The controversy over the Bush Administration's pre-war intelligence on Iraq was further fuelled Friday by an internal Pentagon critique of the work of a little-known Defense Department office. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the report underscores the bureaucratic rivalries among the intelligence agencies and the danger of politicizing intelligence analyses.
When Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith disseminated his own intelligence analysis on Iraq in the leadup to the war, was he acting as an advocate for war with Iraq? Or was he simply presenting alternative views to the top policymakers?
The Pentagon Inspector General's report says Feith's office was predisposed to trying to prove a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. The intelligence community's collective judgment was that that claim was dubious, and the assertion was later discredited. Nevertheless, some administration officials, including Vice-President Dick Cheney, cited the alleged link in public statements before the war. Pre-war intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction also turned out to be wrong.
William Nolte, former deputy assistant director for analysis and production at the CIA, says policymakers in fact should get alternative views, just as you might get a second doctor's opinion on a medical diagnosis. But, he adds, there are pitfalls in doing so.
"If I'm the chief executive of anything these days, or I'm the president of the United States, I've put people under me to filter information on my behalf, because I can't look at it all," he said. "And if in the end the sense is, the guy who is supposed to be being my filter is in his own way an advocate to the degree that he is not giving me the other opinions, boy, I've got a real problem."
That is exactly what happened, says Acting Pentagon Inspector General Thomas Gimble. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee there was nothing inherently illegal or unauthorized in Feith's actions. It was simply that what Feith was presenting, Gimble said, was one-sided and at odds with most of what was coming from the intelligence agencies.
"The counter-balance of the full picture, they didn't identify that," he noted. "So they just presented what they had and they didn't recognize that there was significant disagreement with the consensus within the intelligence community on most of the 26 points that they raised."
Lawrence Wilkerson was chief of staff to Colin Powell when Powell was secretary of state. He saw the 48-page analysis produced by Feith's office as he prepared Secretary Powell's critical speech to the United Nations on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction and its alleged links to al-Qaida. Wilkerson says even Vice-President Dick Cheney's then-chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, likened it to a menu. After reviewing it, Wilkerson says, his team discarded it.
"Well, it came over from the vice-president's office to the secretary [of state] to me, and I took it out to the CIA with my task force," he explained. "And we in the first day discarded it entirely because it was unsupported, unsourced, and it was clear to us that it was just a concoction of - well, Scooter Libby himself actually supposedly told the secretary that it was a Chinese menu from which you could pick and choose what you needed. Well, that's not what we needed."
Feith himself, who no longer works in government, could not be reached for comment. But the inspector general's summary released Friday quotes him as saying that his office's actions did not constitute intelligence activities. He also told the Washington Post newspaper that he was not producing "alternative intelligence assessments."
Larry Wilkerson agrees that the Feith's Office of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy was not doing alternative intelligence. He also agrees that the president and his aides have every right to seek other sources of information. But, he says, Feith's office strayed into the role of advocate.
"I can understand the military and the DOD's [Department of Defense's] reluctance to accept any opinions from the CIA," he said. "But to set up an alternative community with the DOD that was not even affiliated with military intelligence personnel, or at least not directly - as I saw it, it was an entity all unto itself designed principally not so much to put together intelligence as to put together propaganda."
Asked about the issue, White House spokesman Dana Perino said the Bush Administration has initiated reforms to ensure there is no repeat of the flawed intelligence that has haunted the U.S. venture into Iraq.