WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 The Bush administration, which has been laboring to build domestic and international support for its Iraq policies, is facing renewed criticism about how it managed intelligence before the war, and internal tensions over the leak of a C.I.A. agent's identity.
The debate over the rationale for the war was reopened by leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, who have delivered a critical interim assessment of how intelligence agencies concluded that Iraq had forbidden weapons and ties to Al Qaeda.
There were "too many uncertainties" in the outdated and inadequate information underlying a National Intelligence Estimate that the administration used to justify the war, the senior Republican and the senior Democrat on the panel said in a newly disclosed letter to George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence.
At the same time, officials confirmed that Mr. Tenet had asked the Justice Department to look into whether one or more administration officials had leaked information to the news media disclosing the identity of a covert C.I.A. agent. Mr. Tenet's request was first reported by NBC News.
The agent is the wife of Joseph C. Wilson 4th, a former ambassador to Gabon. It was Mr. Wilson who, more than a year and a half ago, concluded in a report to the C.I.A. that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium ore in Niger in an effort to build nuclear arms. But his report was ignored, and Ambassador Wilson has been highly critical of how the administration handled intelligence claims regarding Iraq's nuclear weapons programs, suggesting that Mr. Bush's aides and Vice President Dick Cheney's office tried to inflate the threat.
The very fact that Mr. Tenet referred the matter to the Justice Department comes as a major political embarrassment to a White House that is famously tight-lipped, and a president who has repeatedly vowed that his administration would never leak classified information. White House officials said today that they would cooperate in an investigation if the Justice Department decided that one was merited.
The national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was questioned persistently today about the House Intelligence Committee letter, which was first reported today by The Washington Post. She held to the White House position that its prewar intelligence about Iraq was as solid as it could be, given the difficulties of piercing the secrecy around Mr. Hussein's authoritarian government.
"The president believes that he had very good intelligence going into the war, and stands behind what the director of central intelligence told him going into the war," she said on the television program "Fox News Sunday." "Obviously, this was the accumulation of evidence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction over a 12-year period, information that was relied on by three administrations, several different intelligence services, and indeed the United Nations itself."
The new questions come at a particularly uncomfortable moment for Mr. Bush. Only last week, the administration's chief investigator into Iraq's arms programs sent back a preliminary report that sketched out very little evidence supporting the administration's case for going to war. That has put the administration on the defensive as it is trying to persuade Congress to provide $87 billion for the military stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to persuade other nations to contribute troops and cash.
Several of the Democratic presidential aspirants seized on the investigations today to try to chip away at what had been, until the war, Mr. Bush's biggest political asset: his credibility with Americans, which grew after the Sept. 11 attacks. A statement from Howard Dean, a leading contender, was typical of the comments. "President Bush came into office promising to bring honor and integrity to the White House," he said. "No more promises. It's time for accountability."
White House advisers are clearly concerned that the F.B.I. may conclude there is reason to investigate the intelligence leak. Ms. Rice said repeatedly today that the facts were not yet known, and Attorney General John Ashcroft has not yet acted on the C.I.A.'s formal referral of the matter to the Justice Department.
But the mere charge may itself gain some political currency. "There is blood in the water, and there are people all over Washington who want to take advantage of that," one senior official said.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who had called earlier for an investigation into the disclosure of the agent's name, said the inquiry should be "thorough, complete and fearless."
"This was a despicable act," he said today. "Whoever did it should go to jail."
The Sept. 25 letter to Mr. Tenet from the House committee leaders could carry added weight because Representative Porter J. Goss of Florida, the Republican committee chairman and a former C.I.A. agent, is typically a supporter of the agency and the White House.
The letter does note that Mr. Goss has a "fundamental disagreement" with Representative Jane Harman of California, the committee's top Democrat, on whether the overall intelligence analysis was "deficient."
But the letter, arising from the panel's ongoing inquiry, cited serious shortcomings in the intelligence on Iraq's programs to develop illegal weapons and its ties to Al Qaeda, two central justifications for the war.
"The intelligence available to the U.S. on Iraq's possession of W.M.D. and its programs and capabilities relating to such weapons after 1998, and its links to Al Qaeda, was fragmentary and sporadic," it said.
A spokesman for the C.I.A. responded today, saying that the lawmakers were wrong and that they had not done the work necessary to reach such sweeping conclusions.
"The letter tries to give the impression that they have done a whole lot of due diligence on this subject, but in fact they have not really had significant hearings or briefings," said the spokesman, Bill Harlow.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in a television appearance today, noted that the Iraqi leader threw weapons inspectors out in 1998, making it more difficult for intelligence agencies to get hard information.
"From 1998 until we went in earlier this year, there was a period where we didn't have benefit of U.N. inspectors actually on the ground, and our intelligence community had to do the best they could," Mr. Powell said on the ABC News program "This Week." "And I think they did a pretty good job."
In an interview this evening, Mr. Goss said that the letter was intended to seek a C.I.A. response as the House inquiry moved ahead and that it did not represent final conclusions. He said it was his view that the intelligence problems cited in the letter resulted from not having enough human sources of solid intelligence to resolve uncertainties and inconsistencies in the information collected. "There were not enough assets on the ground," he said.
The letter points to a "dearth" of underlying intelligence about Iraq after 1998 and says intelligence experts held to longstanding assessments about Iraq's capability. "The absence of proof that chemical and biological weapons and their related development programs had been destroyed was considered as proof that they continued to exist," it said.
The letter said that the committee extensively reviewed allegations that administration officials had distorted intelligence findings in making their public case for the invasion but that the panel had no authority over articulating foreign policy.
However, the letter said, if public officials misstate intelligence, agencies have "a responsibility to go back to that policymaker and make clear that the public statement mischaracterized the available intelligence."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company