By moving the Senate into a secret session for two hours this week, Democrats put a politically charged question back on the table: Did the Bush administration exaggerate the case for war against Iraq?
Emboldened by last week's indictment of former top White House aide I. Lewis Libby, Democrats Tuesday used an obscure parliamentary rule to capture the Senate floor. In doing so, they infuriated Republicans but won a timetable to complete a long-delayed Senate investigation of whether the White House manipulated the intelligence used to justify invading Iraq.
An earlier phase of this probe, completed in July 2004, offered a searing critique of prewar intelligence estimates. Its conclusions were amplified in a report by the 9/11 commission the following month. Together, these reports spurred legislation to reform US intelligence agencies.
But neither review examined whether government officials tendentiously misused intelligence. Democrats argued for months that this element - not just reviewing failures of the intelligence community - must be part of the committee's oversight responsibility.
Now, so-called Phase 2 would investigate whether public statements, testimony, and reports by US government officials were supported by available intelligence. It would also probe whether a Pentagon policy group under Douglas Feith ginned up the case for war, preempting other intelligence.
From the start, the panel has been stymied by disagreements.
Democrats wanted the probe to focus on Mr. Feith's activities, as well as some 350 statements by Bush administration officials during the period after 9/11. Republicans expanded the scope to include members of Congress and claims by officials in the Clinton administration. This expanded list of comments, cited without attribution to avoid bias, were then matched up against available intelligence. Senators, not staff, were to evaluate whether the comments were justified, according to Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"I must tell you at this point that some of those statements [by lawmakers and Clinton-era officials] are even more declarative and more aggressive than those made in the [Bush] administration," he said on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday. Once the committee started down that road, "we didn't get very far," he added.
Democrats dispute that version of events, calling the investigation "moribund" and a whitewash. "Any time the intelligence committee pursued a line of inquiry that brought us close to the role of the White House in all of this ... our efforts have been thwarted," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, the panel's vice chairman.
Rarely is a senatorial disconnect as pronounced as this one - a sign of how politicized oversight has become in the GOP-controlled Congress.
The Senate Intelligence committee was established as a bipartisan check on abuse of the intelligence agencies by the executive branch. That's why the top Democrat is labeled "vice chairman," instead of "ranking member," as in other committees.
But in recent years, the Senate intelligence committee has become increasingly polarized along party lines. Leak of a Democratic strategy memo calling for using the prewar intelligence probe to embarrass the president in the 2004 elections didn't help. The two chairmen ceased communication for months.
Despite better public relations, that mistrust still dogs the panel's work, especially over an issue as sensitive as possible political manipulation of intelligence estimates.
"There are many Democrats who want the Senate to serve its historic function as being the arena where controversies can be discussed and investigated, such as Watergate and Iran-Contra," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University. "The big difference is that those two scandals were when we had divided government; now, we have united government. So Democrats are turning to other tools, such as instigating a secret session, to put the heat on Republicans, especially Republican moderates, to at least think about investigation," he adds.
Critics assailed the tactic as a cheap trick to seize the agenda at a time when President Bush is gaining momentum after his nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and his plan to contain bird flu. Democrats insist that the risky - and apparently successful - gambit was necessary to hold the Bush administration accountable.
"We're finally going to ... have Phase 2 of the investigation regarding how the intelligence was used to lead us into the intractable war in Iraq," said Democratic leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada.
Republicans say there will be areas of substantial agreement when the report is released. For example, Senator Roberts told reporters that the Phase 2 probe of prewar claims about postwar Iraq, which predicted a humanitarian crisis, rather than an insurgency, will take a hit for being as deeply flawed as the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.