WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats are locked in what a senior GOP congressional aide described as a "fundamental disagreement" over how to proceed with the Senate Intelligence Committee's inquiry into whether administration officials misused intelligence in making the case for war against Iraq.
The discord centers on the process for determining whether the officials exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq.
Tensions over that issue flared anew Friday, as members of both parties criticized their counterparts just days after Democrats forced a virtual shutdown of the Senate to protest what they described as Republican efforts to impede the politically charged probe.
"We are finally now going to dig into the serious issues of how this administration used or misused intelligence in making the case for going to war," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat. Rockefeller said he questioned the GOP's commitment to a thorough probe.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the committee's chairman, responded with a statement accusing Democrats of grandstanding rather than working to complete the investigation, which represents the second phase of a broad inquiry on intelligence failures concerning Iraq.
"I understand the minority has held yet another press conference today," Roberts said. "If they would work so hard on getting Phase II completed, we might be done by now. This senator has been and is ready to roll up his sleeves and get going."
Such partisan rancor is rare on the Intelligence Committee, which has a tradition of operating more collegially than most congressional panels because it deals with classified matters that often have national security implications.
But the Iraq probe is particularly sensitive because it threatens to draw fresh attention to the Bush administration's prewar claims at a time when polling data suggest the public is increasingly disenchanted with the war.
The tensions also have been heightened by the Oct. 28 indictment of a senior White House official, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who played a key role in assembling the administration's arguments for invading Iraq. He is charged with lying to a federal grand jury in a CIA leak probe. Critics say the leaking of a CIA agent's name was meant to discredit her husband, a diplomat who accused the administration of twisting pre-war intelligence.
Roberts has scheduled a series of committee meetings next week to grapple with how to complete his panel's probe. Each party has named three senators to an informal task force to decide by Nov. 14 how to proceed.
The dispute stems from an inquiry launched nearly two years ago, as it became clear Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. In July 2004, the committee issued a 500-page report that sharply criticized the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies for erroneous assessments on Iraq's alleged weapons programs. Under an agreement negotiated at the time, the second phase of the investigation was put off until after the 2004 presidential election. The Intelligence Committee's staff director, Bill Duhnke, told reporters Friday that the committee had assembled about 480 statements by administration officials and members of Congress, as well as statements in the 1990s by Clinton administration officials.
He said the panel's staff also collected language from intelligence reports to compare with the statements by officials. But the two parties are at odds over how to determine whether the statements of policymakers were warranted.
"There is a fundamental disagreement between the vice chairman and the chairman over who should make that determination," Duhnke said.
Democrats have urged that committee staff make preliminary judgments that could then be considered by the senators. But Roberts has opposed that approach, arguing that it would not be appropriate for congressional aides to weigh the words of top elected officials, including President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Roberts' position, Duhnke said, is that "no way is staff going to pass judgment about members of Congress or the president."
He also said that in his view, such an undertaking was highly subjective and ought to be handled by lawmakers.
Duhnke said that of the statements assembled for scrutiny, about 330 were compiled by Democratic members of the committee, and all represented claims by Bush or other members of his administration. The remainder of the list includes about 100 statements by members of Congress -- evenly split between Democrats and Republicans -- as well as comments by Clinton administration officials.