The White House is studying whether to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to look into the prewar intelligence that President Bush cited as the basis for invading Iraq, Republican congressional sources said Saturday.
Officials are considering a White House-appointed panel as an alternative to a possible independent inquiry that would be mandated by Congress. The later is what administration critics have been demanding -- especially in the wake of testimony last week by former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “We were almost all wrong” about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.
The idea of naming a panel is a change for the administration, which until now has said that an inquiry into the quality of prewar intelligence should await a more exhaustive search for weapons in Iraq. White House officials have told Republicans on Capitol Hill to expect an announcement, or a more detailed proposal, in the coming days.
Saturday night, White House spokesman Jimmy Orr refused to confirm or deny reports that the president was considering appointing a panel to investigate the quality of prewar intelligence.
Friday, Bush stopped short of supporting the idea, saying only, “I, too, want to know the facts. I want to be able to compare what the Iraqi Survey Group has found with what we thought prior to going into Iraq.”
Vice President Dick Cheney is said to be calling lawmakers on the intelligence committees to discuss the idea. The congressional sources said the White House hoped that appointing a panel would protect the president’s reelection effort from political fallout over the intelligence issue and mute demands for the resignation of top CIA officials.
The sources said that top White House officials and GOP congressional leaders such as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, want to avoid a formal inquiry similar to the so-called 9/11 commission -- that is, a panel that would be set up through legislation in Congress, with appointments made by leaders of both parties.
GOP officials are concerned that such a commission could turn an unflattering light on the administration at the height of the presidential campaign.
“I don’t think the White House is going to support Congress passing legislation to create a commission,” a senior Republican congressional aide said. “But they’re having discussions about what to do in light of the heat they’re taking here. They’re talking about [whether to] put together a panel of people to look at this.”
The White House has been searching for a way to handle the issue of prewar intelligence ever since Kay resigned a little over a week ago and said that the intelligence that underpinned the administration’s case for war had been “all wrong.”
In his testimony, Kay said he believed an independent commission is necessary. And while Democrats have been calling for such a review for months, some Republicans -- including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- have also started to endorse the idea.
The White House’s reluctance to allow an independent commission created by Congress reflects a general distaste by this administration for outside review. But its reactions are also undoubtedly shaped by their experience with an independent commission examining intelligence failures related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The White House opposed that panel initially, then backed down under pressure, and some say administration officials now regret doing so because the administration has become locked in a series of embarrassing battles with the Sept. 11 commission.
The commission fought to get access to highly classified intelligence briefings seen by Bush in the weeks before the attacks, has criticized the administration for being slow to provide numerous other materials, and is now seeking an extension of its deadline, which could push the release of its final report well into the summer, just months before the presidential election.
But even Republicans agree that questions surrounding the prewar intelligence on Iraq have become so serious a problem for the White House that there is no easy way out.
“I think [Bush] has an irreconcilable problem here,” the Republican congressional source said. “Can the president keep saying, ‘I’ve got complete confidence in the intelligence community’? I think they probably have calculated that they can’t do that, but that [it would help to be able to say] we’ve got somebody looking into it.”
But if the White House seeks to set up its own panel, that will carry political risks as well. Such a panel would not be considered as independent from the White House as one with bipartisan appointments and authorization from Congress.
And even Republicans on Capitol Hill may be unhappy with an arrangement that prevents them from having any input into how the review is structured. An aide to Roberts said the senator opposed the creation of an independent commission, which would to a large extent duplicate work his committee is doing.
Both the House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting investigations of the prewar intelligence, and Roberts has said a 300-page draft report of his staff’s findings is scheduled to be presented to members on Thursday.
At least four other groups within the government are conducting inquiries into the issue of Iraqi weapons.
The Senate report, which won’t be released to the public for weeks, is expected to be sharply critical of the CIA and other agencies.
Among the criticisms in the report, sources said, are that the community was too reliant on satellite imagery and other technical sources; that analysts failed to challenge erroneous assumptions; and that many of their assertions about Iraq’s weapons programs simply weren’t supported.