Key intelligence brief for Bush under review

Posted in United States | 14-Feb-04 | Author: Douglas Jehl| Source: The New York Times

WASHINGTON - The highly restricted and classified process in which President George W. Bush is provided daily intelligence is being scrutinized within the government and Congress after criticism that Bush has been given too narrow and limited a flow of information on Iraq and other matters, according to senior administration and congressional officials.

Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate intelligence committee, as part of an inquiry that the panel voted Thursday night to expand, intend to review that process and its main product, known as the President's Daily Brief, the officials said on Friday.

The inquiries have been prompted in part by questions regarding whether public statements by the White House about Iraq and its illicit weapons before the American invasion last March adequately reflected the best available intelligence on that subject.

Under Bush, the daily intelligence briefing has been conducted most days by George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, while distribution of the highly classified briefing document, known in the government as the PDB, has been restricted to a small group that includes only the president's most senior advisers.

Among the issues that members of the Senate intelligence committee hope to review are whether the document, prepared by the CIA's directorate of intelligence, adequately reflects the views of other intelligence agencies. In the prewar debate on Iraq, other agencies, particularly the State Department's intelligence branch, were far more skeptical of the idea that Iraq possessed illicit weapons than the CIA was, the officials said.

The PDB is the vehicle for intelligence information gathered around the world, distilled into about a dozen pages each day. As such, it plays a critical role in the flow of intelligence to the president and other top policymakers.

In the current administration, in addition to the president, only the vice president, the secretaries of state and defense and a handful of other principal foreign policy advisers receive copies of the digest each day.

Under previous administrations, the heads of other intelligence agencies, including the State Department's branch and the Defense Intelligence Agency, were among those who received daily copies of the briefing document, administration officials said. Under Bush, those intelligence agencies are no longer on the distribution list, prompting concern among their most senior officials about what Bush is told.

As director of central intelligence, Tenet has the responsibility of overseeing the entire intelligence community. But within other intelligence agencies and on Capitol Hill, some of Tenet's critics have questioned whether he has too often reflected the CIA's viewpoint to the exclusion of other agencies, particularly on the subject of Iraq, and especially in the one-on-one morning sessions with Bush, six days a week, in which he presents the president's daily briefing.

A senior intelligence official said that the CIA review would focus on possible changes in the product itself, not on its distribution in the government, which is the prerogative of the White House. But other Bush administration officials said the question of the scope of the distribution was also being reviewed by the National Security Council, and congressional officials said that issue was also being studied by the Senate intelligence committee.

On Thursday night, that Senate panel voted unanimously to expand the scope of its inquiry into intelligence on Iraq, to address not only whether the intelligence was well-founded but whether public statements and testimony on Iraq by government officials "were substantiated by intelligence information."

Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the Republican chairman of the panel, said that in deciding to broaden its review, the panel was committed "to learning the necessary lessons from our experience with Iraq and to ensuring that our armed forces and policymakers benefit from the best and most reliable intelligence that can be connected."

The contents of the president's daily brief, classified "Top Secret/Codeword," are so closely held that most congressional and administration officials who have raised questions about the briefings given to Bush acknowledge having never been permitted to see the document. They say they do not know if the briefings on Iraq and other subjects reflected the consensus of the intelligence community.

The White House insists that the documents are covered by executive privilege. Even members of the congressional commission that is investigating the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States have been permitted only limited access to the documents, under highly restricted circumstances.

The staff of the Senate intelligence committee has still not been able to strike an agreement with the White House that would allow it to review copies of PDBs on Iraq in the months before the war, as part of its broadened effort to compare the administration's public statements with prewar intelligence.