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.
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 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 a 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 examine whether Feith had 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 Feith created shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to look for links between Saddam's regime and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
The unit was one of two offices Feith created that received intelligence on Iraq outside of regular intelligence channels as the Bush administration made its case for ousting Saddam.
An Iraqi exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, fed the other 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 selected members of the press.
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 Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy developed, produced and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al-Qaida relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision-makers," said an excerpt of the summary released by Levin's office.
"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 9/11 commission.
Feith's unit, however, concluded that there had been cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaida.
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 Mohammad Atta, who led the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon four months later.
At the time, the CIA had doubts about reports of the meeting, and the agency and the FBI subsequently concluded that it had never taken place.
Feith's staff briefed Rumsfeld and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, leading advocates of invading Iraq, on its findings in August 2002. Presentations also were given to top CIA officials and to the White House, including members of Cheney's staff.
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.
Levin and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who stepped down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, separately requested the Pentagon inspector general look into whether the activities of Feith's unit were appropriate. Roberts also asked that it examine the legality of the unit's conduct.