Neocons Leak Bad Intelligence

The leak of a secret memorandum written by a senior Pentagon official reveals less about the connection between Saddam and al Qaeda than the growing desperation of neo-conservative hawks in the Bush administration.

A Weekly Standard article, titled "Case Closed," published Monday summarized a lengthy memorandum sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Oct. 27 by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith. He was responding to a request to provide evidence supporting his assertion during a closed hearing last July that U.S. intelligence agencies had established a long-standing operational links between al Qaeda and Baghdad.

The memorandum consists mainly of 50 excerpts culled from raw intelligence reports by four U.S. intelligence agencies about alleged al Qaeda-Iraqi contacts from 1990 to 2003. Some of the reports include brief analysis, but most cite accounts by unnamed sources, such as "a contact with good access," "a well placed source," "a former senior Iraqi intelligence officer," a "regular and reliable source," "sensitive CIA reporting," and "a foreign government service." A few refer to statements made by captured al Qaeda members or Iraqi officials in U.S. custody.

Most onlookers agree that the leak was "friendly" or "authorized" by either hawks in the Pentagon or their allies in Vice President Dick Cheney's office. It was clearly intended to rebuff investigative reporters and Iraq war critics who have accused Feith's office of having manipulated or "cherry-picked" the intelligence to build a case for war.

The Standard, particularly Hayes and executive editor William Kristol, have acted as a mouthpiece for administration hawks like Feith, his immediate boss, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and their friends in Cheney's office, particularly his powerful chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, since even before the "war on terror."

While supporters of the war in Iraq, such as the New York Times' William Safire, have jumped on the Hayes' article as proof of what the administration had been saying, retired intelligence officers have criticized it, both because of the security breach created by the leak itself and because its so-called "evidence" is hardly convincing.

Although the article's author, Weekly correspondent Stephen Hayes, concludes that much of the evidence presented in the article is "detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources," the only example of real corroboration is with respect to several reports referring to contacts between al Qaeda and Iraqi agents in Afghanistan in 1999. Most of the excerpts deal instead with alleged meetings or less direct contacts in which sources claim that al Qaeda agents were requesting certain kinds of assistance, such as safe haven, training, or, in one case, WMD.

W. Patrick Lang, former head of the Middle East section of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Washington Post that the article amounted to a "listing of a mass of unconfirmed reports, many of which themselves indicate that the two groups continued to try to establish some sort of relationship." However, at the same time it raises the question: "If they had such a productive relationship, why did they have to keep trying"?

Moreover, Feith's office seems to have once again simply picked those pieces of raw intelligence that confirmed their pre-existing views instead of subjecting the evidence to the rigorous analysis required by intelligence agencies. "This is made to dazzle the eyes of the not terribly educated," says Greg Thielmann, a veteran of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) who retired in the Fall of 2002. "It begs the question, 'Is this the best they can do?' If you're going to expose this stuff, you'd better have something more than this," he said, adding, "My inclination is to interpret this as probably a very good example of cherry-picking and the selective use of intelligence that was so obvious in the lead-up to the war."

Thielmann is not surprised that Baghdad and al Qaeda were in contact during the period. "To me, these contacts are more in the nature of intelligence gathering than an operational alliance. Any common sense understanding of intelligence requires that any intelligence group has to penetrate potential adversaries, and one way to do this is by offering innocuous services. Think of (former President) George Bush paying money to (Panamanian Gen.) Manuel Noriega, the infamous drug trafficker. In the world of intelligence, you sometimes make small compromises to gain information without giving up the store."

Melvin Goodman, a former top CIA analyst, sees the leak as a sign of desperation. "To me, they had to leak something like this, because the neo-conservatives (in the administration) have nothing to stand on. They're trying to get the idea out there that, 'Hey, there was a case for war', and they have 'useful idiots' like Safire who say they're right."

At the same time, however, the article raises serious questions about the judgment of those responsible for the leak. "It shows a cavalier and almost contemptuous regard for the national security rationale for keeping information classified," according to Thielmann. "The objective of silencing the critics is so overwhelming that you have to throw national-security secrets to the wind."

Both he and Goodman point to striking similarities between this latest case and the leaking of the undercover identity of Valerie Plame, the wife of retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson had just embarrassed the administration by charging that the infamous "sixteen words in Bush's 2003 State of the Union address claiming that Saddam tried to purchase uranium from Niger were false. The retributive leak provoked enormous anger in the intelligence community as a major security breach that effectively ended Plame's career as a covert officer, and potentially endangered her life and those who had worked with her abroad.

The Hayes leak is being condemned both by Congress and the Pentagon. The Department of Defense issued an unusual press statement declaring that the leak was both "deplorable and may be illegal." Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts characterized the leak as "egregious," noting that it may have compromised "highly classified information" regarding intelligence sources and methods of collecting information, as well as ongoing investigations. Both the committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have asked the Justice Department to launch an investigation of the leak.

The leak, whatever its sources, appears to have worked against the administration. Not only does the intelligence contained in the article fall embarrassingly short of "closing the case" on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, but by revealing highly classified material, the neo-conservatives, if they were indeed the source, appear willing to sacrifice the country's secrets to retain power. "It's obvious that if you cared about the real national security interests of this country, you wouldn't reveal an asset," said Goodman. "That shows this is a venal and desperate group who are not considering the real national-security interests of this country."

Jim Lobe writes on international affairs for Inter Press Service, Oneworld.net, Foreign Policy in Focus and AlterNet.org.

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