This writer has reported extensively on a 2001 meeting in Rome between two then-members of the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, Iranian intelligence operatives, and the Italian intelligence service. Reading the DoD IG (Defense Department Inspector General) report on its investigation into the activities of Feith's office, and watching Friday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the report, were, therefore, somewhat surreal experiences. What was surreal was their narrow focus on the question of the Pentagon policy shop's alternative intelligence analysis alleging Iraq-al-Qaeda links, when few dispute that the array of activities engaged in by Feith's shop was broader than that and hardly limited to alternative intelligence analysis.
Both the hearing and the unclassified two-page DoD IG report (with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation) were narrowly focused on the question of whether members of Feith's policy shop were in fact conducting intelligence activities regarding Iraq that should have been reported to Congress; they determined that they were. The IG also determined that the policy shop behaved inappropriately but not without authorization or illegally when in 2002 it presented to then-vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and then-deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley a slide presentation asserting links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. The policy office's presentation to the White House disagreed with the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community in several key respects, and was not cleared in advance with then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.
But even given the report's narrow focus on these questions, it was the subject of intense, heated, and politicized jockeying by Senator Armed Services Committee members grilling acting DoD Inspector General Thomas Gimble in the Russell Senate office building on February 9. Gimble, a 35-year veteran of the DoD IG's office, seemed desperate not to get drawn into the partisan fray. As the questioning intensified, he appeared unsure of how to respond to queries that seemed to demand he offer his opinion about issues that went far beyond the scope of his office's purview.
For instance, Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a former prosecutor, seemed to believe that Feith's office was perfectly within its rights to make an end run around the CIA to inform the White House that it had found evidence -- deemed unreliable by the intelligence community -- that 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta allegedly had a meeting with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in 2001. The CIA had early on determined that the source on the Prague meeting was unreliable, and the Czech intelligence service -- the United States' original source -- later fully recanted the claim. But listening to Sessions bear into Gimble, you might have thought that such facts were still in dispute.
The hearing also revealed seeming holes in the IG's powers to investigate even the narrow question of what Feith's shop channeled to the White House beyond the CIA's judgment on the Iraq-al-Qaeda matter. For instance, Gimble revealed under questioning, current national security advisor Stephen Hadley declined his office's request to be interviewed. The IG interviewed more than 70 people as part of its review, but only Defense Department employees are apparently required to answer interview requests.
But what was most frustrating about the hearing was that the IG and the senators seemed to ignore instances -- such as the December 2001 Rome meeting involving Feith staff members, Ghorbanifar, and a foreign intelligence service -- that look far more like an intelligence collection operation -- even a covert action -- than the alternative intelligence analysis the IG report focused on. The Rome meeting was never mentioned in three hours of hearings at all, but it would certainly seem to be at the crux of a possible instance of an intelligence operation not reported to Congress -- although the meeting was authorized by the White House. While that meeting concerned Iran policy rather than Iraq, the IG has the ability to look at all intelligence issues pursued by Feith's office; the meeting's absence as a subject of investigation was mystifying.
At the hearing, Armed Services Committee Chairman Levin and Vice Chairman John Warner both made statements indicating that their committee would pursue the matter of Feith's shop further, calling witnesses that the DoD IG could not get to testify. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence may also pursue the matter. But one possibility to keep in mind is that the DoD IG's office may have other ongoing investigations related to Pentagon activities that may not have been reported to Congress. An office spokesman, Gary Comerford, wouldn't confirm or deny any other specific reviews. But it's worth noting that members of Congress have requested that the Defense Department Inspector General investigate other, related questions -- such as connections between the Iraqi National Congress and U.S. persons, and what work the Rendon Group did for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Other possible IG reviews notwithstanding, one is still left with the sense that the Defense Department internal review did not deliver what Congress needs to serve the public -- especially entering a fourth year of public agonizing over the war in Iraq. Across town, at the Libby trial, so much has been revealed that belies the central narrative of the Defense Department review -- that a Pentagon office that evaded congressional oversight and made end runs around the CIA to channel its alternative intelligence analysis to the White House is a phenomenon rising merely to the level of inappropriate, and that U.S. bureaucratic processes are resilient enough to filter out corrupted intelligence from the policymakers consuming it. The task of challenging that narrative with the truth has ever greater urgency as we now see signs of similar patterns leading towards an escalation with Iran.
Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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