When Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, promised in 2004 that his committee would investigate how Bush had used (or abused) the prewar intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs–an unkept promise that led to the Democratic shutdown of the Senate this week–he made that promise to me.
Actually, what the Democrats did was not bring the Senate to a halt; much of the media mistakenly reported their action was a shutdown. Instead, the Senate Democrats, deploying the rarely used Rule 21, forced the Senate into a closed session–no TV cameras, no visitors, no reporters–in order to discuss (that is, complain about) Roberts’ failure to produce the so-called Phase II report, which was supposed to examine whether Bush administration officials had misrepresented the prewar intelligence to whip up public support for the invasion of Iraq. With this maneuver, the Democrats cast attention on the GOP attempt to duck this issue, and pushed the Republicans to establish a bipartisan panel that would review the progress (or lack thereof) of the Phase II inquiry. This panel–which is investigating the investigation–is to report back to the rest of the Senate by mid-November.
But back to me. On July 9, 2004, Roberts’ committee released a report on the prewar intelligence. It concluded that the intelligence had been botched and noted that the major conclusions of the intelligence community were “either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence report.” The failure of the intelligence community was obvious in the weeks after the invasion. But what Roberts report did not investigate was whether Bush and his aides had hyped problematic intelligence. For instance, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which was produced in October 2002, reported–errantly–that Iraq had an active biological weapons R&D program. Yet Bush in a speech declared that Iraq had “stockpiles” of biological weapons. Having an R&D program is not the same as possessing loads of ready-to-use weapons.
Roberts’ investigation had ignored such exaggerations of the Bush administration. At that press conference, Senator Jay Rockefeller, the senior Democrat on the intelligence committee, pointed this out:
I have to say, that there is a real frustration over what is not in this report, and I don’t think was mentioned in Chairman Roberts’ statement, and that is about the–after the analysts and the intelligence community produced an intelligence product, how is it then shaped or used or misused by the policy-makers?
Roberts indicated that his committee would get to this in a second phase of the investigation, one that would not likely be finished until after the upcoming presidential election. Was that a coincidence? One intelligence committee staffer told me that such an inquiry could be completed within a month or two.
During the Q&A, Roberts called on me, and I asked:
Given that 800 American G.I.s have lost their lives so far, thousands have had serious injuries, lost limbs, all on the basis of false claims, and that American taxpayers have had to kick in almost $200 billion, don’t the American public and the relatives of people who lost their lives have a right to know before the next election whether this administration handled intelligence matters adequately and made statements that were justified–before the election, not after the election?
No, Roberts essentially said. His actual response was this:
We simply couldn’t get that done with the work product that we put out. And he has pointed out that that has a top priority. It is one of my top priorities. It’s his top priority, along with the reform effort….It involves probably three things — or at least three. One is the prewar intelligence on Iraq, which is what you’re talking about. Secondly is the situation with the assistant secretary of defense, Douglas Feith, and his activity in regards to material that he provided with a so-called intelligence planning cell to the Department of Defense and to the CIA. And then the left one — what is the last one? What’s the third one? Help me with it….There is a third one, and I don’t know why I can’t come up with it right now. But, anyway, it is a priority. And, hey, I have told Jay, I have told everybody on the other side of the aisle, everybody on our side of the aisle, “We’ll proceed with phase two. It is a priority.” I made my commitment, and it will be done.
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Roberts has a rather elastic idea of what makes a commitment. After the election, his committee did little, if any, work on the Phase II project, as I reported last spring. Moreover, in March, Roberts declared that further investigation was pointless. He said that if his investigators asked Bush officials whether they had overstated or mischaracterized prewar intelligence, they’d simply claim their statements had been based on “bum intelligence.” And he huffed, “To go though that exercise, it seems to me, in a postelection environment–we didn’t see how we could do that and achieve any possible progress. I think everybody pretty well gets it.” So after making a promise in July to get it done, he then decided to drop the ball. Democrats, including Rockefeller, protested. But they didn’t make too much noise about this.
Then came Rule 21. The Democrats had considered calling on Rule 21 to initiate a closed session in 2004 to highlight the inaction on Phase II, according to a senior Democratic staffer. The staff of Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader at the time (who would be defeated in the November election), had researched how to pull off such a maneuver. Daschle wanted to give Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist advance notice of the move, but he never pulled the trigger.
This year, with Senator Harry Reid now leading the Democrats, the Democratic leadership decided not to be so polite and to invoke Rule 21 as a surprise. “The Democratic leadership had finally gotten to the point where–after sending letters to Roberts and holding meetings on this–they figured the only way to draw attention to the Phase II cop-out was to do this,” the Democratic staffer says. “It also had the ancillary benefit of changing the subject from Alito to what Bush said to justify the war, and it served as a bridge between the Libby indictment and arraignment. It also made the point that Fitzgerald’s investigation was a criminal investigation and was not designed to get into the question of whether Bush had misrepresented the intelligence. That’s the job of Congress–or should be.”
There’s still no guarantee that Roberts and the Republicans will efficiently and vigorously tackle the Phase II assignment. According to a statement released by Rockefeller, the intelligence committee in February 2004 decided that Phase II would focus on five subjects. As he put it,
1. Whether public statements, reports, and testimony regarding Iraq by U.S. Government officials made between the Gulf war period and the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom were substantiated by intelligence information;
2. Pre-war intelligence assessments about post-war Iraq;
3. Any intelligence activities relating to Iraq within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, headed by Douglas Feith;
4. The use by the Intelligence Community of information provided by the Iraqi National Congress; and
5. The post-war findings about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and weapons programs and links to terrorism and how they compare with pre-war assessments.
This past spring, Roberts told me that the report would not only look at what Bush administration officials said about WMDs in Iraq before the war; it would also examine statements made by leading Democrats about Iraq prior to the war–presumably people like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, and John Edwards. Roberts’ intent is obvious: to make it seem that everyone was wrong. Thus, Bush would deserve no blame. But Bush had ready access to all the intelligence, and it was his job to review it carefully and to represent it accurately to the American public before taking the country to war. Nevertheless, the Phase II report could become a spin job geared more toward distraction than disclosure.
With the Libby indictment as the backdrop, the Senate Democrats, thanks to Rule 21, did remind the public and the media that Bush’s use of misinformation (or disinformation) to sell the war remains an open question. But this battle over the run-up to the war is far from over, and Phase II will likely not be the end of it.