WASHINGTON—Top Republican lawmakers on Wednesday rejected Democratic demands for a formal public inquiry into whether the Bush administration distorted or mishandled intelligence about Saddam Hussein's illicit arms programs and links to terrorists, which helped justify President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said such an investigation could be held if warranted after closed-door hearings and classified-document reviews by his panel and its counterpart in the House of Representatives.
But he failed to mollify Democrats who are seeking a full public inquiry, including open hearings, testimony from current and former intelligence officials and a public report.
"Closed hearings and review of documents presented by the administration are not sufficient," asserted Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In justifying the invasion of Iraq, Bush and his top lieutenants stressed intelligence findings that Saddam was hiding chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs from U.N. inspectors, and had forged links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
But two months of searches by U.S. troops in Iraq haven't uncovered any weapons of mass destruction or proof that Saddam and al-Qaida were conspiring together.
Some key questions raised by this are:
_How good was the intelligence provided to the Bush administration by the CIA, which had no high-level human sources of its own inside the Iraqi regime?
_How much weight did senior administration officials give to intelligence supplied by sources whom the CIA had rejected?
_Did pro-invasion officials exaggerate the threat Saddam posed to boost public support for his ouster?
Some current and former military, diplomatic and intelligence officials have said there was pressure to produce intelligence assessments that would strengthen the arguments of pro-invasion officials in the White House and Pentagon.
"The committee has yet to hear from any intelligence official expressing such concerns," Roberts said.
Bush and other administration officials say they are confident that illicit weapons eventually will be discovered in Iraq, although they have begun holding out the possibility that the stockpiles were destroyed before the war.
Roberts charged that some accusations that intelligence was skewed are politically motivated; he spoke alongside his House counterpart, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va.,
"There seems to be a campaign afoot by some to criticize the intelligence community and the president for connecting the dots," Roberts said.
The CIA has begun turning over documents for review to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"It seems to me sensible to do that kind of homework before you talk about a formal investigation," Roberts said. "It could come to that. If there is anything egregious, rest assured that the veracity and the value of our national intelligence is first and foremost in this chairman's mind."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer welcomed the intelligence review.
"We always work together with Congress on dealing with the threat of Iraqi possession of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and we will continue to work with Congress on the facts that led previous administrations, Democrats and Republicans alike, to know that he (Saddam) had WMD," Fleischer said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee already has begun closed-door hearings on the issue.
Rockefeller said he would continue pressing for a formal inquiry.
"Iraqi WMD and links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were the primary justification offered for the war in Iraq," he said. "Even while the search for WMD continues, the American people need and want to know whether our government was accurate and forthcoming in its prewar assessments."
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told a small group of reporters Wednesday that he didn't believe the administration officials had concocted intelligence.
"It was not misleading the country in the broad sense of whether or not he (Saddam) had weapons of mass destruction. He had used them," Biden said.
However, Biden accused hard-liners aligned with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of creating "a false sense of urgency" about Iraq's threat to ensure that an invasion took place before opposition grew too strong.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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