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Monday, March 1

Bush seeks to keep Iraq probes out of White House

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - The postmortems on Iraq are starting to pile up with five investigations now probing the apparently flawed prewar intelligence.

With the election eight months away, President Bush and key Republicans in Congress are scrambling to make sure these inquisitions stay focused on the intelligence community. Their goal is to ensure the probes don't enter the White House where they could begin to examine the way in which Bush used his intelligence to make the case for war.

Bush said Iraq had stockpiles of banned weapons, which the Pentagon's 1,000-person survey group has yet to find despite almost a year of scouring the Iraqi countryside.

The looming question: Was the intelligence on Iraq wrong, or was it manipulated by policy-makers in Bush's inner circle to justify an invasion that has cost hundreds of American lives?

Some Democrats have been aggressive in charging that Bush, and especially Vice President Dick Cheney, exaggerated the dangers posed by Iraq.

Until recently, Bush and his top aides had managed to keep most of the dialogue focused on the intelligence and why it might have been inaccurate, rather than on how they used it.

``For decades, Saddam Hussein played a strange but elaborate cat-and-mouse game over his WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs, and he played it with the entire world,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a recent speech.

Strike one for Bush came when the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee agreed recently to expand its investigation into the prewar intelligence on Iraq by looking into the way the White House interpreted its intelligence.

The committee had resisted that course for months.

Still, Bush's harshest war critics on Capitol Hill aren't content with that.

They also want Bush to give wider latitude to an independent panel, headed by former Democratic senator and governor Charles Robb of Virginia, to look at the prewar intelligence and how it was portrayed in crafting the public case for war.

``This commission seems designed more to shield the administration from accountability than to perform a true service,'' said Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J.

In a sign of how tough some of the investigations might get for Bush, the Senate intelligence panel recently voted in a closed session to consider using subpoena power to obtain Iraq-related documents the White House has been reluctant to provide.

Bush, who is used to wielding a strong hand with lawmakers, has found himself in the unfamiliar role of retreating.

He opposed the idea of an independent commission for months, but acquiesced after David Kay, the former top weapons hunter in Iraq, told a Senate panel that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein probably didn't have the stockpiles of banned weapons central to Bush's justification for war.

So far, Kay, who was appointed last June by the CIA to head the postwar weapons search in Iraq, has proved to be one of the most powerful catalysts for an in-depth probe of whether or not intelligence was abused by the administration.

``The charges are out there,'' Kay said. ``If there was a misuse or distortion, we need to know it.''

The probes Bush is facing on the intelligence on Iraq include:

- Two on Capitol Hill: The House and Senate intelligence committees have been conducting separate investigations into prewar intelligence.

- The independent investigation headed by Robb, which is scheduled to conclude March 31, 2005 - well after the election.

- The CIA is performing its own internal review, headed by Richard Kerr, a former deputy director of the agency. He has said publicly that CIA agents did not alter intelligence reports provided to Bush and his advisers nor were they pressured by the Bush administration to do so. Some of Bush's war critics have accused the administration of strong-arming the CIA and cherry-picking the intelligence it needed to support the war.

Bush could also suffer damage from an ongoing investigation of British prewar intelligence. Embattled Prime Minister Tony Blair has appointed a five-member panel to be headed by war critic and retired civil servant Robin Butler. Investigators are expected to issue findings by the summer.

Bush is not immune to what the British learn. If Blair is found to have ``sexed up'' the intelligence on Iraq, as his critics in Parliament have accused, Bush could find himself tainted by association.