WASHINGTON -- As the Bush administration began assembling its case for war, analysts across the U.S. intelligence community were disturbed by the report of a secret Pentagon team that concluded that Iraq had significant ties to al-Qaida.
Analysts from the CIA and other agencies "disagreed with more than 50 percent" of 26 findings that the Pentagon team laid out in a controversial paper, according to testimony yesterday from Thomas F. Gimble, the acting inspector general of the Pentagon.
The dueling groups sat down at CIA headquarters in late August 2002 to try to work out their differences. But while the CIA agreed to minor modifications in some of its reports, the Pentagon unit was utterly unbowed, Gimble said in his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday.
"They didn't make the changes that were talked about in that August 20th meeting," Gimble said, and instead went on to present their deeply flawed findings to senior officials at the White House.
The work of that special Pentagon unit - which was run by former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith - is one of the lingering symbols of the intelligence failures leading up to the war in Iraq.
The Bush administration's primary justification for invading Iraq was always its assertion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. But Iraq's alleged ties to al-Qaida - and therefore its connection to the Sept. 11 attacks - was an important secondary argument, and one that resonated with many Americans in the lead-up to the war with Iraq.
The CIA, and many other intelligence agencies, were wrong in their assessments of Iraq's weapons programs. But the agency was always deeply skeptical about possible ties between Iraq and al-Qaida, and on that point the CIA appears to have been correct.
Most of the pieces of evidence that the Pentagon's so-called Office of Special Plans cited in making its case for significant collaboration between Baghdad and al-Qaida have crumbled under post-war scrutiny.
A recent study by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that, far from being an ally of al-Qaida, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was so wary of the network that he issued an order barring anyone in his government from having dealings with al-Qaida.
Although the Pentagon inspector general's report released yesterday did not address the accuracy of such assessments, it documented the unusual efforts of Defense Department policymakers to bypass regular intelligence channels and influence officials at the highest level of government.
Feith's work was of critical importance to Vice President Dick Cheney, who once referred to the Pentagon team's conclusions as the "best source" for understanding the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida.
The activities of Feith's group weren't illegal, Gimble concluded. But they were, "in our opinion, inappropriate given that the intelligence assessments were [presented as] intelligence products and did not clearly show the variance with the consensus of the intelligence community."
The Pentagon team promoted a series of claims that have not survived postwar scrutiny. Among them was the allegation that Mohammed Atta, the supposed ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, had met with an Iraqi agent in Prague before the attacks.
"The intelligence community thought that that was not a verifiable meeting and subsequently has proven that it did not occur," Gimble told the Senate panel.
He also pointed out that while the Feith team concluded that Iraq and al-Qaida had a "mature, symbiotic relationship," the rest of the intelligence community "did not agree with that."
A critical question raised by the inspector general's report is whether Feith and his office were merely giving a critique of CIA intelligence analysis, pointing out flaws, or creating their own sort of intelligence assessment, a role that is supposed to be left to the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
Levin pointed out yesterday that Cheney referred to Feith's work as an "assessment."
"It seems to me it was understood as an assessment by as high a person as the vice president of the United States; not just simply a critique of something else, but an assessment," Levin said.
But in a series of interviews Thursday and yesterday, Feith maintained that he was not creating an intelligence product but was just checking the work of the CIA. "It is a healthy thing that we did," Feith told National Public Radio yesterday. "The government should be doing more of it, and it is misguided that ... policy people should not be allowed to raise questions about intelligence."
Laurence H. Silberman, a semi-retired U.S. appeals court judge and co-chairman of a presidential commission on Iraq's weapons, said it is perfectly appropriate for policymakers to question the intelligence they are offered.
"Policymakers, whether they are in Defense, State, the White House or Congress, are absolutely entitled to question the intelligence community, look over the material and come up with their own views," he said.
Feith's work had the blessing of his boss, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The operation was set up at the behest of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz with approval from Rumsfeld, Gimble pointed out in his report. By most accounts, those three officials had distrust, if not disdain, for the work of the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
Robert M. Gates, the new secretary of defense and former CIA director, has offered a very different view of Feith's operations. Traveling in Europe for meetings with allied defense ministers, Gates said he did not believe that groups outside the CIA and other chartered intelligence agencies should be involved in freelance analysis.
"Based on my whole career, I believe all intelligence activities need to be carried on by the established institutions, where there is appropriate oversight," Gates told reporters traveling with him in Spain. "If the intelligence isn't adequate, then changes need to be made in those institutions to improve intelligence."
P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel and a senior fellow at the Center of American Progress, said that the intelligence promoted by Feith was a "low-grade infection" that tainted the public dialogue with misguided information.
"They weren't creating intelligence, but they were assembling the pieces to create a rationale for war," Crowley said. "Their production was discredited, but they had the desired effect. The little pieces ended up infecting the process."
Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.