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Reports: Bush to call inquiry into Iraq, other spy failures

Published Aug. 27, 2005

President Bush will establish a bipartisan commission in the next few days to examine a broad overhaul of U.S. intelligence operations, including a study of the misjudgments about Iraq's unconventional weapons, the New York Times and other major media outlets reported Sunday, quoting unnamed senior administration officials.

The panel will also investigate repeated failures to penetrate secretive governments and stateless groups that could try new attacks on the United States.

The president's decision came after a week of escalating pressure on the White House from both Democrats and many ranking Republicans to deal with what the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee has called "egregious" errors that overstated Iraq's stockpiles of chemical and biological arms, and made the country appear far closer to developing nuclear weapons than it actually was.

The Washington Post reported in its Sunday issue that Bush had agreed to set up a commission to re-examine the intelligence he had received about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. What administration officials described on Sunday was a much broader examination of U.S. intelligence operations, of which the Iraqi experience was only a part.

The pressure to establish such a panel became irresistible after David Kay, the former chief weapons inspector, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that "it turns out we were all wrong, probably," about the perceived Iraqi threat, which was the administration's basic justification for the war.

The commission will not report back until after the November elections. Some former officials who have been approached about taking part say they believe it may take 18 months or more to reach its conclusions.

White House officials said the president was still completing a list of who would serve on the commission, which was expected to have about nine members. Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said Sunday that they were talking to "very distinguished statesmen and women, who have served their country and who have been users of intelligence, or served in a gathering capacity."

Among those who have been consulted, officials say, is Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser under Bush's father. Scowcroft was a harsh critic of the process by which the current president decided to go to war.

But it is far from clear that Bush's effort to put the study into a broader context _ retooling U.S. intelligence-gathering for a new era of terrorism and nuclear proliferation by rogue scientists and countries that may pass weapons into the hands of groups like al-Qaida _ will insulate him from Democrats' charges that the White House tried to manipulate the Iraq intelligence to justify the invasion last March.

Nor is it clear whether the commission's broader mandate will keep it from delving too deeply into the specific failures by the CIA and other intelligence agencies in the case of Iraq. Bush has been trying to avoid identifying individuals or agencies responsible for the Iraq failures. Senior administration officials concede that they do not want to risk further alienating the CIA or the director of central intelligence, George Tenet.

In interviews Sunday, White House officials rejected direct comparisons to the commission that is examining the intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, or the commission that issued a blistering critique of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster a year ago. Instead, the New York Times quoted a senior White House official as saying that Bush intends to order a look at the global security challenges of the 21st century.

The draft of the executive order specifically tells the commission to compare intelligence about Iraq with what was found there. But it is not clear whether the commission will decide to delve into issues beyond how the intelligence was gathered, and specifically how it was used.

In the case of Iraq, that could put the commission into the midst of the politically charged question of whether the most dire-sounding possibilities were emphasized by Bush administration officials to build a national and international consensus on the need to take military action. The White House has denied any such effort to filter the intelligence.

"It has to have that included," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on Fox News, making an argument that has divided Democrats and Republicans for months in the debate on Capitol Hill about prewar intelligence. "And that is still not settled."

While other studies of U.S. intelligence lapses have been ordered by past administrations, none have taken place at the level of a presidential commission. Nor have they operated in the midst of a heated political debate over whether the president was the victim of bad intelligence, as Republicans argue, or whether he sought to cherry-pick the evidence that would justify the decision to go to war, as many of the Democratic candidates for president have contended.

The New York Times and other media reported that officials familiar with the discussions over the creation of the commission say that besides the Iraq experience, the commission may examine the failure to detect preparations for the nuclear tests that Pakistan and India set off in 1998, missed signals about how quickly Iran and Libya were moving toward a bomb with the aid of Pakistani scientists, and al-Qaida's focus on an attack on the U.S. mainland.

In Kay's congressional testimony, he noted that the same intelligence agencies that overestimated Iraq's abilities seemed to have underestimated Iran's and Libya's, and still cannot get a clear fix on North Korea's.

Only last week, asked about setting up an inquiry, Bush said he would await the findings of the Iraq Survey Group, which was asked to find Iraq's unconventional weapons and which Kay led until last month. But it quickly became clear, White House officials said, that this position was untenable.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week that he would not stand in the way of an independent intelligence inquiry as long as it did not interfere with the monthslong investigation by his panel, which plans to distribute a draft report to members of Congress on Thursday.

The Senate panel "for the last six, seven, eight, nine months, has had 10 staffers working 24/7 on floor-to-ceiling documents and doing the most thorough investigative job on the entire intelligence community that's been done in 20 years," Roberts said last week. "We now have our draft report. I would at least like to get the draft report out and make it public, and then if people feel like they have to have an independent investigation, that's fine. "

Roberts has said that the draft report by his committee staff has found no evidence that the Bush administration put pressure on intelligence analysts to exaggerate the dangers posed by Iraq _ a conclusion that matches one offered by Kay in his testimony last week. But the Senate report is expected to be highly critical of the CIA and its counterparts.

Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, became the second top Republican calling for an inquiry, joining Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"We need to open this up in a very nonpartisan, outside commission," Hagel said.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.