging Pentagon policy makers to focus on the underlying intelligence rather than the agency's assessments, according to officials familiar with the incident. With the other analysts on Mr. Feith's staff, she produced a new assessment of Iraq and Al Qaeda suggesting closer ties than the C.I.A. thought existed.
Confronting the C.I.A.
After they briefed Mr. Feith on their work, they were sent to Mr. Rumsfeld, who urged them to talk to George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence. In August 2002, Mr. Feith led his team to the C.I.A.
Mr. Tenet and other agency officials were skeptical of the Feith team's conclusions, according to one agency official who attended the briefing.
"They did point out some individual facts that we hadn't focused on," the official said, "but I don't think anything they briefed to us fundamentally changed our bottom line on the issue."
The main dispute was over whether the reports of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda meant that Iraq had been sponsoring the group's terrorist operations.
"We believed in contact, offers of safe haven, but no operational activity," the intelligence official said.
A few weeks later, on Sept. 16, 2002, Feith's team briefed Stephen J. Hadley, the deputy national security advisor, and I. Lewis Libby, a senior aide to Mr. Cheney. By that time, Mr. Cheney was already talking publicly about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda. In an appearance on "Meet the Press" just before the first anniversary of 9/11, he said that even without evidence of direct involvement by Baghdad in the attacks, the Hussein regime may have supported Al Qaeda.
"New information has come to light," Mr. Cheney said. "And we spent time looking at that relationship between Iraq, on the one hand, and the Al Qaeda organization on the other. And there has been reporting that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years.
Despite Mr. Cheney's assertions and the efforts of Mr. Feith's office, the Bush administration ultimately decided that the terrorism link was not strong enough to use as the central justification for war with Iraq. Instead, the administration focused on Mr. Hussein's illicit weapons, relying on assessments by the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies.
But Mr. Feith said that the evidence of Baghdad's terrorist links, when coupled with the threat of Mr. Hussein providing illicit weapons to groups like Al Qaeda, helped support the administration's case.
After 9/11, the administration reviewed the evidence about Iraq in a new light, he said. "One question was: Was Iraq involved in 9/11? We found no hard link. What about Iraq-Al Qaeda links in general? Well, there were some, but that wasn't the essence of the Saddam Hussein threat. The danger of Saddam's providing W.M.D. to Al Qaeda or another terrorist group — there you had a real problem, because his record on W.M.D. was indisputable."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company