WASHINGTON—A special unit run by former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's top policy aide inappropriately produced "alternative" intelligence reports that wrongly concluded that Saddam Hussein's regime had cooperated with al-Qaida, a Pentagon investigation has determined.
The Department of Defense Inspector General's Office found that former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith and his staff had done nothing illegal or unauthorized.
But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who requested the investigation, called the findings "devastating" because senior administration officials, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, used Feith's work to help make their case for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"We went to war based on the argument of the administration . . . that there was a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein and that Saddam Hussein could give al-Qaida and other terrorist groups weapons," Levin said Thursday in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers.
The findings "are about as damning a statement as one can hear, and I think the American people will be absolutely furious," Levin continued. The lawmaker is a longtime critic of the administration's use of exaggerated and erroneous intelligence to justify the invasion and a leading voice for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Feith, who resigned from the Pentagon in 2005 and now teaches at Georgetown University, said that he'd been exonerated.
"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," he said in a statement. "The inspector general's report has now thoroughly repudiated the smears."
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that he'd review whether Feith may have violated the 1947 National Security Act.
The act "requires the heads of all departments and agencies of the U.S. government involved in intelligence activities `to keep the congressional oversight committees informed,' " Rockefeller said. "The IG has concluded that (Feith's) office was engaged in intelligence activities. The Senate Intelligence Committee was never informed of these activities. Whether these actions were authorized or not, it appears that they were not in compliance with the law."
The Pentagon investigation focused on the Policy Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group, which Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz created shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to look for state sponsors of terrorism, according to a Pentagon response to the inspector general's report. The unit then began probing for possible links between Saddam's regime and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
The Pentagon response from Eric Edelman, Feith's successor and a former aide to Cheney, said Wolfowitz asked Feith's analysts to ignore the intelligence community's belief that the militant Islamist al-Qaida and Saddam's secular dictatorship were unlikely allies.
Feith's unit gave three different briefings on its findings, according to Edelman's response. The one for Rumsfeld, in August 2002, cited "one indication of Iraqi coordination with al-Qaida specifically related to 9/11." One the same month for senior CIA officials cited "one possible indication of Iraqi coordination with al-Qaida specifically related to 9/11." The third version, given to the White House in September 2002, cited "some indications of possible Iraqi coordination with al-Qaida specifically related to 9/11."
None of the versions, however, was an "assessment of any sort," as the inspector general concluded, the DOD rebuttal says.
According to the rebuttal, the counterterrorism unit was one of three offices that received intelligence on Iraq as the Bush administration made its case for ousting Saddam.
An Iraqi exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, fed one unit, the Office of Special Plans, exaggerated and bogus claims that Saddam was hiding illegal nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and was training Islamic terrorists, several investigations have found. The INC funneled the same claims to Cheney's office and to selected members of the press.
Acting DOD Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble was to present the investigation's classified findings Friday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Levin chairs.
Levin and Rockefeller disclosed the conclusions of an unclassified summary of the probe's findings in advance of the session.
"The inspector general's report makes it clear in plain language that the actions of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy were inappropriate," Rockefeller said. "Individuals in that office produced and disseminated intelligence products outside of the regular intelligence channels."
Feith's Policy Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group examined raw U.S. intelligence reports and post-Sept. 11 CIA assessments. Although there were intermittent contacts for about a decade, there was no operational cooperation between Iraq and bin Laden, the CIA assessments stated.
The CIA's findings have been substantiated by a number of investigations, including that of the independent Sept. 11 commission.
Feith's unit, however, found that there were "multiple areas of cooperation" between Iraq and al-Qaida, "more than a decade of numerous contacts" and "shared interest and pursuit of WMD (weapons of mass destruction)," the Pentagon response said.
The unit cited as its strongest evidence a purported April 2001 meeting in the Czech capital of Prague between a senior Iraqi intelligence officer and Mohamed Atta, who led the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon several months later.
At the time, the CIA had doubts about reports of the meeting, and the agency and the FBI subsequently concluded that it never took place.
As late as January 2004, Cheney called Feith's findings, which also were leaked to the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, "the best source of information" on links between Saddam and al-Qaida, even though the Pentagon and the CIA had disavowed the conclusions of Feith's office.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.