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Pre-War Iraq Intelligence Still Debated One Year Later - 2004-03-15

Nearly a year ago, President Bush launched military attacks against Iraq based on his assessment of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the United States and the world. With no weapons of mass destruction yet found and a presidential election eight months away, the debate over the accuracy of that decision is intensifying. Critics charge the president with deliberately exaggerating the threat to justify war, while defenders say he made the right decision based on the intelligence he had at that time.

At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill intended to highlight the terrorist dangers facing the United States, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, George Tenet, faced tough questions not about current threats, but about an old one -- that presented by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Opposition Democrats -- including Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy -- grilled Mr. Tenet at length about the Bush administration's assessment of pre-war intelligence.

Edward Kennedy: “Mr. Tenet, in your speech last month at Georgetown, you said the intelligence community never said the threat from Iraq was imminent. But you clearly put some distance between the intelligence you provided, and the way President Bush used it to justify the war. The key issue is whether the threat was serious enough and the intelligence good enough to go to war. The White House press office said the threat was 'imminent.' President Bush himself may have not used the word 'imminent,' but he carefully chose strong and loaded words about the threat, words the intelligence community never used.”

George Tenet: “I think the way we described the threat to the president was that Saddam Hussein, in addition to the key judgments that we made about his chemical and biological weapons capability, we believed was continuing his efforts to deceive us and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests."

Edward Kennedy: “Did you ever tell him, Mr. president, you're overstating the case? Did you ever tell Condoleezza Rice? Did you ever tell the vice president that they were overstating the case? And if you didn't, why not?”

George Tenet: “Senator, I do the intelligence. They then take the intelligence and assess the risk and make a policy judgement. I engage with them every day. If there were areas where I thought someone said something they shouldn't say, I talked to them about it.” Mr. Tenet said he intervened on several occasions to correct what he considered public misstatements on intelligence by Vice President Dick Cheney and other top policy-makers.

He conceded that he didn't know until the eve of the hearing about a misleading statement made by the vice president to the press in January. Mr. Cheney cited an article from The Weekly Standard magazine based on now discredited evidence of a relationship between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.

Despite such inaccuracies, Mr. Tenet said he did not think the administration misrepresented facts to justify the war.

Senator Kennedy is one of the most outspoken and hard-hitting critics of President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. In another speech, he accused the Bush administration of taking advantage of a shocked and fearful America in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and deliberately overstated al-Qaida's connection to Saddam Hussein.

“In the march to war, the president exaggerated the threat anyway,” he said. “It was not subtle. It was not nuanced. It was pure, unadulterated fear-mongering, based on a devious strategy to convince the American people that Saddam's ability to provide nuclear weapons to al Qaida justified immediate war.”

White House spokesman Scott McCellan dismissed Democratic Senator Kennedy's charges as false, and an attempt to discredit the president in the upcoming election. “I don’t think this is the first time we've heard Senator Kennedy make such unsubstantiated and baseless charges. And I imagine that given that it's an election year, it won't be the last time.”

Senator Kennedy is taking a high profile role in the presidential campaign of Democratic front-runner Senator John Kerry.

Republicans have not been silent on the issue of pre-war intelligence. Many have defended President Bush, saying he did the best he could with intelligence a year ago and acted in the interests of national security. At the terrorist threat hearing, Virginia Senator John Warner said the president had not exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq. “In testimony before this committee in January, Dr. David Kay, a former adviser to director Tenet, told us that based on the intelligence available from various sources, the president could have reached no other conclusion,” he said. “Iraq had caches of chemical and biological weapons, had used them in the past and was likely to use them in the future. Undoubtedly the world is a safer place. We did the right thing to rid Iraq of this brutal regime.”

The Republicans are launching their own attack against Democratic rival Senator John Kerry, calling him weak on national security and the war on terror. President Bush recently accused Mr. Kerry of proposing 'deeply irresponsible' cuts in intelligence spending in 1995 of 1.5 billion dollars over five years. Senator Kerry has disputed charges about that proposal, saying he has since sponsored billions in new intelligence funding.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst, says the issue of intelligence leading to the Iraq war is particularly heated because the decision to strike has led to US casualties. “There are many experts in the field who believe that the Bush administration wasn't telling the truth, that he was exaggerating. This gives ammunition to the democratic candidate. I think Senator Kennedy's remarks and the general attacks on the president on this topic excite the partisans. They get the democrats blood boiling, and that's a good deal of what John Kerry is counting on to win.”

However, Mr. Sabato doubts the issue of intelligence alone will have much weight in the election. “I doubt that this is the issue that swings the election in any way, shape or form. There is really only one piece of the war in Iraq that directly affects the election. That is the degree to which we continue to have casualties in our own American ranks. If there are still substantial numbers of deaths among our troops in Iraq come election time, this is going to hurt President Bush and help the Democrats.”

Professor Sabato predicts the election will be harshly contested with ample mudslinging on both sides. “The country is polarized. We are extremely polarized between Republicans and Democrats. Both parties feel strongly. I wouldn't say the word hate is too strong. They hate one another. Democrats hate President Bush and as Republicans learn more of John Kerry's liberal voting record they will come to hate him. Dislike is one thing and a belief that your party's candidate is better is perfectly acceptable. But when this bleeds over into a bitter hatred, I think it's dangerous for the system and the society. About a third of Democrats today describe themselves as full of hate when they look at the Bush administration.”

And the verbal jousting has just begun. Senator John Kerry recently described his Republican critics as 'the most crooked, lying group I've ever seen.' The chairman of Bush's re-election campaign demanded an apology 'for this negative attack.' With the emerging criticism against Mr. Kerry over his record on funding the CIA and with continuing questions about possible misused intelligence, some analysts say it is clear that the intelligence questions will be ammunition used by both campaigns from now until November.