WASHINGTON, DC -- A Pentagon committee led by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, advised President Bush to include a reference in his January State of the Union address about Iraq trying to purchase 500 tons of uranium from Niger to bolster the case for war in Iraq, despite the fact that the CIA warned Wolfowitz's committee that the information was unreliable, according to a CIA intelligence official and four members of the Senate's intelligence committee who have been investigating the issue.
The senators and the CIA official said they could be forced out of government and brought up on criminal charges for leaking the information to this reporter and as a result requested anonymity. They later questioned CIA Director George Tenet in a closed-door hearing to determine whether Wolfowitz and members of a committee he headed misled Bush and if the president knew about the erroneous information prior to his State of the Union address.
Spokespeople for Wolfowitz and Tenet vehemently denied the accusations. Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, would not return repeated calls for comment.
The revelations by the CIA official and the senators, if true, would prove that Tenet, who has said he erred by allowing the uranium reference to be included in the State of the Union address, took the blame for an intelligence failure for which he was not responsible. The lawmakers said it could also lead to a widespread probe of pre-war intelligence.
At issue is a secret committee set up in 2001 by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the Office of Special Plans, which was headed by Wolfowitz, Abrum Shulsky, and Douglas Feith, under-secretary of defense for policy, to probe allegations of links between Iraq and the terrorist organization al-Qaeda and whether the country was stockpiling a cache of weapons of mass destruction. The Special Plans committee disbanded in March after the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq.
The committee's job, according to published reports, was to gather intelligence information on the Iraqi threat that the CIA and FBI could not uncover and present it to the White House to build a case for war in Iraq. The committee relied heavily on information provided by Iraqi defector Ahmad Chalabi, who has provided the White House with reams of disputed intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. Chalabi heads the Iraqi National Congress, a group of Iraqi exiles that has pushed for regime change in Iraq.
The Office of Special Plans, according to the CIA official and the senators, routinely provided Bush, Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice with questionable intelligence information on the Iraqi threat, much of which was included in various speeches by Bush and Cheney and some of which was called into question by the CIA.
In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld became increasingly frustrated that the CIA could not find any evidence of Iraq's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons program, evidence that would have helped the White House build a solid case for war in Iraq.
In an article in The New York Times last October, the paper reported that Rumsfeld had ordered the Office of Special Plans to 'to search for information on Iraq's hostile intentions or links to terrorists' that might have been overlooked by the CIA.
The CIA official and the senators said that's when Wolfowitz and his committee instructed the White House to have Bush use the now-disputed line about Iraq's attempts to purchase 500 tons of uranium from Niger in a speech the president was set to give in Cincinnati. But Tenet quickly intervened and informed Stephen Hadley, an aide to national security adviser Rice, that the information was unreliable.
Patrick Lang, a former director of Middle East analysis at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in an interview with the New Yorker magazine in May that the Office of Special Plans 'started picking out things that supported their thesis and stringing them into arguments that they could use with the president. It's not intelligence. It's political propaganda.'
Lang said the CIA and Office of Special Plans often clashed on the accuracy of intelligence information provided to the White House by Wolfowitz.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, the author of a May New Yorker story on the Office of Special Plans, reported, 'former CIA officers and analysts described the agency as increasingly demoralized. George knows he's being beaten up,' one former officer said of Tenet. 'And his analysts are terrified. George used to protect his people, but he's been forced to do things their way.' Because the CIA's analysts are now on the defensive, 'they write reports justifying their intelligence rather than saying what's going on. The Defense Department and the Office of the Vice-President write their own pieces, based on their own ideology. We collect so much stuff that you can find anything you want.'
'They see themselves as outsiders,' a former C.I.A. expert who spent the past decade immersed in Iraqi-exile affairs said of the Special Plans people. 'There's a high degree of paranoia,' he told Hersh. 'They've convinced themselves that they're on the side of angels, and everybody else in the government is a fool.'
By last fall, the White House had virtually dismissed all of the intelligence on Iraq provided by the CIA, which failed to find any evidence of Iraq's weapons programs, in favor of the more critical information provided to the Bush administration by the Office of Special Plans
Hersh reported that the Special Plans Office 'developed a close working relationship with the (Iraqi National Congress), and this strengthened its position in disputes with the C.I.A. and gave the Pentagon's pro-war leadership added leverage in its constant disputes with the State Department. Special Plans also became a conduit for intelligence reports from the I.N.C. to officials in the White House.'
In a rare Pentagon briefing recently, Office of Special Plans co-director Douglas Feith said the committee was not an 'intelligence project,' but rather a group of 18 people that looked at intelligence information from a different point of view.
Feith said when the group had new 'thoughts' on intelligence information it was given; they shared it with CIA director Tenet.
'It was a matter of digesting other people's intelligence,' Feith said of the main duties of his group. 'Its job was to review this intelligence to help digest it for me and other policy makers, to help us develop Defense Department strategy for the war on terrorism.'