5th September 22:23
The spies who pushed for war
The spies who pushed for war
Julian Borger reports on the shadow rightwing intelligence network set up in
Washington to second-guess the CIA and deliver a justification for toppling
Saddam Hussein by force
Thursday July 17, 2003
As the CIA director, George Tenet, arrived at the Senate yesterday to give
secret testimony on the Niger uranium affair, it was becoming increasingly
clear in Washington that the scandal was only a small, well-do***ented
symptom of a complete breakdown in US intelligence that helped steer America
It represents the Bush administration's second catastrophic intelligence
failure. But the CIA and FBI's inability to prevent the September 11 attacks
was largely due to internal institutional weaknesses. This time the
implications are far more damaging for the White House, which stands accused
of politicising and contaminating its own source of intelligence.
According to former Bush officials, all defence and intelligence sources,
senior members of the administration created a shadow agency of Pentagon
****ysts staffed mainly by ideological amateurs to compete with the CIA and
its military counterpart, the Defence Intelligence Agency.
The agency, known as the Office of Special Plans (OSP) was set up by the
defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to second-guess CIA information and
operated under the patronage of hardline conservatives in the top rungs of
the administration, the Pentagon and at the White House, including
Vice-President **** Cheney.
The ideologically driven network functioned like a shadow government, much
of it off the official payroll and beyond congressional oversight. But it
proved powerful enough to prevail in a struggle with the state department
and the CIA by establishing a justification for war.
Mr Tenet has officially taken responsibility for the president's
unsubstantiated claim in January that Saddam Hussein's regime had been
trying to buy uranium in Africa, but he also made it clear his agency was
under pressure to justify a war that the administration had already decided
How much Mr Tenet reveals of where that pressure was coming from could have
lasting political fallout for Mr Bush and his re-election prospects, which
only a few weeks ago seemed impregnable. As more Americans die in Iraq and
the reasons for the war are stripped bare, his victory in 2004 no longer
looks like a foregone conclusion.
The president's most trusted adviser, Mr Cheney, was at the shadow network's
sharp end. He made several trips to the CIA in Langley, Virginia, to demand
a more "forward-leaning" interpretation of the threat posed by Saddam. When
he was not there to make his influence felt, his chief of staff, Lewis
"Scooter" Libby was. Such hands-on involvement in the processing of
intelligence data was unprecedented for a vice-president in recent times,
and it put pressure on CIA officials to come up with the appropriate
Another frequent visitor was Newt Gingrich, the former Republican party
leader who resurfaced after September 11 as a Pentagon "consultant" and a
member of its unpaid defence advisory board, with influence far beyond his
An intelligence official confirmed Mr Gingrich made "a couple of visits" but
said: "There's nothing at all unusual about people both in and out of
government coming here to engage in a dialogue and to exchange views on a
range of subjects."
In that guise he visited Langley three times in the run-up to war, and
according to accounts, the political veteran sought to browbeat ****ysts
into toughening up their assessments of Saddam's menace.
Mr Gingrich gained access to the CIA headquarters and was listened to
because he was seen as a personal emissary of the Pentagon, and in
particular, of the OSP.
In the days after September 11, Mr Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz,
mounted an attempt to include Iraq in the war against terror. When the
established agencies came up with nothing concrete to link Iraq and
al-Qaida, the OSP was given the task of looking more carefully.
William Luti, a former navy officer and ex-aide to Mr Cheney, runs the
day-to-day operations, answering to Douglas Feith, a defence undersecretary
and a former Reagan official and Washington lobbyist for Israel and Turkey.
The OSP had access to a huge amount of raw intelligence. It came in part
from "report officers" in the CIA's directorate of operations whose job is
to sift through reports from agents around the world, filtering out the
unsubstantiated and the incredible. Under pressure from the hawks such as Mr
Cheney and Mr Gingrich, those officers became reluctant to discard anything,
no matter how far-fetched. The OSP also ****ed in countless tips from the
Iraqi National Congress and other opposition groups, which were viewed with
far more scepticism by the CIA and the state department.
