WASHINGTON - President Bush named a bipartisan panel yesterday to examine why U.S. intelligence agencies misjudged the extent of Iraq's banned weapons program and to suggest changes to improve their ability to track the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Under strong pressure to appoint people seen as independent, Bush tapped as co-chairmen a former Democratic governor and senator from Virginia, Charles S. Robb, and a conservative Republican, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Laurence H. Silberman.
The five others named included Sen. John McCain of Arizona, an occasional Bush critic and one-time political rival who was the first prominent Republican to call for such a commission.
The panel has not been empowered to look into the politically charged issue of how Bush and other top officials used intelligence findings in building their case for the war in Iraq; however, the executive order establishing the commission does not specifically preclude it from doing so.
The commission has until the end of March 2005 to complete its work, sparing Bush a possibly critical final report before this year's November elections.
In a statement to reporters, Bush noted that a team of investigators led by former weapons-hunter David Kay had failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, despite the belief of U.S. intelligence analysts before the war that stockpiles of such munitions existed.
"We are determined to figure out why," Bush said. "We're also determined to make sure that American intelligence is as accurate as possible for every challenge in the future."
In statements released by the White House, Robb said he looked forward to conducting "an independent review and assessment" of U.S. intelligence and collection; Silberman, who is semiretired and carries the title senior judge, said "I will do all I can" to give the president and the country confidence in the intelligence community.
Congressional Democrats, who wanted the panel created by legislation and to have a say in its membership, immediately questioned whether the commission would have the necessary autonomy.
"To have a commission appointed exclusively by President Bush investigate his administration's intelligence failures in Iraq does not inspire confidence in its independence," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, said, "The scope of the commission insulates the White House from review. The commission has been told to ignore the elephant in the middle of the room, which is how the intelligence was used and misused by President Bush, Vice President [Dick] Cheney and other senior administration officials."
But McCain, speaking to reporters in Europe, said the commission would have to look at the whole picture, including how the administration employed the intelligence in making the case for war.
"I think all aspects are important, from the way intelligence is gathered to the way it is presented to the American people," said McCain, who supported the war.
The four other panel members tapped yesterday were: Lloyd N. Cutler, White House counsel during the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter; Richard C. Levin, president of Yale, Bush's alma mater; Adm. William O. Studeman, former director of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, who later became deputy head of the CIA under the first President George Bush, and former appeals court judge Patricia M. Wald, a Carter appointee. The president is expected to add to more members.
Kay's recent declaration that no stockpiles of banned weapons would be found in Iraq triggered one of the most serious controversies of Bush's tenure, calling into question not only the competence of the intelligence community but also the administration's justification for the war.
The president and other administration officials, before last March's invasion, repeatedly noted the danger they said came from the existence of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq and from Saddam Hussein's active effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
CIA Director George J. Tenet acknowledged in a speech Thursday that the community lacked enough human intelligence sources in Iraq and had made some errors, including drawing on reports from one source known to have fabricated or given unreliable information in the past. But Tenet insisted that his analysts accurately portrayed Hussein as a rising, though not "imminent," danger.
Senate and House intelligence committees are both examining what the Senate panel's Republican chairman has called "a global intelligence community failure." Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, Bush's closest foreign ally in the war, has appointed his own commission to examine the quality of his country's prewar intelligence. The issue has also provoked debate in Israel, which has a close intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States.
Bush gave the new commission broad instructions to "look at American intelligence capabilities," and to "examine intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and related 21st-century threats and issue specific recommendations to ensure our capabilities are strong."
One of its tasks will be to compare prewar intelligence with the results of a continuing weapons search in Iraq by a U.S.-led team called the Iraq Survey Group. The search, led by Kay until two weeks ago, is now led by Charles A. Duelfer, who met with Bush yesterday.
Bush said the commission would also review American intelligence on weapons programs "in countries such as North Korea and Iran." Both nations, which Bush included with Iraq in 2002 as part of the "axis of evil," are said by U.S. officials to have sought to acquire nuclear weapons, although Iran recently agreed to international inspections.
The president said the panel will look at past intelligence on Libya and Afghanistan. Libya recently declared an end to its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, but it appears to have made more progress on its once-secret nuclear program than Western experts realized.
Bush's statement didn't mention Pakistan, a close ally of the United States in the war on terrorism, but it seemed unlikely to be overlooked by the commission. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, publicly confessed this week to passing nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Investigators say his admission represented just the tip of the iceberg of an international black market in nuclear technology and equipment.
The Pakistani government claims that Khan's actions went unnoticed by the country's powerful military and intelligence establishment are widely disbelieved. The physicist was pardoned two days ago by Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The executive order creating the panel, released late yesterday, makes clear that it is being set up to advise the president, although he will consult with Congress after he receives its report and recommendations.
Bush's instructions to the commission allow it to assess not only why U.S. agencies apparently erred in thinking that Iraq had such weapons, but whether they accurately assessed Iraq's intentions and plans. Without saying so explicitly, the order also appears to permit the panel to compare American intelligence with the findings of other nations' intelligence agencies and of United Nations weapons inspectors.
The commission contains members with a range of experience. Robb, son-in-law of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, served on the Senate Intelligence, Armed Services and International Relations committees. Silberman, a former Justice Department official and ambassador to Yugoslavia, has handled national-security cases as a federal judge.
Cutler, 86, a veteran of blue-ribbon panels and reputed to be one of the capital's "wise men," lent credibility to the Clinton White House at a time when the president was embroiled in legal troubles arising out of the Whitewater land deal. Wald, 75, most recently served as a judge on the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
With the exception of Levin, 56, all panel members are above the age of 60.