War Stories

Feith-Based Intelligence

The former undersecretary of defense’s preposterous self-defense.

Former Undersecretary for Defense Douglas Feith

The Pentagon’s acting inspector general says that prewar intelligence assessments prepared by former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith about the relationship between al-Qaida and Iraq were “inappropriate” because Feith failed to make clear how his conclusions diverged from those of the intelligence community. Feith counters that this work was nothing more than a “critique” of the CIA’s judgments. The CIA, he says, had concluded that al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein had divergent interests and therefore were unlikely to collaborate to attack the United States. That assessment, Feith and others believed, was belied by information that the intelligence community had itself collected, and his office’s work was aimed, as he told National Public Radio, “to prevent an intelligence failure.”

However you characterize them, Feith’s assessments were entirely wrong. Every serious post-mortem of the relationship between al-Qaida and Saddam’s  government has confirmed the original CIA conclusions. But Feith’s claim that his work was a dispassionate endeavor at unbiased analysis—the very model of good government double-teaming—doesn’t jibe with the recollections of people in various parts of the Defense  Department and in the broader intelligence community during this period. Nor does it match what I’ve learned about the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, the office Feith set up to do this work at the behest of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. In numerous interviews for The Next Attack, a book I wrote with Steven Simon, senior officials, including Feith’s fellow political appointees, portrayed an effort in which Feith, Wolfowitz, and some of their subordinates tried to sell the claim that the CIA had it wrong and that Osama Bin Laden and Saddam were collaborators.

From the outset—indeed, well before 9/11—Wolfowitz disputed that al-Qaida was as much of a threat as the CIA leadership and then-counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke claimed. After the attacks on New York and Washington, the CIA decided fairly quickly based on a large body of intelligence that Iraq had nothing to do with the “planes operation.” But top civilian Defense Department officials refused to accept this verdict, incessantly demanding re-examinations of the al-Qaida-Iraq relationship. In itself, such skepticism is not a bad thing. But these officials’ refusal to accept the answer that emerged from extensive re-evaluation suggests they weren’t particularly open-minded. One political appointee in another agency who dealt with Wolfowitz regularly told me that among the intelligence officials who conducted morning briefings of top officials, “It was a joke that Wolfowitz’s briefer came back every morning and hit F5, the save-get key on the computer that sent out the message saying, ‘investigate al-Qaida-Iraq, al Qaida-Iraq.’ “

Wolfowitz and Feith’s certainty that there was an al-Qaida link—and the overarching belief that all bad Muslims were bad together, with Saddam sitting at the center of the spider’s web—had a pernicious effect on analysis and policy-making. Career intelligence and counterterrorism officials were sidelined for doubting the Wolfowitz/Feith line; others were pressured to endorse them. One former top counterterrorism official says that after remarking that he did not think much of the work of Laurie Mylroie, an Iraq analyst and favorite of such neoconservatives as Richard Perle, James Woolsey, and Wolfowitz, he was shunted aside. Later, on a tip, he dropped by a conference room near Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s office and found a Navy reserve officer working on a large swath of what looked like butcher-block paper that had been pinned to the wall. Drawn on it was a tangle of lines and drawings that, he said, looked like “spaghetti.” When he asked the reservist, presumably part of the CTEG operation, what he was doing, the reservist replied, “I was asked to show the connection between Saddam and [Bin Laden].”

“Were you asked to show if there was a connection?”

“No, I was told to show the connection.”

The exchange was emblematic of CTEG’s work. It isn’t clear whether Feith’s people integrated “intelligence” from any of the Iraqi exile groups whose information about weapons of mass destruction proved to be misleading. (Some of the relevant documents remain classified.) The core effort, though, involved re-examining U.S. government intelligence on Bin Laden and on Iraq. Some of the group’s “product” was later leaked to the Weekly Standard, which reprinted excerpts from a lengthy CTEG memo that drew on bits and pieces of several dozen intelligence reports. Judging from that analysis, CTEG’s output was amateurish, cherry-picking dubious reports without reference to numerous contradictory reports that typically were better-sourced.

Defense department officials at first tried to enlist support for CTEG’s analysis from top intelligence officials within the Pentagon. One of the military’s most-senior intelligence officers during this period told me that the issue of a connection between Bin Laden and Saddam came up frequently in meetings with the civilian leadership of the Pentagon. “Regularly and consistently I was asked, ‘Do we have a smoking gun?’ ” this official recalled. “And regularly and consistently, I said, ‘We don’t.’ ” This person, like most (if not all) of the uniformed military, refused to endorse the CTEG findings.

If Feith had produced a mere “critique” of the CIA’s analysis, then presumably he would have wanted it widely disseminated. But very few in the intelligence community saw it. At Rumsfeld’s request, CIA Director George Tenet and some of his staff were briefed, and there was one follow-up session. But while most CIA intelligence analysts knew that Feith was pushing the Bin Laden-Saddam connection, most never saw CTEG documents. Indeed, the Feith office actually witheld the “critique” portion of its work from the CIA. Once, at a congressional briefing, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and a senior CIA official discovered that their two sets of CTEG PowerPoint slides didn’t match. The senators got ones with a slide that said, in essence, that the CIA didn’t know what it was doing. That slide had been taken out of the CIA’s official’s set. A senior State Department intelligence official told me he never received the briefing or any memos from CTEG. The group’s work was not vetted throughout the community in the exhaustive way most intelligence reports usually are before they are presented in the West Wing of the White House, but the White House briefing occurred nonetheless.

Vice President Cheney would later refer to the Weekly Standard story as the “best source of information” on the subject, and he, like CTEG, would continue to talk about a meeting in Prague between hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent long after the CIA and FBI concluded the meeting had never happened. When Secretary of State Colin Powell was preparing his fateful United Nations address in February 2003, Cheney’s office sought to insert language based on CTEG’s work—an effort Powell largely fought off. Larry Wilkerson, who was Powell’s chief of staff, remembered a pre-invasion meeting in the White House Situation Room that brought together top intelligence officials and policy-makers. After the intelligence agencies made their presentations, Wilkerson recalls, Feith “leapt to his feet, pointed at a certain national intelligence officer and declared, ‘You people don’t know what you are talking about.’ ” Feith held up a piece of paper and then read out loud “something about al-Qaida’s ties with Iraq during the time it was in Sudan [1991-1996].” Then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley “just sat there looking white.” Wilkerson was intrigued and later looked into the source. “The item came from OVP [Office of the Vice President] that came, ultimately, from a newspaper clipping, and it was presented as intelligence.”

The inspector general concluded that Feith’s work was authorized by his superiors (no surprise there), and that Feith did not break the law.That may be true. But the legislation regulating how the government functions—the National Security Act of 1947 above all—never considered the bizarre possibility that top officials would be so dogmatic that they would crowd out good information and analyses with unvetted nonsense. Nor did it contemplate that the nation’s senior leadership might block the CIA and the State Department from having any impact on policy. Like most of us, the architects of the legislation probably could not imagine that such a thing could happen.