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Friday, June 20

Pressure mounts on Bush to open up Iraq intelligence probe

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration and key congressional Republicans have thus far managed to keep the investigation of intelligence used to justify pre-emptive war against Iraq behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.

But there are signs the pressure for a more public airing of the intelligence, which some war critics suspect might have been shaded, is having an effect.

On Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee said it would consider some open hearings on Iraq intelligence ``as appropriate,'' but as yet has no plans for any.

Earlier this week, the House and Senate intelligence committees began closed hearings on information used to make military decisions on Iraq with no intentions of opening the proceedings despite calls for a public investigation by some of the committees' top Democrats.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has flatly declined to hold joint hearings with the Senate Armed Services Committee, where one of the war's leading congressional critics and advocates for an open intelligence investigation, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, is the top Democrat.

``I will not allow the (intelligence) committee to be politicized or used as an unwitting tool,'' Roberts said.

A recently launched advocacy campaign calling for a transparent investigation of Iraq intelligence and almost daily attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq could dog President Bush this summer if his administration does not deal with at least some of the questions about how the decision to go to war was reached.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing very public scrutiny of the intelligence he cited in making the case for sending British troops to Iraq.

Bush made the case for war on what he claimed was indisputable evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and represented an imminent threat to Americans. He has since come under fire from some leading Democrats and retired members of the intelligence community because U.S. troops have failed to find any evidence of those weapons or the programs to make them in the wake of Saddam's fall.

That has raised potentially troubling questions about whether the Bush administration shaded or manipulated intelligence on Iraq to suit its purpose. For example, claims by Bush himself that Iraq was trying to acquire materials for nuclear weapons from Africa in the late 1990s were based on unsubstantiated intelligence.

The president has written off his critics as ``revisionist'' historians, and Republicans show no signs of opening the hearings.

That said, Bush has shown that he is not immune to public pressure, caving in to an independent investigation of the Sept. 11 intelligence failures after vehemently opposing the concept.

Questioning pre-emption

High profile public hearings into Iraq intelligence could ultimately draw into question the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, which the president declared were justified following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Pre-emption was the basis for attacking Iraq and forms one of the most important and controversial pillars of the administration's defense policy.

``If the United States is to gain international support for taking military action in the future, particularly pre-emptive action, the evidence the U.S. offers to back up its action must be totally reliable,'' Levin said.

Top administration officials have insisted that evidence of Saddam's banned weapons will be found eventually and the intelligence used to build the case for war was solid and interpreted accurately.

``My personal view is that their intelligence has been, I'm sure, imperfect, but good,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters. ``In other words, I think the intelligence was correct in general and that you always will find out precisely what it was once you get on the ground and have a chance to talk to people and explore it, and I think that will happen.''

Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith predicted that finding the banned weapons could take ``months and perhaps years.''

Iraq's infamous al-Hakam agricultural products plant southwest of Baghdad is an often-cited case study in how difficult and time-consuming it can be to find biological weapons.

For years in the early 1990s, United Nations weapons inspectors suspected the massive facility was being used to make anthrax or precursor biowarfare agents. But it took several teams of inspectors more than a year to make the determination largely because the facility could also be used to make legal agricultural products.

The Bush administration may not have years.

Feeling heat

American occupation troops are being killed either in combat or accidents almost daily. Since May 1, when Bush declared major military operations over, at least 54 U.S. troops have died in Iraq.

``Did the administration get us into this by exaggerating the threat Iraq posed?'' said Eli Pariser, with the advocacy group MoveOn.org, which is calling for an independent investigation of the Iraq intelligence. ``There are a lot of people who want a credible answer to that.''

The administration is clearly feeling the heat, and the images of disillusioned soldiers being quoted daily in papers and on TV are bound to turn it up even more.

Over the last few weeks, top Bush officials have started to readjust their argument for the war, in some cases suggesting that the mass graves of executed Iraqis now being unearthed alone justifies the invasion.

Rumsfeld also said Pentagon lawyers are considering cutting deals with some of Saddam's top captured officials to get intelligence on the banned weapons.