White House briefed on war by Defense unit, minus Tenet

CIA chief tells Senate he learned only recently of session for top officials

March 10, 2004|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - A special intelligence unit at the Pentagon privately briefed senior officials at the White House on alleged ties between Iraq and al-Qaida without the knowledge of CIA Director George J. Tenet, according to new information presented at a Senate hearing yesterday.

The disclosure suggests that the controversial Pentagon office played a greater role than previously understood in shaping the administration's views on Iraq's alleged ties to the terrorist network behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and bypassed usual channels to make a case that conflicted with the conclusions of CIA analysts.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tenet said he was unaware until recently that the Pentagon unit had presented its findings to the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

It was a hearing marked by heated exchanges reflecting the political tensions over the Iraq war and the failure to find weapons the Bush administration cited as the principal reason for last year's U.S.-led war. Tenet came under sharp attack from Democrats, who called the prewar intelligence a "fiasco," pointed to what they said were disturbing disparities between classified CIA estimates and more alarming versions released to the public before the war, and criticized the CIA director for saying recently that the agency never portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat.

"The fact that the intelligence assessments before the war were so wildly off the mark should trouble all Americans," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

It was under questioning from Levin that Tenet acknowledged that he did not know until within the past few weeks that a special Pentagon intelligence analysis unit had briefed the White House on ties between Iraq and al-Qaida.

"I did not know that at the time, and I think I first learned about this at [a congressional] hearing last week," Tenet said. A U.S. intelligence official said Tenet first learned of the White House briefing Feb. 24 during a closed-door hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Pentagon unit was created by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Feith has said that the unit included a handful of intelligence analysts, and that it was established to examine state sponsorship of terrorism, but it is principally known for its efforts to assemble evidence linking Iraq to al-Qaida.

It has been previously reported that the so-called Policy Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group presented its findings to the CIA in August 2002. But in a letter to Warner released Tuesday for the first time, Feith said the group's briefing "was also given to National Security Council and office of vice president staff members."

Levin asked Tenet whether it was "standard operating procedure" for intelligence analysis to be presented to the White House without his involvement.

"I don't know," Tenet replied. "I've never been in the situation."

Levin also said that the committee has obtained copies of the Pentagon group's written briefing material, and that the version presented to the White House includes material left out of the briefing for the CIA. He declined to elaborate, saying the documents are classified.

A government official familiar with the briefings said the presentation for the White House included a slide sharply critical of the CIA for failing to recognize evidence pointing toward collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaida. That slide was excluded from the briefing at CIA headquarters at Langley, Va.

The Pentagon intelligence group was disbanded before the war, but it remains under intense scrutiny. Critics say it sifted through years of intelligence reports on Iraq, seizing on shards that supported the contention that there was collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaida, and then funneling the information to senior policymakers to help bolster the case for war. Pentagon officials reject that characterization.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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