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"The Unvarnished Facts"

Carl Levin distorts and exaggerates intelligence on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection. The Bush administration was careful with its words, the Michigan senator is not.

12:20 PM, Jul 4, 2004 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Editor's note: This article was first published when Sen. Car. Levin released a report questioning the findings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in July 2004.

Today, Levin has done it again. He has now released another "report" challenging the Bush administration's claims of an Iraq-al Qaeda relationship.

DOES SENATOR CARL LEVIN believe in preemption?

The Michigan Democrat, one of the fiercest partisan critics of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, held a bizarre press conference Thursday to criticize the Senate Intelligence Committee's not-yet-released report on prewar intelligence. Levin faulted the exhaustive document for failing to include a critique of the Bush administration for its alleged "exaggeration" of the connection between the former Iraqi regime an al Qaeda.

No one in the Congress has had more to say about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection than Levin. And no one has been as misleading.

Here is Levin, in an appearance on CNN on July 8, 2003: "There is some evidence that there was an exaggeration by the intelligence community about that relationship," he alleged. "We need them to be credible. That means no exaggeration. That means they have to give the unvarnished facts to the policymakers."

That claim--the intelligence community exaggerated the Iraq-al Qaeda connection--were a dilation of comments Levin had made in a June 16, 2003, interview on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. "We were told by the intelligence community that there was a very strong link between al Qaeda and Iraq." [emphasis added]

By February 2004, Levin was saying precisely the opposite.

"The intel didn't say that there is a direct connection between al Qaeda and Iraq," he told John Gibson of Fox News. "That was not the intel. That's what this administration exaggerated to produce. And so there are many instances where the administration went beyond the intelligence . . . I'm saying that the administration's statements were exaggerations of what was given to them by the analysts and the intelligence community."

Why did Levin shift the blame? Only he knows. But developments between his contradictory assessments seem relevant. Initially, of course, the Bush administration was accused by critics of pressuring intelligence analysts to shape their findings to fit predetermined policy goals. Just days before Levin refocused his critique, chief weapons inspector David Kay testified that he had seen no evidence of such pressure. "I had innumerable analysts who came to me in apology that the world that we were finding was not the world that they had thought existed and that they had estimated," Kay told the Senate on January 28, 2004. "And never, not in one single case, was the explanation, 'I was pressured to do this.'"

The new report by the Senate Intelligence Committee apparently confirms this. Here is how the July 8, 2004, New York Times reported the findings.

The unanimous report by the panel will say there is no evidence that intelligence officials were subjected to pressure to reach particular conclusions about Iraq. That issue had been an early focus of Democrats, but none of the more than 200 intelligence officials interviewed by the panel made such a claim, and the Democrats have recently focused criticism on the question of whether intelligence was misused.

What's a senator to do? Focus on Mohammed Atta, apparently. Levin released an unclassified assessment from the CIA that expresses doubt about whether Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi Intelligence official in Prague in April of 2001. "This newly released unclassified statement by the CIA demonstrates that it was the administration, not the CIA, that exaggerated relations between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda."

Levin's statement is patently absurd. How is possible that an unclassified CIA opinion about one alleged meeting "demonstrates that it was the administration, not the CIA, that exaggerated relations between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda?" Levin doesn't say, but he has surely traveled a long way from his claim that "we were told by the intelligence community that there was a very strong link between al Qaeda and Iraq."

But let's play Levin's game anyway. According to Levin, the CIA opinion "states that the CIA finds no credible information that the April 2001 meeting occurred, and in fact, that it was unlikely that it did occur." That Levin suddenly expresses unqualified faith in CIA assessments now is bizarre, coming as it does one day before the release of the Intelligence Committee's report that is, according to Levin, a "hard-hitting and well-deserved critique of the CIA."