National Security

Not just torture: Senator says CIA stalling over bogus intelligence that led to Iraq war

John Brennan testifies before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, February 7, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
John Brennan testifies before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, February 7, 2013 in Washington, D.C. MCT

CIA Director John Brennan, under fire over the Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture, is facing new heat over his role in what a senior lawmaker calls an apparent coverup involving bogus intelligence used by the George W. Bush administration to help justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Carl Levin, D-Mich., who’s ending 36 years in the Senate, plans to press Brennan one last time to fulfill a pledge to support the full declassification of a CIA cable debunking the claim that the leader of the 9/11 hijackers met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in the Czech capital of Prague just months before the attacks.

“Director Brennan’s apparent refusal to do what he has committed to do – to ask the Czech government if it objects to release of the cable – now takes on the character of a continuing coverup,” Levin plans to tell the Senate on Thursday, according to a draft of his speech obtained by McClatchy.

At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters on Wednesday, Levin said he’s been told by Czech officials that “they have no objection” to the release of the cable.

Levin also pointed out that the former chief of the Czech counterintelligence service, who was in the post at the time of the alleged meeting, published a memoir this year in which he asserted that the CIA pressured him to confirm the encounter and that U.S. officials pressured the Czech government when he couldn’t do so.

“Without any regard to us, they used our intelligence information for propaganda press leaks. They wanted to mine certainty from unconfirmed suspicion and use it as an excuse for military action,” wrote Jiri Ruzek. “We were to play the role of useful idiot.”

The CIA declined to comment. But a U.S. intelligence official said that Levin had been told that releasing the full cable couldn’t be done without damaging intelligence sources.

“Two successive CIA directors have explained to Sen. Levin and his staff that the release of further information would jeopardize intelligence and sources. Suggestions of some ulterior motive here are absurd,” said the U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Thursday’s speech might be the final floor appearance for Levin, who did not run for re-election last month. The Republicans will take control of the Senate when the new congressional session begins in January.

The longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Levin for years has been at the forefront of efforts to expose the false and exaggerated intelligence used by the Bush administration to justify the overthrow of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He also was an ardent supporter of the release of the report on the CIA’s use of torture on detainees.

The alleged meeting between Mohammad Atta and Ahmad Samir al Ani was repeatedly cited by former Vice President Dick Cheney before and after the invasion to bolster the Bush administration’s assertion that Saddam was in cahoots with al Qaida and could pass Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – which didn’t exist – to the terrorist group.

“The notion of such a meeting was a centerpiece of the administration’s campaign to create an impression in the public mind that Saddam was in league with the al Qaida terrorists who attacked us on 9/11,” Levin planned to tell the Senate, according to the speech draft.

“Now why am I bringing up a CIA cable from more than a decade ago?” the draft said. “This is about giving the American people a full account of the march to war as new information becomes available. It is about trying to hold leaders who misled the public accountable.”

Levin, 80, has been pressing the CIA to declassify the cable, which was written just days before the invasion, since a 2006 Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the Bush administration’s reliance on bogus and exaggerated pre-invasion intelligence. He co-sponsored a bill to declassify the cable, but it failed to pass.

The March 13, 2003, cable was sent by CIA field officers in response to a request for more information on a single-source intelligence report of a meeting in a Prague park between Atta and al Ani. The cable warned that U.S. government officials shouldn’t cite the unverified report.

Even so, Cheney continued to give the report credibility in media interviews, telling CNN in June 2004 that the truth of the report hadn’t been resolved.

“Those statements were simply not true,” Levin said in the draft. “The vice president was recklessly disregarding the truth, and he did so in a way calculated to maintain support for the administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq.”

During his February 2013 hearing to be confirmed as CIA director, Brennan was urged by Levin to ask the Czech government if it would object to the release of the cable. “Absolutely, Senator, I will,” Brennan replied.

After receiving no response from Brennan, Levin earlier this year blocked the nomination of Caroline Krass to be the CIA general counsel. He agreed to lift his hold on Krass after receiving a March 13 letter from Brennan that summarized the cable, saying that it cast “serious doubt” that the alleged meeting occurred.

Brennan added, “Investigative records subsequently placed Atta in the United States just before and after the date on which the single-source report said the meeting was to have occurred,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by McClatchy.

Brennan declassified a single line from the cable that said, “There is not one USG (U.S. government counterterrorism) or FBI expert that . . . has said they have evidence or ‘know’ that (Atta) was indeed (in Prague). In fact, the analysis has been quite the opposite.”

Asked why the senator had allowed Krass’ nomination to proceed if he hadn’t been satisfied with the letter, Levin spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said, “He believes the full cable is important to a full understanding of what was going on at that time. Lifting the hold was not a commitment to stop asking for the full cable.”

In the draft of his remarks, Levin asserted that there was other “critically relevant information” in the cable that had been “denied to the public in order to protect those in the Bush White House who are responsible” for “playing games with intelligence.”

“I believe decision-makers should have to face the full, unadulterated, unredacted truth about their decisions,” said Levin. “The American people should know the full story . . . as a warning to future leaders against the misuse of intelligence and the abuse of power.”

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