As probes mount, Bush has allies

President Bush faces a daunting accretion of investigations - topped by his creation this week of an independent commission on WMD intelligence - but he has a resource many of his embattled predecessors did not possess: a Congress controlled by his own party.

The inquiries pose real risks to the president, especially with election-year attacks from Democrats mounting. Ongoing inquiries now cover the nation's vulnerability to the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, the decision to go to war in Iraq, and the illegal outing of a CIA operative's name.

But in an era when the question "What did the president know and when did he know it?" has become commonplace, Bush has a political edge that others in the Oval Office have lacked.

Facing a hostile Congress, Presidents Nixon and Clinton watched a bungled burglary and a sex scandal morph into resignation and impeachment. President Reagan faced a tough Iran-Contra investigation on Capitol Hill. The Bush administration, by contrast, has been wielding at least some say in the timing and focus of investigations, and restraint on Capitol Hill can help preserve a his credibility, presidential experts say.

"Despite the increasingly contentious climate in Washington, the fact that the president's party controls both houses of Congress provides President Bush a much greater degree of insulation," says Richard Ben-Veniste, who was involved in the Watergate investigation and Whitewater (as chief counsel for Senate Democrats), and now serves on the 9/11 commission. President Clinton, by contrast, was tangled in "an endless series of investigations."

The willingness of the GOP Congress to limit the scope of their investigations to the gathering of prewar intelligence - and not to its possible political manipulation -has shielded Bush from potential damage.

Meanwhile, Bush is setting his own parameters for the new independent commission on WMD. The commission won't report until after the presidential election, for example. And while its scope will be expanded to include WMD intelligence regarding North Korea, Iran, and Libya, the focus will still be on intelligence, not its use by politicians.

But in the leak-prone world of Washington, this investigation and others create uncertainties for the White House at a time when polls suggest Bush is vulnerable in the fall election.

No matter how valid their basis turns out to be, investigations can eat deep into an administration's credibility.

The challenge is hardly unusual. Official investigations of presidential actions has been a constant since Watergate, amplified in recent years by a 24/7 news cycle and a climate of intense partisanship here.

The contrast between Bush and the previous administration, however, is striking. Mr. Clinton faced inquiries into alleged crimes, but which predated his election or savored of closeted intrigue: the Lewinsky affair, the Whitewater probe, and the firing of White House travel aides.

The investigations of the Bush administration relate to affairs of high state:

• A probe of 9/11 is focusing on what factors allowed the deadliest attack on America to occur.

• Two congressional investigations and at least four other probes within the Bush administration explore whether faulty intelligence on WMD led America to war in Iraq.

• A grand jury investigation into White House leaks that revealed the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, thus possibly endangering the agent and other contacts.

In addition, Democrats are calling for the release of all documents that the White House used to calculate its cost estimates for the president's Medicare prescription drug legislation, which has jumped $134 billion since narrowly passing the Congress last November. Critics say the White House deliberately lowballed the initial estimate to win congressional support.

The probes, while consuming time and energy, have so far not become a consuming distraction.

"Republican control of Congress means a shield of protection for a Republican president," says New Deal historian Arthur Schlesinger. "I don't think there has yet been a serious investigation of the Bush administration, comparable to the Church [committee] investigation of the CIA in the 1970s."

Past intelligence probes

Both the Church committee investigations in the Senate and the corresponding Pike investigations in the House set Democratic-controlled committees to probe intelligence activities during years of Republican control in the Nixon and Ford presidencies, especially domestic spying and overseas assassination attempts. At times, the atmosphere resembled a circus, observers said, but they led to sweeping changes in the organization and culture of US intelligence.

Intelligence experts say the current investigations on intelligence could be as far-reaching.

"It's the worst intelligence scandal in US history, because it covers not just questions of why we went to war, but also a campaign of deceit by the White House and the leaking of an operative's name, which is a violation of federal law," says Melvin Goodman, a former CIA analyst, now at the Center for International Policy and National War College.

But, he adds, "the congressional oversight process isn't responding to the challenge."

Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees have pushed hard - and in vain - to focus current congressional investigations on whether political pressure influenced the Iraq intelligence estimates. Bush administration spokesmen say the new commission, which will be appointed entirely by the White House, will not have this mandate, either.

Without such a mandate, it's unlikely that dissenters within the intelligence community will have the incentive to step forward, predicts Goodman, who testified before a Democratic Congress in 1991 on how political pressure while Republicans controlled the White House contributed to faulty intelligence on Soviet activities in the 1980s.

Intense partisanship is nothing new in presidential politics, but the capacity of lawmakers to focus extensive resources on White House blunders has risen sharply since World War II.

Since the expiration of the special prosecutors statute in 1999, the main vehicle for investigation the executive branch aside from congressional committees or the courts has been the independent commission.But often, by the time a commission's report is released, the issue has faded from public thought, says former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, vice-chair of the 9/11 panel. He says he hopes that will not be the case with the 9/11 report.

Pushing for 9/11 documents

The commissioners are asking Congress and the White House to extend their May deadline by at least 60 days. They have also been negotiating with the White House for information, especially the daily intelligence reports that might signal whether the president was informed about terrorist threats to use planes as weapons, and when. Some commissioners also want to ensure that both Presidents Bush and Clinton testify under oath. Sens. John McCain (R) and Joseph Lieberman (D) plan legislation to extend the commission deadline.

"The coin of the realm for any president is credibility, and that is what this president has to be concerned about for the moment," says a top Republican aide. "Right now, both the weapons of mass destruction and the Medicare estimates were clearly off base, and more than anything else this president has to show some passion and anger, if he himself was misled."

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