James Risen, New York Times: 2-man Version of the CIA - Maloof and Wurmser
2-man committee put Iraq in spotlight
Senate panel probes whether they exaggerated threat
James Risen, New York Times
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Washington -- Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, a two-man intelligence team set up shop at the Pentagon, searching for evidence of links between terrorist groups and host countries.
The men, Michael Maloof and David Wurmser, culled classified material, much of it uncorroborated data from the CIA. "We discovered tons of raw intelligence," said Maloof. "We were stunned that we couldn't find any mention of it in the CIA's finished reports."
They recorded and annotated their evidence on butcher paper hung like a mural around their small office. By the end of 2001, they had constructed a startling new picture of global terrorism.
Old ethnic, religious and political divides between terrorist groups were breaking down, the two men warned, posing an ominous new threat. They saw alliances among a wide range of Islamic terrorists, and theorized about a convergence of Sunni and Shiite extremist groups and secular Arab governments. Their conclusions, delivered to senior Bush administration officials, connected Iraq and al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and the hijackers of Sept. 11.
In doing so, the team also helped set off a controversy over the shaping of intelligence that continues today.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is investigating whether the unit -- named the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group by its creator, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy -- exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq to justify the war.
The CIA and other intelligence agencies found little evidence to support the Pentagon's view of an increasingly unified terrorist threat or links between Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and still largely dismiss those ideas. Foreign Islamic fighters have sought haven in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion, and some Sunnis and Shiites have banded together against the occupiers, but the agencies say that is the result of anger at America and chaotic conditions, not proof of prewar alliances.
With the conflict becoming bloodier this spring, President Bush has found himself forced to explain again how the war on terror led to Baghdad.
Some critics argue that some of the first steps were taken by Feith's little intelligence shop. Whether its findings influenced the thinking of policymakers or merely provided talking points that buttressed their long-held views, the unit clearly played a role in the administration's evolving effort to define the threat of Iraq -- and sell it to the public.
Unable to reach a consensus on Iraq's terrorist ties because of the skepticism of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the administration turned its focus to the peril posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as the central rationale for war.
Feith said his team was not involved in the analysis related to Iraq's illicit weapons. But, he said in an interview, terrorism and Iraq's weapons became linked in the minds of top administration officials. After Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks that followed it, he said, the administration "focused on the danger that Iraq could provide the fruits of its WMD programs to terrorists."
In public statements, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld alluded to connections between Iraq and al Qaeda. Bush also warned of the risks that Hussein would share his illicit weapons with terrorists.
Some intelligence experts charge that the Feith unit had a secret agenda to justify a war with Iraq and was staffed with people who were handpicked by conservative Pentagon policymakers to arrive at preordained conclusions.
Feith defended his analysts, saying, "I would be happy to have anybody come in and examine the quality of the work."
He and his team were closely linked to Richard Perle, then chairman of a Pentagon advisory group and a leading neoconservative who had long advocated toppling Hussein and was a vocal critic of the CIA.
"I think the people working on the Persian Gulf at the CIA are pathetic," Perle said in an interview. "They have just made too many mistakes. They have a record over 30 years of being wrong." He added that the agency "became wedded to a theory" that did not leave room for the possibility that Iraq was working with al Qaeda.
When Perle was a top defense official in the Reagan administration, Maloof, a former journalist, worked as his investigator, assembling evidence that the Soviet Union was stealing Western technology. Wurmser, a Middle East expert who had written a book that attacked the Clinton administration and the CIA for their handling of Iraq, had worked at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where Perle was a resident scholar. Feith had been Perle's deputy at the Pentagon.
The team's conclusions were alarming: Old barriers that divided the major Islamic terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, were coming down, and these groups were forging ties with one another and with secular Arab governments in an emerging terrorist war against the West.
Those findings were at odds with years of analysis produced by the CIA. The agency was skeptical that governments as diverse as those in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iran could be linked to a cohesive terrorist network.
The CIA and the DIA believed that the Feith team had exaggerated the significance of reported contacts between extremist groups and Arab states, including Iraq. The CIA saw little evidence, for example, that the Sunni- dominated al Qaeda and the Shiite-dominated Hezbollah had worked together on terrorist attacks. And there was little proof, the agencies said, that Hussein was working on terror plots with bin Laden.
Maloof defends the team's analysis: "We had to justify every single connection we made. But the intelligence community had preconceived notions, and if the information didn't fit in ... then they simply ignored it."
In late 2001, Maloof and Wurmser briefed top Pentagon officials. Maloof also met with Perle at his home.
That session was interrupted by a call from Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group. At Maloof's request, Perle asked Chalabi, now a member of the interim government of Iraq, to have his staff provide Maloof information gleaned from defectors and others. The request was unusual, because Feith's analysts were supposed to review intelligence, not collect it.
Chalabi at that time had a lucrative contract to provide information on Iraq exclusively to the State Department, which would send it along to the intelligence agencies. And he was a risky source: Some of the information his group provided was incorrect or fabricated, intelligence officials now believe.
By early 2002, the team had completed a 150-page briefing and slide presentation for Feith.
Soon afterward, Wurmser moved to the State Department and then joined Cheney's staff.
Maloof's Pentagon career was damaged in December 2001, when his security clearances were revoked. He was accused of having unauthorized contact with a foreign national, a woman he had met while traveling in the Republic of Georgia whom he eventually married. Maloof said he complied with all requirements to disclose the relationship.
Several intelligence professionals say he came under scrutiny because of suspicions that he had leaked classified information in the past to the news media, a charge that Maloof denies. An appeals board reinstated his clearances after Feith and Perle wrote letters to the DIA. But the intervention angered some officials, and a second agency panel reversed course in April 2003. Maloof is now on paid leave.
In August 2002, Feith took his team to the CIA. Agency officials were skeptical of the team's conclusions, according to one agency official who attended the briefing.
The main dispute was over whether the reports of contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda meant that Iraq had been sponsoring the group's terrorist operations.
On Sept. 16, 2002, Feith's team briefed Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, and I. Lewis Libby, a senior aide to Cheney. By that time, Cheney was already talking publicly about ties between Iraq and al Qaeda.
But the Bush administration ultimately decided that the terrorism link was not strong enough to use as the central justification for war with Iraq. Instead, the administration focused on Hussein's illicit weapons, relying on assessments by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
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