"Calls for a formal investigation into this matter are premature," Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a statement released Wednesday. Roberts said he would review documents from the Central Intelligence Agency first.
The decision to hold off a formal investigation sparked a spat with the Democrats' leader on the panel. Vice Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., quickly fired off a statement reiterating his call for a public committee investigation.
"I strongly disagree with the notion that we should wait to decide on a formal investigation until we complete a review of CIA documents regarding WMD and Iraq," Rockefeller said. "This limited approach clearly falls short of the important oversight responsibilities entrusted to the members of this committee."
But the Bush administration could still face one or more inquiries into intelligence on the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, a growing issue because the United States has failed to find any such weapons in its 76 days in Iraq.
Roberts said his review of CIA documents "will enable it to determine if a hearing or further action should or will take place." Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John Warner, R-Va., is also considering a look into the issue. And House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., is also reviewing CIA data to determine if his committee should hold hearings. Roberts said his committee would coordinate with Warner's.
Both House and Senate intelligence panels conducted hearings, mostly in secret, on possible intelligence failures prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, an issue now being weighed by an independent commission.
But the timing, scope or public access to any congressional investigation into Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- if they occur -- remains unclear. The possible inquiries come as failure, so far, to find any WMD has created a ballooning political crisis for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and is putting the Bush administration on the defensive.
Before the war, Bush said WMD in Iraq posed a direct threat to the United States and that a "coalition of the willing" would disarm him.
"We know that the regime has produced thousand of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas and VX nerve agents," Bush said in a speech in Cincinnati last October. "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy or steal an amount of uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year."
In a Jan. 23 speech, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Council on Foreign Relations that the United States must act to prevent Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction. "We don't have a lot of time. Time is running out," Wolfowitz said.
Goss late last month asked CIA director George Tenet for a raft of information on the development of intelligence regarding Iraq's WMD and possible links to al-Qaida.
"The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence believes that it is now time to reevaluate U.S. intelligence regarding the amount or existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that country's linkages to terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida," Goss wrote Tenet May 22.
Goss told Tenet to deliver intelligence materials by July 1. A spokeswoman, Julie Almacy, said Goss has not decided whether or not to hold hearings on those issues.
At least one Democrat has gone on the offensive over the WMD issue. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said he would introduce a resolution asking House committees to demand documents from the Bush administration on the issue.
"This administration made many assertions, for which they have yet to produce any evidence, about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," said Kucinich, a 2004 presidential candidate. "What evidence did this administration have to put the lives of American service men and women on the line?"
The House committees, run by Republicans, could easily reject Kucinich's resolution.
While some experts remain confident that the discovery of Iraq's WMD will still be made, critics are wary of apparent changes in the administration's arguments after the fact.
In an interview with Vanity Fair last month, Wolfowitz said the administration emphasized that threat only because there was so much disagreement within the government over Iraq's ties to al-Qaida.
"The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason," Wolfowitz said, according to the transcript of the interview from the Department of Defense. "That second issue about links to terrorism is the one about which there's the most disagreement within the bureaucracy."