There was a mountain of do***entation to look through and not much time. The
administration wanted to use the momentum gained in Afghanistan to deal with
Iraq once and for all. The OSP itself had less than 10 full-time staff, so
to help deal with the load, the office hired scores of temporary
"consultants". They including like-minded lawyers, congressional staffers,
and policy wonks from the numerous rightwing thinktanks in the US capital.
Few had experience in intelligence.
"Most of the people they had in that office were off the books, on personal
services contracts. At one time, there were over 100 of them," said an
intelligence source. The contracts allow a department to hire individuals,
without specifying a job description.
As John Pike, a defence ****yst at the thinktank GlobalSecurity.org, put it,
the contracts "are basically a way they could pack the room with their
"They surveyed data and picked out what they liked," said Gregory Thielmann,
a senior official in the state department's intelligence bureau until his
retirement in September. "The whole thing was bizarre. The secretary of
defence had this huge defence intelligence agency, and he went around it."
In fact, the OSP's activities were a complete mystery to the DIA and the
"The iceberg ****ogy is a good one," said a senior officer who left the
Pentagon during the planning of the Iraq war. "No one from the military
staff heard, saw or discussed anything with them."
The civilian agencies had the same impression of the OSP sleuths. "They were
a pretty shadowy presence," Mr Thielmann said. "Normally when you compile an
intelligence do***ent, all the agencies get together to discuss it. The OSP
was never present at any of the meetings I attended."
Democratic congressman David Obey, who is investigating the OSP, said: "That
office was charged with collecting, vetting and disseminating intelligence
completely outside of the normal intelligence apparatus.
"In fact, it appears that information collected by this office was in some
instances not even shared with established intelligence agencies and in
numerous instances was passed on to the national security council and the
president without having been vetted with anyone other than political
The OSP was an open and largely unfiltered conduit to the White House not
only for the Iraqi opposition. It also forged close ties to a parallel, ad
hoc intelligence operation inside Ariel Sharon's office in Israel
specifically to bypass Mossad and provide the Bush administration with more
alarmist reports on Saddam's Iraq than Mossad - a highly professional body -
was prepared to authorise.
"None of the Israelis who came were cleared into the Pentagon through normal
channels," said one source familiar with the visits. Instead, they were
waved in on Mr Feith's authority without having to fill in the usual forms.
The exchange of information continued a long-standing relationship Mr Feith
and other Washington neo-conservatives had with Israel's Likud party.
In 1996, he and Richard Perle - now an influential Pentagon figure - served
as advisers to the then Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu. In a policy paper
Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran would have to be overthrown or destabilised,
for Israel to be truly safe.
The Israeli influence was revealed most clearly by a story floated by
unnamed senior US officials in the American press, suggesting the reason
that no banned weapons had been found in Iraq was that they had been
smuggled into Syria. Intelligence sources say that the story came from the
office of the Israeli prime minister.
The OSP absorbed this heady brew of raw intelligence, rumour and plain
disinformation and made it a "product", a prodigious stream of reports with
a guaranteed readership in the White House. The primary customers were Mr
Cheney, Mr Libby and their closest ideological ally on the national security
council, Stephen Hadley, Condoleezza Rice's deputy.
In turn, they leaked some of the claims to the press, and used others as a
stick with which to beat the CIA and the state department ****ysts,
demanding they investigate the OSP leads.
The big question looming over Congress as Mr Tenet walked into his
closed-door session yesterday was whether this shadow intelligence operation
would survive national scrutiny and who would pay the price for allowing it
to help steer the country into war.
A former senior CIA official insisted yesterday that Mr Feith, at least, was
"finished" - but that may be wishful thinking by rival organisation.
As he prepares for re-election, Mr Bush may opt to tough it out, rather than
acknowledge the severity of the problem by firing loyalists. But in that
case, it will inevitably be harder to re-establish confidence in the
intelligence on which the White House is basing its decisions, and the
world's sole superpower risks stumbling onwards half-blind, unable to
distinguish real threats from phantoms.