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Iraq War Questions Gain Momentum

Democratic candidates step up attacks on Bush, and GOP lawmakers urge a frank response. Analysts see a risk to the president's credibility.

January 30, 2004|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Mounting questions about the White House's rationale for invading Iraq are giving Democratic presidential candidates fresh ammunition for attacking President Bush's credibility and challenging a foreign policy record that has been the cornerstone of Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

Bush administration officials have been thrown on the defensive by reports from former chief weapons inspector David Kay that Iraq had no stockpiled weapons of mass destruction at the start of the war last March, as U.S. intelligence had indicated.

But the administration has not acknowledged an intelligence failure, insisting that more time is needed to continue inspections.

Some analysts see a potential political risk if Bush refuses to accept Kay's conclusion that prewar intelligence was faulty, because it could keep the issue alive deep into the election season.

Even some Republicans are urging the White House to respond more forthrightly to questions about how U.S. intelligence could be so flawed.

"Politically the president really needs to explain this to the American people," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee who supported the Iraq war. "It undermines his ability to continue to talk to the American people about the war on terrorism."

There is probably a limit to how much political benefit Democrats can wring from the controversy. Support for the Iraq war remains broad: 65% of those surveyed this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press thought going to war was the right decision.

Even among Democrats who voted in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, polls indicated that the weapons issue did not rank high among voters' concerns, taking a back seat to the pocketbook issues of healthcare and the economy.

Still, some Democratic candidates have seized the controversy not to question the value of the war but to build a broader critique of Bush's credibility as a leader.

"When the president of the United States looks at you and tells you something, there should be some trust," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

And partisan lines are hardening over the question of whether an independent investigation is needed to analyze the apparent discrepancy between the intelligence available before the war and the facts on the ground in Iraq.

Picking up on that idea are Democratic presidential candidates including Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, one of the strongest Democratic supporters of going to war.

"We ought to ask for a full-scale investigation of exactly why our intelligence community" said stockpiles of illegal weapons existed, Lieberman said.

The White House has opposed such a probe, saying the CIA is studying the question. The Senate Intelligence Committee staff also has reviewed the matter and is expected to release a draft report to its members next week.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor, went on two television talk shows Thursday morning to defend the administration's view that it was too early to conclude that there had been an intelligence failure.

And she insisted that regardless of whether former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons stockpiles, the administration remained convinced that he posed a threat to the U.S.

"The American people, I think, understand that this president saw a grave and gathering threat in Saddam Hussein, a threat that had been gathering for more than 12 years," Rice said on NBC's "Today" show.

A senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the White House planned to review the intelligence after receiving the final report by Kay's staff.

The official said the purpose would be not so much to detect failure as to draw lessons on "how to deal with highly secretive regimes."

"We all have a strong interest in knowing and comparing ... what we thought before and what happened after," the official said.

On another front, House Republican leaders have mobilized to defend Bush against the impression that he took the U.S. to war under false pretenses. They circulated an analysis arguing that, in other, less-publicized comments, Kay "makes the case for action in Iraq."

The analysis cites Kay saying it was "unfair" to say Bush misled the American people, and noting that his understanding of Iraq's weapons capabilities was shared by intelligence agencies in France, Britain and Germany.

Kay also said he did not believe the administration pressured intelligence analysts to hype their findings to help justify war -- an assertion that makes it harder for Democrats to support their claim that Bush had essentially fabricated the case for war.

While Republicans stand publicly firm in their support of the war, the Bush administration has begun backing away from its past insistence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction -- or that postwar inspectors would eventually find them.

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