WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and the CIA are waging a bitter feud over secret intelligence that is being used to shape U.S. policy toward Iraq, according to current and former U.S. officials.
The dispute has been fueled by the creation within the Pentagon of a special unit that provides senior policymakers with alternate assessments of Iraq intelligence.
Administration hawks who have been leading proponents of invading Iraq oversee the Pentagon unit, which is producing its own analyses of raw intelligence reports obtained from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and other agencies, the officials said.
The dispute pits hardliners long distrustful of the U.S. intelligence community against professional military and intelligence officers who fear the hawks are shaping intelligence analyses to support their case for invading Iraq.
A major source of contention is the Pentagon's heavy reliance on data supplied by the Iraqi National Congress. The INC, the largest group within the divided Iraqi opposition, has a mixed reputation in Washington and a huge stake in whether President Bush makes good on his threat to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam by force. Its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, sees himself as a potential successor.
At issue in the battle are the most basic questions behind Bush's threatened invasion.
They include whether Iraq is linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network; whether Iraqi troops would fight or surrender; and under what conditions Saddam would use chemical and biological weapons.
The feud also reveals long-standing divisions over U.S. intelligence capabilities.
Top Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, have long been critical of the CIA. They and their allies have participated in previous so-called "B Team" exercises to counter what they see as the spy agency's overly cautious views.
For their part, career intelligence officials accuse the Pentagon group of politicizing an intelligence process that is supposed to be unbiased and nonpartisan.
"The entire intelligence community hates this," said one former intelligence official who, like most others interviewed, requested anonymity.
It is not clear whether the Pentagon solicits the views of the U.S. intelligence community on the material it collects directly from the Iraqi opposition.
A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed grave fears that civilian officials in the Pentagon may be blindly accepting assertions by Chalabi and his aides that a U.S. invasion would trigger mass defections of Iraqi troops and a quick collapse of Iraqi resistance.
"Our guys working this area for a living all believe Chalabi and all those guys in their Bond Street suits are charlatans. To take them for a source of anything except a fantasy trip would be a real stretch," one official said. "But it's an article of faith among those with no military experience that the Iraqi military is low-hanging fruit."
An INC spokesman did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Rumsfeld on Thursday defended the unit's creation as a way for Pentagon policymakers to familiarize themselves with information on which CIA assessments on Iraq are made.
"People are doing that all over town. They do it at the State Department. They do it in my office. I do it," he said. "I take this information and read it and think about it and sort and ask questions and talk to other people about it."
"Any suggestion that it is an intelligence-gathering activity or an intelligence unit of some sort, I think, would be a misunderstanding of it," he said.
Rumsfeld insisted that relations between the Pentagon and the CIA and between himself and CIA Director George Tenet are excellent.
Others disputed that.
The biggest, and to critics most troubling, divide is over the involvement of the INC, an umbrella group of Saddam opponents led by London-based Iraqi expatriate Ahmed Chalabi.
Chalabi has strong backers among senior civilian officials in the Pentagon and in Congress and the White House. But the group, and Chalabi in particular, are viewed with deep suspicion by many CIA and State Department officials.
INC officials predict that Saddam's regular army, as well as the Iraqi Republican Guard, will not fight U.S. troops. Only specialized units personally devoted to Saddam, including the Special Security Organization and the Special Republican Guard, will put up resistance, they say.
If true, that would allow U.S. troops to take Baghdad and the rest of the country without the kind of massive military force used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. If wrong, U.S. troops could face a much fiercer fight, possibly one they are not prepared for.
The Iraqi opposition's intelligence-gathering activities, known as the Information Collection Program, recently were transferred from State Department to Pentagon control.
Pentagon officials say the INC has been a valuable conduit of information from Iraqis inside the country and has helped arrange the recent defection of four members of Saddam's regime, including one with intimate knowledge of hidden Iraqi facilities for weapons of mass destruction.
The CIA refused to meet with the defectors until ordered to do so and has systematically disparaged the Iraqi opposition, they said.
The INC's track record "is far and way better than anything else," said a Pentagon official. "Not everything's 100 percent," but that is always the case with intelligence, the official said.
Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group, said the CIA has consistently misread developments in the Middle East, from the 1979 revolution in Iran to the rise of radical Islam. Its analysis "isn't worth the paper it's written on," Perle recently told Knight Ridder.
On Iraq, the agency has "been disparaging of the opposition," said Perle, who is close to Chalabi and Wolfowitz. "They've been reluctant to even talk to the opposition."
CIA officials are skeptical of Chalabi's veracity and some even suspect that he had a hand in aborting a U.S.-backed coup attempt against Saddam in 1995. That allegation is unproved.
A CIA spokesman refused to comment on the dispute with the Pentagon.
The CIA severed its relationship with the INC after the group was unable to account for millions of dollars in covert aid.
Chalabi is so distrusted by some managers in the CIA's covert arm, the Directorate of Operations, that they have not forwarded INC-generated intelligence that they probably should have, the former intelligence official said.
But Pentagon officials "believe their reporting is far more accurate than it actually is," he said. "The INC is in many cases their primary source of information."
The small Pentagon intelligence unit that Wolfowitz created last year is in the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, regarded as the third-highest ranking policymaker in the Pentagon.
Several government officials and Middle East experts outside government said that Pentagon officials working on Iraq policy under Feith have been separated from the rest of the Middle East division in a "special projects" office.
The office, comprising civilian experts and some uniformed military officers, is on the Pentagon's fifth floor, isolated from other key policymaking offices.
Pentagon officials are requesting raw intelligence from the CIA, one administration official said, and asking leading questions such as, "Tell us everything you know about Iraqi connections to the following al-Qaida actions."
While intelligence reports say there have been al Qaida members in Iraq, there has been no evidence that the terrorist network and the Iraqi regime have cooperated in staging terrorist attacks against the United States. The Pentagon has taken the lead in warning that Saddam could provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists; a possibility the CIA says is low.
Tenet is resisting pressure to skew the agency's analyses, and has instructed his analysts to do likewise, current and former officials said.
But the Pentagon office is forcing CIA analysts to constantly defend not using pieces of intelligence with minimal value, the former intelligence official said.
There is a "fixation on pieces of intelligence that are garbage," he said.
In one notable case that reverberated through the intelligence community, the CIA sent the Pentagon a raw intelligence report on Iraq, known as a TD, or telegraphic dissemination. The agency, using standard procedure, noted that the report was from a reliable source of a foreign intelligence service.
Pentagon officials demanded to know why the information was not being publicized.
Because, the CIA replied, while the source was known as reliable on some matters, the person was not an expert on Iraq and had never been there. The CIA did not find the intelligence remarkable.
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.