WASHINGTON—As the Senate launched a historic debate Friday on Iraq, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Bob Graham, argued that the United States should pursue terrorist groups such as al-Qaida rather than adopting an "Iraq first" policy.
"Our first priority should be the successful completion of the war on terrorism," Graham, D-Fla., said in a speech on the Senate floor. "Today, we Americans are more vulnerable to international terrorist organizations than we are to Saddam Hussein."
After a three-hour closed-door committee briefing on Iraq by CIA Director George Tenet, Graham said he would press the CIA to declassify intelligence reports on whether a U.S. invasion of Iraq would heighten the threat of terrorist attacks in the United States.
"War with Iraq increases the chances that (terrorist groups) will strike within our homeland," said Graham. "Elevating Saddam Hussein to number one enemy poses risks we have not fully considered."
Graham and Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., plan next week to offer an amendment to the Iraq resolution that would broaden President Bush's authority to pursue international terrorist groups. This approach may offer an alternative to Democrats who are wary of Bush's emphasis on striking Iraq, but worried about political retribution if they oppose an Iraq resolution.
Both the Senate and House of Representatives are expected to vote overwhelmingly next week for a resolution authorizing Bush to take military action against Iraq. The president is planning a speech to the nation about Iraq on Monday night.
Graham's initiative capped a day of debate about the value of the Bush administration's intelligence reports on Iraq, and whether the CIA has been disclosing complete information in a timely way.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Knight Ridder that intelligence analysts contest the administration's suggestion of a major link connecting Iraq and al-Qaida.
Analysts also are concerned that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could boost al-Qaida's recruiting efforts, destabilize moderate regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and give India an excuse to launch pre-emptive strikes on Pakistan.
Iranian hard-liners are believed likely to exploit the presence of U.S. troops on Iran's borders in Iraq and Afghanistan to fuel their crackdown on internal reform, to accelerate the country's program to develop weapons of mass destruction and to increase support for Islamic militants and terrorist operations against American targets.
Popular support in Afghanistan for the U.S. intervention there could be undermined by an American invasion of Iraq, which could foment suspicion that Washington has abandoned Afghanistan, as it did after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, to turn its focus elsewhere.
Last, the senior U.S. official said, intelligence analysts fear that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could destabilize Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, by stirring up anti-American demonstrations. They also worry that India could be tempted to adopt Bush's pre-emption doctrine to attack Pakistan, risking war between the two nuclear powers.
As he left Friday's briefing, Tenet said only that it was "a good meeting." Two Democrats said it was contentious, with several senators pressing the CIA to declassify more data about Iraq.
"There were some very difficult moments in there, relative to the CIA giving us timely information," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said some classified information he had seen did not support the administration's portrayal of the Iraqi threat.
"It's troubling to have classified information that contradicts statements made by the administration," Durbin said. "There's more they should share with the public."
Durbin would not be more specific, but he did say the committee had received the views of some analysts who did not share the administration's conclusion that Iraq was an urgent threat with important links to al-Qaida terrorists.
But Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said the committee was getting "good analysis" from the CIA. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the panel's vice chairman, said he had seen enough intelligence to demonstrate that Iraq posed a major threat to U.S. interests.
Graham, who had criticized the CIA for "obstructionism" for not giving some data, said the Friday briefing was "useful and answered many of my questions."
But he has asked the agency to declassify information that would go beyond the CIA report released Friday on weapons of mass destruction, and cover the threats of terrorist reprisals in the United States and the impact of a U.S.-Iraq war on the region.
In his speech, Graham warned that the preparation for war against Iraq already was affecting the war on terrorism.
"There have been reports of a reduction in the intensity of our efforts in Afghanistan as intelligence and military resources, particularly the leadership of the intelligence community and the Defense Department, have turned their attention to Iraq," Graham said.
Graham also said that a war with Iraq would increase the possibility that al-Qaida or Hezbollah, a terrorist group backed by Iran, would attack targets in the United States:
"Briefings that I have recently received suggest that the likelihood of such strikes within the United States is not remote or even probable—it is highly likely."
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.