President George Bush, repeatedly challenged on his prewar certainties about Saddam Hussein's arsenal, yesterday confirmed an outside investigation into intelligence failures on Iraq. But the promise of an independent, bipartisan commission came under immediate attack, with critics accusing the White House of trying to undermine the inquiry from the start.
The announcement yesterday marks the last retreat by the White House from its prewar assertions about Saddam, and the abandonment of one of the main justifications for the war.
This should be an inquiry focused on the intelligence failure to understand what went wrong and how precisely to fix it. The president's proposal tries to bury that as simply an element in a broader effort.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
But Mr Bush was unapologetic yesterday. "We do know that Saddam Hussein had the intent and capabilities to cause great harm," he said. "We know he was a danger. And he was not only a danger to people in the free world, he was a danger to his own people. He slaughtered thousands of people, imprisoned people."
Mr Bush is facing re-election this year and is necessarily cautious of exposing himself to attacks from his Democratic opponents that he manipulated intelligence to make the case for war.
Instead, he told reporters, he favored a sweeping investigation into the failings of US intelligence agencies on the entire issue of nuclear proliferation, from Iraq to North Korea, Iran and Libya, and as far back in time as the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, which the CIA failed to anticipate. "We also want to look at our war against proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, kind of in a broader context," he said.
The scale of those ambitions has caused widespread dismay, and led to accusations that the White House had set tasks for the commission so broad as to be unworkable. "This should be an inquiry focused on the intelligence failure to understand what went wrong and how precisely to fix it. The president's proposal tries to bury that as simply an element in a broader effort," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mr Cirincione's misgivings were given greater voice by Democratic legislators who said they would closely scrutinize the mandate, and the make-up of the commission for signs of Republican bias.
"I think that it is important for us to have an independent commission, but it truly should be independent," said Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate. "It sounds as if the president is going to call for one where he gets to appoint each of the members and dictate the design and ultimately the circumstances under which they do their work."
Mr Cirincione said one test of Mr Bush's sincerity would be the mandate granted to the commission to review data put forward by the offices of the vice-president, Dick Cheney, and the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in addition to the information gathered by the intelligence services. Analysts will also closely scrutinize the make-up of the commission to see how many national security and non-proliferation experts are among its ranks, and whether the technical experts chosen are known Republicans.
Mr Cheney's reported involvement in the formation of the commission has already been the subject of concern. The commission is not expected to report until mid-2005 preventing any political fallout from the inquiry during this election year.
It was the CIA weapons inspector David Kay's admission last week that he had found no concrete evidence of any Iraqi nuclear, chemical or biological weapons program that forced the White House to acknowledge there was no substance to the rationale for the war on Iraq.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004