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Verdict mixed on Iraq claims

Times Staff Writer

After an acrimonious investigation that spanned four years, the Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to release a detailed critique of the Bush administration’s claims in the buildup to war with Iraq, congressional officials said.

The long-delayed document catalogs dozens of prewar assertions by President Bush and other administration officials that proved to be wildly inaccurate about Iraq’s alleged stockpiles of banned weapons and pursuit of nuclear arms.

But officials say the report reaches a mixed verdict on the key question of whether the White House misused intelligence to make the case for war.

The document criticizes White House officials for making assertions that failed to reflect disagreements or uncertainties in the underlying intelligence on Iraq, officials said. But the report acknowledges that many claims were consistent with intelligence assessments in circulation at the time.

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Because of the nuanced nature of the conclusions, one congressional official familiar with the document said: “The left is not going to be happy. The right is not going to be happy. Nobody is going to be happy.”

The report helps culminate a series of investigations that the committee has carried out in connection with the war in Iraq. The “statements report” was stalled repeatedly, in part because of the complexity of the task but also because of partisan disagreements among senators.

The findings are likely to be a source of political discomfort for the White House by reviving the controversy over the Bush administration’s case for war. That issue has largely faded from view on Capitol Hill at a time when the White House is sparring with Congress over other intelligence-related issues: CIA interrogation tactics and the scope of the government’s wiretapping authority.

The report could also become political fodder for the presidential race, which has focused on the differing positions of the remaining candidates on the decision to invade Iraq.

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Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee had initially pushed for the report to focus not only on the prewar claims of the Bush administration but also on statements made by members of Congress, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who is vying for her party’s presidential nomination.

“The statements report is clearly the most political of all the reports the committee has done,” said a senior committee aide. “It’s inherently problematic to try to climb inside the heads [of policymakers] and know what they knew at the time.”

Officials said the report is divided into categories that focus on prewar claims about Iraq’s alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, as well as its supposed ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Each section includes a catalog of as many as 20 prewar claims, as well as a summary conclusion on whether the assertions were generally warranted.

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“The whole purpose of this exercise is to answer questions about whether the administration was honest in its use of intelligence when it made the case for war,” said a senior aide to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In many cases, statements that were later proven wrong -- such as President Bush’s assertion in September 2002 that Iraq “possesses biological and chemical weapons” -- were largely in line with U.S. intelligence assessments at the time.

Prewar assertions about Iraq’s nuclear program were more problematic because they were supported by some intelligence assessments but not others.

“They were substantiated,” a congressional official said, “but didn’t convey the disagreements within the intelligence community.”

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In August 2002, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech that “Saddam [Hussein] has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.” But by that time, the State Department’s intelligence bureau was challenging the assumption that Iraq’s nuclear program had been reactivated.

White House suggestions that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda were at odds with intelligence assessments that voiced skepticism about such a relationship.

The report marks the culmination of a multipart investigation that the committee launched in February 2004. The only remaining task is an investigation into the activities of a Pentagon office led by Douglas J. Feith, then undersecretary of Defense for policy and one of the architects of the Iraq war.

Congressional officials said the panel is nearing completion of a report on that subject that will focus largely on a secret post-Sept. 11 meeting between two Defense Department officials who worked for Feith and an Iranian exile, Manucher Ghorbanifar, who had been a middleman in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s and was regarded by the CIA as unreliable.

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The report focusing on the Bush administration’s prewar statements is set to be delivered to members of the committee this week, officials said. But it could be weeks away from public release because members may push for changes, and much of the material cited in the report has yet to be approved for declassification by U.S. intelligence officials.

Dissatisfied with the scope of the report, Republicans on the panel are expected to attach a section outlining their objections and calling attention to prewar claims by prominent Democrats, including Clinton.

In an October 2002 speech on the Senate floor, Clinton said that if left unchecked, Hussein “will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.”

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greg.miller@latimes.com


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