WASHINGTON - President Bush will appoint a nine-member bipartisan commission this week to investigate U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities, a senior administration official said yesterday.
The decision to appoint a commission, finalized over the weekend, comes amid increasing calls for an independent investigation of the quality of the information Bush cited last year as the rationale for launching the war that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
But the inquiry would cover much more territory than just Iraq, the official said, pointing out that the president "recognizes the important role that intelligence plays" in monitoring "outlaw regimes" that practice "deception, denial and concealment," particularly when it comes to unconventional weapons.
By creating a panel whose inquiry is expected to run past Election Day, the official said, Bush may be immunizing himself politically against criticism over faulty intelligence and against allegations from some Democrats that the administration exaggerated Iraq's weapons capabilities to build public support for the war.
As recently as last week, Bush and his top aides were contending that any inquiry into prewar intelligence must await the results of the continuing, but so far fruitless, search in Iraq for biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.
As it turned out, even as the White House was advancing that position publicly, top presidential aides - at Bush's direction - began laying the groundwork for a blue-ribbon panel, according to the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"What [Bush] wants to do is have a broad, bipartisan and independent look ... a broad assessment of our intelligence-gathering capabilities, particularly with regard to weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation efforts," the official said.
The commission will include experts from outside government as well as members of Congress, sources said yesterday. The panelists will include "very distinguished statesmen and women" who have served the country either as "users" of classified information or gatherers of intelligence, said another administration official, who also requested anonymity.
One possible member of the panel is retired Army Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for the president's father, the senior administration official said. Scowcroft publicly criticized the Bush administration's decision- making as it prepared for the invasion of Iraq.
The official acknowledged the political pitfalls inherent in such an investigation, particularly since the presidential campaign is under way. But he said the White House would strive to keep partisan politics from intruding into the inquiry.
The "independent, thorough and bipartisan" panel will be given "all the access they need to get the job done," the official said.
Since May 1, when Bush announced the end to major combat operations in Iraq, the president and his administration have been the subject of growing questions over the inability of weapons investigators to turn up any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons - the White House's initial and most important rationale for using deadly force to effect a "regime change" in Baghdad last spring.
Demands for an investigation escalated late last month after David Kay resigned as the chief U.S. weapons inspector. In interviews and before Congress, Kay said he doubted that Hussein had illicit weapons when U.S. forces attacked.
"We were almost all wrong" about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
Kay said yesterday that he would welcome an independent investigation.
"I think it is very important, not only for the nation. It's important for our credibility as a global power in our relations with allies as we move forward," he said on Fox News Sunday.
"I suspect there are fundamental flaws in the way we collect and analyze intelligence," he said. "I think it's important to know that an honest effort is under way to find the causes."
Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst, pointed out that the language used by the senior administration official suggested that the commission might be asked to assess intelligence capabilities over several administrations.
"This seems like an effort for the president to appear as concerned about faulty intelligence as the Democrats are, as the Congress is, as everybody else is," he said yesterday. "If he didn't do this and continued to resist, it'd look as though he was covering things up, that he was trying to protect himself."
By creating a commission, Rothenberg said, the president "puts himself on the side of everybody else. Instead of it being the Democrats and the Congress against George W. Bush, it becomes everybody trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. And the president can say, 'The intelligence was faulty, and we all need better information.'"
At the White House, the senior administration official declined to say when Bush would formally announce the panel's members. As recently as Friday, the president told reporters: "I, too, want to know the facts. I want to be able to compare what the Iraqi Survey Group has found with what we thought prior to going into Iraq."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writers Greg Miller and David Savage contributed to this article.