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Ex-official defends claim on Iraq, Al Qaeda

'It's healthy to criticize the CIA's intelligence,' Feith says. He and the Pentagon office he led have been impugned.

February 12, 2007|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A former top Pentagon official on Sunday defended as "good government" his office's prewar findings of a significant relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, while a congressional Democrat suggested that his actions were not only inappropriate but possibly illegal.

Douglas J. Feith, the former undersecretary of Defense for policy and a leading architect of the policies that led to the Iraq war, appeared on "Fox News Sunday" to explain his actions and those of his Office of Special Plans. On Friday, the Pentagon inspector general released a highly critical report.

The report concluded that Feith, in briefing senior Bush administration officials on purportedly strong links between Al Qaeda and Iraq, did not reflect the views of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. It also said Feith and his aides sought to discredit and bypass officials with those agencies because the officials were strongly discounting allegations of ties between the terrorist network and Saddam Hussein's Iraq regime.

The inspector general's review found that the actions of Feith's office were not illegal or unauthorized, describing them as "inappropriate" "alternative" analysis.

Critics cite the report to bolster their claims that Feith and other Pentagon aides loyal to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney "cherry-picked" intelligence suggesting an Al Qaeda-Iraq link as part of a politically motivated effort to sell the Iraq war to the American public, U.S. allies and the United Nations.

Feith sought Sunday to portray his office's actions as part of normal governmental give-and-take. He indicated that, in the months leading up to the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, he thought the CIA in particular was missing important ties between Al Qaeda and Hussein.

"It's healthy to criticize the CIA's intelligence," Feith told "Fox News Sunday." "What the people in the Pentagon were doing was right. It was good government."

According to the inspector general's report, the Pentagon policy office presented its findings to top White House officials when it had virtually no support for its assessments that "intelligence indicates cooperation in all categories" and that a "mature, symbiotic relationship" existed between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

Feith's office also claimed that Sept. 11 lead hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi agent were known to have met in Prague in April 2001; that has since been widely discredited by the Sept. 11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"All of that was wrong, wasn't it?" "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace asked Feith, referring to the Pentagon office's conclusions.

"No, not at all," Feith responded. "There was substantial intelligence.... There was a lot of information out there."

Feith also told Wallace, "Nobody in my office ever said there was an operational relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda." His claim was immediately questioned by some administration critics.

"It's an abject lie, and it is completely ignores what is in the documented public record," Larry C. Johnson, a former State Department and CIA counterterrorism official, said in an interview Sunday. "I think the problem is across the board that we have convenient memory loss. No one wants to go back and hold people accountable to what they were doing."

On his blog, No Quarter (noquarter.typepad.com), Johnson wrote Sunday that Feith repeatedly had claimed such a relationship, particularly in a still-classified memo dated Oct. 27, 2003, and sent to the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The 16-page memo was later leaked to a conservative magazine. The resulting article was later cited by Cheney as "the best source of information" on Al Qaeda-Iraq ties.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the intelligence panel, told CNN's "Late Edition" that not only were Feith's actions "inappropriate," but "there are serious questions about whether Mr. Feith broke the 1947 statute that requires that our committee be informed."

On NBC's "Meet the Press," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he and other top House Democrats sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte; the letter, sent earlier Sunday, requests assurances that steps have been taken to prevent "a similar occurrence."

Hoyer said that Feith had been allowed "to subvert the intelligence advice" given to President Bush before the war but that "I don't know whether it led to miscalculations or not."

"But the fact of the matter is, what was done was wrong," Hoyer said. "We want to get to the bottom of it."

Feith left the Pentagon in August 2005 and now teaches at Georgetown University.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

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