Bush to order Iraq inquiryPanel will weigh intelligence overhaul after prewar lapses
WASHINGTON President George W. Bush will establish a bipartisan commission in the next few days to examine a broad overhaul of American intelligence operations, using a study of what went wrong in their assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as part of a broader look at shortcomings in penetrating secretive regimes and stateless groups that target the United States, senior administration officials said Sunday. Bush will issue an executive order establishing the group in coming days, but it will not report back until after the November elections and may take a year and a half or more to reach its conclusions. The president’s decision came after a week of escalating pressure on the White House from Democrats and many ranking Republicans to deal with what the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee has called ‘‘egregious’’ misjudgments of Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear programs before the United States led an invasion of the country in March.
But by giving the commission a far broader mandate than simply determining what went wrong in the Iraq assessments, Bush hopes to avoid simply identifying failures by the CIA and other intelligence agencies, which would run the risk of further alienating the agencies and the director of central intelligence, George Tenet.
Instead, a senior White House official said, Bush intends to order a look ‘‘at the global security challenges of the 21st century.’’ Many studies of American intelligence-gathering have been conducted before, often involving questions of whether the roles of the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and other intelligence groups should be reorganized. But none has taken place at this level, or after what appears to have been a string of intelligence lapses.
Those range from the failure to detect preparations for the nuclear tests that Pakistan and India set off in 1998, to missed signals about how quickly Iran and Libya were moving toward a bomb with the aid of Pakistani scientists, to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and then the overestimation of Iraq’s unconventional weapons.
'White House officials said the president was finalizing a list of who would serve on the commission, though Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said 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, who was a harsh critic of the process by which the current president decided to go to war. Scowcroft already heads a standing group that assesses American intelligence operations. But it is unclear what role he might play. Politically, the White House hopes that the creation of the bipartisan commission will help deflect the central Democratic candidates’ critique of Bush’s handling of the war: that he moved ahead on faulty intelligence, and sought to manipulate, or ‘‘cherry-pick,’’ evidence that supported his drive to unseat Saddam Hussein. But it is far from clear that the creation of the commission alone will defuse that issue. The pressure on the White House has been mounting all week, after David Kay, the chief American weapons inspector, declared that everyone in the American intelligence community had misjudged the Iraqi threat. In fact, that was only partly true: Some intelligence units, including at the State Department and the Department of Energy, had sharply questioned how much capability Saddam actually possessed to deploy weapons of mass destruction.
Bush has resisted a deep inquiry into the Iraq failures, and early last week he said he would await the findings of the Iraq Survey Group, which Kay headed until last month, before he decided what to do next. But that position quickly became untenable. A senior House Republican aide said that Republicans would be cau tious and do not want to be seen as publicly opposing an independent review given the extent of Kay’s comments. He also said that an independent review could have a political benefit for Republicans by providing a forum for them to attack Democrats for shortchanging intelligence in previous years, an emerging Republican theme against Senator John Kerry, the current Democratic front-runner, in particular. Among other sources of pressure on the White House are a series of speeches that Senator Bob Graham of Florida is planning to deliver on the floor of the Senate this week. Until January, Graham was the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and drafts of his speeches provided by his office show that he intends to argue that intelligence failures related not only to Iraq but also to the Sept. 11 attacks demonstrate the need for a major overhaul of the American intelligence community.
‘‘In Iraq, we were relying basically on technical intelligence-gathering devices and on liaison partners to tell us what was going on,’’ Graham said in an interview Friday. ‘‘We didn’t have a significant presence of our own intelligence agents inside Iraq, and that was a big problem there. And it’s going to be a continuing major area, as we lookat the problem of terrorism, and reliance on third parties or machines is not going to be adequate.’’ Congressional officials said Sunday that the White House had been in contact with leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee from both parties to discuss a possible blueprint for a broad, independent review of the state of the American intelligence community that Bush and his aides are now considering. The congressional officials said the subjects under discussion included the timing of and scope of such a review, including whether it would be completed before the presidential election in the fall. They said they believed the White House favored a broad, forward-looking review of intelligence, including new challenges in the 21st century, and did not want the inquiry to focus solely on prewar intelligence related to the Iraq war.
In recent days, the pressure on the White House to agree to an independent inquiry as mounted, as top Republican members of Congress closely aligned with the White House have indicated that they might not oppose a new review, depending on how it was structured. Some of the Republicans have begun to voice increasingly sharp criticisms of the intelligence agencies’ performance on Iraq.
Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who is chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said last week that he would not stand in the way of an independent intelligence probe as long as it did interferfere with the work under way by his panel, which has been looking into the matter for months and which plans to distribute a draft report of its findings 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,’’ Senator Roberts said in an interview 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.''
Representative Porter Goss, the Florida Republican who is chairman of the House intelligence committee and one of the CIA’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, said in an interview on Friday that ‘‘unless we’re prepared for another intelligence failure, we need to get about the business of improving our intelligence service.’’
Goss did say, however, that he believed that any broad-based reviews beyond those already underway by his committee and the Senate panel should be forward-looking, not retrospective. He also said he was not sure whether the partistanship of an election year made this an appropriate time for a broad inquiry to be conducted, and said that he was in ‘‘no hurry’’ to complete the inquiry underway by his House intelligence committee staff.
Afer the withdrawal from Iraq of United Nations inspectors in 1998, Goss acknowledged in a telephone interview on Friday, the intelligence agencies ‘‘basically had the door slammed shut.’’ The Florida Republican said he believed that mistakes made in prewar intelligence on Iraq stemmed largely from the inadequacy of information collected by American intelligence agencies and possibly from the failure of intelligence analysts to challenge their basic assumptions.
‘‘We went from a dim picture to a dark picture,’’ Goss said. ‘‘And so people surmised from all the indicators and the track record that these are the things he’s trying to do, and assumed he’d go forward.’’
In the Senate, Senator Roberts has said that he intends on Thursday to distribute to all members of Congress a draft report by his committee staff that has found no evidence that the Bush administration put pressure on intelligence analysts to exaggerate the dangers posed by Iraq.
The Senate report is expected to be highly critical of the Central Intelligence Agency and its counterparts, with congressional officials saying that, in general, the C.I.A. and other agencies made too much of too little information about Iraq’s alleged stockpiles of illicit weapons.
Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate panel, said on the same Fox News program that any independent probe should get underway before the November election and should include how the intelligence was used by the Bush administration officials who decided to go to war. ‘‘It has to have that included,’’ Senator Rockefeller said, 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.’’