Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has confirmed the existence of a small, high-level team inside the Pentagon that is evaluating intelligence information on Iraq and its links to terrorist groups like al-Qaida. The disclosure has raised questions about a possible undermining of the nation's overall intelligence process.
When The New York Times first broke the news about the small intelligence unit at the Pentagon, it stirred an immediate controversy. On the surface, critics saw it as another sign of tension between the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.
More importantly, though, it was seen by critics as evidence that Mr. Rumsfeld and other alleged advocates of a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq were dissatisfied with what they were hearing from the CIA. Instead, the critics charged, the hawks were now seeking from their own analysts fresh ammunition to justify a war with Baghdad, whether the hard evidence for an attack really existed or not.
But Mr. Rumsfeld sought this past week to minimize any sense of tension between the Defense Department and the CIA, describing a close and cooperative relationship between the two agencies.
He also sought to reject suggestions the small Pentagon intelligence group had any sinister purpose. "Any suggestion that it's an intelligence-gathering activity or an intelligence unit of some sort, I think, would be a misunderstanding of it," said Donald Rumsfeld.
Instead, the Defense Secretary said the group of some four people was thrown together in the Pentagon's policy section after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. It was tasked with sifting through mountains of intelligence information gathered by others, trying to give it a fresh look for analysis purposes and perhaps to unearth overlooked data.
Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged there are disagreements over how to assess intelligence information about Iraq and its links to terrorist groups. "There are always are going to be people who have different intelligence views within the agency, and there's no question but that on some of these important terrorism issues, you're seeing differences of opinions out of the intelligence community and the Central Intelligence Agency," he said.
However, Mr. Rumsfeld denied he is unhappy with the intelligence that has been assembled so far by the CIA and others, an indirect rebuttal of charges that pressure has been building on intelligence agencies to deliberately slant their studies to fit the Bush administration's political agenda.
Still, when asked directly by a reporter if the process has been politicized, Mr. Rumsfeld seemed to say he saw nothing wrong with that notion. "You know, I don't know how to answer that," said Donald Rumsfeld. "It is - is it possible that there are people on the face of the Earth who believe something and they ask enough questions trying to validate something? I suppose that's true... So you're asking me is there anyone in that office who might have done that? Well, I guess I hope so... Do I think that's bad or evil or wrong? No."
Despite Mr. Rumsfeld's effort to ease public concerns, there are published reports that a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats are privately voicing deep misgivings about what they see as the administration's march to war. These critics are charging that dissenting views are being suppressed. They also claim intelligence analysts are being pressured to produce reports supporting the White House's argument that Saddam Hussein poses such an immediate threat that pre-emptive military action is necessary.
Intelligence expert and author James Bamford warned this past week in the newspaper USA Today of what he saw as "a serious manipulation of the truth." Mr. Bamford said this could have drastic consequences - the biggest of which could be the loss of thousands of American lives in any battle with Iraq.