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Congress Plans a Covert Review of Iraq Prewar Intelligence

The GOP says hearings must be secret to avoid partisan sniping. Democrats claim the administration's credibility is at issue.

June 12, 2003|Ronald Brownstein and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans on Wednesday rejected calls for a public investigation of the prewar intelligence on Iraq, underscoring that the failure so far to find banned weapons in that country seems to pose a greater threat to President Bush in international diplomacy than domestic politics.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence committees announced that they would review the issue in private sessions.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, cited concern that open hearings would devolve into partisan sniping. "I will not allow the committee to be politicized or to be used as an unwitting tool for any political strategist," he said.

The decision angered Democrats, who said the administration's credibility is at stake.

Noting that claims Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction was a primary justification for the war, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.), said, "Even while the search [for the weapons] continues, the American people need and want to know whether our government was accurate and forthcoming in its prewar assessments."

Recent surveys have shown that the inability of U.S.-led forces to find suspected weapons hasn't soured most Americans on the decision to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But even as the domestic response remains tepid, some analysts believe that a failure to eventually unearth such weapons could deepen the antagonism toward the United States in many nations skeptical of the war -- and make it much tougher for Bush to rally international support for any future action against nations, such as Iran, that he might accuse of similar behavior.

"Assuming nothing significant is found, it definitely reduces American credibility and it is going to make it a lot harder to make others move in the direction we want," said Joseph S. Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

The intensifying questions about whether Hussein's regime possessed the weapons Bush and others claimed it did have been fueled by charges from current and former intelligence officials that the administration manipulated government information to justify the invasion. Buttressing the accusations have been a steady stream of leaks of prewar intelligence documents that expressed far more uncertainty about the status of Iraq's weapons programs than the public pronouncements by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials.

Bush and top aides have angrily dismissed suggestions that intelligence information was misrepresented to support administration policies.

Roberts suggested that some of the recent criticism is hypocritical and potentially detrimental to national security.

Saying a risk-averse culture contributed to the CIA's failure to anticipate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Roberts said, "Now there seems to be a campaign afoot by some to criticize the intelligence community and the president for connecting the dots."

Roberts, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) all denied that the White House attempted to influence their decision to confine the congressional inquiry to closed-door hearings that review prewar intelligence documents furnished by the CIA. Democrats denounced the GOP plans as inadequate.

Several said the committees should be pursuing documents beyond those the CIA is providing and should invite testimony not only from current intelligence officials but former analysts, administration figures and weapons experts who have faulted the administration's handling of data on Iraq.

Democrats also have called for the investigation to include work done by a controversial team of analysts assembled at the Pentagon last year to comb through Iraq intelligence. The group concluded that there were likely links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, but none of its reports have been shared with congressional oversight panels.

The controversy has not inspired much public backlash against the war. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released last week, 56% said they believed the war was justified even if conclusive evidence of weapons of mass destruction is not found. According to the survey, 23% said it would be justified only if such weapons were found and 18% said they did not believe the war was justified at all.

Several pollsters have cited two principal reasons that most Americans are showing little inclination to second-guess the war.

GOP pollster David Winston noted that many Americans supported the war not only because of the claims about weapons of mass destruction, but because they were convinced that Hussein loomed as a broader threat to U.S. security and stability in the Middle East.

Second, the coalition's relatively easy victory has dampened the instinct to look back, the pollsters said.

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