WASHINGTON—Pentagon officials told the White House in September 2002 that Saddam Hussein was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, even though U.S. intelligence experts couldn't verify the information and considered it dubious, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Thursday.
Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, cited the Pentagon's use of the suspect material in a report based on a 16-month inquiry by Democratic staff aides on pre-war intelligence. The report charged that the Bush administration's case against Saddam relied on exaggerated and unproved allegations that Iraq and al-Qaida were in league.
"In the case of Iraq's relationship with al-Qaida, intelligence was exaggerated to support administration policy," the report said.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, took strong issue with the report and said Levin was trying to influence the presidential election. Warner said that much of the material on which Levin's report relied remained classified, and therefore difficult to rebut.
Levin denied trying to influence the presidential election. He said that he hoped that his report would persuade Congress to create safeguards against the misuse of intelligence.
The report contained new details about the Pentagon's role in advancing the notion that Saddam's regime worked with Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, a charge made by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials in making the case for last year's invasion of Iraq.
The report focused on a still-classified August 2002 analysis of alleged links between Iraq and al-Qaida produced by the Office of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, a key architect of the administration's Iraq policy.
"In order to present a public case that heightened the sense of threat from Iraq, administration officials reflected more closely the analysis of Undersecretary Feith's policy office rather than the more cautious analysis of the (intelligence community)," Levin's report said.
Feith's aides incorporated into the analysis "raw reports involving Iraq and al-Qaida that the IC had previously considered but deemed not suitable to reflect in finished intelligence reports," the Levin report said.
Feith's aides gave their analysis to the White House but withheld from the CIA parts the agency disagreed with, the Levin report said. The implication is that if the CIA had known the information was going to the White House, it would have objected.
The White House briefing included a discussion of an alleged meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, between an Iraqi intelligence official and Mohammad Atta, the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, five months before the suicide attacks.
But the discussion was excluded from a briefing to the CIA, whose analysts were unable to confirm that such a meeting had occurred and had expressed skepticism about the allegation months before the Pentagon analysis was published, the Levin report said.
Cheney spoke about the alleged meeting as late as January.
The bipartisan 9-11 commission found in July that the meeting never took place, and that while there were contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq, there was no evidence of a "collaborative relationship."
The exclusion of the alleged Prague meeting from the CIA briefing was just one of 35 differences between that version of the Pentagon analysis and the version presented to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the White House, said the Levin report.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating the issue, but its findings will not be released before the presidential election.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Carl Levin