A key Senate Democrat is pressing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to declassify all information it says was provided to United Nations' arms inspectors before U.S. led military action to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. The effort by Senator Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, comes as Senate and House committees begin closed-door hearings into information the Bush administration had before the war, and how it was handled.
Senator Levin's concerns go back six months, and focus on statements made by CIA director George Tenet in public testimony to congressional committees.
Mr. Tenet told Congress last February the United States had provided information to U.N. arms inspectors then on the ground in Iraq about all "high and medium value" weapons of mass destruction sites.
Other U.S. officials, including President Bush's national security advisor Condolleeza Rice, repeated these assurances at a time when many were urging U.N. inspectors be given more time to complete their work in Iraq.
However, Senator Levin says classified information he has reviewed so far contradicts Mr. Tenet's statements. The CIA, Mr. Levin says, continues to refuse to de-classify all information about suspect sites it says was provided to U.N. inspectors:
"If it had been public knowledge in February or March of this year that the CIA had not shared information on all of the top Iraqi WMD suspect sites with the U.N. inspectors, it could have worked against the administration's timetable for initiating military action against Iraq."
In a letter to Senator Levin in May, Mr. Tenet cited what he called "secrecy arrangements" with U.N. inspection organizations, and the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) for refusing to de-classify all site information.
However, at Monday's news conference, Senator Levin displayed a letter from chief U.N. inspector, Hans Blix, saying UNMOVIC would have no objection to public disclosure of all site information given to inspectors between December 31, 2002 and March 11, 2003.
Senator Levin's "tug-of-war" with the CIA director comes as House and Senate committees begin closed-door inquiries into how pre-war information was handled by the Bush administration.
House Democrats have criticized Senate Republicans for refusing to hold open hearings. Republicans have accused Democrats of seeking to use the issue for political gain.
Senator Levin says the only correct way forward is a joint bipartisan investigation. Whatever the method, he says, at stake is the reliability and credibility of U.S. intelligence among Americans, and with allies in the war on terror.
"Lives depend upon it. The security of this nation depends upon it," he said. "And if there was shading by the intelligence community to try to support what it perceived to be the policy of the administration, or for whatever reason, it would endanger our security and we've got to make sure that does not happen."
Asked why he hasn't called for the CIA director's resignation, Senator Levin says he will "withhold judgment" until after congressional inquiries, and until Mr. Tenet has a chance to respond to the senator's latest request.
Mr. Levin says he believes it is still likely weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq. But he says Congress has an obligation to determine if information about this and other issues, such as alleged al-Qaida connections with the Saddam Hussein regime, was presented in an honest way to the American public before the war.