Both the committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have asked the Justice Department to launch an investigation of the leak, which took the form of an article published Monday by the influential neo-conservative journal, The Weekly Standard.
Committee Chairman Pat Roberts characterized the leak as "egregious," noting that it might have compromised "highly classified information" on intelligence sources and methods of collecting information, as well as ongoing investigations. He also said he did not believe the leak came from his committee or its staff.
The Pentagon issued an unusual press statement declaring that the leak was "deplorable and may be illegal."
The article, "Case Closed," is a summary of a lengthy memo sent to the committee Oct. 27 by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
He had been asked by the senators to provide support for his assertion in a closed hearing last July that US intelligence agencies had established a long-standing operational link between the al-Qaeda terrorist group and Baghdad.
That, and similar assertions by senior Bush officials before the war, have long been considered questionable, more so after the war when the administration – as with its prewar contentions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – failed to come up with evidence to back its case.
Investigative reporters and Iraq war critics have accused Feith's office of having manipulated or "cherry-picked" the intelligence on Iraq's purported ties to al-Qaeda and WMD programs before the war to persuade Bush and the public that Saddam posed a serious threat to the United States.
The leaked memo consists mainly of 50 excerpts culled from raw intelligence reports by four US intelligence agencies about alleged al-Qaeda-Iraqi contacts from 1990 to 2003.
Some of the reports include brief analysis, but most cite accounts by unnamed sources, such as "a contact with good access," "a well placed source," "a former senior Iraqi intelligence officer," a "regular and reliable source," "sensitive CIA reporting," and "a foreign government service."
Although the article's author, Weekly Standard correspondent Stephen Hayes, concludes that much of the evidence is "detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources," the only example of real corroboration is with respect to several reports regarding contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraqi agents in Afghanistan in 1999.
Most of the excerpts deal instead with alleged meetings or less direct contacts in which sources claim that al-Qaeda agents are requesting certain kinds of assistance, such as a safe haven, training or, in one case, WMD.
While supporters of the war in Iraq, such as the New York Times' William Safire, have jumped on the Hayes' article as proof of what the administration had alleged, retired intelligence officers have criticized it, both because of the security breach of the leak itself and because its contents are anything but "conclusive" of an operational relationship.
W. Patrick Lang, former head of the Middle East section of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Washington Post the article amounted to a "listing of a mass of unconfirmed reports, many of which themselves indicate that the two groups continued to try to establish some sort of relationship."
At the same time, he added, it raises the question: "If they had such a productive relationship, why did they have to keep trying?"
Other retired officers stressed that, to the extent that virtually all of the excerpts consist of raw intelligence unvetted by professional analysts, the article appeared to prove precisely what critics had been saying: Feith's office simply picked those items in raw intelligence that tended to confirm their preexisting views that a relationship must have existed, without subjecting the evidence to the kind of rigorous analysis that intelligence agencies would apply.
"This is made to dazzle the eyes of the not terribly educated," Greg Thielmann, a veteran of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) who retired in 2002, told IPS.
"It begs the question, 'Is this the best they can do'? If you're going to expose this stuff, you'd better have something more than this," he said, adding, "My inclination is to interpret this as probably a very good example of cherry-picking and the selective use of intelligence that was so obvious in the lead-up to the war."
Melvin Goodman, a former top CIA analyst, said the leak is a sign of desperation. "To me, they had to leak something like this, because the neo-conservatives (in the administration) have nothing to stand on."
"They're trying to get the idea out there that, 'Hey, there was a case for war', and they have 'useful idiots' like Safire who say they're right."
The notion that the leak was "friendly" or "authorized" by hawks in the Pentagon or their allies in Vice President Dick Cheney's office – as opposed to an unauthorized leak designed to embarrass the author – is widely accepted here.
The Standard, particularly Hayes and executive editor William Kristol, have acted as a mouthpiece for administration hawks like Feith, his immediate boss, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and their friends in Cheney's office, particularly his powerful chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, since even before the administration's "war on terror," declared after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
But at the same time it raises serious questions about the judgment of those responsible for the leak. Not only does the intelligence contained in the article fall embarrassingly short of "closing the case" on Iraq-al-Qaeda links, the leak itself of such highly classified material might fuel the impression that the neo-conservatives, if they were indeed the source, are willing to sacrifice the country's secrets to retain power.
"It shows a cavalier and almost contemptuous regard for the national security rationale for keeping information classified," according to Thielmann. "The objective of silencing the critics is so overwhelming that you have to throw national security secrets to the wind."
Both he and Goodman noted striking similarities between this latest case and the leak last July of the identity of retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA officer.
Wilson had just embarrassed the administration by disclosing his trip on behalf of the CIA to Niger to check out a report that Iraq had bought uranium "yellowcake." He charged that Bush's assertion about the yellowcake in his 2003 State of the Union address was false and that the White House knew it or should have known it at the time.
The evident purpose of the leak to columnist Robert Novak was to discredit Wilson by suggesting that his mission to Niger was suggested by his wife.
In fact, the leak provoked enormous anger in the intelligence community as a major security breach that effectively ended Plame's career as a covert officer, and potentially endangered her life and those of people who had worked with her abroad.
The FBI is currently running a criminal investigation on the matter.
"It's obvious that if you cared about the real national security interests of this country, you wouldn't reveal an asset," said Goodman. "That shows this is a venal and desperate group who are not considering the real national-security interests of this country."
Other Recent Articles by Jim Lobe