For months, Congressional Democrats and their friends in the liberal media have hammered away at the Bush administration for its supposed distortions of intelligence about Iraq. Much of the blame, according to this story, goes to an “intelligence assessment office in the Department of Defense outside the Intelligence Community.” All sorts of nefarious activities have been attributed to this office including running its own collection operations, bullying the CIA Director and his analysts into acceptance of the Pentagon’s interpretation of Iraqi intelligence, and even fabricating intelligence to support the White House’s desire to wage war on Iraq.
The subject came up again at a recent Senate hearing on future threats to U.S. national security. Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, professed to be shocked, shocked that a Pentagon intelligence assessment would be provided to the White House without the knowledge of CIA Director George Tenet. He badgered Tenet about what he knew about this and whether it was “standard operating procedure” for such an assessment to go to the White House without Tenet “being part of the presentation.”
At best, the Senator was being disingenuous. He knows full well that, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently told a town hall meeting, offices all over the government routinely develop their own reviews and interpretations of intelligence information and provide these to policy makers up their chain of command. Occasionally, departmental seniors, like the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of Energy, deem these worthy of further dissemination?sometimes all the way to the White House.
Since intelligence information is involved and especially when the subject matter meets a certain sensitivity threshold, it is protocol to share the product with the CIA Director and his senior staff. At a minimum, you don’t want to blindside the President’s chief intelligence officer. Cabinet officials usually want to give him an opportunity to comment on the product or even refute or rebut its findings. If he takes the briefing at all, he will usually turn to his analysts for further comment, responses, etc.
That seems to be exactly what happened in this case. The only intelligence “product” of this office that has surfaced thus far is an assessment of previous intelligence reports about links between Iraq and al Qaeda. The substance of that product, originally a Power Point briefing, was contained in a Defense Department memo leaked to the Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes last winter. Hayes reported that Under Secretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith sent the memo to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in October 2003. It documented references to contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda as published in intelligence reports dating back to the first Gulf War.
Writing in Sunday’s Washington Post, Dana Priest reported that the briefing was the product of two analysts working inside the “Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group” set up shortly after 9/11. The two-person effort to review past intelligence reporting on such contact wrapped up sometime in mid-2002. Shortly thereafter, their briefing became a “traveling road show.” Secretary Rumsfeld has recalled that his staff recommended the briefing to him; he says that two people briefed him and he then sent them over to see Tenet.
In his Senate testimony, Tenet told Levin that he had spent about 15 minutes with the two and then turned them over to his own analysts. Priest interviewed CIA officials who were present at Tenet’s August 2002 briefing at CIA Headquarters. She reports they were “nonplussed” by what they heard. One told her the agency “had discounted already” much of the substance of the Pentagon’s briefing. But there is no indication that Tenet or any of his staff registered objections with Rumsfeld or the Pentagon. Feith then sent the two to the White House where they briefed deputies in the National Security Council and the Office of the Vice President. Priest reports that the briefing contents never made it to the NSC Advisor, the Vice President, or the President.
Priest also reports that congressional investigators “from both parties” have yet to turn up any evidence that this group collected its own intelligence or that this analysis “significantly shaped the case the administration made for going to war.” So what’s going on here? In an on-line chat hosted by the Post, she wrote, “it just doesn’t seem to be the big deal many people are making it into.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss labeled Levin and Senator Ted Kennedy’s performance at the hearing “bad theater” and likened them to “two old attack dogs gumming their way through artificial outrage about something they should know a lot more about and be more responsible about.”