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Leopold: New Senate, New Probe Into Pre-War Intel

New Senate, New Probe Into Pre-War Intel

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Friday 10 November 2006

With the Democrats now in control of both houses of Congress, the new majority leadership is ready to start wielding their power by revisiting a hot-button issue that Republicans never provided answers to.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Senators Carl Levin and Jack Reed said they may begin hauling some former Pentagon officials before a Senate committee early next year when they assume control of Congress to respond to lingering questions about the veracity of pre-war Iraq intelligence used by the White House to convince Congress and the public to back a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq. Levin and Reed said they want to find out how the intelligence - much of it reportedly cooked up by Iraqi exiles in a top secret Pentagon shop called the Office of Special Plans - made its way to the White House when numerous CIA analysts said privately that it was highly unreliable.

This aspect of the investigation - also referred to as Phase Two - never got off the ground, largely due to resistance by the Pentagon in providing Senate committees with documents from the Office of Special Plans (OSP). The OSP was headed by Douglas Feith, a key architect of the Iraq war, who has since retired from government work. Many of the details of Feith's shop have been shrouded in secrecy over the years; however, reports have indicated that Feith relied heavily on Iraqi exiles like Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraq National Congress to provide the Pentagon with intelligence that claimed Iraq possessed a cache of chemical and biological weapons.

The intelligence was suspect and was not vetted by career CIA analysts. Instead, Feith's office bypassed the CIA and sent the intelligence directly to the White House, where Vice President Dick Cheney, former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held it up as evidence that Iraq was defying a United Nations mandate barring the country from manufacturing or concealing weapons of mass destruction. Later, Rice, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and other top Bush administration officials lobbied for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq based entirely on the bogus intelligence that claimed Iraq was a threat to the United States and its neighbors in the Middle East.

Feith has never spoken publicly about his work at the OSP other than to debunk allegations that his office was the pipeline for providing questionable intelligence to the White House. Feith hasn't commented on the integrity of the Iraqi exiles he depended upon for information about Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions in the aftermath of the Gulf War, which, as we now know, never got off the ground.

The White House and the Pentagon have been dogged by questions about Feith and OSP's activities dating back to the beginning of the Iraq war. It was during that time that a number of CIA analysts spoke privately with Democratic lawmakers and complained that Feith's unit had been cherry-picking intelligence information that provided worst-case scenarios about Iraq's weapons programs. Levin and Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher called for an immediate investigation.

In a July 9, 2003, letter to Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) said Feith's OSP appeared to be competing with "other United States intelligence agencies respecting the collection and use of intelligence relating to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and war planning."

"I also think it is important to understand how having two intelligence agencies within the Pentagon impacted the Department of Defense's ability to focus the necessary resources and manpower on pre-war planning and post-war operations," Tauscher's letter said.

Congressman David Obey (D-Wis.) agreed. Back in 2003, he had also called for a widespread investigation of Feith and the OSP to find out whether there was any truth to the claims that the OSP willfully manipulated intelligence on the Iraqi threat. During a July 8, 2003, Congressional briefing, Obey described what he knew about Special Plans and why an investigation into the group was crucial.

"A group of civilian employees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, all of whom are political employees, have long been dissatisfied with the information produced by the established intelligence agencies both inside and outside the Department. That was particularly true, apparently, with respect to the situation in Iraq," Obey said. "As a result, it is reported that they established a special operation within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which was named the Office of Special Plans. That office was charged with collecting, vetting, and disseminating intelligence completely outside the normal intelligence apparatus. In fact, it appears that the information collected by this office was in some instances not even shared with the established intelligence agencies and in numerous instances was passed on to the National Security Council and the President without having been vetted with anyone other than [the Secretary of Defense]."

"It is further alleged that the purpose of this operation was not only to produce intelligence more in keeping with the pre-held views of those individuals, but to intimidate analysts in the established intelligence organizations to produce information that was more supportive of policy decisions which they had already decided to propose."

Republicans successfully thwarted a probe back then, but the issue resurfaced in November 2005 when the Iraq war took a turn for the worse. Reed and Levin and other lawmakers began to demand documents and the authority to conduct interviews with Feith and his staff. But Pat Roberts, the Republican Senator from Kansas who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, sidestepped their request and instead asked the Inspector General in the Department of Defense to look into OSP's activities, which all but guaranteed that it would become bogged down in bureaucratic red tape and that tough questions would never be answered.

Levin said Wednesday, however, that the Inspector General's report into OSP will "hopefully be complete in the next few weeks or months."

Depending on the findings of the report, Levin said, Feith might then be called to appear before a Senate committee to provide further information.

"Hopefully, the [Inspector General] would give us a comprehensive review of the Feith operation over at the Intelligence Committee and then we could decide from there whether we need to have further hearings, Levin said. As for Feith, "he sure has ducked providing answers to me for years; 50 documents that I've been waiting for years, never forthcoming from Feith," Levin added.

Reed said that if the Pentagon attempts to invoke some sort of classified privilege as a reason not to provide information about the OSP, he and his colleagues would accept it in "classified form."

"But what we don't want to see is the repetition of the [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld situation where relevant information was not forthcoming," Reed, the Democrat from Rhode Island, said. "And it, in fact, undercut, I think, our ability to do our job and I think it ultimately affected their ability to function effectively."

Levin said if administration officials still refuse to cooperate, and if Feith refuses to appear before any committee in which Levin is a member, he will see to it that either he or a committee chairman issues subpoenas.

"If we're on that jury, we'll have a subpoena power, which is not available to us to require the presentation of the requested information" under the current minority status, Levin said.

But prior to Tuesday's election, several Republicans indicated that they would duck any subpoenas forthcoming by Democrats eager to investigate the inner workings of the administration, particularly the intelligence failures that led to the invasion of Iraq and post-war planning. Most notably, Vice President Dick Cheney told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News Sunday that he would ignore any subpoena he receives.

Levin said if that happens it would hurt the White House's chances of getting the Senate to confirm the nominee for Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, tapped by President Bush Tuesday to replace Donald Rumsfeld.

"If that's something they're going to tell us in advance, then the question is, do you really - if they say that, which I can't believe they would, then the question is, well, if you want a defense secretary and other people to be confirmed, we have to insist on cooperation from you," Levin said. "And that's usually a condition of confirmation."


Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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