WASHINGTON -- A small Pentagon unit set up after Sept. 11, 2001, to review raw intelligence later exaggerated the relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq, leading White House officials to make overblown or inaccurate comments in the run-up to the Iraq war, according to the Democratic staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The staff's report, based on a 15-month investigation and released yesterday
by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee's top Democrat, accused
the office of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith of compiling "selective
reinterpretations of intelligence" that went beyond the views of American
spy agencies in order to help make the case for an invasion of Iraq.
The 46-page report concluded that Feith and his staff were convinced that a significant relationship existed between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, and that the office had advanced that perspective by trying to change the intelligence community's views and "by taking its interpretation straight to policymakers."
In response, the Defense Department cited other investigations by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 commission that have found relationships did exist between Al Qaeda and the former government of Iraq. The department said in a statement it has cooperated with the Senate investigation, but did not directly address the allegations.
Levin said he is still seeking documents from the Pentagon, including those related to intelligence that may have been provided by Iraqi exile groups. Feith declined to comment on the report.
Michael Maloof, a career civil servant who with David Wurmser, a Middle East specialist, constituted the staff of the Pentagon unit, said in an interview that he reviewed possible connections between terrorist groups and state sponsors.
"We said there was a link" between Al Qaeda and Iraq, he said. "Subsequent information has proven that it was true. We never said in our report that Al Qaeda and Iraq conspired with each other to do 9/11. All we did was present the facts. We were not hysterical."
Maloof said, however, that it was "beyond my control" how the analysis he compiled was later used by senior policymakers.
The special unit, the now-defunct Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, has been criticized by Democratic members of Congress and administration critics who believe it was responsible for much of the faulty intelligence that the White House and Congress used to help make the case for war against Iraq.
Although many of the associated reports remain classified, Levin's report concludes that the Pentagon office came to several conclusions about Al Qaeda-Iraq links that were not borne out by US intelligence organizations.
For example, the office repeatedly asserted in the months leading up to the war in Iraq that lead hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in the spring before the Sept. 11 attacks, an account that the CIA dismissed because evidence existed that Atta was elsewhere at the time.
But in at least one case, the Pentagon office included the purported meeting in a report sent to the White House, but omitted it from the version sent to the CIA, according to the Senate report.
Vice President Dick Cheney has repeated, as recently as June, that a meeting in Prague did take place.
Meanwhile, Pentagon briefing slides said Iraq had "more than a decade of numerous contacts" with Al Qaeda, there were "multiple areas of cooperation," and there was "shared interest in" weapons of mass destruction, the Levin report said.
Yet the intelligence community disagreed about the extent of those contacts, which were based on "reporting of dubious quality or reliability," according to Levin's findings. "Unbeknownst to the [intelligence community,] policymakers were getting information that was inconsistent with, and thus undermined, the professional judgments of the . . . experts," according to the Democratic investigation. "These changes conveyed a perception that the US had firm evidence of a relationship between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda when it did not."
In addition to Cheney's repeated references to the Prague meeting, President Bush said on May 1, 2003, that Iraq was an "ally" of Al Qaeda, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice later said Iraq had provided training in weapons of mass destruction to Al Qaeda.
The Levin report states that there are no known intelligence reports, other than those provided by Feith's office, that could explain where these views originated.
"A pattern emerges of senior administration officials exaggerating the extent of the relationship in public statements which more closely reflect the Feith analysis" than those of the intelligence community, it said. "The professional objectivity and independence required in the assessment of the Iraq-Al Qaeda relationship, a major reason given for going to war, were compromised to support a predetermined policy -- to present the government of Saddam Hussein as a serious threat to the security of the United States."
But the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner of Virginia, called Levin's finding premature, noting that the Senate Intelligence Committee is conducting a bipartisan investigation into whether prewar intelligence was hyped for political reasons.
"I take strong exception to the conclusions Senator Levin reaches
based upon the Intelligence Committee's own analysis thus far of the public
and classified records," Warner said. "While certain policymakers
may have had access to the Feith analyses, they had equal access to comparable
analyses from all entities in the US intelligence community."
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