When George Tenet, the director of the CIA, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week about dubious intelligence data on the Iraqi threat that made it into President Bush’s State of the Union address in January, he said an ad-hoc committee called the Office of Special Plans, set up Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith and other high-profile hawks rewrote the intelligence information on Iraq that the CIA gathered and gave it to White House officials to help Bush build a case for war, according to three Senators on the intelligence committee.
Tenet told the Intelligence Committee that his own spies at the CIA determined that much of the intelligence information they collected on Iraq could not prove that the country was an imminent threat nor could they find any concrete evidence that Iraq was stockpiling a cache of chemical and biological weapons. But the Office of Special Plans, using Iraqi defectors from the Iraqi National Congress as their main source, rewrote some of the CIA’s intelligence to say, undeniably, that Iraq was hiding some of the world’s most lethal weapons. Once the intelligence was rewritten, it was delivered to the office of National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, where it found its way into various public speeches given by Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Bush, the Senators said.
Moreover, these Senators allege that the office of the Vice President and the National Security Council were fully aware that the intelligence Wolfowitz’s committee collected may not have been reliable. The Senators said they are discussing privately whether to ask Wolfowitz to testify before a Senate hearing in the near future to determine how large of a role his Special Plans committee played in providing the President with intelligence data on Iraq and whether that information was reliable or beefed up to help build a case for war.
A week ago, Tenet claimed responsibilty for allowing the White House to use the now disputed claim that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium from Niger to build an atomic bomb in Bush’s State of the Union address. Last week, these Senators and a CIA intelligence official said the Office of Special Plans urged the White House to use the uranium claim in Bush’s speech.
But Democrats in the Senate are now asking what role the secret committee set up by Wolfowitz played in hyping the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs.
Secretary of State Colin Powell appears to be the only White House official who questioned the accuracy of the intelligence information coming out of the Office of Special Plans. A day before he was set to appear before the United Nations Feb. 5 to argue about the Iraqi threat and to urge the Council to support military action against the country, Powell omitted numerous claims provided to him by the Office of Special Plans about Iraq’s weapons program because the information was unreliable, according to an early February report in U.S. News and World Report.
Powell was so disturbed about the questionable intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction that he put together a team of experts to review the information he was given before his speech to the U.N.
Much of the information Powell’s speech was provided by Wolfowitz’s Office of Special Plans, the magazine reported, to counter the uncertainty of the CIA’s intelligence on Iraq.
Powell’s team removed dozens of pages of alleged evidence about Iraq’s banned weapons and ties to terrorists from a draft of his speech, the magazine said. At one point, he became so infuriated at the lack of adequate sourcing by the Office of Special Plans to intelligence claims he said, “I’m not reading this. This is bullshit,” according to the magazine.
Spokespeople for Wolfowitz, Rice and the Vice President all denied the accusations, saying it was the CIA who provided the White House with the bulk of intelligence on Iraq and that there is no reason to believe the information isn’t accurate. Tenet’s spokespeople would not return several calls for comment.
Separately, the CIA, earlier this year, brought back four retired officials, led by former CIA deputy director Richard Kerr, to examine the agency’s pre-war intelligence and reporting on the Iraqi threat. Brent Scowcroft, chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board is also probing the issue, but whether any of the investigations include the Office of Special Plans is still undecided.
Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter for the New Yorker, wrote an expose on the Office of Special Plans in May. In his story, he claims a Pentagon adviser told him that the committee “was created in order to find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true_that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States.”
Feith, in a rare Pentagon briefing in May, denied that the Office of Special Plans was cherry-picking intelligence information to build a case for war in Iraq.
The Office of Special Plans “was not involved in intelligence collection,” Feith said. “Rather, it relied on reporting from the CIA and other parts of the intelligence community. Its job was to review this intelligence to help digest it for me and other policymakers, to help us develop Defense Department strategy for the war on terrorism… in the course of its work, this team, in reviewing the intelligence that was provided to us by the CIA and the intelligence community, came up with some interesting observations about the linkages between Iraq and al Qaeda.”
To date, however, the Pentagon has failed to provide any proof of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
Still, the OSP or “The Cabal,” as the group calls itself, according to the New Yorker story, played a significant role in convincing the White House that Iraq was a threat to its neighbors in the Middle East and to the United States. But the intelligence information and the Iraqi defectors the group relied heavily upon to prove its case were widely off the mark. For example, according to one CIA intelligence official in charge of weapons of mass destruction for the agency, the OSP is responsible for providing thee White House with the information that thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were intended for a secret nuclear weapons program.
Bush said last September in a speech that attempts by Iraq to acquire the tubes point to a clandestine program to make enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. But experts contradicted Bush, saying that the evidence is ambiguous at best. It was later determined by the International Atomic Energy Agency that the tubes were designed to was to build rockets rather than for centrifuges to enrich uranium.
Furthermore, the Iraqi defectors feeding the OSP with information about the locations of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction were said to be unreliable and responsible for sending U.S. military forces on a “wild goose chase,” according to another CIA intelligence official.
Case in point: In 2001, an Iraqi defector, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, told the OSP he had visited twenty secret facilities for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Saeed, a civil engineer, supported his claims with stacks of Iraqi government contracts, complete with technical specifications. Saeed said Iraq used companies to purchase equipment with the blessing of the United Nations – and then secretly used the equipment for their weapons programs. He claimed that chemical and biological weapons labs could be found in hospitals and presidential palaces, which turned out to be completely untrue, when the locations were searched.
The OSP provided the National Security Council with Saeed’s findings last year and the information found its way into a White House report in December called, “Iraq: A Decade of Deception and Defiance” <http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/iraq/decade/sect3.html>
But the information never held up and turned out to be another big intelligence failure for the Bush administration. Judith Miller first brought the existence of Saeed to light in a New York Times story in December 2001 and again in January. The White House, in September 2002, cited the information provided by Saeed in a fact sheet.
Whether a bipartisan probe into the OSP is convened remain to be seen, but one thing is certain, the committee of pseudo spies wields an enormous amount of power.
Larry C. Johnson, a former counter-terrorism expert at the CIA and the State Department, says he’s spoken to his colleagues working for both agencies and its clear that the OSP has politicized the intelligence process.
“What they’re experiencing now is the worst political pressure. Anyone who attempted to challenge or rebut OSP was accused of rocking the boat. OSP came in with an agenda that they were predisposed to believe,” he said.
Vincent Cannistrano, who worked for the CIA for 27 years, told the National Journal last month that the OSP “incorporated a lot of debatable intelligence, and it was not coordinated with the intelligence community.”
JASON LEOPOLD can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org