Dems Scrap Plans To Look Into Claims White House Manipulated Intel On Iraqi Threat

Democrats in Congress have abandoned their efforts to investigate the White House’s use of questionable intelligence information about Iraq’s alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, saying the issue has been "eclipsed" by President Bush’s request for $87 billion from Congress to continue funding the war.

David Helfert, a spokesman for Congressman David Obey, D-Wisconsin, who criticized the White House for relying too heavily on murky intelligence to get support for the war, said Friday that Congressional Democrats would no longer pursue hearings on the intelligence matter.

"We’re past that," Helfert said, referring to the intelligence issue. "Those questions were eclipsed by the supplemental request by President Bush for $87 billion" to fund the Iraq war. "Congress is focusing on asking questions about the $87 billion, what it will be used for and whether it’s worth it. It would be a good characterization to say that the intelligence questions on Iraq and how the President came to believe that it had weapons of mass destruction are no longer an issue."

No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq since Bush declared an end to major combat in May.

Obey, who this week called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, wrote a letter to the General Accounting Office last month to try and get the agency to investigate a secret Pentagon committee known as the Office of Special Plans. The Special Plans Office, headed by Wolfowitz and other hawks in the Bush administration, cherry-picked intelligence, much of which was gathered by unreliable Iraqi defectors, to make a stronger case for war in Iraq, according to four intelligence officials with knowledge of the inner workings of the group.

After collecting the intelligence data, the Office of Special Plans then sent the information it gathered directly to Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and to the office of National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice without first vetting the information through the CIA, the intelligence officials said.

Several other Democrats in Congress, including Ellen Tauscher, D-California, called for an investigation into the Office of Special Plans to find out whether the group knowingly used and supplied the White House with unreliable intelligence information to win support for the war, but their efforts were thwarted by the Republican controlled Congress.

In July, a month before Congress took off for a month-long summer recess, Bush and senior officials in the White House took a beating in the press for what looked like an attempt by the administration to manipulate prewar intelligence on the threat Iraq posed to the U.S. and its neighbors in the Middle East in order to convince Congress and the public to support a preemptive strike against Iraq.

For weeks, the White House was dogged by questions of its use of intelligence information on the so-called Iraqi threat, most notably the 16-word statement that made its way into Bush’s January State of the Union speech claiming Iraq had sought large quantities of yellowcake uranium from Niger to build a nuclear bomb. It has since been revealed that the uranium claim was based on forged documents. The White House then admitted that the statement should never have been included in Bush’s State of the Union address.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held a closed-door hearing in July, questioning CIA Director George Tenet and other officials with the spy agency about the intelligence information collected by the CIA about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It was Tenet who, after National Security Adviser Rice blamed the CIA director, took the fall for Bush when questions were asked about why the White House allowed the uranium claims to be used in Bush’s State of the Union address even though there were uncertainties about its authenticity. But it was later revealed that Tenet had warned Stephen Hadley, an aide to Rice, in a memo that the statements about Iraq’s attempts to purchase uranium from Niger should not be included in Bush’s speech because it was not true. Hadley said he "forgot" to advise Bush and Rice about the CIA’s warnings.

Still, with the media keeping the pressure on Bush and his use of faulty intelligence, Democrats in both houses continued to ask tough questions and appeared to be close to getting some answers. But then came the summer recess, ending the debate for good.

Meanwhile, in Britain, a Parliamentary committee launched a full-scale investigation into Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government and whether he or his advisers falsified intelligence on the Iraqi threat. The committee, which wrapped up its probe Thursday, concluded that Blair did not falsify intelligence but failed to disclose to the public the uncertainty surrounding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and questioned the claims used by Blair that Iraq could deploy missiles in 45 minutes and that Iraq was a threat to Britain.

But here in the United States, it appears all but likely that Congress will never direct the same questions Parliament compelled Tony Blair to answer toward Bush. In his televised speech Sunday, Bush shifted his rationale for the war in Iraq, saying it was now the central front on the war on terror and less about weapons of mass destruction, which were the reasons he cited as starting the war in the first place.

Halfert, Congressman Obey’s spokesman, said because there are now "cracks in Bush’s armor" because of the tough questions he was asked about his use of intelligence, it will be easier for Democrats to ask even tougher questions about how the administration will spend the $87 billion to continue funding the war.

"These are now the important questions that have to be asked and answered," Halfert said.

Let’s hope we get some answers before Congress takes off for the winter.