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Pentagon Defends Role of Intelligence Unit on Iraq

Defense official says the small group did not influence the debate about what weapons were possessed by Hussein's government.

June 05, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Weighing in on the growing debate over prewar assessments of illicit weapons programs in Iraq, Pentagon officials denied Wednesday that a controversial intelligence cell encroached on the CIA's turf or improperly influenced the decision to go to war.

Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith insisted that the Pentagon unit -- which some critics say exaggerated the Iraqi threat -- was not responsible for assessing whether Baghdad still had chemical and biological arms.

"I asked for some people to review the existing intelligence on

Feith said he was responding to what he described as erroneous news reports that are "beginning to achieve the status of urban legends."

Feith's defense of a unit that he said was shut down almost a year ago underscored the extent to which the Bush administration is struggling to quell suspicions about how it assembled its case for war.

But even as the administration seeks to fend off congressional inquiries, there are indications that the White House is also looking for some answers of its own.

Several officials said that President Bush's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board is investigating how bogus claims that Iraq was seeking to buy enriched uranium from Africa made their way into the president's State of the Union address this year.

The claims were based on documents that purported to show proposed transactions between Baghdad and the African nation of Niger. But nuclear arms inspectors subsequently judged the documents to be crude forgeries, peddled to Italian intelligence officials who passed them on to British and U.S. spies.

The Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board is a panel of outside advisors -- mainly former national security officials and private industry experts -- headed by Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to President George H.W. Bush.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on whether the board is investigating the issue.

On Wednesday, the ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee clashed publicly over how aggressively the panel should pursue the weapons issue.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chairman of the committee, issued a statement saying the panel would "conduct a thorough review" of the prewar intelligence on Iraq but would not launch a formal investigation or hold public hearings.

Doing so would be "premature," with new inspection teams arriving in Iraq to expand the hunt for banned weapons, Roberts said. "This crucial work should be allowed to proceed unimpeded." He held out the possibility of hearings after the review was finished.

The statement drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the panel, who said that merely reviewing documents turned over by the CIA "falls short of the important oversight responsibilities entrusted to the members of this committee."

Appearing before the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday, Undersecretary of State John Bolton disputed suggestions from Democrats that the administration had pressured the intelligence community to skew its analysis of the threat posed by Iraq.

Bolton said he had "never asked anybody in the intelligence community to change a single thing, and I am not aware of any other official in the administration who did."

A growing number of intelligence officials now acknowledge that the prewar claims about Iraq were based on a mixture of extrapolations from what was known in the mid-1990s and suggestive -- but far from definitive -- intelligence collected during the buildup to war.

Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, described the intelligence from intercepts, satellite imagery and other sources before the war as too spotty and insufficient to prove that Iraq still had illicit arms.

"The analysts did the best they could with insufficient information," Goss said. "But it made it sketchy. It made long bridges to connect dots. It made assumptions that weren't as solidly based as everyone would like to have them based."

In an interview with The Times, Goss stressed that he believes the Bush administration "operated in good faith."

"I have not seen anything that slows me down or suggests bad faith or anything close to it," Goss said. "It's insane to say [administration officials] were going to put it all on the line based on something they know is not accurate. These guys were persuaded this is a real worry, a real concern."

Swirling questions about the intelligence on Iraq have focused new attention on the work of the secretive Pentagon unit some in the intelligence community refer to, half-jokingly, as "the cabal."

The unit, made up of Pentagon intelligence analysts, has played a mysterious role in the Iraq debate and has been shielded from traditional intelligence oversight.

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