The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release its report assessing the accuracy of pre-Iraq war intelligence Thursday, but a partisan showdown over the Bush administration’s alleged manipulation of data to make the case for war is likely to occur later in the year.
The still-classified 400-page report is highly critical of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Republicans and Democrats alike have been sharply critical of the CIA’s decision to redact large portions of the text, citing security concerns. Committee aides worked through the weekend to prepare the report for public release.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said the panel will hold hearings soon about how best to reform the nation’s intelligence-gathering agencies — part of a “dual track” effort the committee will undertake in the coming months. The other track will focus on accusations that the administration misused its intelligence data.
Roberts said he plans to release a report on how the administration used the intelligence it possessed sometime before November — a decision he acknowledged could provide political fodder for both the presidential and Congressional elections.
“I don’t think there is much that goes on in the Congress from here on out that is not going to have some kind of political ramifications,” Roberts said.
Democrats are eager to address the administration’s use of pre-Iraq war intelligence because they argue that unsubstantiated information pointing to efforts by then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to build weapons of mass destruction was promoted to gain public support for invading Iraq.
“The inadequate intelligence was exaggerated and used as a rationale for going to war,” charged Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Intelligence panel.
So far, coalition forces in Iraq have yet to discover caches of weapons of mass destruction, and a growing number of Americans appear to agree with Wyden’s assessment that intelligence was exaggerated.
According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 47 percent of respondents believed President Bush “deliberately misled people to make the case for the war.” Just a few months ago, only 41 percent of those questioned thought Bush had misled the country.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that if voters continue to believe that Bush lied to them, then it could hurt the president’s chances of winning a second term.
“I think people want their leaders to give them straight, unvarnished statements without exaggeration,” said Levin, a member of the Intelligence Committee. “So if people believe that the administration or the president exaggerated or embellished intelligence, I think that there will be some people [who] would say that is a factor in their vote.”
Levin also said he expects the Intelligence panel to arrive at the same conclusion — that the administration misused the data — when it completes this phase of the investigation.
“I don’t see how a report could reach a different conclusion,” he said.
But the investigation will not focus solely on the current administration’s public declarations about Hussein’s efforts to build a weapons of mass destruction program. In a tightly worded agreement struck in February, Intelligence Committee Republicans and Democrats agreed to investigate all “public statements and reports and testimony regarding Iraq by U.S. government officials” extending back to the Gulf War.
While Democrats will focus on the Bush administration’s actions, Republicans on the committee are expected to give equal weight to statements made by former President Bill Clinton, his top aides and Members of Congress regarding Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program. Democrats and Republicans privately acknowledge that this phase of the investigation could result in the breakdown of comity on the committee.
Democrats are particularly interested in how the Defense Department’s Office of Special Plans packaged the intelligence data that supported the claim that Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction. Roberts said he plans to have Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, appear before the committee to explain the Office of Special Plans’ role.
But Roberts said he does not know what will happen with the question of how the administration used the intelligence. He added, “I am not even sure it is within our jurisdiction.
“After you say, ‘Here is the intelligence and here is what we think about that. Was it right? Was it wrong? Was it credible? Or was there any pressure?’” he said. “It is up to the policymakers to determine what to do with it. I am not really sure that is within our jurisdiction, but obviously we have Members on both sides who think that is very important, so we are going to take a look at it.”
In the coming months, Roberts will have to contend with political forces not only within his own party, but also with the Democrats on the Intelligence panel.
“It always is my point to get the job done thoroughly, and I am not going to be rushed,” said the committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). “I am going to be very thorough.
“It is something we absolutely should have done in the first phase because it was all part of the same fabric, but because of peculiar circumstances we weren’t able to do that,” Rockefeller added.
Still, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) praised Roberts for his willingness to tackle this politically sensitive issue in an election year.
“Well, you have got to do what you have to do,” Warner said. “Roberts feels [it] and I support it. There is a necessity to look at this issue. So here we go.”