WASHINGTON—The withering critique of Iraq-related intelligence failures released Friday by the Senate Intelligence Committee sparked a heated election-year debate over questions the report didn't answer.
With a bipartisan consensus emerging that arguments for the Iraq war were built on bad intelligence, the debate pits Republicans who blame intelligence agencies for failing President Bush against Democrats who agree the intelligence agencies made serious mistakes but also want to know whether the Bush administration manipulated information to mislead America into war.
The division will shape the politically sensitive "Phase Two" of the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence probe of Iraq intelligence, which looks at how the Bush administration used information to build its case for war. That phase probably will continue into next year despite calls for resolution before the November elections.
In its 511-page report, members of the Intelligence Committee unanimously agreed that U.S. intelligence agencies made serious mistakes regarding Iraq's prewar weapons capabilities and its threat to American security.
Reports that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was developing nuclear weapons—the Bush administration's main justification for the war—were simply wrong, said committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "They were also unreasonable and largely unsupported by the available intelligence."
Committee Democrats supported the report's condemnations but expressed frustration with the report's scope, which almost exclusively criticized intelligence agencies while leaving Bush unscathed.
Ranking Democrat Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller of West Virginia said limiting the report's findings to agency failures didn't adequately address questions surrounding the Bush administration's use of intelligence information when it made its case for war.
Among the issues Rockefeller wanted addressed in Phase Two:
_How intelligence on Iraq was used or misused by administration officials in public statements intended to build support for the war, especially repeated statements of operational links between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist network. U.S. intelligence officials have said that while there were contacts, there was no compelling evidence that Saddam and Islamic terrorists collaborated in any effort to kill Americans.
_The role the Pentagon played in intelligence-gathering, specifically the aggressive approach that Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith took toward exploring ties between Iraq and al-Qaida. A Rockefeller addition to the report describes how Feith's office did its own analysis, bypassed the CIA and presented its findings directly to the White House.
_Prewar intelligence forecasts about postwar Iraq;
_The role played by Ahmad Chalabi, the now-discredited leader of the Iraqi National Congress, a former exile dissident group, in passing information to the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney from defectors whose assertions haven't been supported by evidence.
"After the analysts and the intelligence community produced an intelligence product, how is it then shaped or used or misused by the policy-makers?" Rockefeller asked. "Virtually everything that has to do with the administration has been relegated to Phase Two" of the committee's investigation.
Roberts said that had been the plan since February, when he and Rockefeller agreed to expand the probe beyond its initial scope.
The timeline isn't a matter of politics, he said. After taking more than a year to look at intelligence agencies, Roberts said, a new round of findings by November, which would require questioning hundreds of officials, isn't feasible. He assured Democrats the probe was a priority and was proceeding as fast as it could.
The next steps will be hearings to consider changing the structure of U.S. intelligence agencies, Roberts said.
Last month an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll showed that 47 percent of Americans thought the president misled them to make the case for war.
Bush, traveling in Pennsylvania on Friday, called the Senate Intelligence document "a useful report," but said he hadn't read it.
"I want to know how to make the agencies better, to make sure that we're better able to gather the information necessary to protect the American people," the president said.
"Unless administration officials, from the president on down, had information not made available to the Senate Intelligence Committee, there was clearly an exaggeration of either an imminent or a grave and growing threat" to Americans, said Intelligence Committee member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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