By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 7, 2006
A long-awaited Senate analysis comparing the Bush administration's public statements about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein with the evidence senior officials reviewed in private remains mired in partisan recrimination and will not be released before the November elections, key senators said yesterday.
Instead, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will vote today to declassify two less controversial chapters of the panel's report, on the use of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, for release as early as Friday. One chapter has concluded that Iraqi exiles in the Iraqi National Congress, who were subsidized by the U.S. government, tried to influence the views of intelligence officers analyzing Hussein's efforts to create weapons of mass destruction.
"It is clear to me, at least, that the INC information provided to the Department of Defense was misleading, that the government spent unnecessary amounts of money supporting that group, and all of that helped create bogus reasons to go to war," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the intelligence committee.
Under pressure from Democrats, Republicans on the committee agreed in February 2004 to write a report on the use of prewar intelligence, but the effort has languished amid partisan feuding. Last year, angry Democrats briefly shut down the Senate to protest the pace of the investigation.
After nearly three years, the heart of the report remains incomplete. Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said Democrats produced 511 administration statements to be analyzed, a virtually impossible task. At this point, the section is 800 pages long, accompanied by 40,000 documents, and is nowhere near ready for release, he said.
But with midterm elections two months away, two of five chapters are about to be released. The first examines what, if any, information provided by Iraqi exiles was used in official intelligence estimates. The second compares prewar estimates of Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear programs with the findings of U.S. weapons hunters, who wrapped up their work empty-handed in December 2004.
Even that limited release may pack a wallop.
"This is a very critical part of our report," Feinstein said. "I am hopeful that it can be adequately declassified so that individuals can see that. If it is, the full import of the INC will be known."
Senate aides said it took two Republican committee members, Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), to force Roberts to act. Republicans on the committee readily conceded that Democrats would be able to pick through the chapters -- especially the INC portion -- to resurrect charges that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to build a case for war. And Democrats appeared ready to do just that.
"The principle that holds up this country is accountability, and we have not had any," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), the committee's ranking Democrat. "What happened with the INC was remarkable."
But Republicans and Democrats differ sharply on the significance of controversial figures in the INC, such as Ahmed Chalabi. Democrats will say Chalabi and other exiles fueled the drive to war in 2002 by fundamentally distorting the conclusions of several intelligence reports, including a critical, classified estimate of Hussein's capabilities for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Republicans have concluded that the exiles had little influence.
"The big question is: Did the INC have any direct input into the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate so as to affect in some way what was in that estimate?" Roberts said. "In my view, the conclusion is there is very little, if any, evidence that took place."
Roberts was emphatic yesterday that the chapter on Iraqi exiles "is a rather old story." The INC's efforts to influence U.S. policy in Iraq date to the early years of the Clinton administration and affected not just the White House but also Congress, he said.
"The allegation that the Bush administration was the first to discover and utilize the INC was simply not true," Roberts said. "It went way back."
Chalabi and the INC had strong supporters in the Bush administration, he conceded, but their biases and motives were widely understood. Ultimately, Chalabi had little to no influence on the critical administration document that convinced many policymakers that Saddam Hussein's weapons program presented a clear threat, Roberts said.
"The whole thing has been a colossal waste of time," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), another committee member.
Democratic aides disagreed with Roberts's characterization of the conclusions. Chalabi and senior members of the INC wanted the United States to depose Hussein in hopes that they could seize control of a new Iraqi government, and their efforts to influence intelligence did shape the critical National Intelligence Estimate, the aides said.
Roberts kept the investigation narrowly targeted to the exiles' influence on the intelligence process, beating back Democratic efforts to examine INC contacts with policymakers, the aides said. So the report is silent on Chalabi's efforts to sway Congress and individuals in the Bush administration.
Still, the report should make waves, they said. Democrats are already using Chalabi in their attacks on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, painting the secretary as a gullible dupe to an ambitious con man.
"The U.S. government spent a lot of money on the INC," Feinstein said. "I think it is a very important report."