WASHINGTON - Two high-ranking Defense Department officials denied yesterday that a special Pentagon intelligence unit manipulated information on Iraq's weapons programs and links to al-Qaida in an effort to build public and political support for war.
In an unusual news conference, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and his deputy, William Luti, said the Office of Special Plans was never told to produce evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization or that Iraq was hiding chemical and biological weapons it might give to terrorist groups.
"This suggestion that we said to them, 'This is what we're looking for, go find it,' is precisely the inaccuracy that we're here to rebut," said Feith. "I know of no pressure. I know of nobody who pressured anybody."
Feith's appearance, however, is unlikely to end the controversy over U.S. and British intelligence on Iraq. So far, U.S. troops in Iraq have found no evidence to support some Bush administration officials' pre-war allegations that the Iraqis were hiding chemical and biological weapons and Scud missiles, and no evidence of any operational ties between Hussein and bin Laden.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has requested documents from CIA Director George J. Tenet to evaluate the accuracy of intelligence assessments of Iraq's pre-war weapons capabilities. But the chairman of the committee, Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said it is too early to call for a formal congressional investigation.
He said he wasn't troubled that U.S. soldiers had yet to find weapons of mass destruction.
"It could be disposed, it could be hidden, it could be offshore," Roberts said.
Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Sunday that he and Roberts intended to hold joint hearings to assess the credibility of the intelligence information. But after Vice President Dick Cheney asked them on Tuesday not to schedule hearings before reviewing the evidence, Warner and Roberts said hearings would be premature.
Yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a parliamentary inquiry into his government's case against Iraq after the House of Commons voted down an opposition move to authorize an independent investigation.
Three other Bush administration officials said yesterday that while Feith's remarks were accurate, they sidestepped the real issues. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because U.S. intelligence on Iraq is classified and because President Bush frowns on revealing dissension in his administration, said the Pentagon office gave far greater credence than did the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency to defectors and information provided by Iraqi exile groups, especially the London-based Iraqi National Congress.
These officials, all of whom have clashed with Feith and other Pentagon officials over numerous policy issues, said the Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, told Pentagon civilians that many Iraqi Shiites would greet U.S. troops as liberators, that some Iraqi military commanders would surrender their units en masse and that postwar Iraq would be friendlier than it's been so far.