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Senate probe of prewar intelligence stalls
By Rick Klein, Boston Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- For eight months, the Senate Intelligence Committee has made little effort to pursue its long-promised probe into whether the Bush administration intentionally misconstrued intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war -- an investigation that would have delved into whether White House aides tried to put pressure on CIA analysts.
The revelation that Karl Rove, a White House political adviser, leaked information about a CIA operative to discredit her husband's complaints about President Bush's use of intelligence has focused new attention on the relationship between the White House and CIA. But the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has shown no signs of moving ahead with its investigation.
Pat Roberts, chairman of the committee, vowed last year that soon after the presidential election was over, his panel would examine whether Bush or his top aides misled the public about prewar intelligence, or pressured CIA agents to make a stronger case for invading Iraq. But since then, the Intelligence Committee has made no measurable progress on the investigation. Instead, Roberts has offered vague public promises of picking up the key pieces of the probe at some point but has warned that other more pressing matters must be dealt with first.
Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, vice chairman of the committee, said he is frustrated by the delay and is beginning to suspect political motivations from congressional Republicans who want to shield the administration.
''The chairman has declared firmly that it will be done," said Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia. ''I always think there's a reluctance to do anything which might embarrass the administration. I think that's been true since the beginning of all of this."
The failure of the committee to act has taken on renewed importance in recent weeks, as the criminal investigation of an administration leak that revealed the identity of undercover operative Valerie Plame Wilson has widened to implicate Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. On Monday, Democrats called for a special congressional probe into the leak, including Rove's and Libby's conversations with reporters.
Libby was particularly involved in helping the administration make a case to topple Saddam Hussein. He coordinated Cheney's efforts to seek out information directly from CIA analysts and was part of a group of administration neoconservatives that relied heavily on information provided by Ahmed Chalabi, who was once Washington's choice to replace Hussein, and the Iraqi National Congress.
Though an investigation of the uses of prewar intelligence would not cover the leaking of Plame Wilson's name -- that occurred after the invasion of Iraq -- it could shed light on whether members of the administration took other actions to suppress or discredit opposing views.
Roberts, Republican of Kansas, said in February that the committee's investigation of the administration's use of intelligence is ''on the back burner," and said in April that other issues have more urgent claims on the committee's attention.
In an interview last week, Roberts said portions of the promised investigation have proceeded, including an examination of intelligence that led the Bush administration to conclude that Iraq would be relatively easy to handle after Hussein was ousted from power.
But Roberts added that committee members remain at odds over how to judge public prewar statements made by members of the Bush administration and Congress. Many of the more than 400 such statements compiled by the committee are now known to have been based on faulty intelligence, and that could explain why the statements turned out to be misleading, Roberts said.
Some Democrats merely want to call attention to the statements to embarrass Bush and his top aides, Roberts said, and he sees no use in treading that ground when the committee could better concentrate its resources on future threats.
''So what do you do with that?" Robers asked. ''What have we gained other than the political objective of saying this administration issued the intelligence? Look in the front window. Don't look in the back and pick off somebody's comment that some senator or somebody in the administration said and say, 'Gee, had that person known, he wouldn't have said that.' "
But Rockefeller and other Democrats say that differing opinions on how to handle public statements is not a legitimate reason to hold up the investigation. Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said the fact that there has been no investigation of the misuse of intelligence means US policy may still be based on mistaken conclusions.
''A year and a half later, there's still no report, no conclusions, no accountability for the mistakes, and no way to be sure they won't be repeated," said Kerry. ''This is just further evidence of a pattern by this White House and the Republicans in Congress to stop at nothing to discredit their critics and silence the tough questions before they get asked."
The dispute over the committee's investigation goes back to last June, when it completed a report criticizing the intelligence gathering and analysis of the CIA and other agencies, citing errors that contributed to the mistaken belief by top US government officials that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
But over the objections of Democrats, the committee declined to address questions of how Bush and his top aides used the intelligence. Roberts said those questions would be answered in a second phase of the committee's investigation, to begin shortly after the election to avoid the appearance of political motives in the investigation. That investigation, however, has not been pursued.
Now the revelations of Rove's and Libby's roles in leaking information about Plame Wilson's identity -- the subject of a federal criminal probe -- has raised the possibility that officials sought to exact retribution against someone who openly criticized intelligence that was a crucial underpinning of the case for war.
Plame Wilson's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, traveled to Africa in 2002 to investigate allegations that Hussein's government had sought to obtain ''yellowcake" uranium -- presumably to build a nuclear weapon -- from Niger. In 2003, after Bush used that allegation in his State of the Union address to make the case for invading Iraq, Wilson went public with his finding that the claim was unfounded.
The former ambassador has long maintained that White House operatives revealed the name of his wife in an attempt to exact political retribution. Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.