White House ponders intell probe over Iraq

Sunday, February 1, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The White House is considering endorsing the creation of an independent commission that would investigate whether the United States used faulty intelligence information when it decided to go to war in Iraq, government sources said Saturday.

They said a statement of support from the White House could come this week.

Until now, President Bush has reacted coolly toward the idea of a new commission, refusing to endorse it publicly. But his administration is under mounting election-year pressure to agree to an independent inquiry about Iraq's alleged arsenal of banned destruction.

Vice President Dick Cheney has broached the possibility of a commission in conversations with members of Congress, according to government sources familiar with the conversations. These sources spoke on condition of anonymity.

Despite months of searching, U.S. inspectors have found no forbidden weapons in Iraq. Bush had cited the suspected weapons as a rationale for the war.

Bush, asked point-blank on Friday about a commission, declined to answer directly.

"I want the American people to know that I, too, want to know the facts," the president said.

He reaffirmed the administration's position that the Iraq Survey Group, which is searching for weapons of mass destruction, should complete its work and then compare its results with the administration's prewar intelligence.

Bush was asked about that intelligence Saturday by a senator from his own party, at a meeting in Philadelphia of congressional Republicans.

In response to the question from Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Bush responded much the same as he did to reporters on Friday, saying he wants to get to the bottom of how accurate U.S. intelligence was about Saddam's weapons before the war, an administration official said on condition of anonymity.

David Kay, the former head of the inspection team, has said that the information on which Bush's war decision was based was erroneous.

Kay has urged an independent look at the intelligence. That idea has won the support from Democrats in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also supports the idea.

But with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, it is unlikely an independent commission would be created without the president's blessing.

A full-blown investigation of Iraq intelligence failures could pose election-year risks for Bush. No one could be certain where it would lead, who it would touch or what it would uncover.

But resisting an investigation has hazards, too, many political analysts believe, because that could give Democratic presidential rivals an opening to keep the issue alive and question what the White House might be hiding.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, in a debate Thursday night, criticized Cheney for allegedly berating CIA operatives because he did not like their intelligence reports.

"It seems to me that the vice president of the United States therefore influenced the very reports that the president then used to decide to go to war and to ask Congress for permission to go to war," Dean said.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said his support for the Iraq war was based on years of intelligence briefings and evidence of Saddam's atrocities against his own people. He supports an independent commission "that will have credibility and that the American people will trust, about why there is this discrepancy about what we were told and what's actually been found there."

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who also supports a commission, said whether Cheney influenced CIA officials to shape the intelligence he wanted is "a very legitimate question. ... There's an enormous question about the exaggeration by this administration."

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