WASHINGTON — The State Department's intelligence branch, whose skeptical prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons programs were more accurate than other agencies' judgments, is being excluded from a panel that advises Congress each year on worldwide threats.
The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research was not invited by Republican leaders to testify at the annual threat hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee being held Tuesday, even though the bureau has participated in the hearing every year since it began in the early 1990s, congressional and administration officials said.
The move has puzzled some Democrats on Capitol Hill, who note that postwar findings in Iraq have vindicated many of the State Department's calls.
"At the very time when I & R seems to have been right and everyone else wrong, it's at least unusual that this year for the first time they're not invited," said a congressional staffer.
Some have speculated that Republicans want to keep the focus on CIA Director George J. Tenet, who is scheduled to testify and whose agency is under heavy criticism for its prewar assessments on Iraq. A Democratic aide also noted that Republicans often see the State Department as too soft on enemy states' actions and intentions and not protective enough of U.S. interests.
But a Republican aide to the Intelligence Committee rejected those claims and said the panel opted to exclude the State Department mainly because members were primarily interested in hearing from Tenet and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. The two men generally field most of the questions from senators.
The aide also noted that the State Department's bureau has an acting director, Thomas Fingar, who has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Another committee aide said the State Department could still send a representative to the hearing to be available to answer questions, and perhaps to submit testimony in writing.
A senior State Department official said the bureau was not bothered that it wasn't invited to testify, in part because the hearing's focus is always on the more prominent members of the panel.
"We really are sort of training wheels on the side of the George Tenet show," the official said.
Unlike the CIA or other spy agencies, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research does not collect intelligence. Rather, it undertakes independent analysis of intelligence gathered by other agencies. The bureau's main function is to advise the secretary of State, and it has long prided itself on taking independent views.
The bureau was in agreement with other agencies that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime probably had chemical and biological weapons, but it was more skeptical that Baghdad was rebuilding its nuclear program, a claim the Bush administration made in making the case for war.
In a footnote to a multiagency prewar assessment of Iraq's programs, the bureau called the evidence "inadequate to support such a judgment." U.S. search teams since have concluded that Baghdad's nuclear program had been largely destroyed and was nearly dormant.
The bureau differed with other agencies on the purpose of aluminum tubes Iraq was attempting to obtain. The CIA and other agencies said the tubes were probably for centrifuges to enrich uranium, but the Bureau of Intelligence and Research said it was more likely they were for conventional artillery -- a view backed by U.N. inspectors.
The bureau also raised early warning flags about documents purporting to show Baghdad was seeking uranium from Africa, saying the claim appeared to be "highly dubious" months before President Bush included the assertion in his 2003 State of the Union address. The documents were subsequently shown to be fraudulent.
The annual threat assessment briefing is designed to allow senior intelligence officials to brief lawmakers on what spy agencies consider the most serious international concerns for the United States. In recent years, Tenet and Mueller have focused on the threat posed by the Al Qaeda terrorist network, as well as international weapons proliferation. Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is also scheduled to testify.