SAN FRANCISCO — As the search for weapons of mass destruction continues in Iraq, some Democratic presidential hopefuls believe the hunt has already turned up something of value: an issue to use against President Bush.
Opponents of the war say the failure to find any banned weapons undercuts the reason Bush gave for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein.
"The standard that we went to war on was that there were weapons of mass destruction which were able to be used against the neighbors of Iraq and, potentially, against the United States of America," Sen. Bob Graham of Florida said Wednesday.
"I don't believe that two mobile vans" -- the proof Bush cited last week -- "justifies a war to secure [Iraq's] neighbors or the United States," Graham told reporters at a campaign stop in San Francisco.
Even candidates who supported the war, and find themselves in a somewhat more awkward position, are raising questions about the administration's credibility and whether, wittingly or not, Bush misled Americans about the reason to go to war.
"If the intelligence community had a massive failure here, or if the administration has distorted the intelligence it was given, those would be legitimate issues," Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said Friday at a campaign stop in Iowa.
"I think people in this country are entitled to an explanation," Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina agreed Saturday. "Do we have intelligence information that is accurate? Was there a distortion of information?"
The failure to find any chemical or biological weapons has prompted some lawmakers to call for congressional hearings into whether U.S. intelligence broke down, or whether information was manipulated to rally public support for a war with Iraq.
Administration officials note that the search for banned weapons is still underway and express confidence they will eventually be found. "This was a weapons of mass destruction program that was built on concealment," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security advisor, said earlier this week on CNBC. "So of course it's going to take some time to put the full picture together."
Still, many Democrats aren't waiting to challenge the administration.
Graham, in particular, has questioned Bush's rationale for a war he believes diverted attention from the more important mission of dismantling the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
"About 14 months ago, we began to remove military and intelligence assets out of Afghanistan and Pakistan to get ready for the war with Iraq," Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at a news conference Wednesday at UC San Francisco. "And in so doing, we allowed Al Qaeda, which was on the ropes, to regenerate and be able to conduct sophisticated operations."
In many ways, the debate over U.S. intelligence and the administration's rationale for the war is merely an extension of the debate over the war itself.
The most vehement opponents, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, have been the harshest in their condemnation of the administration. Kucinich said the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction shows the war was "based on fraudulent claims." Sharpton called the war illegitimate.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose opposition to Bush's Iraqi policy lifted him into the top tier of White House contenders, renewed his criticism of fellow Democrats who backed the president. In an interview Tuesday night on PBS, Dean said: "If it's true that the president misled Congress, then my question to the Democrats is, 'What were you doing voting for that resolution [authorizing the use of force] six months ahead of time? Don't you think it would have been better to get all the facts first?"
In contrast, the most hawkish of the Democratic candidates, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, dismisses the failure to find any chemical or biological weapons, saying that was never his rationale for ousting Hussein. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, another who voted to support the war resolution, counsels patience. "Mr. Gephardt believes it's premature to make judgments until we have more information," said spokesman Erik Smith.
Edwards and Kerry, who supported the war, now express concern about the intelligence leading up to it. Challenged by an antiwar activist at a campaign stop last week in Iowa, Kerry said he worried about the possible damage to U.S. credibility if its intelligence proves faulty but noted the search is not over. Either way, he concluded, "I'm glad Saddam is gone."
The politics surrounding the issue are far from clear.
Some Democrats believe Bush's credibility could become an issue if continued setbacks cause Americans to ask, in the words of Dean's pollster, Paul Maslin: "Are we really winning the war on terrorism?"
But Will Marshall, head of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, cautions against "hurling accusations around."
"I think we should be pounding the issue of finding out what happened and having a thorough review of the intelligence and how the administration used it," Marshall said. "But I think it would be a mistake for Democrats to try to delegitimize the war in retrospect.''
Republicans agree. "I think there's enough trust and confidence in Bush's leadership that if there was bad intelligence, people will blame the CIA," said Don Sipple, a Republican strategist and occasional White House advisor. "The American people tend to be results oriented and seem to feel the war came out OK."