Vice President Dick Cheney's claim that a magazine article, based on leaked and unevaluated intelligence, definitively proved links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden has triggered a new round in the Bush administration's conflict with the intelligence community.
"It's disgusting," said Vincent Cannistraro, the former CIA chief of counterterrorism. "It's bullshit," said Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who served in the agency's Near East division.
Cheney's touting of the leak was also condemned by Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark, who demanded an internal White House investigation into whether Cheney violated national security laws by appearing to confirm the contents of the article, which reprinted classified information.
The conservative Weekly Standard published its article on the Saddam-al-Qaida connection, "Case Closed," by Stephen Hayes, in its Nov. 24, 2003, issue. The piece, released on Nov. 14, was instantly promoted as providing proof for the Bush administration's assertion that Saddam was long involved with Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization. Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes trumpeted the article on Fox News. "These are hard facts, and I'd like to see [skeptics] refute any one of them," he said.
But the Department of Defense did just that. On Nov. 15, the next day, the Pentagon issued an extraordinary statement calling the story "inaccurate" and explaining it was based on raw intelligence (or a "classified annex") that had not been evaluated. "The classified annex was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions."
In the strongest possible terms the Pentagon condemned the leak: "Individuals who purport to leak classified information are doing serious harm to national security; such activity is deplorable and may be illegal."
The assertion that Saddam and al-Qaida were in league was a major justification for the Iraq war. Indeed, a majority of Americans came to believe the alliance was real as a result of the administration's persistent suggestion that Saddam was behind 9/11, and it was the reason they gave for supporting the war.
However, no proof was ever offered, and the administration's continuing effort to press the point led the press corps to question President Bush about it. "There's no question that Saddam Hussein had al-Qaida ties," Bush said on Nov. 18, 2003. But he added, "We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11" attacks.
Yet on Jan. 9, Cheney, in an interview with the Rocky Mountain News, spontaneously lauded the discredited Weekly Standard article and described it as "the best source of information."
On this Sunday's "Meet the Press" on NBC, Clark criticized Cheney's comments as "playing politics with national security." James Rubin, Clark's senior foreign policy advisor and a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Clinton administration, said that "the vice president at a minimum should retract his comments." He added: "The president ought to call in Vice President Cheney and his legal counsel and look into the matter and determine how much damage has been done."
Cheney's remarks about the Weekly Standard article, particularly in light of the Pentagon's firm and public denunciation, angered former intelligence experts. "I just can't find words to describe how horrible it is," says Cannistraro. "For the vice president to undercut the head of intelligence at the Pentagon is unparalleled. It just illustrates the peculiar worldview Cheney has and how distorted it is. And it shows there's a real contempt for the professional intelligence community."
Intelligence professionals are particularly offended by what they see as Cheney's attempt to deliberately mislead and mischaracterize the article. In particular they point to his reference to the leaked information as an "assessment" as though it had been evaluated and judged to be creditable. "That was no assessment. It was a roundup of [unsubstantiated] reports," says McGovern, a steering group member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, which has been critical of the Bush administration's handling of intelligence. "To call that an assessment is a joke and disavows what the Department of Defense said, for God's sake."
The fury surrounding Cheney's comments and the rationale for war come in the wake of former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay's comments on Friday that he now doubts Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of WMD, as the administration had insisted before the war last year. Meanwhile, recent reports from the National War College and the Carnegie Endowment have cast serious doubts on administration claims that Iraq posed an imminent threat.
Throughout the debate about the Iraq war, Cheney has presented himself as a guardian of national security and an enemy of intelligence leaks. But his praise for the Weekly Standard article sharply contrasts with his disapproval of a leak in June 2002 -- a leak that seriously embarrassed the administration and called attention to an intelligence failure under its own watch. At the time, CNN reported that the National Security Agency had failed to translate in time two intercepts on Sept. 10, 2001, which noted that "tomorrow is the zero hour" and "the match is about to begin." The intercepts were translated from Arabic on Sept. 12. CNN had reported that the leak came from two congressional sources.
Cheney personally telephoned the chairmen of the joint congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., and Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., to denounce the leaks. Soon, a criminal investigation was launched, with FBI agents administering polygraph exams to congressional staffers. At the time, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer complained, "The selective, inappropriate leaking of snippets of information risks undermining national security."
But the target of that leak investigation has turned on a subject the Bush administration did not expect -- Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, who was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at the time of the disclosure.
"It certainly shows the hypocrisy, because when the administration doesn't like the results of a leak, they order an investigation," says Rubin. "But if Vice President Cheney likes the results of a leak, he confirms it."
The Weekly Standard article was drawn from a "top secret U.S. government memorandum" that the magazine depicted as proving bin Laden and Saddam had an "operational relationship" that dated back nearly a decade. The memo was written by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, who also oversaw the unique Office of Special Plans within the Pentagon. This small office of handpicked operatives was created under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to act as a counter to the CIA and other intelligence agencies that were seen as insufficiently loyal in providing material to help make the administration's case about Saddam's imminent threat. Since its inception, the OSP has worked outside established intelligence channels, rarely sharing its intelligence information for peer review, and has been a direct source of information, often faulty, for the White House.
Following Feith's testimony about alleged ties between Saddam and external terrorist groups before Congress last July 10, he was pressed in a follow-up letter from Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., respectively the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to provide the evidence that backed up his assertions. In response, Feith's office cited 50 instances of raw intelligence that suggested ties between the Iraqi dictator and the al-Qaida leader. Meanwhile, Feith's report also found its way to the Weekly Standard.
The article, which gave credence to Feith's report and suggested it had conclusively confirmed the Saddam-al-Qaida connection, never informed its readers that the report was simply a laundry list of uncorroborated data.
Former CIA counterterrorism chief Cannistraro explains that hundreds, if not thousands, of raw reports from first-, second- and third-hand sources flood into the CIA offices around the world every day. But these are of little or no use until they can be analyzed. "The problem with raw intelligence is you can cherry-pick it," he says. "It's like having the Bible in your hand; you can pick and choose individual passages to prove almost any point."
Cannistraro is stunned that Feith's office, out to prove linkage between Saddam and bin Laden, relied on raw intelligence summaries and not evaluated intelligence. "It's just amazing, because it's the antithesis of the intelligence process," he said.
Traveling with Cheney in Europe, the vice president's spokesman could not be reached for comment.