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2d probe at the Pentagon examines actions on Iraq

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon office in which an analyst is the focus of an investigation into the possible passing of secret documents to Israel is at the heart of another ongoing probe on Capitol Hill.

The broader probe is trying to determine whether Defense Department officials went outside normal channels to gather intelligence on Iraq or overstepped their legal mandate by meeting with dissidents to plot against Iran and Syria, according to Bush administration and congressional officials.

Senate Intelligence and House Judiciary Committee staff members say inquiries into the Near East and South Asia Affairs division have found preliminary evidence that some officials gathered questionable information on weapons of mass destruction from Iraqi exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi without proper authorization, which helped build President Bush's case for an invasion last year.

The investigators are also looking into a more serious concern: whether the office engaged in illegal activity by holding unauthorized meetings with foreign nationals to destablize Syria and Iran without the presidential approval required for covert operations, said one senior congressional investigator who has longtime experience in intelligence oversight.

Government officials seeking the cooperation of foreign nationals to take secret action against other countries need a so-called presidential finding to engage in such activity.

The office, led by William J. Luti, a former Navy captain and adviser to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is a powerful cog in Bush administration policy making, populated by some ideologically-minded individuals who see their government service as a way to promote democracy in the Middle East and improve US-Israel ties, according to colleagues inside and outside government.

The recent investigation into whether analyst Larry Franklin provided documents on Iran to a pair of lobbyists with the pro-Israel American-Israel Public Affairs Committee -- who then allegedly passed them to the Israeli government -- has placed the little-noticed Pentagon office in the national spotlight at a time when the Bush administration is attempting to convince voters that the president has been a competent manager of national security affairs.

Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, who oversees the Near East office, declined to comment. Luti and Franklin did not respond to messages.

Richard Perle, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and current adviser to the Pentagon, said the investigations are baseless and politically motivated.

"It's pretty nasty, and unfortunately the administration doesn't seem to have it under control," said Perle, calling on the administration to defend Feith more vigorously.

Both Perle and senior Defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, deny that the policy office or two controversial subgroups have ever engaged in intelligence-gathering activities. The division's work, they said, has consisted only of drafting policy options for superiors.

They contend that the now-defunct Policy Counterterrorism Coordination Group, set up after the Sept. 11 attacks to search for links between Al Qaeda and state sponsors such as Iraq, never gathered intelligence; it only reevaluated previous government findings. The Iraq War planning group called the Office of Special Plans, meanwhile, did not engage in any wrongdoing or questionable contacts, they said.

But investigators for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is closely scrutinizing the office as part of a formal probe of pre-Iraq War intelligence-gathering, and Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee, who are conducting a preliminary probe, say that the full picture of the office's activities may include more than meets the eye. They are seeking additional documents and interviews from policy officials.

After months of delay, the investigators said, they are getting cooperation from Feith and his staff.

Some of the incidents that prompted the probes are already known.

Franklin and another employee, Harold Rhode, met secretly with Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer, in Italy in December 2001 and subsequently in Paris. The Paris meeting was not approved by Pentagon officials.

Ghorbanifar, who has been linked to the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s, has said the men discussed ways to destabilize the Iranian regime, labeled a part of President Bush's "axis of evil" for support of terrorist groups and suspected development of weapons of mass destruction.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last fall that the meeting was requested by Iranian officials to discuss the war on terrorism, but nothing came of it.

But one congressional investigator said staffers are looking into whether there was an exchange of money between US officials and Ghorbanifar or other Iranians, and whether any proposals for cooperation included seeking assistance from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a group in Iraq that is seeking to overthrow the Iranian regime but is labeled a terrorist group by the US State Department.

Another Near East policy official, F. Michael Maloof, was stripped of his security clearance a year ago after the FBI linked him to a Lebanese-American businessman under investigation by the FBI for weapons trafficking. A handgun registered to Maloof was found in the possession of Imad el Hage, a suspected arms dealer.

Investigators are seeking to learn whether Maloof's alleged contacts with Hage and a hard-line former Lebanese general, Michel Aoun, may have been part of a back-channel effort to destabilize Syria, which has occupied Lebanon for nearly two decades.

"People are concerned about covert action being conducted by a policy office with no legal mandate to do so," said one Democratic official involved in the Judiciary Committee inquiry. "If the Senate and House intelligence committees in their review only look at the Chalabi relationship but don't look at the office's role in what was in effect covert action to explore regime change in the entire arc of the Middle East, then their inquiry will be a joke."

The official said he is trying to determine if some of the office's activities may have been prohibited by the Hughes-Ryan Amendment, which holds that all activity to undermine a foreign government must be approved by the president in a specific document approving such activity.

Supporters of Feith and his policy advisers roundly deny accusations that the office is a rogue operation. They say the two ongoing FBI inquiries into alleged leaks of classified information amount to what one called "McCarthyism," a sustained campaign by opponents of Bush's policies to discredit their views and brand them as pawns for the Israeli lobby merely because they are pushing for stronger action against terrorist states.

They note that no arrests have been made, only charges and leaks to journalists from unnamed officials.

"It sounds to me that it is an investigation that was leaked for maximum adverse affect on the office, which has been subjected to a lot of other criticism," said Frank Gaffney, president of the conservative Center for Security Policy and a former assistant defense secretary under President Reagan. "You have people who are controversial. They are taking positions that last time I checked, the president . . . was closely associated with, that are opposed by other people in the bureaucracy.

"One of the tricks of bureaucratic warfare is to attack them in the press. It makes them less effective," Gaffney said. "I think that is going on here."

Bryan Bender can be reached at 

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