WASHINGTON — Revelations that prewar intelligence on Iraq was deeply flawed have triggered soul-searching on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers asking whether a more accurate assessment would have changed their vote for war and casting doubt on whether preemptive military action could ever again win approval.
The debate is about more than history, and is more than partisan posturing in a presidential election year. Any future debate on the use of military power "will have that overlay" of the intelligence failure on Iraq, said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who voted in October 2002 to authorize President Bush to use force.
"There's a greater burden of proof now when someone comes up here suggesting preemptive action," Smith said, adding that Congress will insist "that we have more concrete facts."
The vote that gave Bush broad leeway to use force against Iraq was seen by many as a revolution in American foreign policy. Breaking with decades of precedent, lawmakers accepted Bush's post-Sept. 11 doctrine of preemption and gave the White House more flexibility to make war — even when there was no imminent threat to U.S. security.
Now some senators are saying that documentation of the intelligence failure dealt a serious blow to that doctrine, and others are left rethinking their vote for war.
"It would have made my vote much more difficult," Smith said. "It's a much closer call."
The Senate Intelligence Committee, in a report issued Friday, concluded that prewar U.S. intelligence assessments of an unconventional weapons arsenal in Iraq were exaggerated and unsupported by evidence. The administration used the intelligence as a reason for U.S. military action, but the Senate report showed most of it was wrong.
Smith said that he attended briefings and read intelligence findings and "without reservations voted for military action." To do so, he acknowledged, was to reverse decades of foreign policy precedent that the United States "does not go around and pick fights."
Nonetheless, Bush — while not using the term "preemption" — reaffirmed his support for preventive action in speeches this week. "America must confront threats before they fully materialize," he said Tuesday in Marquette, Mich.
Some congressional Republicans echoed Smith's misgivings.
Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio said he had no regrets about authorizing the use of force because Saddam Hussein "was a bad guy. He was a bully; he was a bad presence in that area." But Voinovich agreed that Bush's doctrine of preemption had suffered a blow.
"If somebody starts to say: 'Here's what the facts are,' " Voinovich said, Congress will insist on more proof before acting.
Indiana Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that "because of the sense of some senators that if they had better intelligence
they would have come to different conclusions," it probably would be harder to persuade Congress to use military force in instances where there is no imminent threat to the United States.
Lugar said that he would still have voted to authorize force, but was aware that many of his colleagues were criticizing the evidence they had been given before their vote.
One of those was Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who said she was "deeply troubled" that the evidence she had been given on Iraq's alleged stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons "turned out to be incorrect." The evidence she saw in countless briefings, Collins said, centered on weapons of mass destruction. And her vote, she said, rested heavily on that evidence.
Even had she known that there were no stockpiles of unconventional weapons, Collins said, she would have supported ousting Hussein because she believed he posed a threat to the region and to the strategic interests of the United States. "Are the world and the region far better off?" Collins asked. "Yes."
But Collins said she was certain that until the problems with intelligence gathering and analysis were resolved, it would be harder for presidents to persuade Congress to use force.
"In order to pursue a preemption strategy, we have to be able to rely on the accuracy and completeness of intelligence information," Collins said. "We have all learned that the intelligence services need to be overhauled."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed.
One of Bush's strongest supporters on the decision to go to war, McCain said Tuesday that he likely would have voted in favor of authorizing force even if he had known the truth about Iraq's weapons.
"I think I probably would have voted the same," McCain said. "But what is important is that we have the correct information" to make such decisions. "And we didn't."
Different intelligence may or may not have altered the decision by Congress to authorize war, McCain said, "but we have to restore the credibility of our intelligence, we have to fix the system."
Among Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who serves on the Intelligence Committee, said the scathing indictments of prewar intelligence would have changed the vote she cast in favor of force.
Asked Sunday whether she regretted her vote, Feinstein replied on CNN: "Yes, I do. I must say I do." She had been convinced by the intelligence community's assessments, Feinstein said. "The intelligence was very conclusive: Saddam possessed biological and chemical weapons," she said.
Louisiana Sen. John B. Breaux said he too "likely" would have voted against the war resolution had he been given an accurate assessment of Iraq's capabilities.
The threat posed by Iraq's alleged unconventional arsenal "was the principal reason that allowed me to justify" a preemptive attack and unilateral action by the United States, Breaux said.
"Saddam is a terrible person, but that does not make the case for preemptive war, particularly without a worldwide coalition," he said.
Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week that he would not have voted in favor of the 2002 war resolution had he been given correct intelligence. And Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the committee chairman, said the Iraq conflict would have been altogether different had the intelligence been accurate.
Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.), the likely Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees, voted for the war resolution. They have said that they do not regret those votes, but that Bush botched the war effort. Kerry said he intended with his vote that Bush would obtain greater international backing for military action.
Some lawmakers protested Tuesday that the debate touched off by the Senate Intelligence Committee report was being guided by hindsight. As they were in 2002, many lawmakers now are being asked to defend their decisions on going to war in the shadow of national elections. Some declined to comment on what they said was a hypothetical question.
In October 2002, the Senate voted 77 to 23 in favor of the resolution authorizing Bush to use force. Only one Republican, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, broke ranks to vote against going to war. Independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont also opposed the authorization. Twenty-nine Democrats joined 48 Republicans to back Bush.
In the House, the vote was 296 to 133. Six Republicans joined 126 Democrats and independent Vermont Rep. Bernard Sanders to vote against Bush.
The congressional vote was an unusually broad mandate, giving the president the power to use whatever means necessary to respond to the perceived threat posed by Iraq. The resolution did not require the president to return to the United Nations for support.
In 1991, Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, won a more narrow mandate when he sought congressional authorization to reverse Iraq's occupation of Kuwait with force, if necessary. In the pre-Sept. 11 world, the first President Bush felt it necessary to begin a massive buildup of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf, initiate an aggressive diplomatic campaign to build a broad international coalition and win backing from the United Nations before he sought authorization from Congress.
The authorization adopted in 1991 required the president to formally inform Congress that diplomacy had failed before he went to war.
There was no such provision in the October 2002 authorization. Bush ultimately failed to win U.N. backing for his action and proceeded over the objections of some longtime international allies.
Times staff writer Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this report.
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