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March 3, 2006
Notes from the Pentagon

Secret interrogations
U.S. intelligence officials say clandestine interrogations of captured al Qaeda and other terrorists have taken place throughout both Eastern and Western Europe. But there are no permanent secret prisons there, contrary to widespread published reports.

The joint interrogations are at the bottom of accusations that several European states are running secret prisons for al Qaeda prisoners on behalf of the United States. So far, no secret prisons have been found or acknowledged by any European state, despite months of investigations.

Instead, what is going on, we are told, is that al Qaeda terrorists are sent temporarily to allied countries throughout the continent for questioning. The covert flights of intelligence aircraft carrying the prisoners triggered the false speculation about the prisons, the officials said.

The questioning is part of broad international intelligence cooperation that emerged after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

"We've let allied services take a crack at these guys," said one official familiar with the program. The European services often seek answers to more specific questions related to Islamic extremist groups and operations in their nation or region.

Additionally, allied European intelligence and security services have cooperated with the CIA and other U.S. agencies in setting up elaborate deception programs to support the interrogations.

The top-secret programs involve moving terrorists to Europe and then placing them in carefully constructed environments that are designed to make it appear that they are in a Middle Eastern nation, where interrogation methods are harsher.

The deception involves employing third-country nationals who are present and who speak the same language as the country being portrayed.

The terrorists then are told to cooperate and disclose what they know or face transfer to the control of a government such as those in Syria, Turkey or Israel, where they can expect to be tortured or killed.

The false-environment interrogation technique has produced valuable intelligence on al Qaeda and other Islamic plans and operations, the officials said.

The cooperative states were not identified individually but include nations that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once called old Europe and new Europe, the officials said.

Levin's probing
The Pentagon's office of inspector general has begun interviewing current and former government officials in a probe of whether the Pentagon in some way skewed intelligence on al Qaeda's connection to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who also sits on the intelligence committee, pushed for the probe. Mr. Levin accuses the Pentagon of setting up an intelligence-collection operation within the policy shop of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. Mr. Feith left the Pentagon last year and is writing books about the war on terrorism.

The problem with Mr. Levin's accusations is that two panels, the Armed Services and intelligence committees, have looked at the charges and found them to be baseless.

Not happy with two investigations, Mr. Levin pressed for a Pentagon inspector-general probe. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, sent a letter to the inspector general requesting a review, but noted in his letter that other investigators found a dry hole.

"The committee is concerned about persistent and, to date, unsubstantiated allegations that there was something unlawful or improper about the activities of the office of special plans within the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy during the period prior to the initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom," Mr. Roberts wrote. "The Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have both examined this issue. Both staffs have reviewed thousands of documents and conducted numerous interviews. Undersecretary Feith has appeared before both committees to testify on this issue. I have not discovered any credible evidence of unlawful or improper activity, yet the allegations persist."

(Pentagon officials tell us that the Office of Special Plans dealt with Iraqi police and did not do the linkage analysis.)

Mr. Levin has held up several Pentagon nominations over the issue, contending that the Pentagon has withheld documents. A Pentagon spokesman told us that the documents that the senator wants do not exist.

To the Pentagon, what Mr. Feith and others set up was quite simple. Called the Policy Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, several employees searched years of intelligence reports for any linkages between Baghdad and al Qaeda, and between the terror group and other countries and terror groups. They found many such reports, some of which never were included in CIA reports on the issue.

The group prepared a 150-slide presentation for dissemination inside the building. The Pentagon also prepared what it calls a "critique" of CIA reporting on linkages. Mr. Feith delivered it himself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., in August 2002. The team did not collect its own intelligence or ever write a competing intelligence assessment, Pentagon officials said.

People who worked on the project think there is ample evidence that al Qaeda operatives received training in Iraq and that Iraqi explosives specialists visited Osama bin Laden when he lived in Sudan in the mid-1990s.

Feith's life
Douglas Feith, a main architect of President Bush's war strategies, including the invasion of Iraq, is settling into life after the Pentagon.

The former undersecretary of defense for policy is co-chairman of a project at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government to write an academic book on how to fight terrorism. His co-chairmen are Graham Allison, a Pentagon official in the Clinton administration, and Stephen Van Evera, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Feith, a lawyer by training, also serves as a Hoover Institution fellow.

Then there is the upcoming book from Regan Books/Harper Collins, a chore that most senior policy-makers undertake, post-government, to set the record straight as they saw it.

"The book will be about the work I did on the war on terrorism, and it will deal with the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq," Mr. Feith said in an interview. Mr. Feith has encountered harsh criticism, mostly from the political left, for being part of a neoconservative "cabal" that persuaded the president to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Feith declined to discuss how he will treat his critics and the people with whom he worked.

"I think what is interesting is an account of the important policy debates as I understood them and participated in them," he said.

Mr. Feith had a unique perch from which to watch the crucial decisions of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He sat in on the "round-table" debates a select group of Rumsfeld advisers who made the mega-decisions on how to defeat al Qaeda as they sat at a small table in the defense secretary's office suite.

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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