WASHINGTON — President Bush said Monday that his administration was investigating possible links between Iran and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a statement that distanced the president from acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, who had downplayed a possible connection a day earlier.
"As to direct connections with Sept. 11, we're digging into the facts to determine if there was one," Bush said of Iran.
In a second sign of a potential rift between the White House and the intelligence agency, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters that McLaughlin was not speaking for the president when he said it was unnecessary to create a new, more powerful intelligence czar, despite faulty information before the Iraq war.
"The president is very much open to ideas that build upon the reforms that we're already implementing," McClellan said. "I think [McLaughlin] was expressing his view."
McClellan's comments indicated that the White House was receptive to the idea of fundamental reform in the intelligence community, rather than the "modest changes" McLaughlin had endorsed in an appearance on a Sunday talk show.
The White House-CIA differences emerged as the independent Sept. 11 commission prepared to release its final report Thursday on the 2001 terrorist attacks. The report is expected to contain recommendations that could touch off a contentious drive toward reforming the nation's intelligence-gathering bureaucracy.
The independent commission is widely expected to report that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers had traveled freely between Iran and Afghanistan during 2000 and 2001. Last month, the panel's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, said in a television interview that Al Qaeda had "a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq."
Iran's emerging prominence in the Sept. 11 investigations looms as a potentially difficult issue for the White House, because it could raise new questions about why Bush led a war against Iraq but so far has taken a distinctly less bellicose stance toward Iran.
McClellan argued that the United States indeed had been "confronting" the threat from Iran, which Bush in 2002 listed, along with Iraq and North Korea, as part of an "axis of evil." He added, however, that Iraq was "a unique situation" because it had invaded its neighbors and had possessed and used weapons of mass destruction.
McClellan also said the White House was eager to learn what the Sept. 11 commission knew about any connections between the hijackers and Iran. "Apparently it's something that's evolved over time," he said.
The Iranian government has denied knowledge or involvement in the Sept. 11 plot.
McLaughlin had said Sunday that although "about eight" of the Sept. 11 hijackers may have passed through Iran before their mission, the CIA had "no evidence that there is some sort of official connection between Iran and 9/11."
Bush on Monday noted McLaughlin's comments, but said: "We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved."
The president also renewed his accusation that Iran's rulers were "harboring Al Qaeda leadership," and urged Tehran anew to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The United States has asked Iran to turn over Al Qaeda members to their respective countries.
The president's spokesman dismissed weekend media reports that Bush may delay naming a new CIA director until after the Nov. 2 election as having "no basis in fact."
In brief remarks to reporters after meeting with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, Bush said that he was "still taking a good, hard look" at potential successors to George J. Tenet as CIA director. Tenet left the agency July 11.
As for the reforming the intelligence-gathering apparatus, the president said he was looking forward to seeing the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations.
"They share the same desires I share, which is to make sure that the president and the Congress get the best possible intelligence," Bush said.
"Some of the reforms, I think, are necessary: more human intelligence, better ability to listen or to see things, and better coordination amongst the variety of intelligence-gathering services," he said. "And so we'll look at all their recommendations, and I will comment upon that, having studied what they say."
The commission is expected to recommend the creation of a single Cabinet-level position overseeing the 15 agencies that make up the nation's intelligence-gathering community.
McLaughlin acknowledged on "Fox News Sunday" that "a good argument" could be made for such consolidation, but added that it was unnecessary because the CIA already had taken steps toward reform since Sept. 11 and because a restructuring would impose additional bureaucracy on the system.
White House officials have described McLaughlin as a capable leader, but have also indicated that they do not see him as a permanent replacement.