Pentagon officials undercut the intelligence community in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq by insisting in briefings to the White House that there was a clear relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, the Defense Department's inspector general said Friday.
Acting Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the office headed by former Pentagon policy chief Douglas J. Feith took "inappropriate" actions in advancing conclusions on al Qaeda connections not backed up by the nation's intelligence agencies.
The briefing called the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda "mature" and "symbiotic," while the CIA called it "murky," reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. The small Pentagon intelligence office presented the information because it was convinced the CIA was doing shoddy work in the months before the war.
Gimble said that while the actions of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy "were not illegal or unauthorized," they "did not provide the most accurate analysis of intelligence to senior decision makers" at a time when the White House was moving toward war with Iraq.
"I can't think of a more devastating commentary," said Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
He cited Gimble's findings that Feith's office was, despite doubts expressed by the intelligence community, pushing conclusions that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before the attack, and that there were "multiple areas of cooperation" between Iraq and al Qaeda, including shared pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
"That was the argument that was used to make the sale to the American people about the need to go to war," Levin said in an interview Thursday. He said the Pentagon's work, "which was wrong, which was distorted, which was inappropriate ... is something which is highly disturbing."
Republicans on the panel disagreed. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the "probing questions" raised by Feith's policy group improved the intelligence process.
"I'm trying to figure out why we are here," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., saying the office was doing its job of analyzing intelligence that had been gathered by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
Gimble responded that at issue was that the information supplied by Feith's office in briefings to the National Security Council and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney was "provided without caveats" that there were varying opinions on its reliability.
Gimble's report said Feith's office had made assertions "that were inconsistent with the consensus of the intelligence community."
Responding to the report, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "The president has long acknowledged that intelligence leading up to the war in the Iraq was inaccurate. And he has taken dramatic actions in order to revamp the intel community."
Asked if the president feels ill-served by subordinates who manipulated intelligence on which he based decisions and took the U.S. to war, Perino said the president takes responsibility and has taken steps to make sure that bad intelligence doesn't happen again, CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller reports.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman denied that the office was producing its own intelligence products, saying they were challenging what was coming in from intelligence-gathering professionals, "looking at it with a critical eye."
Some Democrats also have contended that Feith misled Congress about the basis of the administration's assertions on the threat posed by Iraq, but the Pentagon investigation did not support that.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Levin said the IG report is "very damning" and shows a Pentagon policy shop trying to shape intelligence to prove a link between al Qaeda and Saddam.
In September 2005, Levin had asked the inspector general to determine whether Feith's office's activities were appropriate, and if not, what remedies should be pursued.
The 2004 report from the Sept. 11 commission found no evidence of a collaborative relationship between Saddam and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror organization before the U.S. invasion.
Asked to comment on the IG's findings, Feith said in a telephone interview that he had not seen the report but was pleased to hear that it concluded his office's activities were neither illegal nor unauthorized. He took strong issue, however, with the finding that some activities had been "inappropriate."
"The policy office has been smeared for years by allegations that its pre-Iraq-war work was somehow 'unlawful' or 'unauthorized' and that some information it gave to congressional committees was deceptive or misleading," said Feith, who left his Pentagon post in August 2005.
Feith called "bizarre" the inspector general's conclusion that some intelligence activities by the Office of Special Plans, which was created while Feith served as the undersecretary of defense for policy — the top policy position under then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld — were inappropriate but not unauthorized.
"Clearly, the inspector general's office was willing to challenge the policy office and even stretch some points to be able to criticize it," Feith said, adding that he felt it was subjective "quibbling." Feith maintains that the policy office and other, smaller groups created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks proved prudent and useful in challenging some of the CIA's analysis.