Placing Blame On Iraq Intelligence

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The normally collegial, bipartisan work of the Senate Intelligence Committee ground to a standstill last week in an unusual public spat over whether the panel should determine whether blame for poor prewar intelligence in Iraq lies with the CIA — or the White House.

For months Democrats have been the pushing the committee chairman, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, to turn up the heat on the White House. They want to know whether the intelligence prepared by the CIA was overstated in pre-war public statements by Bush Administration hawks. The panel is set hear this week from a current intelligence official who is expected to allege that senior Bush officials ignored or sidelined analysts who didn't back their hard-line views.

With Roberts on the defensive, Republicans early last week launched a PR blitz about an "options" memo written by a Democratic aide which argued for delaying an "independent investigation" of the pre-war intelligence until Dems have pushed Roberts and his powers as chairman to the limit — which, conveniently, would likely be during next year's presidential election season. "We can pull the trigger on an independent investigation of the Administration's use of intelligence at any time," the memo read, "but we can only do so once." Roberts and other Republicans jumped on the memo, with some calling for the dismissal of its author and warning Democrats that deeper probes into Bush's handling of the walkup to war would be considered a form of political harassment.

"This is not the usual congressional committee food fight," said a Washington intelligence hand who's worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations. With stakes so high as the presidential election looms less than a year away, he said, "the Republicans are trying to protect the White House and make this a CIA problem. And I assume the Democrats are trying to make sure this isn't just laid at the door of the CIA." Democrats retorted that the confidential memo had only been seen, and not used, by Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the panel's top Democrat — who charged that the memo "was likely taken from a waste basket or through unauthorized computer access" and improperly leaked.

The intelligence wars will continue. TIME has learned that CIA Director George Tenet is hammering out a new National Intelligence Estimate on post-Saddam Iraq, which will assess the threats to national security posed by the nation now that some 135,000 US troops are stationed there. Tenet faces the dicey task of squaring findings thus far in Iraq with last year's NIE, from which a declassified October 2002 report on Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction was drawn. Among the conclusions in last year's report were that "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons"; and "Saddam probably has stocked a few hundred metric tons of CW agents." Since Baghdad fell last spring, an American-led team of 1,200 weapons inspectors has found no WMD stockpiles.