Mounting questions about the White House’s rationale for invading Iraq are giving Democratic presidential candidates fresh ammunition for attacking President Bush’s credibility and challenging a foreign policy record that has been the cornerstone of Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.
Bush administration officials have been thrown on the defensive by reports from former chief weapons inspector David Kay that Iraq had no stockpiled weapons of mass destruction at the start of the war last March, as U.S. intelligence had indicated.
But the administration has not acknowledged an intelligence failure, insisting that more time is needed to continue inspections.
Some analysts see a potential political risk if Bush refuses to accept Kay’s conclusion that prewar intelligence was faulty, because it could keep the issue alive deep into the election season.
Even some Republicans are urging the White House to respond more forthrightly to questions about how U.S. intelligence could be so flawed.
“Politically the president really needs to explain this to the American people,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee who supported the Iraq war. “It undermines his ability to continue to talk to the American people about the war on terrorism.”
There is probably a limit to how much political benefit Democrats can wring from the controversy. Support for the Iraq war remains broad: 65% of those surveyed this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press thought going to war was the right decision.
Even among Democrats who voted in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, polls indicated that the weapons issue did not rank high among voters’ concerns, taking a back seat to the pocketbook issues of healthcare and the economy.
Still, some Democratic candidates have seized the controversy not to question the value of the war but to build a broader critique of Bush’s credibility as a leader.
“When the president of the United States looks at you and tells you something, there should be some trust,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
And partisan lines are hardening over the question of whether an independent investigation is needed to analyze the apparent discrepancy between the intelligence available before the war and the facts on the ground in Iraq.
Picking up on that idea are Democratic presidential candidates including Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, one of the strongest Democratic supporters of going to war.
“We ought to ask for a full-scale investigation of exactly why our intelligence community” said stockpiles of illegal weapons existed, Lieberman said.
The White House has opposed such a probe, saying the CIA is studying the question. The Senate Intelligence Committee staff also has reviewed the matter and is expected to release a draft report to its members next week.
Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, went on two television talk shows Thursday morning to defend the administration’s view that it was too early to conclude that there had been an intelligence failure.
And she insisted that regardless of whether former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons stockpiles, the administration remained convinced that he posed a threat to the U.S.
“The American people, I think, understand that this president saw a grave and gathering threat in Saddam Hussein, a threat that had been gathering for more than 12 years,” Rice said on NBC’s “Today” show.
A senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the White House planned to review the intelligence after receiving the final report by Kay’s staff.
The official said the purpose would be not so much to detect failure as to draw lessons on “how to deal with highly secretive regimes.”
“We all have a strong interest in knowing and comparing ... what we thought before and what happened after,” the official said.
On another front, House Republican leaders have mobilized to defend Bush against the impression that he took the U.S. to war under false pretenses. They circulated an analysis arguing that, in other, less-publicized comments, Kay “makes the case for action in Iraq.”
The analysis cites Kay saying it was “unfair” to say Bush misled the American people, and noting that his understanding of Iraq’s weapons capabilities was shared by intelligence agencies in France, Britain and Germany.
Kay also said he did not believe the administration pressured intelligence analysts to hype their findings to help justify war -- an assertion that makes it harder for Democrats to support their claim that Bush had essentially fabricated the case for war.
While Republicans stand publicly firm in their support of the war, the Bush administration has begun backing away from its past insistence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction -- or that postwar inspectors would eventually find them.
In his State of the Union address last week, Bush referred only to Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.”
Kay’s successor as chief weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, says he plans to change the focus from a hunt for illegal weapons to an investigation into how the weapons programs were dismantled.
This is not the first time that questions have been raised about the administration’s claims about Iraq’s threat. The administration last summer was battered by revelations that there was no evidence to support claims Bush made in his 2003 State of the Union address that Hussein had shopped in Africa for enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
The key political question now is whether the controversy falls flat or ignites new doubts about the war. It has erupted just as the war has seemed to fade as a political issue on the Democratic presidential campaign trail.
While opposition to the Iraq war was central to the rise of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean to the front of the Democratic pack in polls last year, his losses in Iowa and New Hampshire to Kerry -- who voted for the invasion -- suggested that the war was not the most important issue to Democratic voters.
A Times exit poll in New Hampshire on the day of the primary found that 14% of those surveyed cited Iraq as one of the top two issues on their minds as they chose how to cast their ballots. Far more cited jobs (45%) and healthcare (36%).
But some analysts say the issue could become more problematic for Bush if the euphoria of capturing Hussein wears off and events in Iraq turn sour.
“Bush is not bulletproof,” said Andy Kohut of the Pew center. “If the cost continues to rise, and one of the reasons we went to war has been taken off the table, that may increase discontent with the decision.”
To guard against that, some Republicans say, Bush should move now to acknowledge intelligence problems and make a conspicuous effort to get to the bottom of them.
“The White House has to say more than ‘we did the right thing,’ and then stand by the intelligence agencies,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House International Relations Committee.
“They need to say, ‘We did the right thing, but we will over the next several months look into what we need to do to improve the intelligence agencies.’ ”
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.
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Views on Iraq’s banned weapons, then and now
‘We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.... Many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.’ Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech to veterans in Nashville, Aug. 26, 2002
‘We have tried sanctions. We have tried the carrot of “oil for food” and the stick of coalition military strikes. But Saddam Hussein has defied all these efforts and continues to develop weapons of mass destruction. The first time we may be completely certain he has nuclear weapons is when, God forbids, he uses one.’ President Bush, in an address to the United Nations, Sept. 12, 2002
‘The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities.’ Bush, in his State of the Union address, Jan. 28, 2003.
‘The facts and Iraqis’ behavior, Iraq’s behavior, demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort, no effort, to disarm, as required by the international community. Indeed, the facts and Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.’ Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an address to the United Nations, Feb. 5, 2003
‘The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light -- through the prism of our experience on 9/11.’ Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, July 9, 2003
‘The president believes that he had very good intelligence going into the war.... There was enrichment of the intelligence from 1998 over the period leading up to the war. And nothing pointed to a reversal of Saddam Hussein’s very active efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.’ National security advisor Condoleezza Rice, in a Fox News Sunday interview, Sept. 28, 2003
‘We’ve found a couple of semitrailers at this point which we believe were in fact part of [a banned weapons] program. I would deem that conclusive evidence, if you will, that [Hussein] did in fact have programs for weapons of mass destruction.’ Cheney, in an interview on National Public Radio, Jan. 22, 2004
‘It turns out we were all wrong, in my judgment. And that is most disturbing.’ David Kay, former chief American arms inspector in Iraq, testifying about the unsuccessful search for weapons of mass destruction before Senate Armed Services Committee, Jan. 28, 2004