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In fury over casus belli, the peril of probing Bush

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2003


The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and new claims that evidence of the threat was manipulated are edging Congress toward a position many members had hoped to avoid: that of challenging a popular wartime president.

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After voting President Bush broad powers to use force in Iraq, members on both sides of the aisle are now questioning whether the move to war was based on sound intelligence - or at least demanding a fuller accounting.

Last week, the Republican chairman and ranking Demo- crat of the Senate Armed Services Committee called for a "thorough" investigation into possible intelligence lapses. House and Senate intelligence committees are reviewing the documents that backed up the administration's case for war, and Democrats say that discussion should be public, noting the threat to US credibility in the world.

"It is important that this investigation not only include open hearings, but also a comprehensive, fact-finding review. We need to get started," said Sen. John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, last week.

So far, the hue and cry is not as forceful as in Britain, where members of Parliament are directly challenging the veracity of Prime Minister Tony Blair. These include claims that he exaggerated intelligence estimates that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. In response, Mr. Blair promised to publish the report of the joint intelligence committee documenting such claims.

Early on, the US case for war turned on two issues: possible links between Iraq and Al Qaeda and the imminent threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. While US forces have stepped up efforts to locate the weapons - and administration and press reports dribble out promising leads - so far, evidence supporting either claim has not been produced.

Was pressure applied?

In the US, questions focus on issues such as whether a new intelligence group within the Pentagon overruled the assessments of the Central Intelligence Agency or whether Vice President Cheney's numerous visits to CIA analysts in the run-up to the war constituted intimidation.

"It's a very grave issue if the president is manipulating and distorting intelligence," says Ivan Eland, senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. "There must be high anxiety about this in the intelligence community, because they are chatting to the press."

Last week, the leader of the House of Commons, John Reid, charged that "rogue elements" in the British security services were making such anonymous charges in order to discredit the government. Former cabinet member Clare Short said that Blair had "duped" the cabinet, and opposition members are calling for a judicial inquiry.

Both Mr. Bush and the British prime minister have already been embarrassed by glitches in the their case for war. These include the disclosure that the claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Africa was based on documents later identified as being false. Pages in the documents Blair presented to Parliament were found to be cribbed from a university thesis.