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Congressional Quarterly Weekly February 06, 2004

Bush Reverses Course on Prewar Intelligence Probe

By Helen Fessenden

For months, the strategy of the White House and its GOP allies in Congress for keeping a lid on the Iraq intelligence imbroglio seemed simple and effective enough.

The House and Senate Intelligence committees kept the focus of their closed-door probes on the intelligence agencies rather than the White House, while Republicans rebuffed calls for a broad-based independent inquiry. Their argument: the chance of finding illegal weapons programs in Iraq remained strong, and the panels were doing a sufficient job of looking into how and why prewar intelligence estimates of Iraq's banned weapons failed to match up with the postwar facts. (CQ Weekly, p. 227)

But that all changed over the past two weeks. On Feb. 2, the White House announced that it would no longer oppose an independent investigation into prewar intelligence on Iraq. On Feb. 6, President Bush announced a politically heterogeneous group to head the effort, which is expected to finish in March 2005.

That announcement was the most telling sign to date that the political storm over prewar Iraq intelligence has only become more fierce as Democrats in Congress and in the race for the presidency refuse to let it go. In fact, Democrats, galvanized by the recent statements of departing weapons inspector David Kay and CIA Director George J. Tenet, have been stepping up their calls for a broad-based investigation of intelligence and policymaking ahead of the war.

Also troubling for the White House was that some Republicans, including Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John McCain of Arizona, said after Kay's Jan. 28 testimony that they backed a new probe as well.

Against this backdrop, the Bush administration made the major tactical switch to name a commission and keep Congress -- despite its friendly Republican majority -- from taking matters into its own hands.

The panel, ranging from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans, will be chaired by former Democratic Senator Charles S. Robb of Virginia (1989-2001) and retired judge Lawrence Silberman, a conservative who served as deputy attorney general in the Nixon and Ford administrations. The rest are McCain, Lloyd Cutler, former White House counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton; former federal judge Patricia M. Wald; Yale University President Richard C. Levin, and William O. Studeman, former deputy director of the CIA. Two more members are expected to be named.

McCain, traveling in Germany when the announcement was made, was reported as saying that he did believe, in contrast to Tenet, that there was a major intelligence failure. But he added that the panel would take a look at the policymaking process itself. McCain has long defended the decision to go to war, but he is also well known for his independence.

Turning Down the Volume

Intelligence experts interviewed before the selection was announced, however, warned that today's polarized political climate will make it difficult for the panel to be perceived as credible by either side, regardless of its composition. And most described Bush's move as more of a stalling tactic than an attempt to achieve sweeping intelligence reform or force political accountability.

"This won't solve the problem but just push it aside and obfuscate so it won't be used by Democrats," said retired Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, who headed the National Security Agency under President Reagan and now directs national security studies at the Hudson Institute.

Odom added that any panel that will frame the issue as primarily as a problem of intelligence failure will miss the larger picture of how policymaking really works.

"The nearest corporate analogy to the director of central intelligence is vice president of marketing," Odom said, referring to Tenet. "If a firm gets in trouble, do you fire that guy? No. You go to the top."

The historical legacy of such commissions, which often fail to have serious impact, is not that promising, according to David Barrett, a professor at Villanova University and a historian of the Intelligence committees.

"Usually, commissions have mostly served as political cover -- even in the case of the Warren Commission," said Barrett.

But it is the presidentially appointed Warren Commission, which investigated President Kennedy's assassination, that Republicans now hold up as a model. McCain called it "a satisfactory approach."

In contrast, most Democrats argue that a White House-appointed panel will fail to ask the right questions. In a Feb. 2 letter to Bush, Democratic leaders in Congress charged that "a commission appointed and controlled by the White House will not have the independence or credibility necessary to investigate these issues."

The letter went on: "The Warren Commission. . . was not investigating allegations of potential misconduct involving senior administration officials . . . [a]nd the conclusions of the Pearl Harbor commission had little credibility with the public."

But there is still political utility in Bush's decision, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

"It's a way to kick the can down the road past the election while keeping the intelligence community and the White House from devouring each other in an orgy of recrimination," Pike said. "It's basically a way of turning down the volume."


Copyright 2004, Congressional Quarterly, Inc.