WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
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.
On Friday, the Senate Armed Services Committee went into closed session with top officials the Defense Intelligence Agency over leaked allegations that there was no reliable information that Iraq was producing or stockpiling chemical weapons.
The conclusion reported in the press was "lifted out of context and not intended to characterize the program," said Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which produced that September 2002 report.
Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia called the session an "orderly and calm discussion" of "the questions on the mind of the American people." He appealed to the American people to "continue to repose trust in the administration" as these investigations go forward.
While such issues are gaining intensity in legislatures and the media, the public does not appear to be paying attention.
In recent polls, the number of people responding that the war was justified even if the US does not find conclusive evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction has grown from 38 percent at the outset to 56 percent, according to a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, May 30-June 1, 2003.
"The Democrats' real problem is that the American public doesn't seem to care," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "You have to have enough interest and even anger in the general public to sustain this type of inquiry, and it's not there. Americans do not like to look their victories in the mouth."
In the past, congressional investigations into the conduct of wars began only after the war ran into trouble. Senate hearings into the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which provided the rationale for the Vietnam War, did not begin until 1966. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was not repealed until 1969.
"There's always been a reluctance to carry on an investigation while troops are in harm's way," says Donald Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate. "When the war is over, that's the time when investigations seem to be more appropriate."
Bush administration officials insist it's too early to say weapons won't be found. "This was a program that was built for concealment," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on television talk shows.
Meanwhile, top Republicans say it's a mistake to focus on weapons of mass destruction as the main cause for going to war.
"To dredge all this up as a scandal is nonsense," says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Intelligence is an inexact science, and when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, it is not very good. They may be gone in hours, not just misplaced but destroyed."
Even if weapons of mass destruction are never found in Iraq, "there is no doubt ... that if [Saddam Hussein] had been left alone, he would have continued to try to develop these weapons," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona last week.
• Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report.