Was Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet really the last person in Washington to find out that both the president and vice president were being fed phony or “sexed up” intelligence about prewar Iraq by a Pentagon office staffed by ideologically driven neoconservatives?
It is highly doubtful, but in his desperate attempt to walk a tightrope between his increasingly irreconcilable loyalties to the administration of President George W. Bush and to his own intelligence professionals, Tenet is suggesting that he really was in the dark about what was going on just a few miles down the Potomac River from CIA headquarters.
Just a month ago, in a rousing defense of the intelligence community’s professionalism, Tenet boasted to students at Georgetown University that he and only he was the sole purveyor of intelligence information to the president.
But on Tuesday he admitted to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was unaware until just last week that officials based in the Pentagon’s policy office had given intelligence briefings directly to the White House.
“Is that a normal thing to happen, that there (is) a formal analysis relative to intelligence that would be presented to the NSC (National Security Council) that way, without you even knowing about it”? an incredulous Democratic senator, Carl Levin, asked Tenet during contentious hearings.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been in the situation,” Tenet replied, insisting, “I have to tell you senator, I’m the president’s chief intelligence officer; I have the definitive view about these subjects.”
“I know you feel that way,” Levin said, betraying a hint of sarcasm.
The exchange reflected the latest development in what is building into one of the biggest intelligence crises in modern U.S. history, one the administration is trying desperately, but with increasing difficulty, to quash.
The scandal, which is based on Washington’s abject failure one year after invading Iraq to find any evidence to back up the administration’s prewar claims that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed massive stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons; reconstituted his nuclear-weapons program (to the extent that, according to Vice President Dick Cheney, he had obtained weapons); and had operational ties with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, has been building since last summer.
But it gained momentum in January when the CIA’s chief weapons inspector, David, Kay admitted that US intelligence, including himself, had been “almost all wrong” on its prewar assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities.
Both Kay and the administration, as well as members of Congress from Bush’s Republican Party, immediately blamed the official intelligence community, which Tenet heads as CIA director, for the failure.
But opposition Democrats, backed up by former intelligence officials and some media reporting, charged the administration had systematically exaggerated and manipulated the intelligence by both intimidating the professional analysts who disagreed with them and by producing its own intelligence, much of which now appears to have been fabricated, through unofficial channels.
As a result, the intelligence committees in both houses have expanded their investigations in recent weeks.
While it is now clear that professional intelligence analysts made some serious errors assessing Iraq’s WMD programs largely through a combination of assuming “worst-case scenarios” in the absence of hard evidence and lacking reliable agents or assets in Iraq either as informants or investigators the “Feith factor” has now emerged as the key focus of the committees’ work.
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith set up two groups, the Office of Special Plans (OSP) and the Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group (CTEG).
They were tasked to review raw intelligence to determine if official intelligence agencies had overlooked connections between Shiite and Sunni terrorist groups and between al-Qaeda and secular Arab governments, especially Hussein’s.
The effort, which reportedly included interviewing “defectors,” several of them supplied by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an exile group close to neoconservatives who support Israel’s Likud Party, closely tracked the agenda of the Defense Policy Group (DPG), chaired by Feith’s mentor, Richard Perle.
The DPG also convened after Sept. 11 with INC leader Ahmed Chalabi to discuss ways in which the terrorist attacks could be tied to Hussein. Neither the State Department nor the CIA was informed about the meeting.
The OSP, which was overseen by Abram Shulsky, brought on Michael Malouf, who had worked for Perle in the Pentagon 20 years before and specialized in obtaining authorizations giving the office access to analyses produced by official intelligence agencies, according to knowledgeable sources.
Malouf’s operation, called the “bat cave,” permitted hawks in the Pentagon and Cheney’s office to anticipate the intelligence community’s more skeptical arguments about the alleged threats posed by Hussein, and then to devise questions or develop their own evidence that would be used to challenge the more benign views of the professional analysts, according to these sources.
At the same time, OSP, which consisted of only two permanent staff members, but which employed dozens of like-minded consultants, developed its own “talking points” and briefing papers, one of which on the subject of Hussein’s alleged ties to al-Qaeda was leaked last November to the neoconservative Weekly Standard.
It consisted of 50 excerpts taken from raw, mostly uncorroborated intelligence reports from sources of varying reliability from 1990 to 2002, which purported to show an operational relationship between the captured leader and the group.
But when it was published, former intelligence officials dismissed the work as amateurish, unsubstantiated and indicative, even if most of the allegations were true, of the absence of any operative relationship.
“This is meant to dazzle the eyes of the not terribly educated,” former State Department intelligence officer Greg Thielmann told IPS at the time.
As recently as last month, Cheney referred to the paper as “the best source of information” for intelligence on Iraq.
It was this paper that reportedly formed the basis of a briefing by Feith given to the NSC and Cheney’s office in August 2002. Tenet said Tuesday he “vaguely” remember having received a similar briefing by Feith, but was never informed that it was also presented to the White House.
The presentation to the CIA reportedly omitted certain remarks made to the White House to the effect that the CIA was deliberately ignoring evidence of Hussein-al-Qaeda links.
“Did you ever discuss with the secretary of defense or other administration officials whether the Department of Defense policy office run by Mr. Feith might be bypassing normal intelligence channels?” Levin asked Tenet on Tuesday.
“I did not. I did not,” he replied.
Why he did not remains a major question, particularly in light of the fact that several publications, including The New Yorker, Knight-Ridder news agency and IPS, were reporting already last July that Feith’s office was constantly “stovepiping” intelligence directly to Cheney and the White House in order to circumvent official channels.
These accounts have now been accepted by Democrats and some Republicans on the intelligence committees. Last Friday, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives committee, Rep Jane Harmon, raised the issue directly in a speech at Perle’s AEI.
“The president should direct a review of the activities of various (Pentagon) offices, particularly an early analytic unit that reported to Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith, as well as the Office of Special Plans,” she said.
“Disclaimers notwithstanding, many in Congress and intelligence operatives in the field now believe these entities fed unreliable and ‘unvetted’ intelligence to (Pentagon) policymakers and the Office of the Vice President.”