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Thursday, June 12, 2003

Public war inquiry blocked
GOP calls open scrutiny of pre-war intelligence 'premature'


WASHINGTON -- Republican congressional leaders bought more time yesterday for President Bush to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq by blocking a public investigation into pre-war U.S. intelligence and allegations that the White House exaggerated the threat.

Rejecting a formal public inquiry that many Democrats sought were Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla.

Instead, the Republican leaders said, members of their committees would conduct a closed-door, document-by-document review of pre-war U.S. intelligence reports. That approach would delay any potentially embarrassing public hearings and give the Bush administration additional weeks, if not months, to find alleged Iraqi weapons.

After U.S. combat forces failed to find evidence of the weapons since conquering Iraq eight weeks ago, the Pentagon dispatched a special 1,400-member task force to search for suspected Iraqi chemical, biological or nuclear weapons materials that Bush cited before ordering the U.S. invasion March 19.

The outcome of any congressional investigation into U.S. intelligence on Iraq could become an issue in next year's presidential election if Democratic rivals challenge Bush on his rationale for the pre-emptive attack. More than 200 GIs have died in combat and accidents since military operations began in March.

"We obviously have some politics involved here, and we obviously have a situation where people disagree as to the path we take to get to the right answers," Roberts said.

Roberts rejected a request by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for the committees to launch an immediate, public and joint congressional inquiry.

Such an inquiry would be "very premature" and "pejorative" because it would suggest "there's something dreadfully wrong that you're going to have to set straight," Roberts said. "I will not allow the committee to be politicized or to be used as an unwitting tool for any political strategist."

Roberts said the inquiry would determine whether U.S. intelligence agencies skewed their conclusions to support the Bush administration's campaign to invade Iraq. He urged any U.S. intelligence officers who felt "pressured by the administration to skew their analysis" to advise the committee confidentially.

Warner said he had seen no evidence that Bush administration officials "hyped or cooked or embellished" pre-war U.S. intelligence. Warner appealed to Americans to "give us time and to feel a sense of confidence" that lawmakers would privately "assess the facts" and then hopefully convene a public hearing.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a close White House ally, ruled out creating a joint Senate committee Tuesday, Warner said.

The White House endorsed GOP leaders' action. "The administration welcomes the review," presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said aboard Air Force One as Bush flew to Chicago for an appearance.

Rockefeller criticized GOP leaders' effort to block a public inquiry. The GOP blueprint is "entirely inadequate," representing an effort to "avoid hearings," he said. "It's like sleepwalking through history."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was disappointed. "The idea that you go through these hearings with nothing but closed hearings defeats the purpose."

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