WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials suspected a detained Al Qaeda operative of "intentionally misleading" them about ties between the terrorist group and Iraq months before the Bush administration used those claims to bolster their case for war, newly declassified information shows.
The doubts about the veracity of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who had been captured in late 2001, came in a February 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency report released Sunday by senators who are ranking Democrats on foreign policy panels, Carl Levin of Michigan and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia.
"He's an entirely unreliable individual upon whom the White House was placing a substantial intelligence trust," Rockefeller told CNN's "Late Edition," describing the situation as "a classic example of a lack of accountability to the American people."
Despite apparent concerns that Libi was not telling the truth, the relationship between Al Qaeda and the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was cited repeatedly in the months before and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
In an October 2002 speech in Cincinnati, President Bush said that "we've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and gas." And then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell cited the links between Al Qaeda and Iraq when he went before the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 to make the case for war. In a September 2003 appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," Vice President Dick Cheney described "a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the '90s."
Yet the newly declassified document, dated eight months before Bush's speech in Cincinnati, said that Libi lacked "specific details on the Iraqis involved, the ... materials associated with the assistance, and the location where training occurred."
"It is possible [Libi] does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers," warned the report, sections of which were first disclosed Sunday in the Washington Post and the New York Times. He "may [sic] describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest. Saddam's regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements."
The report was available to the White House, the CIA, the Pentagon and other agencies, but it is not clear whether the Senate intelligence panel had access to it.
Levin, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, and Rockefeller, of the Select Committee on Intelligence, requested Oct. 18 that the Defense Intelligence Agency declassify two paragraphs from the report. The request was granted Oct. 26.
Libi, who allegedly had run an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, was captured by Pakistani officials in late 2001 and turned over to the U.S. He reportedly recanted his claims about the ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda in January 2004. He remains in custody, possibly at the prison camp on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Rockefeller told CNN that the administration had an "obsession with Mohamed Atta" and was convinced that Atta, one of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks, had "met in Prague with Al Qaeda representatives and they were ... doing things on behalf of Iraq and Al Qaeda, working together."
"It was an absolute lie," Rockefeller said. "And yet they used that very substantially to lead the American people to say: Look, this is Al Qaeda and Iraq hooked up ... [so] we've got to go to war."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, traveling with Bush in Latin America, said Sunday that Democrats and Republicans "came to same conclusion -- that Saddam was a threat and a threat that needed to be addressed." He said that the U.N. and international allies shared the same conclusion.
"If Democrats want to talk about how intelligence was used, all they need to do is start by looking at their own comments that they made," McClellan said. "Many of their comments said we cannot wait to address this threat."
The release of the declassified section of the report came as Democrats used the Sunday talk shows to defend their move to force completion of a report on the administration's prewar handling of intelligence. The Senate Intelligence Committee was asked to produce the report nearly two years ago.
"We cannot have a government which is going to manipulate intelligence information," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass) said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We've got to get to the bottom of it, and that is what the Democrats stood for on the floor of the United States Senate last week."
Democrats forced an unusual closed session of the Senate to get Republicans to agree to complete the second phase of the prewar investigation, which is examining whether public statements by U.S. officials were substantiated by intelligence information. Both sides agreed to appoint a bipartisan task force to review the committee's work and issue a report by Nov. 14.
But Republicans dismissed the Democrats' move, saying the panel's report was due to be completed soon anyway. They said the Democrats' action was likely to strain party relations. "There's no question in my mind it was a political stunt," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
The Senate Intelligence Committee launched the inquiry almost two years ago. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the panel's chairman, told CBS that it had taken a long time to complete because "it was a big job" and that his committee "had it scheduled for this week. There was no need for the Senate to all of a sudden pop in to ... a closed session."