Tension Mounts Over Iraq Intel Probe

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In a week that saw the White House adjusting its claims about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, congressional intelligence committees have been abuzz with discussion about the quality of prewar intelligence and its handling by the Bush administration.

Some critics have suggested that intelligence analysts may have felt pressure from Vice President Cheney — who more than once visited their Langley, Va., campus to quiz them — and others in the administration to present findings that supported the case for war. Others have countered that analysts should welcome such attention from policymakers, and should be prepared to defend their findings in the face of robust questioning. One senior CIA analyst suggested last week, in a little-noted conference speech elaborating on an article she'd written long before the Iraq war, that the intelligence community must ensure that its analysts are trained on "how to maintain integrity" under questioning from senior officials who are pushing certain "policy goals." Carmen Medina, a 20-year veteran analyst and the new chief of the CIA's Strategic Assessments Group, declined to comment specifically on the Iraq situation, but said that sharp questioning from top officials is a fact of life for intelligence analysts — and that they need more training in how to handle it. "You can't pretend it's not happening," she said. "We can't ignore the trend as intelligence analysts. We have to... think about how do we train, and how do we maintain integrity."

On Capitol Hill, the topic is a source of mounting tension in the House Intelligence Committee, which some observers say has lagged behind its less-partisan Senate counterpart in probing the administration's handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq. According to a knowledgeable source, a closed hearing last week saw Democratic congressman Silvestre Reyes read into the record a secret memo he'd sent Republican chairman Porter Goss and ranking Democrat Jane Harman last February — more than a month before the war. Reyes, who through an aide declined to comment, raised concern in the memo that the panel might have either been misled or kept in the dark by intelligence agency witnesses who had suddenly begun touting Iraq-al Qaeda links — like those cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his UN Security Council presentation, shortly before Reyes sent the memo — after a year of closed-door testimony that evidence of such links amounted to "none or very little if we stretch" the intelligence, the source said.

Some Democrats grouse privately that Goss, a former CIA clandestine services officer, may be slowing down the inquiry to curry favor with the White House, in the hope of being tapped as Bush's new CIA director if George Tenet moves on. In an interview, Goss insisted his panel is "doing a very dilligent job" on the Iraq intelligence — and bristled at the suggestion he was holding back in hopes of becoming CIA director, saying that is not "a career objective" and adding that "nobody's ever asked me who's in a position to give me the job." Goss insisted the committee can't fully review the pre-war intelligence until the Iraq Survey Group, whose 1,200 inspectors under David Kay are currently scouring Iraq for evidence of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism links, has made more progress in its work. "That process is still ahead of us because we haven't pulled the curtain back" in Iraq, Goss said.

Kay is due this week to present a preliminary report into his group's findings. Few observers expect that Kay will reveal any startling finds, although some caution that he may have been holding back a surprise.

But with the end of the 2003 congressional session drawing near, even some Republicans — including Rep. Doug Bereuter of Nebraska, who a source said complained in last week's closed hearing — are privately unhappy with the progress of the panel's Iraq intelligence review. Through an aide, Bereuter would say only that he had complained about the idea that Kay might report to Senate intelligence and not the House panel this week.