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Memo Urging Intelligence Probe Stirs Political Debate in US Senate - 2003-11-05

A U.S. Senate panel is embroiled in a political debate over a memo. The memo outlines a Democratic strategy to call for an independent probe into how the White House used intelligence to justify going to war in Iraq.

At issue is a memo drafted by a Democratic aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee suggesting that an independent inquiry begin if cooperation with majority Republicans comes to an end. The memo, which was leaked to Fox Television, says the best time for such a probe would be next year, which is a presidential election year.

The chairman of the committee, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, was furious when he learned of the memo. He urged his Democratic colleagues to distance themselves from the memo if the panel is to continue working in a bipartisan spirit.

"It is critical that all of this take place in an atmosphere of good faith and mutual trust," he said. "Secret plans to undermine the committee's work are examples of neither. I urge my friends across the aisle, those members of the committee, to disavow, and if that word is too strong, just to say not to go down this path, this strategy of attack, and join us to work together to complete the work of the committee." Some Republicans, including Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, accuse Democrats of seeking to embarrass President Bush to score political points. "It is a political plan to embarrass the White House," he said.

But the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, dismissed such charges, and added that the memo had not been approved or shared with members of the committee. "Exploring or asserting the rights of the minority under the intelligence committee rules in no way amounts to politicizing intelligence," he said. "A substantive disagreement is not grounds for charges of partisan politics."

Republicans on the committee want to keep their review of prewar intelligence focused on the accuracy of assessments by intelligence agencies leading up to the war. But Democrats want to broaden the probe to include how the Bush administration used the information. "Without looking at the use of intelligence that was created by the intelligence community, there will only be half a picture painted," said committee member, Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

Some Democratic presidential candidates have criticized the White House for possibly exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq in making a case for war.

The public dispute between Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence Committee is unusual for a panel that conducts most of its business behind closed doors, and prides itself on a tradition of bipartisan cooperation.

Last week, Senators Roberts and Rockefeller jointly sent letters to the White House, the Defense and State Departments, and the Central Intelligence Agency, requesting that documents be delivered and interviews with officials be scheduled by last Friday.

The White House, which argued the committee had no jurisdiction over it, vowed cooperation. But sources on the committee say they are still awaiting the documents.