WASHINGTON—A new round of partisan finger-pointing over who's to blame for misjudging prewar Iraq erupted Friday, as the top Democrat on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee said the panel's Republican chairman was trying to make the CIA the fall guy to deflect criticism from the White House.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing a report evaluating why U.S. intelligence about the threat that Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed to U.S. interests exaggerated the severity of the threat. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the panel's chairman, was quoted Friday as saying the White House was served badly by the CIA, which provided "sloppy" prewar intelligence.
Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller, D-W.Va., responded Friday by saying that Roberts was trying to "lay all of this out on the intelligence community and never get to any other branches of government; in particular the White House and associated high and visible government agencies."
For months, Washington has been consumed by an extraordinarily vicious, even by Washington standards, series of efforts by various agencies—including the State and Defense departments, the CIA, the White House and the office of Vice President Cheney—to blame one another for misreading Iraq's prewar capacity to deliver weapons of mass destruction and its ties to the al-Qaida terrorist organization.
Perhaps the most noted example of this bureaucratic warfare was the public identification of a CIA covert officer's name in an effort to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was sent on a fact-finding mission to Africa but found no evidence to support claims that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium in the country of Niger.
Friday's partisan rupture at the Senate Intelligence Committee signals that both Republicans and Democrats see political risks and opportunities as Americans digest the war and its consequences heading into a presidential and congressional election year.
Rockefeller stopped short of calling Roberts' views, reported Friday by The Washington Post, an attempted "whitewash" to cleanse the Bush White House of responsibility for prewar errors, but he did say that the Senate committee needs to examine "the possibility of the manipulation or shaping" of intelligence that President Bush cited when justifying war with Iraq.
Roberts issued a statement late Friday, saying the Post article had "mischaracterized" his statements. "The committee has not finished its review of the intelligence and has not reached any final conclusions or finished a report," Roberts said.
A Roberts aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the senator's remarks to the Post weren't meant to be a broad critique of the CIA, but were instead aimed at specific instances of flawed intelligence work, such as the now-debunked claims about Niger sales of uranium to Iraq.
Nevertheless, CIA officials, stung by the initial comments, blasted Roberts and defended their work and CIA Director George Tenet.
"It is hard to understand how the committee could come to any conclusions at this point," CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said. "We are perplexed to hear the committee has reached some conclusions, when only Wednesday the (Director of Central Intelligence) requested a meeting with chairman Roberts, during which Director Tenet strongly requested an opportunity for intelligence community senior leadership to appear before the full committee to help them understand this important and complex subject."
A senior administration official, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said Roberts' CIA comments were issued with Cheney's encouragement. The official said Cheney is trying to shift the blame for the lack of progress in Iraq, which is becoming an issue in next year's presidential and congressional elections, from the White House to the CIA. The Roberts aide denied that Cheney encouraged Roberts to criticize the CIA.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the official said, also is seeking to blame the CIA for problems in Iraq and the lack of success in the war against al-Qaida, both to deflect blame from the executive branch and to renew his bid for greater Pentagon control over intelligence operations.
Added a second senior official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity: "It's a little bit of a dangerous game to say intelligence is the first line of defense in the war against terrorism—which it is—then go out and publicly tear down your intelligence service."
Led by Bush and Cheney, senior administration officials repeatedly said in the months leading up to war—in speeches, media appearances and congressional testimony—that intelligence showed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and terrorist connections that made it a gathering threat to its neighbors and to U.S. interests.
Secretary of State Colin Powell used volumes of U.S. intelligence documents and photos to dramatically present to the United Nations the administration's argument for military action against Baghdad.
Several former CIA officers—including Larry Johnson, Vincent Cannistraro and Jim Marcinkowski—told a panel of Democratic senators on Friday that some of their colleagues working in the agency felt pressured to produce intelligence that supported Bush's rationale to go to war.
The White House repeatedly has denied putting any pressure on the U.S. intelligence community to produce analyses that supported Bush's case. But in the months leading up to the war, some intelligence professionals, military officers and diplomatic officials complained that they felt pushed by other senior administration officials to slant analyses.
They also said that pro-war hardliners in the Pentagon and Cheney's office misrepresented or used intelligence selectively to bolster U.S. charges that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein was hiding stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program and was cooperating with al-Qaida.
No conclusive evidence has been found to substantiate those allegations or the administration's contentions that Saddam posed an imminent threat to the United States, the oil-rich Persian Gulf or other U.S. friends and allies.
That's led Democrats and other critics of Bush's handling of the war to accuse the White House of manipulating the prewar Iraq intelligence.
Rockefeller and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., another Senate Select Intelligence Committee member, said the committee needs to investigate beyond the CIA's role into other top offices, including the White House, but Roberts so far has resisted.
"So far what Roberts has said is, we're only going to allow the Intelligence Committee to look at the production of intelligence," Levin said. "We're going to walk right up to the water's edge but we're not going to permit the staff to review, or presumably our report to consider, the misuse of intelligence by policy makers. You're leaving out half the story."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Pat Roberts, Jay Rockefeller, Carl Levin