Sens. clash on first day of Intel meeting about Iraq weapons

Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence failed to reach agreement yesterday on how to evaluate the use of intelligence about Iraq’s prewar weapons capabilities, making it all but impossible to finish the probe by Monday, as panel Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) had planned.

The contentious meeting began a day when both parties maneuvered frenetically to gain the advantage in the debate over national security and ethics.

Yesterday, Senate Democrats sought to refocus the public’s attention on the indictment of Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and the ongoing investigation of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. The Senate Democratic leadership, including Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) sent a letter to President Bush urging him not to pardon Libby or anyone else if they are found guilty in connection with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s probe.

Democrats also demanded to know whether any White House official had already discussed the possibility of pardoning Libby.

At the same time, Republicans led by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) attempted to put Democrats on the defensive by calling for an investigation of how The Washington Post discovered and reported on the existence of CIA-controlled detention and interrogation facilities overseas.

The political gambits amounted to a tug of war between Republican and Democratic strategists over the media’s attention. Hinting at the mounting tension between the sides, Durbin appeared incredulous when a radio reporter asked him about Hastert’s letter. He voiced disbelief that she would make that the focus of her story when, as he said, Republican leaders didn’t utter a “murmur or peep” of protest when Valerie Plame’s affliation with the CIA was leaked to the press.

The tit for tat between Republicans and Democrats on national security is an outgrowth of Reid’s decision to force the Senate into closed session last Tuesday to protest what Democrats call the lack of progress on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of prewar intelligence. Prior to reopening the chamber, Frist and Reid appointed six members of the Intelligence Committee to report on the progress of the investigation by Nov. 14.

Those members, including Roberts, the panel’s chairman; Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the vice chairman; and Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.); Trent Lott (R-Miss.); Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), met yesterday to draft a roadmap for completing the investigation, but the meeting ended with mixed results.

Lott told reporters the meeting was chaotic. Roberts called it “frank,” and Rockefeller said it was “useful.”

But the lawmakers could not agree on how to conduct the crux of the investigation, the evaluation of statements made by policymakers about the threat Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, posed to the United States.

Bond said that it “is still up in the air” whether the committee will vote on each of about 450 statements policymakers made to the public about the Iraqi threat. Roberts says that lawmakers on the committee should evaluate each statement to determine whether it was supported by available intelligence.

Democrats say that, because the task is so large, committee staff should evaluate the statements and produce a report, which would then be voted on by committee members.

Roberts said he did not know whether members of the committee would begin reviewing and voting on each statement when the committee meets to continue work on its investigation this morning. Without an agreement on this central component of the probe, it is unlikely that the investigation will be wrapped up by Monday, as Roberts had planned.

Rockefeller said he updated Reid about the meeting during yesterday’s weekly luncheon gathering of the Senate Democratic caucus. But he said he did not give the rest of his colleagues a detailed summary of the session. Bill Duhnke, the intelligence panel’s senior staff director, was spotted walking into the majority leader’s office, presumably to give Frist a similar update.

To stay on schedule, Roberts had scheduled morning and afternoon meetings of the Intelligence Committee for yesterday, today and tomorrow, according to calendars published in congressional news publications.

Intelligence Committee Democrats have submitted statements for evaluation from senior Bush administration officials such as Cheney, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Rockefeller declined to say whether Democrats are pushing for subpoenas of administration officials or records. But it is likely that they are advocating for those tough measures because the administration has so far denied the Intelligence Committee key documents related to policymakers’ use of prewar intelligence, including a report, about 50 pages long, that Libby drafted for Powell to use during a U.N. speech about the Iraqi threat. Although Powell used little of the information, Libby’s draft is viewed as a useful distilled version of the information the White House was weighing before the invasion.

Rockefeller, however, said he would push for his panel to interview senior administration officials about their statements.

“I don’t see how you can possibly analyze what they were making their decisions on without talking to people,” he said.