ARLINGTON, Va. — Facing a growing controversy over the Bush administration’s use of intelligence to justify the war in Iraq, the Defense Department’s senior policy official insisted Pentagon officials didn’t manipulate the system to produce the outcome they wanted.

“The suggestion that [defense officials told intelligence analysts], ‘This is what we’re looking for, now go find it,’ is precisely what we’re here to rebut,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith told reporters during a Wednesday morning briefing at the Pentagon.

Feith took issue with press reports that have said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chartered his own in-house Pentagon intelligence team specifically to take decidedly hawkish view of information already gathered and assessed by agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Feith said such reports “are beginning to achieve the status of urban legend.”

He said that after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a “small team” of two full-time and three or four part-time analysts was put together “to help [senior defense leaders] develop a Defense Department strategy for the war on terror.”

The team was together from October 2001 to August 2002, when it was disbanded because “the project was over,” Feith said.

Asked why it was necessary to form an entirely separate team when, by his own admission, “there are hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people [in the Pentagon] who review intelligence for policy purposes every day,” Feith said the war on terror “presented a number of peculiar challenges.”

“It is not true that the reason the team was created to look at intelligence in a different way” that would produce forgone conclusions to suit defense hawks, Feith said.

“I know of nobody who pressured anybody,” Feith said.

Although the group was one of many who analyzed intelligence that led the administration to conclude that Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the United States, “WMD was not the focus” of Feith’s ad-hoc team, he said.

Instead, the group’s “main conclusion was that terrorist groups and states are willing to cooperate across ideological and philosophical lines,” Feith said.

That conclusion “is not surprising,” considering that there are innumerable examples of such deadly odd-couple pairings throughout modern history, he said.

In the course of its work, Feith said, the team also “came up with some interesting observations” about Saddam Hussein’s alleged links to al-Qaida — another major pillar in the Bush administration’s justification for the war with Iraq, although CIA and other U.S. government analysts have said the connection is shaky at best.

In August 2002, Feith took the team to brief CIA director George Tenet about the Saddam-al-Qaida link conclusions.

“My impression was [the brief] was pretty well received,” Feith said.

Feith said it was not surprising that a team of fewer than half a dozen analysts working over the course of just eight months could have discerned an Iraq-al-Qaida link that for years has been missed or dismissed by mainstream U.S. intelligence.

“I don’t think it’s all that unusual or hard to understand,” Feith said. “If a large amount of material is reviewed with fresh eyes, [they] have a chance of finding new things in it. It’s not that mysterious.”

As for claims that the Bush administration hyped intelligence about Iraq’s WMD, Feith said that the Clinton administration had also said that such programs existed.

“Those judgments did not undergo a major change between Clinton and Bush administrations,” Feith said.

Feith also denied reports that the Bush administration is actively encouraging the people of Iran to overthrown their government.

“The future of the Iranian government [is] a matter to be decided by the Iranian people,” Feith said. “We know there is widespread unhappiness within [Iran] with the failures of the clerical regime. [Bush] has expressed his sympathy [and said] the United States supports their aspirations to live in freedom.”

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