Iraqi WMD Probes Are Too Important for Party Warfare

Posted June 18, 2003 at 2:51pm

There’s no question that Congress has to investigate the issue of Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction, but the last thing the country needs is for the inquiry to start off as a partisan political melee. [IMGCAP(1)]

Some Democrats, led by Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Bob Graham (Fla.) and Carl Levin (Mich.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, have already concluded that President Bush deceived the country in claiming before the second Persian Gulf War that Iraq had huge stores of chemical and biological weapons.

Dean, echoing attacks in England on Prime Minister Tony Blair, has compared the matter to Watergate, demanding: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Graham, once a sober moderate, has become a fierce Bush opponent now that he is running for president, accusing Bush of weaving “a pattern of deception and deceit” to justify going to war.

Levin, who credited charges that Saddam Hussein had WMDs when they were made by President Bill Clinton — and urged Clinton to attack Iraq — now is charging Bush with “systematic shading and exaggeration” in the run-up to the latest conflict.

And Byrd, perhaps the most vociferous of all, asserted June 5 on the Senate floor that a “perception of deception” hung around Bush and that WMDs may have been “a manufactured excuse by an administration eager to seize a country.”

Bush’s critics, including columnists and editorial writers, are in the process of building an urban legend that Bush decided to go to war with Iraq, then pressured U.S. intelligence agencies to produce data to justify his policy. Or, he “hyped” what he was given. Or, he made it up, in the pattern of President Lyndon Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Bush’s adversaries have it right this far: Hussein’s possession of chemical and biological weapons were Bush’s main justification for going to war and, if it turns out he didn’t have them, U.S. credibility is in danger, especially the next time the administration tries to convince the U.S. public and the world to confront another country on the “axis of evil” list.

The quality and content of U.S. intelligence before the war and the uses to which it was put by the administration certainly deserve thorough investigation, but in a spirit of open inquiry, not with the kind of predetermined bias that Bush’s critics impute to him.

Congress may actually perform such investigations, but the opening moves by the House Intelligence Committee engender more confidence than those in the Senate.

In the Senate, Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) at first announced a joint inquiry with Senate Intelligence.

Then, last week, the joint inquiry was off and Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) — without any Democrats present — said the inquiry would be handled as part of his panel’s routine oversight responsibilities. He made no promises of public hearings or a public report.

Roberts added, “I will not allow the committee to be politicized,” but Democrats complained that this was already happening.

Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) retorted: “What they appear to be doing is entirely inadequate and slow-paced and potentially kind of sleep-walking through history.”

In contrast, House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.) and ranking member Jane Harman (D-Calif.) worked out a procedure which won unanimous support from committee members of both parties.

Goss chose to call the inquiry a “review,” while Harman called in an “investigation,” but they issued a joint press release saying what they do would be “serious, focused and comprehensive.”

They called for CIA Director George Tenet to provide detailed WMD data to the committee by July 1, invited non-committee Members to examine it provided they sign a special non-disclosure oath and promised a public summary of the committee’s classified final report.

“So far, so good,” Harman told me in an interview. “The administration is cooperating. We’ve got all the information Tenet promised ahead of the deadline … several thick binders. Will the cooperation last? I don’t know. I think the administration has a need to reassure the public.”

Harman wouldn’t criticize fellow Democrats like Levin and Graham, but it’s clear she has a different approach from theirs.

“I may get there,” she said of their conclusions about Bush, “but I have to go through the process. And I think we’ve got the right process. … I will follow the facts unflinchingly wherever they may lead.”

Harman said that “the main question is, ‘Was the basic [intelligence] material adequate to justify action — was it actionable? — because if it wasn’t, was [the war] the right action to take?’”

The important difference between Harman and Graham is that she seems to be asking genuine questions, while he and other Bush critics seem to already know the answers.

In the meantime, Roberts told me that he also will “follow the material wherever it leads,” but said use of the word “investigation” is “premature,” as is a guarantee of public hearings. “I want to do our homework first,” he said.

He is plainly still miffed at Democrats’ efforts to politicize questions about WMDs. “Dean is calling for impeachment. Other people are accusing the president of ‘deception’ and ‘lying,’” he said. “That’s not the right atmosphere for this to go forward.”

Asked if his inquiry now would be bipartisan, Roberts said, “I hope so.” Let’s all hope so.