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CIA May Have Been Out of Loop

Top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel says some officials in the administration appear to have bypassed agency in gathering Iraq data.

October 25, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Officials in the Bush administration appear to have bypassed the CIA and other agencies to collect their own intelligence overseas on Iraq, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Friday.

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV's comments came as bipartisan cooperation on the committee's inquiry into prewar intelligence appeared to be unraveling. Democrats complained that Republicans are out to pin blame on the CIA and shield the White House from criticism that intelligence used to make the case to invade Iraq was exaggerated.

After reviewing tens of thousands of pages of intelligence documents, the committee staff has begun drafting a report that sources said would harshly criticize the CIA for prewar judgments that congressional investigators believe were unfounded, thinly sourced or lacked adequate caveats.

Democrats, who have been rebuffed by Republicans in their efforts to widen the probe's scope, threatened Friday to launch a separate investigation. Several committee Democrats said it is now all but inevitable that they will produce a separate report.

Making the case for an expanded inquiry, Rockefeller, of West Virginia, the committee's vice chairman, said some in the administration appeared to have been collecting intelligence "without the knowledge of the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department or anybody else" in the intelligence community.

Such operations, if verified, would be highly unusual and would bolster critics' claims that the administration has short-circuited the normal flow of intelligence to search for facts that support its assumptions.

Rockefeller's comments appeared designed to pressure Republicans to expand the probe's scope at a time when both parties are struggling to control the course of the investigation as next year's presidential election looms.

His remarks culminated a week of uncharacteristic outbursts from a committee that has traditionally sought to steer clear of the partisan rancor that often characterizes other legislative panels.

Rockefeller declined to elaborate on his comments to reporters on Capitol Hill. But congressional sources said the senator was referring to questions about the activities of a controversial Pentagon unit known as the Office of Special Plans. That office was in charge of drafting Pentagon policies and plans in connection with the war in Iraq.

Its activities have been harshly criticized by some in the intelligence community. The office has come under closer scrutiny on Capitol Hill since defense officials acknowledged this year that representatives from Special Plans met with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian exile and discredited figure involved in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

At the time, officials said Ghorbanifar was part of a group claiming to have information that might be helpful to the U.S. in the war on terrorism, and that Pentagon officials agreed to the meeting merely to assess that information. Asked to explain the matter during an August news conference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that "people come in offering suggestions or information or possible contacts, and sometimes they're pursued."

But the contacts aroused suspicion on Capitol Hill. According to congressional testimony from the 1980s, Ghorbanifar was among those proposing that money from the Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages deal with Iran be diverted to aid the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Even before that scandal, Ghorbanifar was a notorious figure in the intelligence community. The CIA had issued a "burn notice" to other agencies advising them to have nothing to do with him.

An intelligence committee source said the Pentagon's contacts with Ghorbanifar point to the possibility of rogue intelligence operations.

"That's already one validated case in point that [the administration] doesn't deny," said a committee source. "How much more of that stuff is there? How do you know until you turn over the rock?"

Sources said some members of the committee also are increasingly questioning the activities of senior State Department official John R. Bolton, who recently acknowledged that his office routinely went outside normal department channels to request raw intelligence from the CIA and other agencies.

Bolton, undersecretary for arms control and international security, has denied any wrongdoing, as has Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy and head of the Office of Special Plans. The administration has strongly defended prewar intelligence and insists that its claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will eventually be vindicated.

The Intelligence Committee's Democrats were angered by comments made this week by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the committee, to USA Today and the Washington Post. Roberts said that the inquiry was 90% to 95% complete and suggested that the panel had already reached certain conclusions.

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