In a blow to the Bush administration, the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday that it planned to investigate whether White House officials exaggerated the Iraq threat or pressured analysts to tailor their assessments of Baghdad’s weapons programs to bolster the case for war.
The move puts claims made by President Bush and other senior officials in his administration squarely in the sights of the committee’s investigation, and could add to the White House’s political troubles as it tries to keep questions about the war from becoming a drag on Bush’s reelection campaign.
The White House and Republican leaders in Congress had sought for months to confine the inquiry to the performance of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and to insulate the administration. But the Senate panel voted unanimously Thursday to expand the probe after some GOP members appeared ready to break from the Republican position.
The expansion was a victory for Democrats, who have argued for months that many of the claims made by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others were not backed up by the intelligence.
“We will address the question of whether intelligence was exaggerated or misused by reviewing statements by senior policymakers to determine if those statements were substantiated by the intelligence,” said Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
The change in scope was announced in a statement issued by Rockefeller and the chairman of the panel, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). The statement outlined a new course for an investigation that is already several months along, and has involved interviews with dozens of U.S. intelligence officials and reviews of thousands of pages of classified documents.
New areas of inquiry will include “whether any influence was brought to bear on anyone to shape their analysis to support policy objectives,” the statement said. Sources involved in the investigation said they had turned up no evidence so far that there was such pressure, or that analysts shaded their assessments to please the White House.
The committee said it would examine the role played by a controversial intelligence unit set up secretly at the Pentagon to search for ties between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The unit in the so-called Office of Special Plans has been accused of cherry-picking data to help bolster White House claims of Iraq-Al Qaeda ties that the CIA and other agencies viewed far more skeptically.
The committee also will focus new scrutiny on the intelligence community’s use of information provided by the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group during Saddam Hussein’s regime that lobbied for years for a U.S. effort to oust the Iraqi president, and whose leaders have ties to senior members of the Bush administration. Critics say the INC has served up a stream of Iraqi defectors with exaggerated or unfounded claims about Iraq’s weapons programs and other activities.
But the most significant shift for the committee is its determination to now examine “whether public statements and reports and testimony regarding Iraq” by administration figures were “substantiated by intelligence information.” The statement said the committee would examine public comments and claims made not only by the current administration but by officials in the Clinton administration.
A senior aide on the committee said the panel had yet to determine exactly how it would decide whether White House officials’ claims were supported by the underlying intelligence. But he said it had already collected claims and statements dating to the early 1990s, and had assembled all of the relevant intelligence assessments and reports. “All that has to be done now is the comparison,” he said.
The committee now plans to issue an initial report based on its review of the performance of the intelligence agencies in late March or early April, the aide said, and the new areas of investigation could be the subject of a subsequent report. No date has been set, but Democrats are likely to push to get the information released well before the November elections.
The expansion marks a surprising shift in direction for the committee. Roberts and other Republicans had resisted the idea of scrutinizing the administration’s public statements or interactions with intelligence analysts on the grounds that it was inherently political and beyond the jurisdiction of a congressional intelligence panel. Recent developments put new pressure on Republicans to give ground to Democrats.
The possibility that a compromise might be reached surfaced Wednesday when Roberts and Rockefeller met in a closed-door session with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) to discuss an expansion of the investigation. Hagel is said by several sources to be one of the Republicans who believed the expansion was necessary. A spokesman for Hagel declined to comment.
The former chief U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq, David Kay, said recently that he believed an examination of the administration’s claims should accompany the review of the intelligence. After he resigned last month, Kay said that the prewar intelligence on Iraq was wrong and that he does not believe there were any banned weapons in Baghdad when the United States invaded last year.
Last week, CIA Director George J. Tenet gave a speech defending his agency, acknowledging problems with its prewar estimates but stressing that it never portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat to the United States. That remark seemed to undercut one of the administration’s principal cases for launching the war over objections from France, Germany and other longtime allies.
White House officials have recently said they never used the word “imminent” to describe the threat, but a review of their statements shows they repeatedly portrayed the danger as urgent. Bush described Hussein’s regime as a “grave and growing” danger and warned that the United States could not wait for definitive proof that Hussein had weapons stockpiles.
“Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” Bush said in a speech in Cincinnati in October 2002. Since Hussein was ousted, some in the administration have retreated from insisting that weapons would be found.