WASHINGTON — A special intelligence unit at the Pentagon privately briefed senior officials at the White House on alleged ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda without the knowledge of CIA Director George J. Tenet, according to new information presented at a Senate hearing Tuesday.
The disclosure suggests that the controversial Pentagon office played a greater role than previously understood in shaping the administration's views on Iraq's alleged ties to the terrorist network behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and bypassed usual channels to make a case that conflicted with the conclusions of CIA analysts.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tenet said he was unaware until recently that the Pentagon unit had presented its findings to the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. It is not clear whether Cheney or Rice were present for the briefing, which was mentioned in a Defense Department letter released by the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
In a wide-ranging hearing, Tenet said violence in Iraq was on the upswing, but that he thought there was a "low probability" that strife would prevent the United States from handing authority to an interim Iraqi government on July 1.
Although the hearing was billed as a session to discuss international security concerns, it was marked by heated exchanges reflecting the political tensions over the Iraq war and the failure to find weapons the Bush administration cited as the principal reason for last year's U.S.-led war.
Tenet came under sharp attack from Democrats, who called the prewar intelligence a "fiasco," pointed to what they said were disturbing disparities between classified CIA estimates and more alarming versions released to the public before the war, and criticized the CIA director for saying recently that the agency never portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat.
"The fact that the intelligence assessments before the war were so wildly off the mark should trouble all Americans," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the committee.
It was under questioning from Levin that Tenet acknowledged that he did not know until within the last few weeks that a special Pentagon intelligence analysis unit had briefed the White House on ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
"I did not know that at the time, and I think I first learned about this at [a congressional] hearing last week," Tenet said. A U.S. intelligence official said Tenet first learned of the White House briefing Feb. 24 during a closed hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The Pentagon unit was created by Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of Defense for policy, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The unit was a handful of intelligence analysts, Feith has said, and was established to examine state sponsorship of terrorism, but is principally known for its efforts to assemble evidence linking Iraq to Al Qaeda.
It has been reported previously that the so-called Policy Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group presented its findings to the CIA in August 2002. But in a letter to Warner released Tuesday for the first time, Feith said the group's briefing "was also given to National Security Council and Office of Vice President staff members."
Levin asked Tenet whether it was "standard operating procedure" for intelligence analysis to be presented to the White House without his involvement.
"I don't know," Tenet replied. "I've never been in the situation."
Tenet emphasized that he briefed President Bush personally almost daily, and that his was "the definitive view about these subjects."
"I know you feel that way," Levin replied, making it clear he wasn't convinced.
Levin said the committee had obtained copies of the Pentagon group's written briefing material, and that the version presented to the White House included material omitted from the briefing for the CIA. He declined to elaborate, saying the documents were classified.
A government official familiar with the briefings said the presentation for the White House included a slide sharply critical of the CIA for failing to recognize evidence pointing toward collaboration between Iraq and Al Qaeda. That slide was excluded from the briefing at CIA headquarters at Langley, Va.
The government official said those briefed at the White House included the staff of Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security advisor, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's chief of staff.
The Pentagon intelligence group was disbanded before the war, but remains under scrutiny because of its controversial mission and role.
Critics say it sifted through years of intelligence reports on Iraq, seizing on shards that supported the contention that there was collaboration between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and then funneling the information to senior policymakers to help bolster the case for war. Pentagon officials reject that characterization.