The Bush White House’s use of unreliable information in building its case for war with Iraq prompted continued congressional calls for a full investigation after CIA Director George Tenet’s July 16 closed-door testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.  The intelligence chief took responsibility for a highly questionable claim about Iraq’s alleged nuclear-weapons program in President Bush’s State of the Union Address in January, when the White House was concentrating on presenting Iraq as a clear and present danger to U.S. security.

Tenet reportedly stated that the President’s claim that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium in Africa, as part of a drive to produce nuclear weapons, should not have made it into the speech but also, according to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who was present at the hearing, claimed that an unnamed White House official had insisted on including the uranium claim.

The White House hotly disputed Durbin’s account of Tenet’s testimony: Bush administration spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that Durbin’s “characterization” of Tenet’s testimony was “nonsense.”  Subsequently, however, President Bush’s deputy national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, said that the infamous reference (“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”), which was derived from a British intelligence report that was later proved to have been based partly on forged documents, “should have been taken out” of the address.  Hadley took responsibility for the claim’s inclusion in the speech and admitted he had received two CIA memos and a phone call from Tenet disputing the reliability of the nuclear claims last October and that a similar reference was excised from a speech the President gave in Cincinnati on October 7.

The controversy over the uranium claim put the White House on the defensive, with administration officials making confusing and contradictory comments.  The attention given to the controversy, however, has served to obscure the larger story of the efforts made by the Bush administration’s neoconservative clique and its allies to bypass the intelligence agencies, feeding the White House information from questionable sources outside regular channels and pressuring CIA analysts to boost the case for war.

U.S. media have reported for months on the efforts of neoconservatives to push for war with Iraq before the September 11 terrorist attacks, as well as on their drive to make Iraq the primary target of U.S. military action after the attacks.  Among the pro-war group’s leading lights were Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who reportedly pressured U.S. intelligence agencies to produce evidence linking Iraq to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.  When nothing materialized, Rumsfeld and his neoconservative allies set up the Office of Special Plans (OSP) as the shadow intelligence arm of the White House, while Vice President Dick Cheney and newly minted Pentagon “consultant” Newt Gingrich made numerous—and unprecedented—trips to CIA headquarters, reportedly demanding that agency analysts take a more “forward-leaning” stance on Iraq threat assessments.

The OSP became a clearinghouse for raw intelligence reports and reportedly hired scores of temporary “consultants,” including lawyers, congressional staffers, and policy analysts from pro-war Washington think tanks—few with intelligence experience—to sift through the mountains of raw materials.  The OSP did not participate in exchanges between representatives of the official intelligence agencies and reportedly did not vet—or, in some cases, even share—the unfiltered information it passed on to the White House.

The war hawks’ amateur intelligence operation also forged close ties to a similar unofficial group in Israel.  The Israeli group was reportedly charged with providing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with tougher and more alarming assessments of Iraq than official intelligence agencies were prepared to endorse.  The Israel-OSP connection is not surprising: Both Rumsfeld’s undersecretary Douglas Feith and neoconservative hawk Richard Perle once served as advisors to former Likud Party boss Benjamin Netanyahu.  Israelis were reportedly able to visit the OSP without being cleared through normal Pentagon channels.

The OSP became the pro-war clique’s chief weapon in the intelligence battle, giving information of questionable reliability to the hawks, who in turn used that information to pressure intelligence analysts.  Ray McGovern, a former CIA officer, is one of several former agency analysts who have publicly attacked the Bush administration’s use of intelligence and is a member of a group calling itself Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  McGovern has claimed that the group is “hearing from dozens of [intelligence] people.  A lot of them are very demoralized,” as they have been under pressure to “cook” intelligence assessments.

As the story of the Bush administration’s spin-doctoring and outright distortion of intelligence develops, U.S. Armed Forces are now, as one military officer put it, fighting a “guerrilla” war in Iraq.  And no evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction has yet been found.  How much damage the Iraq fiasco will ultimately do to the Bush White House and what role the story of the war hawks’ propaganda campaign will play in forming public opinion, however, remains to be seen.