During last fall's feverish ramp-up to war with Iraq, the Pentagon created an unusual in-house shop to monitor Saddam Hussein's links with terrorists and his allegedly sprawling arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. With direct access to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's office and the White House, the influential group helped lay out, both to administration officials and to the press, an array of chilling, almost too good to be true examples of why Saddam posed an immediate threat to America.
Six months later, with controversy mounting over the administration's handling of war intelligence, the small, secretive cell inside the Pentagon is drawing closer scrutiny and may soon be the subject of a congressional inquiry to determine whether it manipulated and politicized key intelligence and botched planning for postwar Iraq.
"The concern is they were in the cherry-picking business -- cherry-picking half-truths and rumors and only highlighting pieces of information that bolstered the administration's case for war," says U.S. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Pentagon's innocuously named Office of Special Plans served as a unique, handpicked group of hawkish defense officials who worked outside regular intelligence channels. According to the Department of Defense, the group was first created in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to supplement the war on terrorism; it was designed to sift through all the intelligence on terrorist activity, and to focus particularly on various al-Qaida links. By last fall it was focusing almost exclusively on Iraq, and often leaking doomsday findings about Saddam's regime. Those controversial conclusions are now fueling the suspicion that the obscure agency, propelled by ideology, manipulated key findings in order to fit the White House's desire to wage war with Iraq.
"Everything we've seen since the war has confirmed intelligence community suspicions about its [the Office of Special Plans'] sources of information," says Greg Thielmann, who ran military assessments at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research until he retired in October. "The rosy assumption about troops being greeted with flowers and hugs -- that came from that stream of intelligence. The assurance that they knew exactly where the weapons of mass destruction were, or that Iraq was ready to employ chemical and biological weapons in battle within 45 minutes of an order -- all of those stories have proven wrong."
Those alarming allegations, and the subsequent failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, have created a firestorm over intelligence that has forced the Bush administration on the defensive in recent days. The controversy may soon focus attention on the Office of Special Plans, which has been raising hackles among intelligence professionals for the last year. Former CIA counterterrorism chief Vince Cannistraro refers to the office dismissively as "the bat cave."
Thielmann is still unclear why the civilian-run office was formed. "Do they [staffers in the Office of Special Plans] have expertise in Iraqi culture?" he asks. "Are they missile experts? Nuclear engineers? There's no logical explanation for the office's creation except that they wanted people to find evidence to support their answers [about war]."
Currently, the Senate Intelligence Committee is holding closed-door hearings about the intelligence gathering for Iraq. But the House Appropriations Committee, which is weighing the Department of Defense's nearly $400 billion annual budget request, may soon sign off on an inquiry specifically looking into the Office of Special Plans. It would be triggered by a survey and investigation, or S&I, request. The appropriations committee has at its disposal a unique arm of investigators, sort of an in-house General Accounting Office staff.
"What we're asking for is not a determination of wrongdoing," says Scott Lilly, minority staff director for the House Appropriations Committee. "But just routine information about appropriated funds that we ask all the time."
The initial request, made by the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, could lead to more sensitive questions about the office.
"There have been serious allegations made and he [Obey] thinks our committee has responsibility to determine if they're true," says Lilly. "If there's evidence that the office of Secretary of Defense got itself involved in extracurricular intelligence operations that generated misinformation, that's serious and something we'll try to see doesn't happen in the future."
The House inquiry, though modest in its scope, would mark another setback for the Bush administration as it comes under increasing political pressure to explain gathered intelligence on Iraq, why so much of it appears to have been badly off the mark, and whether the White House knowingly misled the country about the need for an unprecedented preemptive war.
For the last week, in what the Washington Post on Tuesday officially labeled a "feeding frenzy," the White House has been trying to explain why bogus information, long ago discredited by intelligence experts, about Saddam Hussein's alleged effort to secure uranium from Niger for his nuclear weapons program, made it into this year's State of the Union address.
On Monday, Bush defended the use of intelligence and insisted: "When all is said and done the people of the United States will realize that Saddam Hussein had a weapons program." But before the war, the White House insisted Saddam had actual weapons, not simply "programs," which was why Iraq was supposed to be a grave, imminent threat to the United States.
According to a recent Newsweek poll, 45 percent of Americans say the Bush administration misinterpreted intelligence reports about Iraq; 38 percent think it deliberately mislead the country.
To date, no weapons or significant evidence of weapons programs have been located, which in and of itself is remarkable. "One year ago, no serious person would've thought we'd have 150,000 troops combing the country and still not be able to find the poison gas," says John Pike, an intelligence expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org.
Pike describes the Office of Special Plans as "Rummy's war room." Other critics are convinced the operation was manipulating information, and worse, disturbing the peer-review method within the intelligence community. "There's a formal, well-established intelligence process in Washington, which Rumsfeld apparently wanted to circumvent" by creating the office, says Thielmann. "Their operation was virtually invisible to us; I don't remember seeing any of their intelligence information." He says the Office of Special Plans "had no status in the intelligence community."
"It was not a neutral, transparent link in the intelligence chain," adds Steve Aftergood, senior research analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit organization that monitors national security policy. "It was staffed by people with a distinct perspective on events, so it was logical to assume that perspective would be reflected in the work."
