Analysis: Did Sen. Warner plug the leak?

By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK, UPI Chief White House Correspondent   |   June 13, 2003 at 1:52 PM

WASHINGTON, June 13 (UPI) -- The big investigations -- Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica Lewinsky -- required a bi-partisan Congress; the party that didn't hold the White House could arrange an inquiry and public hearings on actions of the executive branch. Simple.

In the glare of those television lights Americans learned more about their government than at any other time in recent history, and a lot more than government officials wanted them to know.

The cynical, including a good many political science teachers around the country, call it "politics by other means," that is, that the two political parties so equally divide the electorate that when they don't win the White House, they set to change or impede an administration by massive, media-fed investigations that cripple the president's effectiveness. That certainly happened to President Richard Nixon in Watergate and President William Jefferson Clinton in Monica-gate and it harried and hampered President Ronald Reagan's second four years.

There is no question that President George W. Bush's administration saw that ominous specter heading for them in the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction mystery, but Wednesday, at least for the time being, Senate Republicans stood shoulder to shoulder to contain the issues behind the closed doors of Senate Intelligence Committee.

There is no question the issue was ominous. Nearly nine weeks after U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad, there is no sign of the elaborate network of weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration used in great detail to justify starting the war.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair remains in deep trouble, facing an unruly uprising in his own party, but Bush is not untouched. Several intelligence agency officials told the news media that the administration was manipulating the intelligence coming out of Iraq to suit their plan for attacking this spring.

Despite the "Gosh, we won didn't we?" approach that some administration topsiders first took, a lot is at stake for the president in this.

He needs political credibility at home to win a second term. The United States needs credibility abroad to have its assertions of a danger accepted and Bush certainly needs credulity if he is to lead in the peace effort in the Middle East.

As the days passed, the questions grew more pointed, but the politically most dangerous moment for Bush came last week when Senate and House committees agreed to look into the questions. Though Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was dubious, it appeared that Virginia's Sen. John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, might have public hearings.

The administration put its big guns out immediately. Vice President Dick Cheney last week lunched with Republican congressional leaders and thoroughly rejected the charges, according to one Senate aide. White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell hit the Sunday talk shows and even reclusive Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith had an unusual news briefing to say his team of intelligence analysts had not cooked the books.

Iraqi National Congress chief Ahmed Chalabi used a luncheon with the staff of the Washington Times to say that his people had helped the administration get intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but that they had nothing to do with the now-dubious claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Niger.

This claim showed directly in a State Department fact sheet and obliquely in a British intelligence report published earlier. Chalabi said, the Times reported, that his men had not worked for the British at any time.

The Washington Post Wednesday reported that the CIA had doubts about whether Saddam had sought Niger uranium in recent years, doubts that may not have reached the president. The report was based on unidentified sources, but if true it will help Bush. Intelligence failures are a lot easier to explain than cooking the books.

All of this had its effect. Wednesday a taciturn Roberts, flanked by Warner, announced it would be premature to hold public hearings. "In terms of a joint, formal investigation I think it is very premature." Warner said he knew of no evidence that the White House officials "hyped or cooked or embellished." He also noted that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., concurred, which suggested that Frist had put this together.

There is a slim parliamentary chance that West Virginia's Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, can use his rank to force public hearings by gaining the support of five other senators.

Most congressional veterans on both sides of the political aisle will tell you that investigations behind closed doors, particularly on intelligence matters, don't discover as much as those in the public.

In the open, the committee would have to call the intelligence officials who raised the issue, perhaps even called U.N. inspectors who complained about U.S. intelligence, and administration officials who received the intelligence. Out in public and under oath, somehow, the answers get fuller and clearer. The public hearings often result in others stepping forward.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has launched a new search in Iraq, tapping a U.N. weapons inspector to serve as an Iraq-based special adviser to the newly formed Iraq Survey Group.

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