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Debate over prewar intel still hounds Bush

White House aims to defend its rationale for going into Iraq

WASHINGTON — The debate over prewar intelligence continues to shadow President Bush more than three years after he began making the case in earnest for toppling Saddam and more than two years after it became clear that Iraq had no stockpiles of banned weapons.

With Bush politically weakened, the Democrats emboldened and public support for the war ebbing, the White House is building two main lines of defense. It is asserting that many Democrats saw the same threat from Iraq as the administration did. And it is pointing to two government studies that it says found no evidence that prewar intelligence, while admittedly flawed, had been twisted by political pressure.

The first is giving the White House some political protection, though not enough to deter Democratic attacks. The second addresses only part of the issue, because neither study directly addressed the broader question: whether the administration presented that intelligence to Congress, the nation and the world in a way that overstated what it said about the threat posed by Saddam's weapons programs and any links to terrorism.

The White House is right that many Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton and some of the same senators who are now criticizing Bush most vociferously over the war, expressed concerns about Iraq's weapons programs in the months and years before the invasion.

When the resolution authorizing force came up in October 2002, 29 Democrats in the Senate and 81 in the House voted in favor, versus 21 in the Senate and 126 in the House who voted against it.

But many of those Democrats have said that they now believe they were misled by the administration in the way it presented the prewar intelligence. And the White House's assertion that two government studies back up its contention that it did not manipulate the intelligence obscures the critical distinction.

On Monday, at a stop in Alaska en route to Japan, Bush again said that the Democratic criticism was irresponsible and that "investigations of the intelligence on Iraq have concluded that only one person manipulated evidence and misled the world — and that person was Saddam Hussein."

But what Bush left unaddressed was the question of how his administration used that intelligence, which was full of caveats, subtleties and contradiction, to make the case for war.

That question is now again front and center in Washington, and Democrats seem determined to keep it there.

At a news conference Monday on Capitol Hill, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the party's leader, ran through a list of topics the administration had cited to show that Iraq was a threat that had to be dealt with, including Saddam's efforts to acquire nuclear material and aluminum tubes that could be used in a nuclear program and terrorist training camps in Iraq.

"All of these things simply were not true," Reid said. "The administration knew that, but they did not share that with me or anyone else in Congress that I know of."

The White House's aggressive effort to defend itself has taken on all the trappings of a campaign. In an indication of the coordination between the White House and Republican leaders in Congress, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the majority leader, plans to distribute to Senate Republicans on Tuesday a list of statements, under the title Weapons of Mass Distortion, made by Democrats raising the alarm about the threat from Iraq.

The situation makes the new effort by Senate Democrats to turn the focus on the use of intelligence a political minefield. Among the issues the Democrats are seeking to look into is whether public statements by Bush and others about Iraq exaggerated the threat it posed, even beyond what was described in the flawed intelligence presented to them.

The two major official inquiries — by the Senate Intelligence Committee, in 2004, and the Robb-Silberman commission, in March 2005 — have addressed only the prewar intelligence itself.

Neither found evidence that any political pressure by the Bush administration had contributed to the failures by the CIA and others in assessing the threat posed by Iraq.

On the question of whether there were close, collaborative ties between Iraq and al-Qaida, the reviews found that Cheney and others had encouraged analysts to rethink their skepticism, but they found no evidence that the repeated questioning from the administration had altered the conclusions reached by the agencies.

But neither panel compared public statements by Bush and his aides with the intelligence available at the time, or reviewed internal White House documents, including a draft of a speech to the U.N. Security Council that was later delivered by Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, for further evidence of how intelligence had been used.

The Robb-Silberman commission was established by the White House, not Congress, and in releasing its report last March, Judge Laurence Silberman, one of the two co-chairmen, said, "Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us were agreed that that was not part of our inquiry."

The scope of the initial congressional review, by the Senate Intelligence Committee, was limited in March 2004, under an agreement between Republicans and Democrats, after Republicans blocked Democratic efforts to address issues involving the administration's use of intelligence.

Republicans regarded that issue as too sensitive for a presidential election year, but their stance prompted sharp protests from Democrats, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the panel. This month, Democrats closed the Senate for two hours and threatened to shut it down if Republicans did not agree to move ahead with that part of the inquiry.