WASHINGTON — A Senate committee will expand its probe of prewar Iraq intelligence to investigate whether some administration officials exaggerated the available information to build their case for a pre-emptive war.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told Knight Ridder on Thursday that the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence, which he chairs, will broaden its eight-month look into Iraq-related intelligence to examine how public statements by officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations compare to prewar intelligence reports.
Roberts said the panel also will evaluate the intelligence provided by the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group; will examine the role of a special Pentagon planning office; and will review whether administration officials ignored warnings about the difficulties of rebuilding postwar Iraq.
Roberts said the committee is expanding the inquiry because of early reaction to its draft report on prewar intelligence, which began circulating on Capitol Hill last week.
"Basically, we looked at the report, and it jumps out at you that we ought to look at X,Y and Z," Roberts said. "We have some very serious systemic issues in the intelligence community."
Roberts said the decision came after months of heavy lobbying by committee Democrats, led by ranking minority member Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to widen the inquiry into issues politically sensitive to the Bush administration. Roberts had resisted those calls until now.
"We will address the question of whether intelligence was exaggerated or misused by reviewing statements by senior policy-makers to determine if those statements were substantiated by the intelligence," Rockefeller said in a statement Thursday night.
Knight Ridder reported on Monday that the public version of the intelligence agencies' most important prewar assessment of Iraq's illicit weapons programs was stripped of dissenting opinions, warnings of insufficient information and doubts about Saddam Hussein's intentions that were contained in the classified National Intelligence Estimate.
Roberts said the committee will try to include any information found in the new areas of inquiry in its final report, which he hoped would be released by the end of March.
But he said he expects that the Senate investigation of Iraq-related intelligence - especially the accuracy of prewar estimates of Iraqi reconstruction - will continue beyond that.
"That would be the start of phase two," he said.
In the months since a U.S.-led force toppled Saddam, extensive intelligence efforts have turned up little or no evidence to support many of the Bush administration's prewar statements about Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, its ties to al-Qaida and the cost and difficulty of rebuilding Iraq.
The expanded Senate inquiry, led by a Republican senator who until now has largely defended the administration's conduct, comes amid growing questions about whether some officials may have misled the public to drum up support for war.
Those doubts are taking a toll on Bush's political standing, a new poll released Thursday suggests. The ABCNews/Washington Post poll found that Bush's overall job approval rating has fallen to 50 percent, its lowest ever, and that his rating for honesty and trustworthiness also hit a new low of 52 percent.
While 68 percent of those polled said they think the administration honestly believed that Iraq had nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, more than half - 54 percent - said they think officials "deliberately exaggerated" the evidence.
The telephone poll of 1,003 adults selected at random was conducted Feb. 10-11 by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa., and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Officials in the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and the Foreign Service have privately complained since before the war that some administration officials rushed to conclusions about Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, its links to Osama bin Laden and its readiness to attack Americans without provocation.
In their push for war, these officials charged, officials in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office, the office of Vice President Dick Cheney and the National Security Council squelched contradictory and cautionary views, relied on defectors and other sources who were untrustworthy and might have been Iraqi double agents, and produced their own questionable analysis of the links among terrorist groups and nations such as Iraq.
A number of the administration's claims now appear to have been wrong.
-So far, no hidden chemical or biological weapons have been found in Iraq, and the former chief weapons inspector, David Kay, has said there probably are none.
-No evidence has been found to support administration claims that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear weapons program.
-The administration was forced to drop a bogus allegation in Bush's 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa.
-No evidence has been found to support administration claims that Iraq had mobile biological weapons laboratories and research facilities. Senior intelligence officials acknowledged last week that some of the key evidence on the alleged mobile facilities came from Iraqi defectors whose information was fabricated.
-The FBI and the CIA have contradicted charges, repeated recently by Cheney, that an Iraq agent met with Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta in Prague.
-Some intelligence analysts strongly dispute administration claims that Iraq tried to import aluminum tubes to enrich uranium to make nuclear weapons.
-An internal CIA review last year found that although the administration pressed for evidence of ties between Iraq and al-Qaida, no proof of cooperation between the two was found.
The expanded Senate probe parallels the lines of inquiry that Knight Ridder began following in the fall of 2002, as the administration began making its case for invading Iraq.
On Oct. 8, 2002, for example, Knight Ridder reported that a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats in Bush's government believed the administration was exaggerating the threat that Saddam posed, distorting his links to al-Qaida and downplaying the potential repercussions of a new war in the Middle East.
On July 11, 2003, Knight Ridder reported that the small circle of Pentagon civilians who dominated Iraq planning failed to plan for the postwar period because they believed Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops as liberators and accept a former exile, Ahmad Chalabi, as the country's leader. The planners, the article said, resisted CIA and State Department officials who disputed them and ignored a lengthy State Department "Future of Iraq" project.