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AFTER THE WAR

Panel to Probe U.S. Claims of Banned Arms

Senator says Bush administration's credibility may be at risk over Iraq issue.

June 02, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Contending that the credibility of the Bush administration may be at risk, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Sunday that his panel will investigate the United States' failure to find evidence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, stressed that he remains "of the opinion there has been no deception by the administration." However, he added, "the situation is becoming one where the credibility of the administration and Congress is being challenged."

Warner said increasing concern that the intelligence on Iraq was manipulated or flawed warrants an investigation of "the credibility of the information provided by both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency."

He is requesting that the hearings be conducted jointly with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He said that he had discussed the matter with Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the intelligence panel, and that Roberts was "receptive to the idea."

The decision by a prominent Republican to hold hearings on the issue is certain to add to the growing pressure on the White House to justify its prewar assertions that Iraq's alleged stocks of biological and chemical arms posed an imminent threat to the United States -- claims that were at the core of the administration's case for war.

Warner said he expects to hold at least one hearing on the issue before Congress recesses for the July 4 holiday, and other hearings will probably follow later in the summer.

Roberts was not available for comment. In the past, he has been opposed to the idea of hearings this early, arguing that the search for banned weapons in Iraq is far from over, but he also recently said the failure to find weapons could hurt U.S. credibility.

Senate aides said there has been growing pressure from other members of the intelligence committee to begin pressing for answers from the CIA and other agencies.

Roberts and Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, recently requested that the CIA and State Department explain their handling of documents the administration cited as evidence that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger, according to a Rockefeller spokeswoman. The documents have since been shown to be crude forgeries.

Last week, the intelligence panel ordered the CIA to provide weekly briefings on the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, and asked that agency officials be prepared to answer questions about prewar assessments.

"The idea is to begin to address the concerns and questions members have," said one aide who requested anonymity, adding that the CIA "will now send someone to talk specifically about the WMD" every week.

If banned weapons "don't turn up soon, you cannot avoid this topic of the intelligence community's performance," the aide said.

Aides said Warner has been among those pushing for a fuller accounting. On Sunday he suggested that senators were misled by statements from administration officials before the war suggesting that banned weapons would be found quickly when the war ended.

"There wasn't any doubt in anybody's mind," Warner said. "We were fearful weapons would be used against our troops, and that after it was all over the stuff would be scattered everywhere to find, particularly artillery shells."

Warner noted that in hearings held before the war, he had asked CIA Director George J. Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld whether the United States would be able to show television crews evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons programs when the conflict ceased.

"They answered 'yes,' " Warner said. "The implication was that the weapons will be there to see."

The only evidence produced so far are two vehicles seized in April that the CIA believes were mobile biological weapons production facilities. The agency acknowledges that it has no proof the vehicles were used to produce such materials.

Warner said he would expect "senior officials" to appear at the hearings, possibly including Tenet and Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

A CIA spokesman said the agency would cooperate.

"Director Tenet has made clear that he is enormously proud of the work of our analysts," said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield. "We value congressional oversight and will certainly cooperate with appropriate reviews of our work."

Some have questioned whether the agency's reporting on Iraq had become politicized -- skewed toward hard-line assessments in response to pressure from the Pentagon.

Tenet rejected such claims in a rare public statement issued Friday. Mansfield said the agency's ombudsman received one internal complaint on the handling of Iraq data last winter and had concluded it was not a case of politicization.

The ranking members of the House Intelligence Committee recently sent Tenet a letter asking the agency to produce a report before July 1 reconciling the agency's prewar assessments with the findings on the ground.

The CIA has already launched an internal review of its prewar intelligence on Iraq.

Rumsfeld and others have suggested that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein hid or destroyed banned weapons in the buildup to war.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), another member of the intelligence committee, said Sunday he believes that is possible.

"We did a pretty good job of telegraphing our punches months in advance of going into Iraq," Bayh said on CNN's "Late Edition." "I think what we're seeing here is that they scrubbed their facilities and broke them up and hid them pretty well."

But Bayh said he also believes that an investigation is necessary.

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