The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence handed President Bush a direct challenge when it announced Feb. 12 that it will investigate whether Bush and other top officials misused and manipulated intelligence to make a case for war.
The action was a slap in the face to Bush’s effort to preempt such an investigation by setting up his own commission with a vague mission and a reporting date well after the November elections.
A day after the committee’s announcement, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) said Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had agreed to schedule a closed-door session of the Senate, its first in five years, to discuss intelligence matters. The unusual session could take place the first week in March, officials said.
The last time the Senate held a closed session was in February 1999, during President Clinton’s impeachment.
The Senate developments came as MoveOn.org launched a Feb. 19 “Walk In” at Senate offices nationwide, culminating a multimedia grassroots campaign calling for censure of Bush.
Intelligence Committee Chair Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Vice Chair Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said the committee had unanimously agreed to “refine” the scope of its ongoing inquiry into pre-war intelligence on Iraq. In addition to investigating the quality of U.S. intelligence, and “whether any influence was brought to bear on anyone to shape their analysis to support policy objectives,” the committee will now look into whether public statements by U.S. officials before the war “were substantiated by intelligence information.” They will also probe activities of a secret Pentagon group, the Office of Special Plans (OSP), set up under the leadership of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz. The OSP is widely seen as having “second guessed” the CIA and other official intelligence bodies to promote waging war on Iraq.
Committee Republicans, on the defensive, were forced to agree to the expanded inquiry after lengthy negotiations. The carefully worded compromise sets certain limits on what the committee will look at, and denies it subpoena power to compel Bush and other top officials to provide evidence. Nevertheless, the enlarged probe is seen as an important blow to Bush’s efforts to protect himself from questions that could damage his re-election campaign. Senate Democrats are expected to push for release of the committee’s findings before the November elections.
Bush’s poll numbers have plummeted, with a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing a majority of Americans, 54 percent, think Bush either lied or deliberately exaggerated evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in order to justify war. For the first time since the war ended, less than half of Americans – 48 percent – believe the war was worth fighting. Fifty percent said the war was not worth it. Approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq has dropped to 47 percent, down 8 percentage points in the past three weeks.
The White House is anxious to proclaim a handover of political power to an Iraqi government before the Nov. 2 U.S. elections. The administration is reportedly split over how much of a role to allow the UN to play in this process. At the same time, administration officials talk of an extended military occupation, lasting many years. And Cheney’s Halliburton and other well-connected U.S. contractors are all over Iraq, working to entrench U.S. military and economic control. Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root has some 15,000 employees working on “support” activities in Iraq and Kuwait, more than the 11,000 troops sent by Britain, Bush’s chief “coalition partner.”
Rebuffing Bush administration efforts to control Iraq’s political process, UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to emphasize the necessity of holding properly prepared direct elections, and to specify a later deadline for such elections to take place, possibly December, after a surrender of political sovereignty to an interim Iraqi governing body. Brahimi is expected to propose that the new interim body be expanded to include more sections of Iraqi society than the current 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. Brahimi told reporters the UN should be “present in every step of the way from now on.”
Leading Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani termed his meeting with Brahimi a success, and called for unity between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and other religious and ethnic communities in order to end the U.S. occupation. “The most important thing at this time is unity,” he is reported to have told a group of Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders. Noting that Shiites are not a single entity, he urged the Kurds and Sunnis to “unite with all Iraqis, Shia, Kurds, Christian, Turkmen,” in order to “stand up to the Americans.”
A board of Sunni clerics said the UN should be the body that appoints an expanded governing council. A rival of Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr, called for the Islamic Conference Organization and the Arab League to “preside with the UN over elections.”
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