The Pentagon's civilian leadership has ordered a small team of defense officials outside regular intelligence channels to focus on unearthing details about Iraqi ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday.
In addition, Pentagon authorities are seeking to take over an intelligence-gathering program once funded through the State Department under the Iraqi Liberation Act. State Department officials, skeptical of the program's efficiency and the wisdom of running a separate intelligence operation, have decided to drop the program. But the Pentagon wants to keep it alive and is looking for a way to finance its costs of more than $1 million -- money used in part to help pay Iraqi informants or bring them out of Iraq.
The special Pentagon information-gathering team was created shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to take on a variety of counterterrorism assignments. Set up by Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary for policy, the four- to five-member group has been given the task of sifting through much of the same databases available to government intelligence analysts but with the aim of spotlighting information the spy agencies have either overlooked or played down, officials said.
At a news conference yesterday, Rumsfeld denied suggestions that the initiative was meant to compete with the CIA or other intelligence agencies. He said it was intended simply to assist policymakers in assessing the intelligence they receive.
"Any suggestion that it's an intelligence-gathering activity or an intelligence unit of some sort, I think would be a misunderstanding of it," Rumsfeld said.
But the effort comes against a backdrop of persistent differences between the Pentagon and CIA over assessments of Iraq. Rumsfeld and senior aides have argued that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has strong links to international terrorism, poses an imminent threat and cannot be constrained from eventually unleashing weapons of mass destruction. The CIA's publicly released reports have painted a murkier view of Iraq's links to al Qaeda, its weapons capabilities and the likelihood that Hussein would use chemical or biological weapons unless attacked.
"The Pentagon is setting up the capability to assess information on Iraq in areas that in the past might have been the realm of the agency," said Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA case officer who has met with the people in the new Pentagon office. "They don't think the product they receive from the agency is always what it should be."
"They are politicizing intelligence, no question about it," said Vincent M. Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. "And they are undertaking a campaign to get George Tenet [the director of central intelligence] fired because they can't get him to say what they want on Iraq."
Rumsfeld insisted yesterday that his relations with Tenet were very good, saying that he has lunch with the CIA chief once a week.
"George Tenet and I couldn't have a closer relationship," he said, adding at another point: "I'm not unhappy at all about intelligence."
Rumsfeld described his involvement with the information-gathering group as limited to a single briefing on a subject he did not specify. He was so impressed with the briefing, he said, that he directed it be given to Tenet.
Defense officials characterized the information team, whose existence was first disclosed yesterday by the New York Times, as an ad hoc group that has two full-time members and a rotating set of several others. It is known officially as the "policy counterterrorism evaluation group."
"The makeup has changed over the time it was established," an official said, declining to elaborate on the participants' background.
This is not the first time Rumsfeld and his aides have aroused concerns about Pentagon policymakers treading into traditional provinces of the intelligence community. Rumsfeld has proposed creating a civilian undersecretary post to oversee the Defense Intelligence Agency and the rest of the military's extensive intelligence operation. And earlier this year, a proposal to establish an office of "strategic information" under Feith was aborted after reports it might be used to spread disinformation abroad -- activity historically carried out covertly by the CIA.
Rumsfeld took over the top Pentagon job with his views of the intelligence community heavily influenced by his experience as chairman of a 1998 commission on the ballistic missile threat to the United States. The commission, which concluded that the threat was more urgent than government analysts had predicted, was highly critical of the methods and training of the intelligence agencies.
Referring to his commission experience yesterday, Rumsfeld said he was impressed by "the importance of having well-informed users of intelligence interact with the suppliers of intelligence, with the analysts." He added that "there is a very effective interaction going on."