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Pentagon officials deny manipulation of prewar intelligence on Iraq

WASHINGTON—Two high-ranking Defense Department officials Wednesday denied that a special Pentagon intelligence unit manipulated information on Iraq's weapons programs and links to al-Qaida in an effort to build public and political support for war.

In an unusual news conference, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and his deputy, William Luti, said the Office of Special Plans was never told to produce evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization or that Iraq was hiding chemical and biological weapons it might give to terrorist groups.

"This suggestion that we said to them, `This is what we're looking for, go find it' is precisely the inaccuracy that we're here to rebut," said Feith. " I know of no pressure. I know of nobody who pressured anybody."

Feith's appearance, however, isn't likely to end the controversy over U.S. and British intelligence on Iraq. So far, U.S. troops in Iraq have found no evidence to support some administration officials' pre-war allegations that the Iraqis were hiding chemical and biological weapons and Scud missiles, and no evidence of any operational ties between Saddam and bin Laden.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has requested documents from CIA Director George Tenet to evaluate the accuracy of intelligence assessments of Iraq's pre-war weapons capabilities. But the chairman of the committee, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said it's too early to call for a formal congressional investigation.

He said he wasn't troubled that U.S. soldiers had yet to find weapons of mass destruction. "It could be disposed, it could be hidden, it could be offshore," Roberts said.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Sunday that he and Roberts intended to hold joint hearings to assess the credibility of the intelligence information. But after Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday asked them not to schedule hearings before reviewing the evidence, Warner and Roberts said hearings would be premature.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday announced a parliamentary inquiry into his government's case against Iraq after the House of Commons voted down an opposition move to authorize an independent investigation.

Three other administration officials on Wednesday said that while Feith's remarks were accurate, they sidestepped the real issues. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because U.S. intelligence on Iraq remains classified and because President Bush frowns on revealing dissension within his administration, said the Pentagon office gave far greater credence than did the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency to defectors and information provided by Iraqi exile groups, especially the London-based Iraqi National Congress.

These officials, all of whom have clashed with Feith and other Pentagon officials over numerous policy issues, said the INC and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, told Pentagon civilians that many Iraqi Shiites would greet U.S. troops as liberators, that some Iraqi military commanders would surrender their units en masse and that postwar Iraq would be friendlier than it's been so far.

The Pentagon, the officials noted, sent Luti and other officials to coordinate with Chalabi's forces in northern Iraq, flew U.S.-trained INC militiamen into southern Iraq and then brought Chalabi and his forces to Baghdad.

"The issue," said one of the officials, "isn't whether the Pentagon cooked the books, but whether by giving the exiles access to power despite the intelligence community's strong reservations, they helped some erroneous assumptions find their way into the war plan and the thinking about what we should be prepared to do after the war."

Feith said that while the Office of Special Plans did find ties between Iraq and al-Qaida, they were "incidental" to its mission, which he said was to "educate a lot of people about the fact that there was more cooperation and interconnection among these terrorist organizations and state sponsors—across ideological lines—than many people had appreciated before."

Feith also disputed allegations, first reported by Knight Ridder, that some Pentagon officials favored using an Iranian exile group formerly backed by Saddam, the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK), to help pressure Iran to stop harboring al-Qaida operatives and halt its support for terrorism.

"There was never such a plan," Feith said. "We will not do that."

Again, rival officials said that while the Pentagon never offered a formal plan to use the MEK against Iran, Pentagon officials did suggest the idea until national security adviser Condoleezza Rice vetoed it, saying the MEK was still a terrorist organization.

"He's right that we will not do that," said one official. "But only because the White House nixed the idea before it ever became a plan."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.