Operating under the command of Rumsfeld, the office was the brainchild of his top deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and directly overseen by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. Together, the top three Pentagon civilians make up the most hawkish, neoconservative wing of the administration. In fact, all three had been calling for Saddam's removal years before the current war on terrorism.
Critics are also somewhat dumbfounded that Rumsfeld, with access to the Defense Intelligence Agency, which already has a reputation for its often alarmist intelligence analysis, felt the need to create yet another, separate, intelligence office. "Nobody ever said we don't have enough resources at the DIA," says Rep. Tauscher.
The premise behind the office seemed to be that career analysts inside the intelligence community, and specifically the CIA, were not grasping the hard realities about Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction, and that a fresh set of eyes examining much of the same information could make critical links.
Wolfowitz told the New York Times last year that there is "a phenomenon in intelligence work that people who are pursuing a certain hypothesis will see certain facts that others won't, and not see other facts that others will."
The current tension over intelligence is simply the resumption of a battle fought during the Cold War when conservatives such as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith accused the CIA of underestimating the military dangers posed by the Soviet Union. (Following the Soviet Union's collapse, it became clear the CIA had been more accurate in its estimates than the hawks had been.) Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the onset of the war on terrorism, the ideological battle has simply shifted to the Middle East.
Last month Feith held a rare press conference to try to stem the criticism surrounding the office. "This suggestion that we said to them [analysts], 'This is what we're looking for, go find it,' is precisely the inaccuracy that we are here to rebut," he said. "I know of nobody who pressured anybody."
But since that attempted preemptive strike, the questions have only grown louder and more pointed about what the self-described "cabal" at the Pentagon was up to, and why, if its Iraqi leads were solid, it felt the need to end-run the intelligence establishment.
The White House's desire last year to gather damning Iraqi intelligence was driven home by Vice President Dick Cheney, who made three separate, and highly unusual, trips to the CIA before the war where he conferred with analysts and reportedly urged them to dig up better information about Saddam's alleged nuclear weapons program. Cannistraro says the meetings were unprecedented: "The vice president going to the CIA? Cutting ribbons and giving speeches, yes. But sitting down with analysts and going over the intelligence? I've never heard of that." Typically, if members of the executive branch have intelligence queries they contact the National Security staff, which has offices right inside the West Wing.
In retrospect, Cannistraro says it's clear "the decision was made within a couple of months of Sept. 11 to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But the administration had to find rationale to do it. So they set up a secretive group through Feith which started producing information on Iraq that was more compatible than the CIA."
A distinguishing characteristic of the office seemed to be the extraordinary access and influence given to Ahmad Chalabi, the exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress. A darling of Beltway neocons, Chalabi has been viewed over the years with suspicion by the State Department and the CIA, which recognize the obvious political agenda behind his desire for the U.S. to overthrow Saddam -- he'd be installed as Saddam's successor. The CIA and State Department have also been wary of some of the Iraqi defectors Chalabi produced who allegedly detailed Saddam's deadly arsenal. By contrast, Chalabi reportedly enjoyed unprecedented access at the Pentagon's office. According to some reports, the information and allegations he and his fellow defectors made about Saddam were passed up to Rumsfeld and Bush, with no review by outside intelligence professionals. The information was often shared with the press as well, helping to build a public case for war.
But the trick with dealing with defectors, says Cannistraro, is that "you have to understand how to vet them and what their motivations are. Otherwise they're just going to give you exactly what you want to hear." He says the Office of Special Plans never asked defectors the tough questions. "The level of naiveté was extraordinary."
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld's spy office is also coming under new scrutiny for its questionable job of planning for a postwar Iraq, a country that nearly three months after the toppling of Saddam remains mired in all sorts of political, legal and humanitarian chaos.
Last weekend, Knight-Ridder newspapers reported the Office of Special Plans "dominated planning for postwar Iraq" and yet "failed to prepare for the setbacks that have erupted over the past two months." Further, Knight-Ridder reported, "the Pentagon [civilian] leaders didn't develop extensive plans, the officials said, because they believed that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops with open arms and that Washington could install a favored Iraqi exile as the country's leader. And, when their envisioned scenario collapsed amid violence and disorder, they had no backup plan."
"There is no postwar planning I can see that reveals any level of accomplishment," says Tauscher, who notes the U.S. cost of the war was recently doubled to $4 billion per month.
For now, though, the focus is on the office's role in gathering intelligence on Iraq -- and on the pending congressional survey and investigation request, which needs bipartisan support to move forward. Democrats Obey, the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, ranking member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, have signed on. Now they need Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., the defense subcommittee chairman, and the Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., to do the same.
According to Young's spokesman, S&I requests are "very seldom" denied. And last week the Wall Street Journal reported Lewis would agree to the inquiry, while, according to the Capitol Hill publication Congress Daily, Young indicated he too would support the bipartisan request. But to date, neither man has formally agreed to the inquiry.
"We have a request letter we're negotiating with Republicans," says Lilly, the Democratic staffer on the Appropriations Committee. "We're trying to keep this bipartisan because that's the only way to get to the bottom of this quickly and effectively."