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CIA Feels Heat on Iraq Data

October 11, 2002|GREG MILLER and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Senior Bush administration officials are pressuring CIA analysts to tailor their assessments of the Iraqi threat to help build a case against Saddam Hussein, intelligence and congressional sources said.

In what sources described as an escalating "war," top officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere have bombarded CIA analysts with criticism and calls for revisions on such key questions as whether Iraq has ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, sources said.

The sources stressed that CIA analysts--who are supposed to be impartial--are fighting to resist the pressure. But they said analysts are increasingly resentful of what they perceive as efforts to contaminate the intelligence process.

"Analysts feel more politicized and more pushed than many of them can ever remember," said an intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The guys at the Pentagon shriek on issues such as the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. There has been a lot of pressure to write on this constantly, and to not let it drop."

The pressure has intensified in the weeks leading up to this week's debate in Congress on a resolution granting President Bush permission to pursue a military invasion of Iraq.

Evidence of the differences between the agency and the White House surfaced publicly this week when CIA Director George J. Tenet sent a letter to lawmakers saying the Iraqi president is unlikely to strike the United States unless provoked.

That was at odds with statements from Bush and others that Iraq poses an immediate threat. In a speech Monday in Cincinnati, Bush said the danger that Iraq poses to the United States "is already significant, and it only grows worse with time."

Several lawmakers voiced frustration with the way intelligence is being used in the debate on Iraq.

"I am concerned about the politicization of intelligence," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who echoed complaints of other members that the administration has been selective in the intelligence it cites, overstating its case in many instances.

Classified material provided recently by the CIA on Iraq's capabilities and intentions "does not track some of the public statements made by senior administration officials," Feinstein said.

Outside experts say they too see growing cause for concern.

"The intelligence officials are responding to the political leadership, not the other way around, which is how it should be," said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The politics are driving our intelligence assessments at this point."

Tenet rejected assertions that the agency is being unduly influenced.

"The president of the United States would never tolerate anything other than our most honest judgment," Tenet said in a statement late Thursday. "Our credibility and integrity are our most precious commodities. We will not let anyone tell us what conclusions to reach.

"Policymakers, members of Congress and others are free to push us to challenge our assertions and to ask tough, probing questions. This is healthy. But the notion that we would shape our assessments to please any one of our customers is abhorrent to the ethic by which we work and is simply untrue."

Unrelenting Pressure

But intelligence sources say the pressure on CIA analysts has been unrelenting in recent months, much of it coming from Iraq hawks including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his top deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz.

CIA officials who brief Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz on Iraq routinely return to the agency with a long list of complaints and demands for new analysis or shifts in emphasis, sources said.

"There is a lot of unhappiness with the analysis," usually because it is seen as not hard-line enough, one intelligence official said.

Another government official said CIA briefers "are constantly sent back by the senior people at Defense and other places to get more, get more, get more to make their case."

A senior Pentagon official rejected claims that Rumsfeld would improperly influence intelligence analysts and said they might be misinterpreting remarks meant to test their convictions. "He's a guy who's constantly challenging assertions and assumptions," the official said.

But White House hawks have shown a tendency for stretching the case against Iraq. Wolfowitz and others have clung to claims that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, the Czech capital, last year even though the CIA has viewed the report with deep skepticism.

Rumsfeld's recent remark that the United States has "bulletproof" evidence of links between Al Qaeda and Hussein struck many in the intelligence community as an exaggerated assessment of the available evidence.

Indeed, Tenet's letter to lawmakers this week said the agency's "understanding of the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda is evolving and is based on sources of varying reliability."

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