Democrats leading the charge into the second phase of a bipartisan investigation into pre-war Iraq intelligence have said this week that they will spend the next month or so working with Pentagon officials who last week agreed to probe a top secret spy shop once headed by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith that many longtime CIA and FBI officials and other intelligence analysts believe was responsible for providing the Bush administration with bogus intelligence used to justify war with Iraq.

When the probe is complete, which aides to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) - both of whom are aggressively working to collect pre-war intelligence documents that undercut administration's claims that Iraq posed a grave threat to national security - said will likely be in early 2006, there could be some sort of "public reprimand" brought against lower-level administration officials who work or worked at the Defense Department, the National Security Council, and in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, for "cherry-picking" questionable intelligence on Iraq and using it to win public support for the war.

Based on the way the probe is starting to shape up, it's clear the administration, particularly Feith, who resigned earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and possibly Cheney will bear the brunt of the blame, because the three of them sidestepped the usual intelligence gathering process that historically was handled by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency in favor of their own clandestine intelligence gathering operations in which questionable information on the so-called Iraqi threat was collected and used by administration officials to build a case for war but wasn't vetted by career intelligence analysts, said a senior aide to McCain who requested anonymity for fear of angering members of the GOP.

Last month, under pressure from Democrats and some Republicans, and with public support for war eroding, the Pentagon's Inspector General agreed to probe Feith's secret spy group, the Office of Special Plans, and whether the operation played a role in manipulating pre-war Iraq intelligence in addition to knowingly passing dubious intelligence from defectors from Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress to the White House to convince lawmakers and the American public into backing the war.

The White House has been dogged by questions since the start of the Iraq war more than two years ago regarding whether the intelligence information it had relied upon was accurate and whether top White House officials knowingly used unreliable intelligence in the buildup to war.

The furor started when President Bush said in his January 2003 State of the Union address that, according to British intelligence, Iraq had tried to purchase uranium ore from Africa. The intelligence was based on forged documents.

In July 2003, CIA Director George Tenet took responsibility for allowing Bush to cite the 16 words in his State of the Union, despite the fact that he had warned Rice's office that the claims were likely wrong. Later that month, then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said he had received two memos from the CIA in 2002 alerting him to the fact that the uranium information should not be included in the State of the Union address. Hadley, who also took responsibility for failing to remove the uranium reference from Bush's speech, said he forgot to advise the President about the CIA's warnings.

The White House and the Pentagon seized upon the uranium claims before and after Bush's State of the Union address, telling reporters, lawmakers and leaders of other nations that the only thing that could be done to disarm Saddam Hussein was a pre-emptive strike against his country.

The only White House official at the time who didn't cite the uranium claim as proof Iraq intended to obtain a nuclear bomb was Secretary of State Colin Powell. Greg Thielmann, who resigned in 2002 from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research - whose duties included tracking Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs - says he personally told Powell that the allegations were "implausible" and the intelligence it was based upon was a "stupid piece of garbage."

What's interesting about the Office of Special Plans is that, two years ago, Levin had called on his Republican colleagues to investigate the operation after a number of CIA agents came forward and complained that the unit had been cherry-picking intelligence information that was questionable at best. The probe never got off the ground.

But back in 2003, just a few months after the start of the Iraq war, numerous Democratic lawmakers had called on the Republican-controlled Senate and Congress to launch an immediate investigation into the OSP's activities.

In a July 9, 2003, letter to Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) said Feith's OSP appeared to be competing with "other United States intelligence agencies respecting the collection and use of intelligence relating to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and war planning."

"I also think it is important to understand how having two intelligence agencies within the Pentagon impacted the Department of Defense's ability to focus the necessary resources and manpower on pre-war planning and post-war operations," Tauscher's letter said.

Congressman David Obey (D-Wis.) agreed. Back in 2003, he had also called for a widespread investigation of Feith and the OSP to find out whether there was any truth to the claims that the OSP willfully manipulated intelligence on the Iraqi threat. During a July 8, 2003, Congressional briefing, Obey described what he knew about Special Plans and why an investigation into the group was crucial.

"A group of civilian employees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, all of whom are political employees, have long been dissatisfied with the information produced by the established intelligence agencies both inside and outside the Department. That was particularly true, apparently, with respect to the situation in Iraq," Obey said. "As a result, it is reported that they established a special operation within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which was named the Office of Special Plans. That office was charged with collecting, vetting, and disseminating intelligence completely outside the normal intelligence apparatus. In fact, it appears that the information collected by this office was in some instances not even shared with the established intelligence agencies and in numerous instances was passed on to the National Security Council and the President without having been vetted with anyone other than (the Secretary of Defense)."

"It is further alleged that the purpose of this operation was not only to produce intelligence more in keeping with the pre-held views of those individuals, but to intimidate analysts in the established intelligence organizations to produce information that was more supportive of policy decisions which they had already decided to propose."

Republicans successfully thwarted a probe back then, but now some high-ranking Republican lawmakers are saying that their "hands are tied" and that they must go along with the intelligence investigation, no matter how bad it may turn out for the White House, because they risk losing their seats in the Senate and Congress, come the November mid-term elections, if they are perceived as thwarting the probe - this in addition to a number of scandals that have plagued the White House, notably the leaking of Valerie Plame Wilson's covert CIA status to reporters as retribution against her husband for speaking out against the administration.

Moreover, with public support for the war waning and with the US soldier body count surpassing 2,000, Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has agreed to take a look at Feith and the OSP. In September, Roberts informed the Pentagon's Inspector General that the OSP, an important part of the second phase of the pre-war intelligence probe, must become part of the overall investigation.

