WASHINGTON - As the House opened a bipartisan review of pre-war intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction yesterday, Senate Democrats and Republicans disagreed sharply over what kind of inquiry to conduct.
Republicans say they are willing to undertake a routine review of the U.S. intelligence that was gathered before the war. Democrats have gone further, calling for a formal investigation of whether U.S. officials exaggerated their claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.
The House intelligence panel met in a secure room beside the Capitol dome for a top-secret hearing to scrutinize an October 2002 CIA report that discussed Iraq's weapons programs. The panel, which has agreed to a bipartisan inquiry into pre-war intelligence, is set to hold a hearing today on the so-far fruitless efforts to find weapons of mass destruction.
In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans are split over what kind of review to pursue. The Armed Services Committee has held three closed hearings on the matter, and members of the intelligence panel discussed the issue privately yesterday.
With Hussein's regime long gone and no weapons of mass destruction yet found, Democrats have raised pointed questions about whether U.S. officials distorted intelligence they uncovered in order to bolster President Bush's case for war.
In taking that case to the public, Congress and the United Nations, the administration insisted that Iraqi weapons posed an urgent threat to the United States and other nations. Officials also referred to intelligence that they said showed Hussein had ties to al-Qaida.
"I think a formal investigation is premature at this point," said Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the intelligence committee. "We haven't gone over the documentation."
But Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the intelligence panel, and other top Democrats want an official bipartisan inquiry with agreed-upon goals and a separate staff.
That is the approach the House panel took last week. Rep. Porter J. Goss, the Florida Republican who chairs the panel, and Rep. Jane Harman of California, the senior Democrat, released a joint letter announcing "a serious, focused and comprehensive review of questions concerning the quality and objectivity of pre-war intelligence."
"I just feel very strongly that the Senate needs to come together as the House has," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the committee.
Congressional panels have requested and received volumes of classified documents from U.S. intelligence agencies relating to Iraq's weapons programs and possible links to terrorist groups. The files sit in secure rooms in the Capitol, where members of the intelligence committees can view them.
Many Republicans say the committees should first study that intelligence and decide whether they need to investigate further.
"We want to give all members an opportunity to examine" the documents, Roberts said. "Wherever that leads, that's where we'll go."
But Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and member of the intelligence committee, said she and fellow Democrats are seeking "a hearing process that goes beyond simply reviewing documents."
"I don't need a document dump," Mikulski said. Instead, she said, Democrats want a searching inquiry to evaluate whether the intelligence was valid.
"Based on the reports that I received before the war, I believed that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons," Mikulski said.
If those reports were accurate, she said, Congress should look into why no weapons have been found. If they were invalid, Mikulski said, "we have to pursue, in a very rigorous way, whether it was an intelligence failure or whether it was skewed, selected and exaggerated."
"I believe that the American people and the world wants to have the answer to that, since we haven't found the weapons of mass destruction," she added.
Some Republicans are bristling at calls for formal hearings, saying that Democrats are politicizing a serious security issue. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who is on the intelligence panel, said Democrats are "pushing some sort of a sideshow."
"If the goal is to fix some sort of blame, which looks to me like what they're doing," Lott said, "then I don't know that that's appropriate."
Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican who serves on the panel, said he saw no substantive reason for the hearings, except to disprove the Bush administration's critics.
"It's a way to try and assuage some of the doubting Thomases and ease people's worries," LaHood said. "I believed what [the administration] said, I believe it was accurate, and I believe some of this is the political gamesmanship that goes on here."