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Pentagon offices face probe on Iraq claims

Two Pentagon offices that critics say twisted intelligence to bolster the case for war with Iraq are facing fresh scrutiny, but the Defence Department defended the groups as completely benign.

At issue are the activities of the Office of Special Plans and the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, which operated under the auspices of Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defence for policy and a leading Pentagon hawk who visited Australia this month.

Pentagon officials said the two offices never collected intelligence and simply brought a fresh perspective to data gathered by the intelligence community.

The Senate Intelligence Committee this month said it would investigate the actions of these offices as part of its broader examination of pre-war US intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Critics of the Bush administration argue that these two offices, driven by ideology and a predisposition for war, operated outside normal intelligence channels to manipulate and politicise data to portray Saddam Hussein's government in the most threatening light.

"What is deeply troubling is that this was an administration that was hell-bent on using force," said Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat who says these Pentagon operations "cherry picked" intelligence to amplify bad news and nullify caveats.

Ms Tauscher has introduced a bill to create a special House of Representatives panel to examine Iraq intelligence, including whether the Office of Special Plans competed with or undercut established intelligence agencies.

Mr Feith and other Pentagon officials defended the two offices and dismissed what they said were "urban legends" about shadowy intelligence cells.

Pentagon officials said the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group was created in October 2001, weeks after the September 11 attacks on America, to study relationships among terrorist organiSations and state sponsors.

Mr Feith said this group discovered "linkages between Iraq and Al Qaeda," and briefed Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and CIA chief George Tenet.

The Bush administration touted this Iraq-Al Qaeda connection before the war, a linkage that remains in dispute.

This office was disbanded shortly after the August 2002 Tenet briefing, Mr Feith said.

Pentagon officials say the Office of Special Plans, run by another hawk William Luti, was created by expanding and renaming an existing policy office in September 2002, six months before the invasion, to develop options for dealing with post-war Iraq.

It has since been scaled back and renamed again.

Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said whether or not they collected intelligence was irrelevant as the real issue was the integrity of the analytical process and how intelligence affected policy.

Mr Aftergood noted the operations were guided by leading conservatives.

"Their reputation stands not from their brilliance as intelligence analysts but from their rather particular ideological preferences, to which they are entitled," he said.

"They are also entitled to be wrong in good faith. What they're not entitled to do is to take advantage of their position in such a way as to mislead the nation and distort the policy process."

-- Reuters

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