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Bush to back probe of Iraq prewar intelligence
( 2004-02-01 13:06) (Washington Post)

President Bush has agreed to support an independent inquiry into the prewar intelligence that he used to assert that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, Republican and congressional sources said on Saturday.

The shift by the White House, which had previously maintained that any such inquiry should wait until a more exhaustive weapons search has been completed, came after pressure from lawmakers in both parties and from the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq.

There was no official confirmation from the White House yesterday, but sources in the government said Bush's announcement of support for an independent commission is imminent. Vice President Cheney has begun to call lawmakers on the intelligence committees, who have encouraged the administration to proceed with an inquiry.

The White House has not settled on what type of independent review it would favor and has not backed any specific plan.

Bush's shift in position represents an effort to get out in front of a potentially dangerous issue that threatens to cloud his reelection bid. An independent commission would not necessarily absolve Bush politically, congressional officials said, but it could quiet the current furor and delay calls for top-level resignations at the CIA and elsewhere until after the elections, diluting the potency of the issue for Democrats.

David Kay, who resigned his post nine days ago, testified Wednesday that "we were almost all wrong" about Iraq's weapons programs. He said it was unlikely that stockpiles would be found in Iraq.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said yesterday that convening a blue-ribbon panel is important, because "we're in danger now of seeing the politicization of the whole intelligence issue."

The panel, Roberts said, would have to be bipartisan and include only recognized experts whose recommendations could "leapfrog" over the current debate and quickly tackle the issue of how to fix intelligence deficiencies. "It would be helpful not only politically, but also for the nation," Roberts said.

Sources said Bush intends to endorse a commission in the coming days while remaining publicly agnostic on the accuracy of the intelligence that the administration used to take the nation to war in Iraq. Though some in the White House favor a frank admission that the intelligence was wrong -- something lawmakers and inspectors have given -- Bush and his aides have so far concluded that would only increase the pressure on them.

The details about the commission are not yet firm, including how much authority it would have to investigate not just the intelligence-gathering apparatus, but also how the administration used the intelligence it was given.

By joining the effort to create the commission rather than allowing Congress to develop its framework on its own, Bush will likely have more leverage to keep the focus on the CIA and other intelligence agencies rather than on the White House. Democrats have asserted that Bush exaggerated the intelligence on Iraq to justify going war, a theory that was boosted by recent allegations from former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill that Bush had contemplated Hussein's ouster long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Politically, the decision to back an independent probe contains substantial risks for Bush. It means the White House will have to surrender some control over the timing of the investigation, raising the possibility that such a panel could release information about the intelligence failures before the Nov. 2 elections. But the pressure on Bush to accept an independent inquiry became intense after Kay, in testimony on Wednesday, said it is "important to acknowledge failure" and that his own view is that "it is going to take an outside inquiry, both to do it and to give yourself and the American people the confidence that you have done it."

Six separate panels -- the House and Senate intelligence committees, a CIA internal review team, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the newly refocused CIA-led Iraq Survey Group and an army team -- are already investigating the prewar intelligence process.

Robert's committee is likely to be the first to complete its work, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of March. According to congressional officials, it will also likely be the most hard-hitting, calling into question the competence not only of mid-level CIA analysts but also of the top CIA leadership, including Director George J. Tenet.

Roberts and other congressional officials said they believe any independent panel should not begin its work at least until after the Senate report has been issued. "We are going to answer a lot of questions," he said.

Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House intelligence committee and a former CIA case officer, said even when his committee report is issued, which may not be until the end of the year, "I expect there will be yet another investigation, for years to come . . . and there should be."

But Goss and Roberts said they believe partisan politics would make it impossible for the new commission to get any real work done before the elections. "Not this year," Goss said. "You couldn't get the members together, or even the rules set up. This is not easy, because nobody trusts anybody."

A member of Congress said the administration can be expected to deal with the intelligence failure "by moving the boxes around" and giving more authority overall intelligence matters to the Department of Homeland Security.

Though they did not explicitly rule out an independent probe, Bush and his aides were dismissive of the notion last week even after the former chief weapons inspector, Kay, backed the idea. They said the Iraq Survey Group should first complete its search, a process that could take a year or more. Asked about an independent inquiry on Friday, Bush said: "I want to be able to compare what the Iraq Survey Group has found with what we thought prior to going into Iraq."

The administration has generally resisted probes of this nature. The White House long objected to an independent inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, ultimately relenting under congressional and public pressure. Bush insisted on tight control over the intelligence material to be viewed by the commission, causing a constant struggle with the panel and leading to a dispute last week over whether commission members would have access to their own notes.

With the creation of the new commission, the White House will have two outside probes underway that could prove politically dangerous. The Justice Department has given semiautonomy to an inquiry into who in the administration leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame after her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, criticized the administration's assertion that Iraq had sought nuclear material in Africa.

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