GOP: No need for further probe of Iraqi arms claims

June 12, 2003, 12:35AM
By MICHAEL HEDGES
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders dismissed calls by Democrats for a full-blown congressional investigation into whether the Bush administration exaggerated prewar evidence of Iraqi weapons programs, while promising Wednesday to explore the matter thoroughly in routine hearings.

Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, called persistent Democratic appeals to probe the administration’s handling of the weapons of mass destruction question, “simply politics for political gain” and said Congress was already examining the matter.

“It isn’t like we haven’t had hearings on weapons of mass destruction; we have them every week and in some cases even twice a week,” he said.

But Democrats like Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, have called those hearings, often held in secret sessions, insufficient. Levin said Wednesday he was disappointed with the GOP position that a special congressional inquiry was deemed unnecessary.

Sen. John Warner, the Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, said he has presided over three hearings on the issue of weapons of mass destruction since Baghdad fell and “the evidence that I have examined does not rise to give the presumption that anyone in this administration has hyped or cooked or embellished such evidence to a particular purpose.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell fended off a published claim by United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix that the Bush administration pressuring his team to overstate its findings before the United States launched war on Iraq in March.

Blix was quoted in the London-based Guardian newspaper Wednesday saying that while, overall, he had good relations with the Bush administration, “toward the end, the administration leaned on us,” hoping for stronger condemnations of Saddam Hussein in inspectors’ reports.

Blix also said he felt he was the victim of a smear campaign, but did not say who was maligning him inside or outside the Bush administration.

Powell praised Blix but brushed aside questions that Blix was smeared or pressured by U.S. officials.

Powell said he stood behind his February presentation at the United Nations outlining U.S. evidence of Iraqi weapons programs.

“More experts are going in,” he said. “And I think one should be careful about making judgments as to what was hyped or not hyped” until the process is complete.

So far U.S. troops and inspectors in Iraq have found little to confirm Powell’s prewar presentation that outlined a robust Iraqi program to make and potentially use chemical and biological weapons.

The strongest evidence found to date that Iraq had that capability is two tractor-trailers seized in northern Iraq that the CIA said may have been used as mobile weapons laboratories.

The issue of whether Iraq was capable of deadly chemical or biological strikes or of channeling such weapons to terrorists has become a political battlefield.

Some contend the public was misled by an administration bent on justifying war, while others call such arguments a transparent attempt to tarnish the president’s foreign policy triumph.

But a couple of recent polls show that, at least to this point, the public doesn’t care too much if the weapons are found:

· A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll released last week found that 56 percent of Americans said that deposing Saddam was justified even if proof of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are never found.

· A Fox News Poll released Monday said 69 percent of people would still believe the war was the right decision even if such weapons are never uncovered.

Democratic leaders, some of whom saw intelligence on the Iraqi weapons programs before the war and supported efforts to depose Saddam, have remained split on the issue.

Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who is a ranking member on the intelligence committee, said prewar classified briefings she received from intelligence services were “convincing” on the issue of Saddam’s weapons programs.

“That so far the United States has found only trace signs of a weapons program … is cause for grave concern,” she said. “We do not need a frenzy, but we do need coolheaded analysis and a plan of action to get answers now.”

Of the major declared candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Florida Sen. Bob Graham have been the most aggressive in accusing the administration of what Graham called recently “a pattern of deception and deceit” on Saddam’s weapons capabilities.

But four leading Democratic contenders supported the resolution authorizing war — Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Those four have either counseled patience in the search for proof or have stayed away from the debate.

A Pentagon team of 1,400 analysts is scheduled to begin the most exhaustive search so far for Iraqi chemical and biological weapons late this week.

Roberts expressed annoyance at unnamed intelligence agency officials whom he charged with leaking accounts to the members of the media that they felt pressured before the war to spin findings to support an invasion.

He also urged anyone with that opinion to meet in private with the committee, but said despite many briefings he had “yet to hear from any intelligence official expressing such concerns.”

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