WASHINGTON — The Defense Department's inspector general's office said Friday it had begun investigating a Pentagon team that former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith used to build the U.S. case against Saddam Hussein and to plan the war in Iraq.
The investigation is likely to call new attention to the Bush administration's case for war as the White House faces criticism that it exaggerated Baghdad's threat. House and Senate Democrats held news conferences Friday to criticize the administration's prewar claims that Iraq had stockpiles of banned weapons and ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Shelton R. Young, the Pentagon's acting deputy inspector general for intelligence, told senior Pentagon officials Wednesday that his office would investigate whether Feith's operation "conducted unauthorized, unlawful or inappropriate intelligence activities."
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, a senior Democrat on the panel, requested the investigation. The Pentagon released Young's memo Friday evening describing the inquiry.
The investigation is expected to focus on the work of analysts who spent months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq sifting intelligence reports for evidence that Hussein's government had ties to Al Qaeda -- a claim administration officials used in making the case for war.
A Pentagon spokesman refused to comment Friday on the investigation.
As the Pentagon's third-ranking civilian official, Feith was one of the administration's most influential advocates of toppling Hussein's regime. His advocacy of a hard line toward Hussein turned his office into the nerve center for U.S. policy toward Iraq. Feith resigned this year.
Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, Feith assigned two Pentagon staff members, Michael Maloof and David Wurmser, to sift raw intelligence to determine whether the U.S. intelligence community had missed links between rogue nations and international terrorist networks.
The two-member intelligence unit, called the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, said it had discovered links that the CIA had overlooked, and it briefed the National Security Council, the CIA and members of Vice President Dick Cheney's staff.
A Feith memorandum about the group's discoveries was leaked to the news media. Cheney presented it as the "best source" on the links between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
During a congressional hearing, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet said the agency "did not agree with the way the data was characterized in that document."
At a White House briefing, the team denigrated the CIA for failing to recognize alleged ties between Baghdad and Al Qaeda. The CIA was skeptical of such claims before the war. Subsequent probes have found scant evidence of any significant link.
This month, newly declassified documents cast doubt on the credibility of a source whom administration officials had cited in arguing that Iraq provided training to members of Al Qaeda. Similarly, FBI and CIA investigations have concluded that it was unlikely that an alleged 2001 meeting between one of the Sept. 11 hijackers and an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, Czech Republic, ever occurred.
President Bush acknowledged in 2003: "We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11 attacks."
Roberts, the intelligence committee chief, has said in recent weeks that his panel would delay its examination of Feith's office until the inspector general's report was completed.
As the administration began building its case for war in late 2002, Feith enlarged the office of Middle Eastern analysts working for him and renamed it the Office of Special Plans. It became the primary office in Washington for planning the war and the reconstruction efforts.
A graduate of Harvard University and Georgetown University Law, Feith worked on the staff of the Reagan administration's National Security Council and in the Defense Department.
Feith's office has also faced scrutiny for sending representatives shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to a meeting with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian exile and discredited figure involved in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
A Senate Intelligence Committee examination found "nothing improper" about the meeting, a committee aide said.