In February 2002, Christina Shelton, a career Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, was combing through old intelligence on Iraq when she stumbled upon a small paragraph in a CIA report from the mid-1990s that stopped her.
It recounted a contact between some Iraqis and al Qaeda that she had not seen mentioned in current CIA analysis, according to three defense officials who work with her. She spent the next couple of months digging through 12 years of intelligence reports on Iraq and produced a briefing on alleged contacts Shelton felt had been overlooked or underplayed by the CIA.
Douglas J. Feith wanted a more hard-line alternative.
Her boss, Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy and the point man on Iraq, was so impressed that he set up a briefing for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was so impressed he asked her to brief CIA Director George J. Tenet in August 2002. By summer's end, Shelton had also briefed deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Shelton's analysis, and the White House briefings that resulted, are new details about a small group of Pentagon analysts whose work has cast a large shadow of suspicion and controversy as Congress investigates how the administration used intelligence before the Iraq war.
Congressional Democrats contend that two Pentagon shops -- the Office of Special Plans and the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group -- were established by Rumsfeld, Feith and other defense hawks expressly to bypass the CIA and other intelligence agencies. They argue that the offices supplied the administration with information, most of it discredited by the regular intelligence community, that President Bush, Cheney and others used to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.
But interviews with senior defense officials, White House and CIA officials, congressional sources and others yield a different portrait of the work done by the two Pentagon offices.
Neither the House nor Senate intelligence committees, for example, which have been investigating prewar intelligence for eight months, have found support for allegations that Pentagon analysts went out and collected their own intelligence, congressional officials from both parties say. Nor have investigators found that the Pentagon analysis about Iraq significantly shaped the case the administration made for going to war.
At the same time, the Pentagon operation was created, at least in part, to provide a more hard-line alternative to the official intelligence, according to interviews with current and former defense and intelligence officials. The two offices, overseen by Feith, concluded that Saddam Hussein's Iraq and al Qaeda were much more closely and conclusively linked than the intelligence community believed.
In this sense, the offices functioned as a pale version of the secret "Team B" analysis done by administration conservatives in the mid-1970s, who concluded the intelligence community was underplaying the Soviet military threat. Rumsfeld, in particular, has a history of skepticism about the intelligence community's analysis, including assessments of the former Soviet Union's military ability and of threats posed by ballistic missiles from North Korea and other countries.
Rumsfeld's known views -- and his insistence before the war that overthrowing Hussein was part of the war on terrorism -- only enhanced suspicion about the aims and role played by Feith's offices.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the intelligence panel, charged that Feith's work "reportedly involved the review, analysis and promulgation of intelligence outside of the U.S. intelligence community."
Levin pressed Tenet on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee: "Is it standard operating procedure for an intelligence analysis such as that to be presented at the NSC [National Security Council] and the office of the vice president without you being part of the presentation? Is that typical?"
"My experience is that people come in and may present those kinds of briefings on their views of intelligence," responded Tenet, who said he had not known about the briefings at the time. "But I have to tell you, senator, I'm the president's chief intelligence officer; I have the definitive view about these subjects. From my perspective, it is my view that prevails."
Feith, who worked on the NSC staff in the Reagan administration, is a well-known conservative voice on Israel policy who once urged the Israeli prime minister to repudiate the Oslo peace accords. His views are a source of tension between him and foreign policy officials at the State Department and elsewhere who advocate concessions be made by Palestinians and Israel to achieve a peace settlement.