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Shadow Agencies Helped Build Case for War in Iraq


On to another debate about Iraq: the debate over the intelligence that the Bush administration cited as it built its case for war. The Pentagon's inspector general is reviewing two offices that played key roles in the days before the war. NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.


In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Douglas Feith, the then undersecretary of Defense for policy and one of the architects of the war in Iraq, needed information.

Mr. DOUGLAS FEITH (Former Defense Official): We had to come up with a concept of the enemy--Who is the enemy? And we understood that the terrorists functioned as a network. We had to understand the nature of the network. How did the terrorist organizations relate to the state sponsors and non-state supporters of terrorism?

NORTHAM: To help answer those questions, he appointed two people to study al-Qaeda. Part of their task was to determine whether there was a link between Osama bin Laden and Iraq. The small team evolved into what became known as the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, says Feith.

Mr. FEITH: The original thought was to review the existing intelligence so that we would have an understanding of what the intelligence community had been producing in the way of information and analyses for years about international terrorist networks.

NORTHAM: But Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at The Center for Strategic and International Studies and a counterterrorism official during the Clinton administration, says the group had a clear mandate: to challenge the CIA's long-standing skepticism about a relationship between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. Benjamin says in August 2002 another office focused on Iraq was formed by Undersecretary Feith. It was called the Office of Special Plans.

Mr. DANIEL BENJAMIN (The Center for Strategic and International Studies): It was a relatively small shop; was set up with this very vague name because the administration did not want to add concern or to stoke the concern outside the government that we were determined to go to war in Iraq, but in fact, this was established precisely for that purpose and to do that planning.

NORTHAM: The two offices, which are now defunct, are the subject of a review by the Defense Department's inspector general. The Pentagon says the review, which will determine if there should be an investigation, will look at whether Feith's operation conducted, quote, "unauthorized, unlawful or inappropriate intelligence activities." Government officials familiar with the operations insist that the employees were reading intelligence only for the purpose of forming strategy and policy. Gary Schmitt, the director of strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says after 9/11 there was a sense that the administration needed to look at intelligence in a different way.

Mr. GARY SCHMITT (American Enterprise Institute): The whole government was taken with what are we doing, how are we doing it, and can we do it better, so it's not unusual that a major element of national security like the Pentagon would want to take a fresh look at ties of terrorists to other states.

NORTHAM: Patrick Lang is the former head of Middle East analysis at the Pentagon's intelligence agency, the DIA, and he headed up its human intelligence collection worldwide in 1994 and 1995.

Mr. PATRICK LANG (Intelligence Specialist): The idea of a part of the office of the secretary of Defense opening a little suboffice in order to take a second look at the conclusions of the intelligence community is not something I ever saw, but it also wouldn't have been something that would have particularly struck me as being something that shouldn't be done. If they started substituting the judgment of such a group for, you know, the legally constituted intelligence agency, then I think that would be a really bad problem.

NORTHAM: Congressional Democrats say that's exactly what happened, that the two units went around the expertise and analysis of the normal intelligence community, including the CIA and the DIA, and that flawed information was sent up to the highest offices of the administration as it was building its case to go to war. The American Enterprise Institute's Schmitt disputes any notion that the government cherry-picked evidence to make its case for war. He says there was plenty of other evidence available regarding the threat posed by Iraq long before the Bush administration came to power.

Mr. SCHMITT: I would just argue that if those offices didn't exist at all, the case for war would be virtually the same. I'd be hard-pressed to argue that somehow anything would be any different in terms of the public debate.

NORTHAM: Yet the debate over the role of these offices continues. The Senate Select Intelligence Committee, which is looking into prewar planning, says it is awaiting the outcome of the Pentagon review. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.