By working with the Inspector General, Democrats argue, Republicans are hoping some information about the OSP's work won't become public knowledge because Rumsfeld still presides over the Pentagon. However, Levin's office said a preliminary probe launched two years ago into the OSP has already turned up explosive details about the operation.

The OSP, which was also headed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, described the worst-case scenarios on Iraq's alleged stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and claimed the country was close to acquiring an atomic bomb, according to four of the CIA agents, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the information is still classified.

The agents said the OSP was responsible for providing then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Cheney, and Rumsfeld with the bulk of the intelligence information on Iraq's weapons program that turned out to be wrong. But White House officials used the information it received from the OSP anyway, despite warnings from intelligence officials at the CIA and analysts at the State Department.

The agents said the OSP told the National Security Council in 2002 that Iraq's attempt to purchase aluminum tubes were part of a clandestine program to build a nuclear bomb. The OSP and the White House Iraq Group (another top secret operation headed by Bush's Chief of Staff Andrew Card and his deputy Karl Rove) leaked the aluminum tube story to Judith Miller, the former reporter for the New York Times, who resigned this month after spending 85 days in jail for refusing to testify about her source in the Plame Wilson case.

Miller wrote the aluminum tube story, which was published on the front page of the Times in September 2002. Shortly after the story was published, Bush and Rice both pointed to the piece as evidence that Iraq posed a grave threat to the United States and to its neighbors in the Middle East, even though experts in the field of nuclear science, the CIA, and the State Department advised the White House that the aluminum tubes were not designed for an atomic bomb.

Furthermore, the CIA had been unable to develop any links between Iraq and the terrorist group al-Qaeda. But under Feith's direction, the Office of Special Plans came up with information of an Iraq/al-Qaeda relationship by looking at existing intelligence reports that they felt might have been "overlooked or undervalued," according to a 2002 Defense Department briefing headed by Rumsfeld, who added that he had "bulletproof" evidence that Iraq was harboring al-Qaeda terrorists.

In the months leading up to the war in Iraq, Rumsfeld became increasingly frustrated that the CIA could not find any evidence of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons program, evidence that would have helped the White House build a solid case for war in Iraq.

In an article in the New York Times in October 2002, the paper reported that Rumsfeld had ordered the Office of Special Plans to "to search for information on Iraq's hostile intentions or links to terrorists" that might have been overlooked by the CIA.

At a Defense Department briefing following the Times report, Rumsfeld downplayed the allegation, saying that whenever Feith handed him intelligence on Iraq's WMDs, Rumsfeld would respond by saying, "Gee, why don't you go over and brief George Tenet? So they did. They went over and briefed the CIA. So there's no there's no mystery about all this."

CIA analysts listened to the Pentagon team, nodded politely, and said, "Thank you very much," said one government official, according to a July 20 report in the New York Times. That official said the briefing did not change the agency's reporting or analysis in any substantial way.

Several current and former intelligence officials told the Times that they felt pressure to tailor reports to conform to the administration's views, "particularly the theories Feith's group developed."

Moreover, the agents said the OSP routinely rewrote the CIA's intelligence estimates on Iraq's weapons programs, removing caveats such as "likely," "probably" and "may" as a way of depicting the country as an imminent threat. The agents would not identify the names of the individuals at the OSP who were responsible for providing the White House with the wrong intelligence. But, the agents said, the intelligence the committee gathered was personally delivered by Feith to the White House, to Cheney's office, and to Rice without first being vetted by the CIA.

Feith, who has since returned to work in the private sector, did not return calls made over the past week.

In cases where the CIA's intelligence wasn't rewritten, the OSP provided the White House with uncorroborated intelligence it obtained from Chalabi, who the CIA has publicly said is unreliable, the CIA agents said, and Iraqi defectors employed by his agency.

Several other current and former CIA analysts working in the counter proliferation division prior to the Iraq war said they were pressured by the Pentagon and the OSP to hype and exaggerate intelligence to show Iraq as being an imminent threat to national security.

Patrick Lang, the former head of worldwide human intelligence gathering for the Defense Intelligence Agency, which coordinates military intelligence, said OSP "cherry-picked the intelligence stream" in a bid to portray Iraq as a grave threat. Lang said that the CIA had "no guts at all" to resist the allegedly deliberate skewing of intelligence by a Pentagon that he said was now dominating US foreign policy.

Vince Cannistraro, a former chief of CIA counter-terrorist operations, said he had spoken to a number of working intelligence officers who blame the Pentagon for playing up "fraudulent" intelligence, "a lot of it sourced from the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi."

In an October 11, 2002, report in the Los Angeles Times, several CIA agents "who brief Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz on Iraq routinely return to the agency with a long list of complaints and demands for new analysis or shifts in emphasis."

"There is a lot of unhappiness with the analysis," usually because it is seen as not hard-line enough, one intelligence official said, according to the paper.

Another government official said CIA agents "are constantly sent back by the senior people at Defense and other places to get more, get more, get more to make their case," the paper reported.

By last fall, the White House had virtually dismissed all of the intelligence on Iraq provided by the CIA, which failed to find any evidence of Iraq's weapons programs, in favor of the more critical information provided to the Bush administration by the Office of Special Plans

In a rare Pentagon briefing recently, Office of Special Plans co-director Douglas Feith said the committee was not an "intelligence project," but rather a group of 18 people who looked at intelligence information from a different point of view.

Feith said that when the group had new "thoughts" on intelligence information, it was given; they shared it with CIA director Tenet.

"It was a matter of digesting other people's intelligence," Feith said of the main duties of his group. "Its job was to review this intelligence to help digest it for me and other policy makers, to help us develop Defense Department strategy for the war on terrorism."