WASHINGTON-Democratic congressional leaders sharply criticized President Bush's plans to appoint his own commission to investigate intelligence failures before the Iraq war, saying yesterday that the panel would not be sufficiently independent to examine whether the administration misled Congress and the public about the threat from Iraq.
In a letter to Bush, the Democrats told the president he "would be making a serious mistake" in establishing the commission by executive order and appointing all its members.
The leaders demanded that Bush wait for Congress to create a commission through legislation, as it did with the panel currently investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The White House disclosed Sunday that Bush plans to issue an executive order this week creating a nine-member panel that would investigate the apparent failure by U.S. intelligence agencies to provide an accurate assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Officials say Bush plans to give the commission a forward-looking mandate and instruct it to look not just at Iraq but at how to deal broadly with weapons-proliferation threats in the 21st century.
Bush met yesterday with David Kay, the former chief weapons hunter in Iraq, whose testimony about failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq helped generate strong political pressure on Bush to set up an independent inquiry.
Kay told Congress last week that "we were all wrong, probably" in believing before the U.S.-led invasion that Iraq possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
Speaking to reporters before meeting with Kay, Bush said he wants the commission to compare "what we thought and what the Iraq Survey Group has found" but also to look further afield. The survey group is the inspection team in Iraq that Kay headed until he stepped down 11 days ago.
"We also want to look at our war against proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, kind of in a broader context," Bush said. "And so, I'm putting together an independent, bipartisan commission to analyze where we stand, what we can do better as we fight this war against terror."
Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, briefing reporters at the White House, described the inquiry as "a broad assessment of our intelligence capabilities, particularly related to weapons of mass destruction and the spread of weapons of mass destruction." He said members of the commission would have "full access to all the information they need to do their job."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest international ally before and during the Iraq war, also plans to appoint a commission to investigate faulty pre-war intelligence on Iraq, a spokesman said yesterday.
A senior judge exonerated Blair last week of accusations that he deliberately distorted the intelligence in rallying Parliament and the public.
In Washington, Democrats have demanded that the commission investigate not only where the intelligence community failed but whether intelligence was manipulated or exaggerated by top administration officials in building the case for war.
Critics have said the administration compounded the failure of the intelligence community to gather accurate intelligence on Iraq by using existing data selectively and exaggerating what it showed in an effort to build congressional and public support for toppling Saddam Hussein.
The White House has repeatedly rejected such criticism.
In their letter to Bush, the Democratic leaders demanded "a broad, thorough, nonpartisan review of both the intelligence community's assessments of the threats posed by Iraq and the administration's use of this information." Such a review, they said, is essential to restoring credibility with the American public and overseas.
The letter was signed by Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader; John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee; presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut; and California Reps. Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader; and Henry A. Waxman.
"One of the major questions that needs to be addressed is whether senior administration officials, including members of the Cabinet and senior White House officials, misled the Congress and the public about the nature of the threat from Iraq," they wrote.
White House officials have declined to describe the full mandate of the president's commission or to say whether it will be empowered to investigate how the intelligence was used by the administration.
McClellan sidestepped a question on this issue yesterday, and a senior official said later, "These things are still being developed."
Inquiries by House and Senate committees have been limited to looking at the government intelligence agencies themselves, comparing whether the information they obtained on Iraq was sufficient to justify their conclusions.
While the White House has said the panel would be modeled on the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Democrats' letter said that commission "was not investigating allegations of potential misconduct involving senior administration officials, including White House officials."
Daschle told reporters that Bush's plan would allow the president to "appoint each of the members and dictate the design and ultimately the circumstances under which they do their work."
The commission looking into the 9/11 attacks, which is led by a Republican former governor of New Jersey, Thomas H. Kean, has angered the White House by demanding an extension of its reporting deadline until September, when the presidential election campaign will be in full swing.
The panel, created by legislation and comprising five Republicans and five Democrats, had earlier complained that its work was being slowed by the reluctance of the White House to divulge information.
Congressional leaders have not objected to administration plans to have the Iraq panel delay making a report until next year so as to remove its work from election-year politics.
However, David Albright, a former United Nations weapons hunter, said yesterday that the panel could issue three-month updates on its inquiry and hold hearings to keep the public informed.
A report last month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based on an extensive review of the administration's public statements, concluded: "Administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq's WMD [nuclear, chemical and biological weapons] and ballistic missile programs, beyond the intelligence failures. ... "
Among other examples, the liberal-leaning think tank said the administration treated as a "given truth" the threat that Hussein would give banned weapons to terrorists, routinely deleted caveats present in intelligence reports and misrepresented inspectors' findings "in ways that turned threats from minor to dire."
The administration's use of intelligence about Iraq prior to last year's invasion has revealed several unorthodox practices by the administration, including:
Visits by Vice President Dick Cheney to Central Intelligence Agency headquarters to question analysts,
Creation of a separate intelligence-analysis unit in the office of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith to examine possible connections between terrorist groups and nations that possess weapons of mass destruction,
Granting high-level access to Iraqi defectors claiming to have fresh intelligence, and
Dissemination of raw, unanalyzed intelligence to staffers working for John Bolton, the State Department top official dealing with weapons proliferation.