Washington, 3 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Until recently, both U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had insisted that evidence of weapons of mass destruction -- the main justification for war -- would eventually be found in Iraq.
They resisted calls for investigations into the quality of prewar intelligence. Let the weapons inspectors of the Iraq Survey Group finish the job first, they said. But then last week, David Kay, the man leading that hunt, resigned from his post and said Washington had "gotten it all wrong" about Iraq's alleged arsenal.
Yesterday, Bush reversed course, telling a White House cabinet meeting, "I am putting together an independent, bipartisan commission to analyze where we stand, what we can do better, as we fight this war against terror."
"But on the other hand, there was certainly selective reading of intelligence by the administration."
That was followed by Blair's announcement today to a parliamentary committee: "I think it is right, as a result of what David Kay has said, and the fact that the Iraq Survey Group now, probably, won't report in the very near term, its final report, that we have a look at the intelligence that we received and whether it was accurate or not."
It's a major shift for both leaders. But both are still insistent they were right to invade Iraq. Blair said he doesn't regret basing the case for war on weapons of mass destruction. He said the failure to find them does not weaken the legal case for war, since Saddam Hussein was still in breach of UN resolutions.
And both Blair and Bush say that, regardless of whether Iraq actually possessed weapons of mass destruction, Hussein had the capability of eventually producing them. "I want to know all the facts," Bush said. "We do know that Saddam Hussein had the intent and the capabilities to cause great harm. We know he was a danger. He was not only a danger to people in the free world, he was a danger to his own people."
News of the U.S. investigation has sparked cries of protest from opposition Democrats. Tom Daschle, Democratic leader in the Senate, said the commission will lack independence if Bush appoints all its members and controls its timing. "I think that it is important for us to have an independent commission, as I've said now on several occasions," he said. "But it truly should be independent. 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."
Senior White House officials have said the panel's conclusions will not be made public until after the November presidential election, a move seen by some Democrats as an attempt to avoid the issue during the campaign.
Further ruffling Democratic feathers, the White House has said the investigation's scope is likely to be much broader than simply intelligence failures about Iraq. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it will seek to understand how U.S. intelligence has been wrong about the weapons capabilities of several other countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea.
McClellan also said it wasn't just U.S. intelligence that got it wrong about Iraq, but the international community in general. However, Russia and France disputed some U.S. intelligence claims last year, including an assertion by Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear-weapons program.
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic are concerned that the probes will not look into other such assertions made by politicians, which they say exaggerated the Iraqi threat. P.J. Crowely of the Center for American Progress, a policy institute in Washington, says it is important that the U.S. probe looks into both sides of the issue -- intelligence failures, as well as possible exaggerations of the Iraqi threat by U.S. officials. "There are flaws on both sides of the equation, both in terms of the ability of the intelligence community to effectively judge what was going on inside a difficult and closed regime in Iraq," he said. "But on the other hand, there was certainly selective reading of intelligence by the administration."
Blair's inquiry is unlikely to silence critics in Britain, either. Today, Blair refused calls to have the investigation look into the political decision to go to war. "You can't end up having an inquiry into whether the war was right or wrong. I mean, that is something we've got to decide. We're the politicians, and we've got to decide that," Blair said. Instead, he said the probe will focus on how intelligence was gathered, evaluated and used by the British government.